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William Oddie FAITH Magazine November-December 2006

Fear of God and Secular Spin

Among the many notable reactions— some violently intemperate— aroused by (or on the pretext of) the Pope’s now legendary Regensburg address, perhaps the most singular was the addition, within days, of a paragraph to the entry for the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia. For those who have no internet access, it is worth quoting here: 'In a lecture delivered on 12 September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from a dialogue believed to have occurred in 1391 between Manuel II and a Persian scholar and recorded in a book by Manuel II (Dialogue 7 of Twenty-six Dialogues with a Persian) in which the Emperor stated: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword thefaith he preached.” Many Muslims were offended by what was perceived as a denigration of Mohammed. In his book, Manuel II then continues, saying, “God is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...”'

One consequence of the Pope’s supposed gaffe might have been that his slightly strange honeymoon with the liberal Catholic Press could have come abruptly to an end. The Tablet carried out a poll, to discover whether Christians thought the Pope was wrong to quote Manuel II, according to which just over half thought he was. This poll was cited by the Islamic Republic News Agency, to justify the rather different claim that “A majority of Christians around the world [the Tablet’s email poll to its newsletter subscribers could hardly be said to so representative] believe the Pope should not have quoted derogatory statements against Islam”. It looked like the perfect pretext for the scales to fall from liberal eyes. There were certainly mutterings from the likes of Michael Walsh about the“demotion” of the Vatican’s former chief expert on Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald—on the ground that had he still been in Rome, he “might have alerted the Pope to the pitfalls of the quotation he used in his Regensburg speech”, 'though the Pope could as easily have had the text of his speech faxed to Fitzgerald’s new office in Cairo as to his former office in the Vatican. The likelihood is, however, that Archbishop Fitzgerald would not, in any case, have been consulted).

In spite of all this, Walsh’s analysis not only maintained a level of respect for the Pope that he would certainly not have accorded his predecessor, but actually defended him to the point of denying the necessity for any withdrawal of his remarks. “Did Pope Benedict need to apologise at all…?”, he asked: “Most commentators seem to think so. Karen Armstrong, writing in the Guardian... asserts that the Pope quoted the 14th-century Byzantine emperor ‘without qualification and with apparent approval’.” To this Walsh issued a stinging rebuke: “I do not imagine that rioters in Pakistan had read Benedict’s words in full, but I would have expected Karen Armstrong to have done so.” His defence of Pope Benedict homes in on an important passage from the Regensburg speech, not universally spotted bythe Pope’s defenders: “As an academic might,” he continues, “the Pope put Manuel II Palaelogus’s words in context. He pointed out that they were the emperor’s own record of the debate with the Persian sage, and said they were spoken “brusquely”. More to the point, perhaps, the Pontiff himself quotes the Qur’an as saying exactly the opposite of what the emperor alleges. In other words, even in the Regensburg address, quite apart from his Angelus address on 17 September, the Pope distanced himself from the views of the emperor.”

Walsh also pointed out another important context to note: that of the Emperor’s own remarks. He had, said Walsh, “good reason for thinking as he did. His empire was under siege from the predominantly Muslim troops of the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople, his capital city, was to fall just over half a century later”. This comes surprisingly close to saying that Manuel II got it right when he claimed that Islam had been spread by the sword; and it does prompt an important question: of those many Muslims who took offence at the Pope’s use of Manuel II’s words, why did so few of them respond that he was in error, since Islam is essentially a religion of peace? Was it, perhaps, because their own response was so exceptionally belligerent?

Like Walsh, Anthony Carroll—in The Tablet, no less—insisted that it was important to “examine
precisely what the Pope said in the whole address, and why he said it,” observing that “few academic lectures have caused such a stir as Pope Benedict’s recent address in Regensburg on faith, reason and the university” and that “judging by many of the responses, few lectures have also been so poorly understood”. Dr Carroll’s long and impressive analysis of the Pope’s thought, in his lecture and elsewhere, was much the most intelligent response to the furore that I came across. John L Allen, in the National Catholic Reporter, America’s equivalent of The Tablet, also took the lecture seriously, but was more critical of the Pope’s supposed gaffe: “any PR consultant”, he opined, “would have told the Pope that if he wanted to make a point about the relationship between faith and reason, heshouldn’t open up with a comparison between Islam and Christianity that would be widely understood as a criticism of Islam, suggesting that it’s irrational and prone to violence. Yet that is precisely what Benedict did.”

The point is that this Pope does not, thank heaven, go in for PR consultants. If he did, he would constantly have to consider how his words might be distorted and torn out of context by his enemies, and he would never say anything. A more important question than, ‘why was the Pope not more careful in what he said?’ is surely this: how did words delivered in an academic context end up, utterly changed in meaning, in the inflaming of rioters in the bazaars of Karachi and Islamabad? Who, in the first place, tore them out of their intellectual setting and spread them within days among those most likely to react violently? That there are Islamic extremists watching for any pretext to stir up anger against Western 'crusaders' is certainly part of the answer. But a much more important part ofthe answer is that, more than any other agency, it was the BBC, particularly through its online service, who first wrenched the Pope’s words from their context and then spread them through the world in a form which would inevitably lead to violence and destruction. It was The Catholic Herald (which has for some years kept a beady eye on the Corporation’s endemic anti-Popery) which best chronicled this aspect of the Regensburg phenomenon. In a striking leader by its editor, the excellent Luke Coppen, the Herald encouraged its readers “to hold the Corporation to account, notably for the blundering and reckless coverage of the affair on the BBC’s website” and urged the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson (himself a practicing Catholic) “to trawl through the archives of BBC News Online tosee how ignorant and one-sided reports of “Muslim outrage” helped manufacture a crisis for the Church that has endangered the lives of Catholics”. The Herald was not alone in pointing to the BBC's part in the crisis. Melanie Philips, in The Daily Mail, pointed to the way in which “as so often, [the BBC] has given undue airtime to extremists, thus lending credence to the false impression of the Pope’s remarks”, and she criticised the way the BBC had claimed that the Pope had “apologised”, rather than simply expressing regret for the misinterpretation of his comments, “thus helping Islamic extremists believe that the forces of intimidation had cowed the Pontiff and scored a notable victory in the war against Western civilisation”.

The extreme violence of some Islamic reactions had its own consequences, and stirred up something of a wave of support for the Pope in the non-Catholic press, duly noted in The Catholic Herald’s coverage (which, extending as it did over four broadsheet pages of news reporting, and including the full text of the Pope’s lecture and an intelligent comment piece by Stuart Reid, The Spectator’s deputy editor, far outstripped the rest of the Catholic press). After a few days a consensus began to emerge in the secular press that the Pope (and maybe even naughty old Manuel II) might have a point. The Sunday Times argued that “The Pope should certainly not be pushed into withdrawing his remarks”, and the paper went on to say that the reaction to the Regensburg lecture showed that many Muslims wereintent on imposing their restrictions on freedom of expression in the West. Peter Hitchens urged readers of The Mail on Sunday to “back the Pope”. The Daily Telegraph summed up an emerging view which may well prove to be the permanent legacy of this affair so far as Western opinion is concerned: “We suspect”, pronounced the Telegraph in a leading article, “that Western public opinion is not displeased that Benedict has said the unsayable. Now it is time for other churchmen to tell their Muslim counterparts that, in addition to dishing out criticism, they must learn to take it”.

Some commentators went further, and implicitly (and approvingly) placed the Pope’s remarks in the general context of Samuel Huntington’s famous (and widely contested) analysis of the relationship of Islam and the West as a being a “clash of civilisations”. For some commentators, Manuel II himself emerged as something of a hero. By quoting an obscure Byzantine emperor, surmised Christopher Orlet in The American Spectator, “I suspect that the Pope was hoping to make the point that unless the West comes together, heals its divisions, and faces the threat of radical Islam together, it may face a similar fate as [sic] the Roman-Byzantine Empire.” But the Pope is not thus to be enlisted for the neo-con “war on terror”. That Benedict in his Regensburg lecture was confronting the West as much asthe Islamic world was emphasised by L’Espresso’s Sandro Magister, who in a long and passionately written piece quoted words spoken by Benedict XVI only a few days before, when the Pope had attacked an aspect of Western culture by which the East was right to be repelled: “They do not see the real threat to their identity”, the Pope had said, “in the Christian faith, but in the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom and that holds up utility as the supreme criterion for the future of scientific research…. The tolerance which we urgently need includes the fear of God—respect for what others hold sacred. This respect for what others hold sacred demands that we ourselves learn once more the fear of God.” What a pity the mullahs (letalone the BBC) never spotted that.


Faith Magazine

November - December 2006