By declaring war on “worshippers of the Cross”, al Qaida militants remind us that Osama bin Laden could be an incarnation, albeit on the other side of the fence, of the 15th-century Spanish Dominican, Tomás de Torquemada, known as “the hammer of heretics”. The two bloodthirsty fanatics personify two major politico-religious entities competing for a global following.
The 14th-century Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus of Constantinople , whom Pope Benedict XVI quoted (without endorsing, he says), was an early loser in that race, nowadays called the clash of civilizations. Was the pope aware he was citing a Greek prince who was so thoroughly and repeatedly humiliated by the Ottoman Turks that his comments are steeped in the bitterness of personal, political and cultural defeat' No Christian ruler knew Muslims better or had greater cause to hate them. Manuel fought desperately, but in vain, to save the crumbling fragments of Christendom’s once mighty Eastern bastion. It was a war of continents as well as of religions.
Clearly, the pope had second thoughts. Hence his clarification (not amounting to an apology) and “invitation to a frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect”. Having made the gesture, he owes it to his church, the Islamic ummah and the world to revive the “dialogue with Islam” that his predecessor attempted, although contemporary reports suggested that Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, was not very enthusiastic about the exercise. Like Manuel — who engaged in lengthy discussion with a learned Persian and wrote a book comparing Christianity with Islam, naturally to the latter’s disadvantage — he has probably always felt that the nature of the competition left little to discuss.
That should not prevent Muslim scholars and theologians from taking the papal challenge at face value, and affirming and justifying what they no doubt regard as their moral superiority while distancing themselves from the violence practised by malcontents under the al Qaida banner instead of frittering away the opportunity in angry rhetoric. Failure to do so will only play into the hands of a strategist who says, quoting Manuel, that Islam spurns reason and rationality, relying only on the Prophet’s command “to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Despite the pope’s triumphant contrast of this alleged reliance on force to Christianity’s commitment (also alleged) to the “concept of reason and its application”, he is on extremely shaky ground. Historically, precept and practice were far apart in Catholicism. The pope’s lofty claim that “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul” is not supported by the ferocity with which his Church strengthened, extended and upheld its supremacy in France, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and, of course, Goa, putting entire races to the sword in the name of the Cross.
The “evil and inhuman” methods of which Manuel/Benedict accuses Muslims were no less the regular practice of the Catholic Holy Office of the Inquisition, the tribunal to suppress heresy. Pope Innocent IV authorized torture in 1252 as a means of extracting recantations. Close collaboration between church and state enabled the former to convict people of heresy in the awesome ritual of the auto de fe (act of faith), and the latter to burn them alive at the stake. Girls above the age of 12 and boys at 14 came under the surveillance of an institution that could have taught the Soviet KGB and NKVD a thing or two in spying, interrogation, extracting forced confessions and conviction. This bestial mechanism was not abolished until 1834.
If “God is not pleased by blood,” as the pope says, he must be very angry indeed with a church that blessed the carnage and plunder of Europe’s Crusades (Holy Wars) against the Turks and Saracens in Palestine. Muslims can also point out that King Juan Carlos of Spain’s title of “His Most Catholic Majesty” recalls papal appreciation of an ancestor, Ferdinand of Aragon, who destroyed Granada, Spain’s last Moorish kingdom, and killed or expelled the Moors. Those who survived were forcibly converted to Christianity. Ferdinand also expelled Jews who were rescued by none other than an Ottoman sultan who sent a fleet of ships for them in 1492 when no Jew could set foot in Britain .
Whether because of temperament or necessity, Manuel had an extraordinary career. He cultivated friends among Ottoman royals. He was held hostage for several years at the court of Bayezed I and forced to swear allegiance to the sultan. He even led his troops to help the Ottomans conquer the free city of Philadelphia, the last Byzantine outpost peopled by Christian Greeks in the hostile Muslim Anatolia (modern Turkey).
Eventually, and within 28 years of Manuel’s death, the Ottomans overran what remained of his empire. They had attacked it repeatedly during his lifetime and forced his successors to pay tribute to Murad II. Constantinople fell on a Thursday in 1453, and to this day many Greeks settled as far away as Australia will not embark on anything auspicious on Thursday: it commemorates a national calamity. The power and reach of the two absolutist creeds reflected the might of the temporal empires to which they were wedded, almost subordinating theological differences to secular territorial ambitions.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope was prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the modern name of the Holy Office which condemned hundreds of thousands of people to a cruel death for 600 years. Methods change, but robust faith and sense of mission endure. So does the Vatican’s political role which Muslim stridency recognized far more realistically than Stalin’s derisive, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got'” It mattered that Pius XII was silent over Nazi atrocities, and that John Paul II refused to call the American invasion of Iraq a “just war”. Greece ’s prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, blamed Vatican and German recognition of independent Croatia (also Slovenia which also seceded from Yugoslavia) even before the European Union for the turmoil in the Balkans. Reflecting ancient enmity, John Paul II hailed Croatia as the “rampart of Christianity” against Bosnian and Albanian Muslims.
No institution should be judged out of its historical context, which gives the church a moral edge over Islam. Catholic apologists can argue that persecution of heretics, Jews and Muslims reflected the bigotry and brutality of the age. But Muslims disdain that justification. They do not see the Quranic injunctions that drew Manuel/Benedict’s strictures as only the cultural product of the bleak Arabian desert at a tumultuous juncture of history. Muslims regard them as eternal verity, as valid today as in the sixth and seventh centuries when Mohammed lived.
But Muslims can also counter that while the auto de fe and Inquisition were Christianity’s official instruments of coercion, Islam has no recognized central authority that commands universal loyalty, directs actions and can be blamed for what is done in religion’s name. They can plead that terrorism is the mischief of individuals or groups of individuals pushing their own agendas, and that even al Qaida does not speak for the entire ummah. If the point has not been made emphatically enough, that is entirely the fault of an ambivalence that lends credence to the pope’s provocative comments.
It does not matter very much now whether his original remarks included an invitation to a “dialogue of cultures” or he has belatedly come round to the idea. What does is that he should not now shrink from the consequences of what may be an afterthought. A conversazione of faiths that continues Manuel’s dialogue in a modern context might help to explain some of the motivations of more than two billion Catholics and Muslims, and reinforce “the rationality of faith” — of all faiths, not just one — that Pope Benedict invoked.