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September 21, 2006

The Pope is right about Islam: Christianity and Islam have fundamentally different attitudes towards violence and war, argues Jon Davies

Posted by Jon Davies

Jon Davies, formerly the Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University, argues that Pope Benedict is right about Islam - Christianity and Islam have at their core fundamentally different attitudes towards violence and war.

Disingenuous voices from within the Vatican, seeking to appease Muslim yelling and shouting about Pope Benedict's September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg would have us believe that Benedict merely quoted Emperor Manuel ll Paleologus' comments on Islam: and that a Papal quotation is not the same as Papal approval. This will not do. Pope Benedict begins and ends his lecture with a quote from Paleologus on the subject of religious conversion. Benedict's theme is: conversion by violence, or conversion by reason?

The Pope described the Emperor as "erudite", and makes the Emperor's distinction between the nature of the God of the Bible and the nature of the God of Islam the very basis of his lecture. Emperor and Pope agree in defining the God of the Qur'an as "absolutely transcendent", untrammelled, and capable therefore of condoning anything he might choose, including recourse to violent conversion, or, depending entirely on his own volition, its opposite.

In contrast, for both Emperor and Pope, in the Biblical and Christian view, God is ab initio bound by reason ("logos") and therefore cannot be held capable of justifying conversion by force, because such force or violence is demonstrably unreasonable.

Benedict quotes Paleologus:

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.
Ab initio, say both Emperor and Pope, this is the fundamental intrinsic difference between Christianity and Islam. The difference lies not in extrinsic fugitive things like history, or foreign policy, or cartoons, nor in secondary or transient theologies or heresies, but in the very nature of the God to which Christians owe allegiance and the very nature of the God to which Muslims owe allegiance. Put simply, Islamic proto-theology can condone conversion by violence, Christian proto-theology cannot. Pope Benedict's lecture would make no sense whatsoever without this initial and foundational distinction. In his concluding remarks he invites his:
partners in the dialogue of cultures [to have] the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters the debates of our times.
From every quarter of the globe, from Guardian-bred sceptics and zealous mullahs alike, came snorts of derision: Christianity, a religion of peace!? What about all those gung-ho American evangelicals and their militarised Abu Ghraib neo-con imperialism!? The Roman Pope, progenitor of the Crusades and sponsor of the Inquisition, murderer of innumerable native Americans and god-fearing Protestants - the apostle of love, peace and reason!? Pull the other one. At the very least, the liberal consensus has it, Islam may well have bloody hands - but then so does Christianity, the Pope especially, and whatever differences there are between these two religions, they cannot possibly include an unchanging subscription to pacifism: they are both equal - equally bloody, equally peace-loving, or neither, or both. Anyway, all religions are "like that".

Benedict resists the temptation of such amiable obfuscations. He could have made his point without mentioning Islam at all. Yet, he wants us to consider not only that Christianity carries within it the pacific force of reason, but that, per contra, Islam does not. Perhaps Benedict had in mind the example of the Muslim Turk who gunned down his predecessor, and who was then forgiven by his victim. Or perhaps he had in mind the faces of two journalists released (i.e. freed from the threat of death as well as from captivity) only on condition that they converted to Islam. Or the Afghani convert to Christianity faced with the death threat for his conversion. The Pope will no doubt now be considering the raging fury on the faces of Muslims responding to his lecture, and in their fury rather proving his thesis.

If Christianity is what Christians have, over two thousand years, actually done, then there would be little point in seeking to present it as a record of resolute peace-loving. That is not the point. At this moment in time, are there grounds for thinking that the "original deposit" of Christian faith (to use David Martin's words), or the Pope's "logos", always there, is now emerging towards a deep hostility to war itself, and certainly towards a total abhorrence of any idea of forcible conversions? I can think of no Christian I know who would support forcible conversion: it is unthinkable - indeed, even ordinary proselytising is seen as something slightly embarrassing. Most of the Christians I know see resort to violence - even the "legitimate" violence of the State - as a matter of near-total regret, as something to be resolutely opposed.

In any of the current arguments about war, terror, coercion, bombs, guns, torture, etc, out of a hundred Christians, ninety-nine will see - in some form - reason and pacifism, rather than retaliation and revenge, the proper and fuller expression of Jesus' teaching. This is perhaps a "euro-centric" view. American Christianity has a different profile, but there too Christians are to be found in statistically a-typical distributions on matters of war and peace - tending to the peace end. For very certain, no Christian I know can tolerate any subscription to the idea that "martyrdom" can cover the "conventional", i.e. Muslim mixture of self-destruction and the killing of innocents: as self-sacrifice, Christian martyrdom is the very opposite of such killing of innocents.

At another level, Christians are hugely disinclined to take religious offence, seeing no cause to gibber on the streets at the Jerry Springer Show, with Jesus got up in a nappy, or the Da Vinci Code nonsense, describing Jesus as sexually active with the "prostitute" Magdalen. Christians live in an atmosphere of daily, casual, amiable blasphemy.

What of Islam? "Islam" may well mean "Peace". The Pope, and the Emperor Paleologus may be wrong in seeing in Islam's "original deposit" no inhibition on violence and confrontation. Yet it is undoubtedly the case, now, that anyone, and not just the Pope, talking or writing about or commenting critically on Islam, on Islam in Britain or anywhere else, can expect a hostile not to say violent and threatening response.

Home Secretary John Reid visits a youth centre in England's capital city. A couple of Muslim zealots, Messrs. Izzadeen and Choudary, greeted him as "Enemy of Islam and the Muslims", and tell him (amongst other things) to get out of "a Muslim area". The next day the Muslim Council of Britain press release on John Reid's visit makes no mention of these events, and instead concentrates on insisting that:

the government needs to recognise the impact of some of its own policies, domestic and foreign, in contributing to the spread of extremist ideas.
In a way, the antics of Izzadeen and Choudary are, being both typical and predictable, of little interest. What is of interest is the attitude of the "moderate" Muslims, the Muslim Council of Britain. It would seem that it is the "moderate" Muslims who have to have, or insist upon getting, the greater concessions.

And in what is another familiar tactic, the "moderate" Muslims seem to present themselves as plausible by invoking the (useful?) threat of "extremists". The Pope may not be too familiar with the story of India - why should he be? In March 1888 Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, leader of the Indian Muslims, looking ahead to the departure of the British, was very clear that either Hindu or Muslim would have to dominate an independent India. He was of course aware that in such an India, Hindus would outnumber Muslims. Yet, to counter any Hindu tendency to triumphalism, he urged his audience to rely on:

our Musalman brothers, the Pathans, [who] would come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood flow from their frontier on the north to the extreme end of Bengal.
It should be noted that the objects of Sir Syed's threats were the Hindus, not the British, of whom he was a supporter.

It might be unfair to put Sir Syed's 1888 speech, delivered at the Muslim Aligarh University, alongside Pope Benedict's lecture of 2006 at the University of Regensburg; or to compare Christian attitudes now with Muslim attitudes then. Yet it seems to me that the Pope is right in that, in any current or near-future debates on the troubles and conflicts of the world, Christians (for better or for worse) will tend to the pacific, while Muslims will retain their tolerance of force and violence. It is not the politically correct or particularly circumspect thing to say - But: The Pope is right. Stand by your Pope.

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.

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Outstanding. Sums it up perfectly

Posted by: J.c.h.Davies at September 22, 2006 10:41 AM
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