The Long View 2006-09-18: The Benedictine Jihad II


A long post on the intricacies of the argument after Pope Emeritus Benedict's Regensburg lecture. After all this time, the thing that strikes me really is that Benedict meant what he said, and said it deliberately, but that his point was a bit softer and more subtle than everyone assumed.

The Benedictine Jihad II

Spengler has never been happier, as we see in his latest column at Asia Times (Jihad, the Lord's Supper, and eternal life) regarding Benedict XVI's Regensburg Lecture:

The Islamic world now views the pontiff as an existential threat, and with reason. Jihad is not merely the whim of a despotic divinity, as the pope implied. It is much more: jihad is the fundamental sacrament of Islam, the Muslim cognate of the Lord's Supper in Christianity, that is, the unique form of sacrifice by which the individual believer communes with the Transcendent. To denounce jihad on theological grounds is a blow at the foundations of Islam, in effect a papal call for the conversion of the Muslims.

Spengler's view that Islam is a form of monotheistic idolatry comes from the theologian Franz Rosenzweig. Spengler's view that "[n]ow the same ban has been preached from St Peter's chair" is something of an exaggeration: Benedict was not speaking ex cathedra. Actually, as I now see, it would have defeated his point if he had done so, since one of his goals was see whether the power centers in Islam today can debate a debatable point. Spengler also says the Regensburg Lecture "is a defining moment comparable to Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946." I am not that Spengler is not wrong.

And what shall we say of this rare expression of hope from the mystery-man of Asia Times.

No more can one assume now that Europe will slide meekly into dhimmitude.

We will see,

* * *

The history-editing machinery that has sprung up in recent years precisely to keep ideas like Benedict's out of circulation is freezing up in response to this incident. One notes particularly this response to Benedict from the Islamist apologist Juan Cole (hat-tip to Danny Yee):

[Benedict] notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur'an 2:256: "There is no compulsion in religion." Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power. His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or "the city" of the Prophet).... The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet's death. ... The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.

If reputable Islamic sources had given Benedict the sort of answer that Cole did, then the pope's thesis would have been undermined. Instead, the characteristic reaction from Muslim sources has been like this one from an umbrella group led by Iraq's branch of al Qaeda:

"We shall break the cross and spill the wine ... God will (help) Muslims to conquer Rome ... (May) God enable us to slit their throats, and make their money and descendants the bounty of the mujahideen," said the statement, posted on Sunday on an Internet site often used by al Qaeda and other militant groups.

That does not quite prove the pope's historical or theological arguments, but it does support the proposition that there is an institutionalized streak of violence in modern Islam that at the very least needs to be repudiated.

* * *

But what about the merits of Benedict's use of Islamic sources? Cole says that the irenic verses from Sura 2 are actually late rather than early. I suspect that is a debatable point. In any case, it is certainly true that the verses used to justify holy war come later in the Quran, like these from Sura 9:

9.5: So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

As I understand the matter, apparently contradictory verses in the Quran are reconciled by the principle that later ones abrogate earlier ones that cannot be harmonized in any other way. In this context, earlier and later mean earlier and later in the text, not in time of composition. [Correction: a kindly Arabist pointed out that chronology is indeed the issue in the matter of abrogration. However, I am also informed that Cole's interpretation is problematical, since a large number of scholars agree that Sura 2:256 has been abrogated. I am referred to Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam, Chapter 3, pp. 94-95, 100-106.]

One should note that there may not be any contradiction between the verses that Cole mentions from Sura 2 and the ones cited above from Sura 9. A reasonable reconciliation would be (and often has been) that no compulsion should be used against infidels who have accepted Muslim rule and pay the tax on dhimmis. For that matter, Cole himself mentions that Muslim conquests often had the goal simply of expanding the base of dhimmi taxpayers, not of converting the dhimmis to Islam, which would have freed them from the tax.

This is not comforting.

* * *

Meanwhile, the oddest thing about the press coverage so far is the appearance of headlines that declare the pope apologized at Mass on Sunday for his remarks at Regensburg. In fact, he actually said this:

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims," he said, adding that the quote from Emperor Manuel II did not reflect his own opinion.

That is very close to saying, "I regret that some people have been too stupid to understand what I said." National Public Radio this morning actually characterized its report on the controversy as a report on the pope's "apology," but the report itself, by Sylvia Poggioli, said that informed analysts understood that Benedict had not apologized. She sounded surprised, for good reason: so far, at least, Benedict is off script for this kind of incident. Almost as interesting, she points out the support that Benedict is getting from the leftist European press.

The Guardian's leading article seemed to me confused, as we see from this remark:

[T]here are plenty in the Muslim world with a desire to fan the flames, while the Pope is a known conservative with a maladroit touch...

Actually, as I think we should be gathering by now, "maladroit" is the last adjective we should be applying to Joseph Ratzinger. In any event, the leader goes on to say:

Doctrinal tensions, too, can be exaggerated. It is hardly surprising that Benedict believes Christianity is superior to other faiths - he would not be Pope if he did not. But that does not make him militantly anti-Muslim. After all, the offending papal speech aimed to highlight the wrongness of conversion by the sword - whether by Muslims, or whether, as in the Crusades, by the Christians. On the Muslim side, the need to distinguish the minority of Islamist extremists from the far more numerous mainstream believers cannot be underlined heavily enough. Muhammad urged his followers to co-exist peacefully with those of other faiths, and Muslims can and do point to concepts in their faith relating to consultation and the rule of law that are not only compatible with, but supportive of liberal democracy.

Again, that is pretty much the challenge to Islam that Benedict made.

And from Le Monde we have this:

In reality, the full and demanding text of Benedict XVI...has become a convenient pretext for demonstrations against the values of the West and its cult of reason. The significance is what the pope said or wanted to say. The matter is political; theology is forgotten, and with it, the joy of intellectual dispute, or critique and self-criticism

* * *

By adopting Reason as the child of both Christian tradition and of the Enlightenment properly understood, the pope is trying to establish a sane alternative to Europe's (and America's) agnostic secularism, a cultural mood doomed by demographics and its own incoherence. The real alternative might not be either Mecca or Brussels, but these guys.

* * *

This just in from the First Things blog: the poster is Robert T. Miller:

And I have a suggestion as to what that reason might be. The rumor has long been that Benedict intends to take a new diplomatic approach toward the Muslim states, an approach based on reciprocity, i.e., a demand that the religious freedom accorded by European states to their Muslim minorities be accorded by Muslim states to their Christian minorities. He intends, in other words, to hold Muslim states to the same standard that the Western states hold themselves. This would be a significant break with the diplomacy of John Paul II and former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, which avoided criticism of Muslim states in the hopes of obtaining good treatment for Christians living within their borders. Under Benedict XVI, it seems, there will be no more appeasement. ... Still, Benedict went about this noble business in a very imprudent way. ... I would not have made the point quite as Benedict did, but in opening a frank conversation about the historical use of force by Muslims in spreading their faith, Benedict has done the world a service.

The significant points about this entry are that:

This can get only more interesting.

* * *

UPDATE 2:06 PM Indeed it just did get more interesting. Fr. Neuhaus has made a long posting wholly in support of not just Benedict's position, but also his choice of words. Fr. Neuhaus says:

It can be argued that the Regensburg lecture will turn out to be the most important statement by a world leader in the post–September 11 period.

That assessment may or may not be true. It is now certain, however, that the Vatican's course is deliberate.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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