What Pope Benedict XVI dubbed “startling brusqueness” has never been the sole preserve of lesser-known 14th-century Byzantine emperors. Many of the more evolved communicators of both this and the previous century have fallen back on parliamentary pungency to drive home a similar disconcerting message.
Writing with characteristic restraint in The Spectator two years after 9/11, Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, observed: “When politicians say ‘Islam is a peaceful religion’ they are not exactly wrong — all the great religions speak of peace as their ultimate attainment — but one can’t help wondering if they would say it quite so often if they were absolutely sure it was true.”
Conor Cruise O’Brien — the distinguished Irish politician and diplomat who also served as editor of The Observer — wasn’t so guarded. Referring to the turbulence in Algeria in The Independent in January 1995 — well before Osama bin Laden’s fame spread beyond Peshawar and Kandahar — he had some pithy advice for Western intellectuals: “ How the West should cope with the Islamic revival is a complex matter. But…we can never get it right if we go on trying to believe that there is something called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ which is somehow not intrinsically related to Islam itself.”
Apart from the recondite allusion to an early example of inter-faith dialogue, the central thesis of the pope’s contentious lecture to the faculty in Regensburg wasn’t strikingly original. For the past 25 years, ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West has been trying unsuccessfully to come to grips with both Islamic revivalism and Islamist terrorism. Whereas the liberal consensus is that Muslim disquiet has its origins in the apparent injustices in Palestine, Bosnia and even Kashmir, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are more inclined to see the problem in terms of conflicting value systems. The proffered solutions to what is increasingly being seen as the ‘Muslim problem’ have also differed. The left-liberal agenda centres on the West, particularly the United States of America, taming both the Zionists in Israel and the Arab potentates. A variant of this is the neo-conservative project of force-feeding Western-style democracy to the peoples of the entire “arc of extremism” from Sudan to Pakistan.
Theological engineering is an unstated rationale of the neo-con project. Since Islam makes no obvious distinction between God and Caesar, and between the religious and the secular, the entire existence of the faithful is built on divinely-ordained injunctions encapsulated in the sharia. As the philosopher Roger Scruton — more a Tory than a neo-con — has argued in his incisive study, The West and the Rest, “the Muslim conception of law as holy law, pointing the unique way to salvation, and applying to every area of human life, involves a confiscation of the political.” Under the circumstances, participatory government, which naturally involves the constant creation of man-made and nation-specific laws, has the potential of being a palliative to the certitudes of a holistic faith.
The problem with the democracy project is that it skirts the specificities of the Islamic experience. Apart from Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Iran, almost no Muslim-majority country has replicated the pure Islamic state. Iran, in fact, has a vibrant, if illiberal, democracy. But this has not tempered its clergy-controlled Islamic radicalism. Indeed, the experience of Muslim countries would prompt the conclusion that either tribalism or Turkish-style secular fundamentalism is a more effective counter to any ummah-centric activism than liberal democracy.
To be fair, neither the pope nor mainstream conservative opinion has had much time for this convoluted subversion of medievalism. Unlike some of the more trendy Christian theologians — disproportionately located in the rudderless Church of England — the present pontiff has attached low priority to inter-faith shenanigans. Sharply critical of Eastern mysticism, he has concentrated his energies in strengthening what he sees as the roots of Roman Catholicism and galvanizing Christianity in its core area — Europe. His observations on Islam in Regensburg reflected the pastoral disquiet over suicide-bombers making life impossible in Europe.
In his address, the pope made three broad points. First, that the Hellenic influence over Christianity has involved blending faith with reason: “The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of history of religions, but also from that of world history…This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe.” Second, that there is little rational justification for violence. Finally, that god, far from being a creation of whimsy, is actually a reflection of the noblest and most refined human characteristics: “God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word.”
That the Regensburg lecture was a theological indictment of the literalism driving Islamist terror is obvious. But the pope was, by implication, also being sharply critical of those evangelist churches which are grounded in blind faith and simplistic readings of the gospel. More important, in questioning the rationality of violence, he was tacitly abjuring some of Christianity’s own bloody inheritance. The charge that he was invoking the competitive bigotry of the Crusades and falling back on Christian triumphalism seems unfounded.
The most significant feature of the pope’s lecture — and which has been ignored in the din over his alleged Islamophobia — is his forthright assertion that the load-bearing pillars of Christianity are unquestionably European. By this logic, a robust rejection of Islamist-inspired terrorism in Europe involves shoring up Judaeo-Christian values and contesting the over-secularization of public life. In the context of the fierce debate on multiculturalism that is raging throughout the European Union, it is clear where the Vatican stands. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope had despaired of the West’s “hatred of itself”. The West, he observed, “no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.”
Leaving aside his theological gloss on violence, many of the pope’s concerns have earlier been echoed in countries like India which have experienced the full blast of Islamist terrorism. Many contemporary assessments have dwelt on the fact that the apparent finality of the Quran has made it difficult for Islam to experience a Reformation and come to terms with territorial nationalism. What is also undeniable is that despite unceasing claims that Islam is a religion of peace, almost all Islamists have justified their terrorism in terms of religious obligation. Far from being declared apostates, the bombers have been celebrated as martyrs. There has also been disquiet that the tenets of brotherhood in Islam do not always extend to non-believers. The invocation of a new caliphate invokes the dread of enforced dhimmi-tude — a situation incompatible with modern existence.
These are issues which warrant debate and, wherever possible, dialogue. The pope may have been injudicious in citing a 14th-century assessment by a Byzantine emperor to liven up the proceedings, but his concerns are relevant both politically and in theological terms. What is alarming, however, is the ugly furore over his lecture. The hysteria suggests that any debate on Islam based on critical scrutiny is bound to be accompanied by threats and intimidation — a travesty which liberals seem perfectly willing to overlook. Far from creating understanding, this intolerance is calculated to aggravate Islamophobia. The non-negotiable tenets of political correctness involve debunking the clash of civilizations as fanciful nonsense. Unfortunately, ground realities are beginning to suggest otherwise.