September 27, 2006 | TCS Daily

Admit We’re Peaceful… or Else

Addressing a packed St. Peter's Square during his weekly general audience last Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI revisited his September 12 lecture to academics at the University of Regensburg. The pontiff, a celebrated university professor, explained that his controversial reference to the an episode from the life of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos was a pedagogical device “to introduce the audience to the drama and the actuality of the topic…[of] the problem of the relationship between religion and violence.”

While pundits spun this latest address as another papal apology, one cannot help but wonder if the erudite Benedict was not scoring another point at the expense of his bien pensant critics. These, including the editorial board of The New York Times, condemned his Regensburg speech as “tragic and dangerous” and demanded a “deep and persuasive apology” for the “pain” they caused. The precise word the pope used in his St. Peter's Square address, delivered in Italian, was drammaticità. This not only means “drama,” but also “dramatic power” in the theatrical sense of tragic or dramatic irony—as when the words and actions of characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize.

The significance of the term could not be unknown to a pontiff who, during his academic career, co-founded an influential theological journal with another scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose central work was a five-volume treatise on the possibilities of using categories of drama to expound philosophical and theological truths. One thing seems certain: Benedict has introduced the world audience to a spectacle of irony that Sophocles would have trouble besting:

In Jerusalem, at Islam's third-holiest shrine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, hundreds of worshippers gathered to protest the pope's alleged linking of Islam and violence by hoisting black flags and banners that read “Conquering Rome is the answer” and chanting “The army of Islam will return.” Half a dozen Christian churches in the West Bank suffered attacks.

In Tripoli, the elder son of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, Muhammad, speaking at the awards ceremony for an international Quran-memorization competition, dismissed papal apologies as “irrelevant” and instead called on Pope Benedict to convert to Islam immediately as a way to atone for his remarks. Gaddafi junior also lashed out against “those Muslims who look for comfort in the words of a non-Muslim,” arguing that Muslims “should not look for charity from the infidel…but should fight Islam's enemies who attack the faith and the Prophet Muhammad.”

In Ankara, influential Turkish lawmaker Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), declared that the Pope would go down in history “in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.” Kapusuz said Benedict's remarks were either “the result of pitiful ignorance” about Islam and its prophet or, worse, a deliberate distortion. “He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages.” The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad termed the remarks “regrettable.” Spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam asserted that “anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence.” (One recalls, inter alia, that the “tolerant” Turkish government shut down the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate's Halki Theological Academy in 1971 and has yet to allow it to reopen. We expect Ms. Aslam's superiors are preparing to ground to use Benedict XVI's remarks as a pretense to cancel the pontiff's visit next month to Patriarch Bartholomaios I of Constantinople lest the visit focus unwanted attention on Turkey's less-than-stellar record with respect to the religious liberty of its non-Muslim minorities.)

In London, according to a report in the Daily Mail, Anjem Choudary of the Islamist organization al-Ghurabaa (“the strangers”) led a rally outside Westminster Abbey demanding the Pope's execution. The group is a refoundation of the former Al-Muhajiroun (“the emigrants”) of the radical Omar Bakri Muhammad. Choudary, who abandoned his wife and three children to devote himself to Islamism, is best known for his calls for the imposition of sharia in Britain. Speaking to several hundred supports, he declared: “Whoever insults the message of Mohammed is going to be subject to capital punishment.”

In Mogadishu, not to be outdone, Sheikh Abubukar Hassan Malin, a leader of the Islamic Courts Union which recently seized power in what was the capital of the former Somali state, told worshippers at Friday prayers that “whoever offends our Prophet Muhammad should be killed on the spot by the nearest Muslim.” Members of his congregation, not having ready access to the pontiff, did what they evidently regarded as the next best thing: they hunted down and killed a 66-year-old Italian nun, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who had devoted her life to training nurses at a children's hospital in this wretched city.

In Islamabad, hundreds of radical Islamists, joining their fellows in several Pakistani cities, gathered to chant “Down with the pope.” The protesters, supporters of a coalition of six Islamist parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (“united action front”), or MMA, demanded the pope's removal and accused him of supporting the policies of President Bush. “If I get hold of the pope, I will hang him,” parliamentarian Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, deputy leader of the MMA, told the demonstrators who carried placards reading “Terrorist, extremist Pope be hanged!” and “Down with Muslims enemies!” (Hussain Ahmed has subsequently decided that hanging was too good for the pontiff, telling supporters after Friday prayers—many of whom brandished signs which read “Illiterate Pope should be handed over to Muslims”—that Benedict should be crucified for suggesting that Islam was spread by anything but peaceful means.)

All of this and more to protest the pope quoting a long dead monarch of a lost empire who had, in Benedict's words, the “startling brusqueness” to contend that Muslims of his time obeyed Muhammed's “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Pope Benedict concluded his reflections on his Regensburg remarks by noting: “I trust that after the initial reaction, my words at the University of Regensburg can constitute an impulse and encouragement toward positive, even self-critical dialogue both among religions and between modern reason and Christian faith.” Moderate Muslims as well as Jews and Christians should pray that on this count, his words do not foretell more
dramatic irony.

Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are adjunct fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.