Pope Benedict is a rational man who measures his words carefully. The speech he delivered last week at Regensburg University did not deal with Islam, which was mentioned as a side-note. He was dealing with reason and its enemies. According to the Pope, reason is under siege.
On the one hand it is being attacked by those who contend that there is no truth (post-modernists) and on the other it is being attacked by those who believe that truth is beyond any reasoned discussion (Muslims). The pope has, therefore, embarked on a mission to protect reason with a series of public declarations.
There's something ironic in this situation, as the roots of Christian rationalism in Europe can be traced back to Muslim philosophy. The great Christian theologists are deeply influenced by al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. Aristotle's works were initially translated from Arabic and not from Greek.
But then the tables turned: Widespread philosophical debate and casting doubt are increasingly turned into the foundations of Western culture; in the Muslim world philosophy is waning and along with it the legitimacy to cast doubt and engage in self criticism.
Fully aware of implications
When the Pope cast his judgment on Islam by means of a quotation taken from a 14th century text, he did so through deep awareness of historic processes and the crucial implications they could bear.
Pope Benedict XVI fears the decline of reason in the West. He sees it in the lack of desire to call a spade a spade; in attempts to cover up differences in the name of some placating spirit; in the demands to respect others unconditionally; in viewing rationalism not as a universal common denominator, but rather as a tool in the hands of white men for subduing the rest of humanity.
The West is obligated, according to the Pope, to rediscover its truth – or else, it will find itself fading away.
Reason is the basis
An intercultural debate will become possible only when the two parties play according to the same rules, and according to the Pope, reason is the only set of rules there is.
When there is no call for mutuality, what may seem as dialogue is in fact a meek surrender by the party that has lost faith in the truth.
Couldn't rationalism have been protected in a more diplomatic language? No doubt, it could have. Once again it could have been said that Islam is a wonderful religion being distorted by radicals, and violence of all kinds once again condemned.
It is no coincidence that the Pope chose not to do this. In the vast ocean of pleasantness, he sought to sound a particularly grating voice. The Pontiff is not a racist, he is a tolerant man. In his view, however, it is high time for the Christian world to stand its ground.
The problem with Islam, according to the Pope, is not only on the practical level - in its holy scriptures Islam legitimizes violence as a means of forcing beliefs and ways of life.
Not only abstract terms
But the Pope doesn't only think in abstract terms. In the Muslim world, Christians are subjected to discrimination and violence. Those who convert to Christianity are threatened by death, churches are desecrated, missionaries are murdered, monasteries are looted and Christian communities are under siege.
Harsh remarks pertaining to Judaism and Christianity are commonplace. The Pope contends that the Muslim world demands respect and tolerance while refusing to grant it to others.
Similar to the case of the caricatures, the Muslim response to the Pope's remarks came quickly. Accusations of irrational violence were answered with the razing of a church and the murder of a nun.
Past experience shows, however, that there can be another way. Islam is currently embroiled in a crisis. It is permissible and justifiable to speak of it without flattery and hypocrisy. A rational debate is permissible. This is what the Pope attempted to do.
More about the Pope slur
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