We have all, I'm sure, been scratching our heads at the Islamic outcry unleashed in response to Pope Benedict XVI's recent theological speech at the University of Regensburg.
I myself ' professionally obliged to 'enter empathetically into the worldview of the Other' ' found myself writing in an e-mail to a close Christian friend with whom I frequently kvetch about matters political and religious: 'Enough of these loonies! They're beyond our comprehension!'
But, in fact, while I offer no defense of the violence against Christians that Muslims have committed or threatened, I am beginning to grasp the source of Islamic outrage at the Pope's statements. It is something, I suggest, that we Jews ought to be able to relate to as well.
You've probably seen the offending passage. It quotes the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who from 1394 through1402 had battled Muslim attempts to conquer Constantinople:
'Show me 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 the faith he preached.'
Now, in context, this is merely an incidental aside cited by the Pope to support his larger point that authentic religious faith is strengthened by reason and thought rather than by violent compulsion. Who can argue? Just prior to this, the Pope even quotes the Koran's famous ayat (verse): 'There is no compulsion in religion' (Koran 2:256).
Any intelligent reader of the entire speech can see that the Pope (as he has repeatedly pointed out) was not quoting the Emperor's view as his own. He merely drew upon it, in his own plodding, professorial style, to build a point. More accurately, he was employing a timeless rhetorical trick in which professors try to appear learned by quoting obscure texts, even though more familiar texts are available to make the same point.
He quotes Manuel II (by no means an authoritative source of Catholic instruction) to point out that even Islam looks down ' at least in theory ' upon compulsory conversions. The Pope in his own muddled way is trying to suggest that Christians and Muslims agree that the proper defense of religious faith is through reason, not force.
But none of this, of course, now matters. What matters is that the Pope's words have been exploited and misconstrued (probably intentionally) as an attack against Islam. It's been used as a pretext for murderous attacks against Christians and threats of even worse.
The Pope has been forced into a humiliating series of official and unofficial apologies in the hopes of appeasing Muslim sensibilities. The whole spectacle is a huge embarrassment to Catholics, while lending further credence to hostile onlookers who wonder if Islam is a religion from another planet.
Well, I do believe that this instance of Islamic bitterness in particular is one that Jews should be able to grasp. In a certain way, Jews and Muslims do inhabit a similar planet when it comes to our role in Papal historical amnesia.
How long did it take the papacy to publicly acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church in perpetuating the Jew-hatred that ultimately transformed itself into modern anti-Semitism? And has the papacy, even under John Paul II, ever come really clean about its passivity during the Holocaust itself? Does the present Pope question the previous Pontiff's decision to canonize Pope Pius XII despite his pitiful Holocaust record?
This inability of the papacy to own up to its role in the persecution of the Jews is paralleled in Pope Benedict's selective memory about 'religious coercion.' If the Pope intended to denounce the use of violence to achieve religious ends, why quote an obscure Byzantine King grousing about his own 'infidels at the gate?'
It might have made a more impressive point to remind his audience of a particularly glaring example of Catholic violence in the very city of Constantinople two centuries earlier (April, 1204 CE). Taking an unscheduled detour from the path to Jerusalem, Catholic armies of the Fourth Crusade conquered the Byzantine capital, and, in a three-day blood orgy, massacred Orthodox Christians and defiled Orthodox churches and sancta. This and other subsequent Catholic attacks upon Byzantium so weakened the empire that it finally fell to Muslim forces in 1453.
Wouldn't the Pope have enhanced his bona fides by owning up to the legacy of religious intolerance in his own backyard and how it backfired against Christendom and Europe? Why gratuitously point to a Muslim example when the Vatican's basement is littered with the skulls of Constantinople's victims, and that ferocious attack ' directed primarily against a competing Christian confession ' goes tactfully unmentioned? Why blame Islam for attacking 'the West' when it was the Roman Church's Crusade that prepared the ground for Muslim successes?
I would suggest that Muslims are outraged for the wrong reason. The Pope manifestly did not accuse Islam of religious intolerance. But perhaps he did something even worse. At a time in which Rome is actively trying to rebuild its political and theological bridges to the Orthodox Church, it is clear that Pope Benedict made Islam a convenient scapegoat for his own Church's sins.
Does this 'justify' the pointless and self-destructive reactions of the 'Muslim street?' No. But, shouldn't we expect more historical depth, moral honesty, and plain old-fashioned sechel from the Bishop of Rome?
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.