Papal Controversy; Anno Domini, 2006 9/16/06

Add this to the litany of Muslim grievances. Headlines read: “Unchristian Pope”, “Pope’s remarks vex Muslims”, “Pope remarks: Muslims stage dharna”, “Previously unknown genetic link found between Pope and Salman Rushdie (Seen here getting whacked by flying Qurans…OK, so I made that last one up). Whether the pope intended to offend Muslims or not, the consequences of his remarks have riled up Muslims around the world who are demanding a formal apology from the Vatican. Why do Muslims get offended so easily is another debate for another time? Perhaps, as Mr. Homi Bhabha posits referring to the “Muslim” anger over the “Satanic Verses”, its not so much that these instances in themselves constitute blasphemy, neither it is a paucity of intellectual leeway in the Islamic tradition, that limits speech in Islam; it is rather the challenge to the Islamic metanarrative, that has come to be so central to the ideologies of so many Muslim nation-states (Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia..etc) that seems to be the cause and answer to the question posed earlier.

So left turn back to the Pope. Pope’s under fire for offendng the Muslims, for purportedly calling the religion of Islam “evil and inhuman”. The Pope claims he was simply quoting a medieveal religious text on faith and violence. As a Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi defended the Pope in a statement: It was certainly not the intention of the Holy Father to undertake a comprehensive study of the jihad and of Muslim ideas on the subject, still less to offend the sensibilities of Muslim faithful.” Furthermore, European religious and political leaders have claimed, the pope’s speech was misinterpreted. An article in the Jerusalem Post (Ha. Where else? Nod to Andrew Swift) quotes Fr. Samir, the Vatican’s expert on Islam: Rather than criticizing Islam, the pope is actually offering it a helping hand by suggesting that it do away with the cycle of violence,…The pope’s academic lecture “was trying to show how Western society-including the Church-has become secularized by removing from the concept of Reason its spiritual dimension and origins which are in God…(Talk about the worst cover-job ever? I don’t know of anything short of all Muslims carry plastic explosives in their turbans and hide anthrax in their beards that would aggravate an already messed up situation more than Fr. Samir’s weak “helping hand” vindication of the Pope.

The pope’s speech has some problems. Not because it calls Mohammad’s religion “evil and inhuman”, because it is impossible to ascertain how the Pope had meant that statement to be taken. However, after reading the entire text of the Pope’s speech, I found it difficult to really buy the argument that he was “deliberately” offending Muslims (with that I’m also deodorizing the Hitler’s Youth claim). Indeed he presents a less than flattering view of Islam, and basically suggesting, albeit in minced words, that the religion of Islam, structurally (for his speech is all about structure and modal superiority of Christianity) supports violence. Here, I am not calling attention of the fact that he cites the Byzantine emperor Manuel II, who the remarks in question are attributed to, but because of the following claim, made by the Pope in his speech:

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.”

The Pope divorces Islam from “rational” behavior, making a claim that Islamic theology rests not on reason but on an understanding of God as being beyond all human qualities, in contrast to Christianity that believes God to be a perfectly rational entity, in a sense theomorphosing humans (we are, or at least believing Christian, for adherence to Islam somehow precludes your ability to be rational even though you are created in God’s image…jest, jest, relax). Rationality, according to the Pope is not a quality that humans are imposing upon God (because that would anthropomorphication, something which would make a lot of Enlightenment thinkers which the Pope, evidently, considers himself to be in line with, very very upset) instead it is the prime quality we derive from God, by being created in His image. And since rationality does not permit violence, hence Islam’s rejection of a rational God provides space for violence. He further goes on to make a case for Christianity between a quintessentially European value system by saying:

“This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”

This worries me. In one bold stroke, a sweeping manouever, the Pope has claimed the entire Englightenment corpus, Greek thought and Christian theology for Europe, without sufficiently addressing the fissures. Its not unlike what the luminaries of Englightenment thought (save for the courageous David Hume) did: there was a positive invitation to dialogue between their system (the Christian system) and other systems, however the rules of engagement were structured so that the direction of discourse inevitably lead to an affirmation of the former. This is what the Pope seems to be doing here, as well. By sundering Islam from rationality (a claim which is completely facetious for in fact Islamic philosophy is founded entirely on the Greek method, Aristotle’s Prime Mover becomes Allah, Plato’s Good is embodied similarly; has the Pope not heard of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Arabi or Ibn Khaldun, or that Locke frequently skipped his classes to attend lectures on Islamic Philosophy) the Pope is closing the doors that lead to real and substantial intellectual discourse in the truest spirit of the Enlightenment.

I would high recommend reading the entire transcript of the speech (here), especially for those interested in the Englightenment and questions surrounding faith and rationality. Ultimately, it is an extremely interesting and erudite study of faith and reason (contrary to an analysis of faith and violence as those who haven’t read the entire thing are receiving it), calling strongly for a revision of conventional attitudes regarding faith and reason, the sundering of which, inherited from Kant still pervades the academy. Pope doesn’t like that shit.


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