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October 03, 2006

Christianity is accused of being a violent, crusader religion - but, asks Jon Davies, in the name of which religion is violence preached, Christianity or Islam?

Posted by Jon Davies

Following Pope Benedict's September 2006 lecture about Islam, Muslim voices continue to attack the Pope. The Catholic Church is accused of having a long history of instigating anti-Muslim violence, with the Pope's speech simply being the latest example of this.

Yet, argues Jon Davies - formerly the Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University - the Church today is much closer to its original pacifism than to the Crusader zeal of which Muslims so readily accuse it. The religion in whose name violence is preached today is not Christianity.

The "demands" for a Papal "apology" and retraction continue. The Muslim Weekly ("the Voice for Muslims in Britain") of 22nd September ran a headline:

Pope's anti-Islamic stance ignites Muslim rage.
The ensuing article reviewed the various responses to Pope Benedict's lecture, including that of the Chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, who called for a day of street demonstrations devoted to "peaceful anger". A page of "Quotes from" gave a selection of the responses of Muslims from all over the world:
This is all a lie . . Islam is far from terrorism and was spread only through the conviction of people who saw the good and justice of Islam.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

I do not see any use in somebody visiting the Islamic world who thinks in this way about the holy prophet of Islam. He should first rid himself of feelings of hate.
Senior Turkish Muslim Ali Bardakoglu

In yet another article in the same issue (Can the "Infallible" Pope apologise?), journalist Yamin Zakaria demonstrated, to his/her own satisfaction at least, that the Catholic Church has been the instigator and/or justifier of violence throughout history:

the brutal Spanish inquisition, when the Jews and the Muslims were indiscriminately slaughtered or expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism . . the barbaric Conquistadores, forced conversion with mass murder and genocide . . medieval bloody crusades, persecution of the Jews for centuries, slaughter of million[s] in Latin America, enslaving and colonisation of Africa, the Lebanese Christian's massacre of the Palestinians in Sabra, and Shatila, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, the killing of Algerians by the French. When the Christian Serbs were raping and pillaging Bosnians simply for being Muslims, the Vatican and the Pope was hypocritically silent. Was this because this sort of violence reminded Pope Benedict of the Medieval Crusades which he secretly desires for?
The Leader in the Muslim Weekly noted that the Pope's words were no surprise, as they were just more of the Christian-Western attack on Islam:
Even the most "infallible" Christian persona can make racial and discriminatory comment.
The Leader went on, though, to warn Muslims that doing things like shooting Catholic nuns in Mogadishu serves only to:
confirm what is being said about Muslims as proponents of violence . . Muslims need to be careful as not to fall in the "evil" trap that is perpetually put to them by those who continue to massacre Islam.
Sister Leonella, shot while engaged in massacring Islam, was presumably part of the trap. In The Times (September 23rd 2006) T W Bartel, a London academic, felt that the Pope had got it wrong and should apologise:
for everything in his Regensburg speech that might give offence to a reasonable Muslim.
In Newsweek September 25th 2006 the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School felt that:
It is very hard to construe the pope's remarks in a benign way.
The Dean, William A Graham, did however make what we can take to be a remark worth exploring, that:
Islam has bloody borders right now, but Christianity certainly has been bloody, as has Judaism in its more extreme forms.
The tense used by the Dean is the important point - the very contemporary violence surrounding contemporary Islam, the present tense, and in contrast the use of the present perfect for Christianity's relationship to violence, indicating that while positive subscription to violence is in the past, the past is not that far away.

How does all this relate to the Pope's original lecture, and his location of the propensity to violence or reason in the different conceptions Islam and Christianity have, and have had from the beginning, of the very nature of God? Perhaps, in this attempt to put the issue "beyond history", as it were, Benedict was being too abstruse - certainly too abstract for the predictable angry Muslim yappings presented above.

Not quite beyond history are the foundational meta-narratives embedded, embodied even, in the exemplary biographies of the founders of the two religions, Mohammed in the case of Islam, Jesus in the case of Christianity. In essence, their lives are not that far removed from God-in-His-Nature. The Muslim prophet is called the Messenger of God, through whom God spoke his revelations (the Qur'an); and the prophet's "Sayings", the hadith, are the basis of tafsir, the prime Islamic exegetical resource. Jesus is seen by Christians as taking part of the nature of God ("of one substance"), and is of course called the Son of God. The Christian New Testament contains what we know of his life.

So close to their God, then, what do the actual lives of these two men tell us of the aboriginal nature of the faiths in whose elaboration they are so profoundly bound up? Forget the Pope and his God[s] for now. Without Jesus, there is no Christianity, and without Mohammed no Islam. If, say, Mohammed can be shown always or even generally to abjure violence, or if Jesus can always be shown to recommend or resort to it, then a reasonable case can be made for a peace-loving Islam and a belligerent Christianity. Later history, post-Constantine for Christians, and a few hundred years later for Muslims, can be seen as either the continuation of these foundational biographies or of their perversion.

As I understand it, the most violent or angry thing Jesus in his short life ever did was overturning the tables in the Temple. There were clearly conflicts between the "Jesus movement" and established forms of Judaism, but no indication at all that these conflicts, even when danger and death threatened, were dealt with by recourse, by Jesus, to violence. There is no record of Jesus carrying arms; and Simon Peter, in the Garden of Gethsemane was ordered to sheath his sword, while Jesus cured the wound he had already inflicted. Jesus' "victory" is one of self-sacrifice.

The life of Mohammed is rather different. His early proselytizing at Mecca created such hostility that he had to leave. Fleeing to Yathrib/Medina, he used his position to engage in several years of military activity, including the battle of Badr, into which he led his army, and in which he was (according to some records) wounded. Meccans and Jews were treated as enemies, a large Medinan community of the latter being slaughtered, while smaller Jewish communities were either subjugated or driven out of the city, their lands being confiscated. In the year 630 an army led by the prophet took Mecca, thus putting to an end, through domination, to decades of conflict and battles. At his death, the prophet monopolised military, political and religious power in the early Muslim community, having fought, threatened and negotiated his way into that position. The prophet's sword is, it seems, on display in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.

Both men were thus embroiled in "conflicted" situations, caused by their own proselytising activities: they created enmities. There is a very clear difference in how they dealt with this, Jesus with:

love your enemies.
And Mohammed with:
fight these people till they bear witness that there is no god but Allah.
This pugnacious "otherness" of the nascent Muslim religion extended even to such things as friendship: Muslims are urged to reject friendship with Unbelievers:
You are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different Theme.
Sura 4: 140
Whether emanating, as Pope Benedict would have it, from the nature of their separate God[s], or from the life and example of the men closest to such deity, Christianity and Islam have, from the beginning, very different attitudes to "otherness". Christianity may well have swaggered through several militant centuries, but there is, in the foundational story of Christ, what David Martin has called the "radical reserve" of peace-preferring. It is difficult to find this peace-preferring in the life and sayings of the Muslim prophet.

Where, then, are we now? Certainly, in Europe, tired of war, Christianity is - for better or for worse - much closer to its original pacifism than to the crusader zeal of which Muslims so readily accuse it: confessional resipiscence characterises the utterances of many Christian leaders. It is not altogether clear to me that this is the safe place to be. The 1,500 policemen and policewomen of the Counter-Terrorism squad, as well as hundreds more in the other branches of the security services, may well be learning, as is perhaps Pope Benedict, how hard it is to love such neighbours as Muslims whose foundational prophet did not urge his followers to love their enemies.

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.

To read Jon Davies earlier piece on Pope Benedict's speech, see The Pope is right about Islam: Christianity and Islam have fundamentally different attitudes towards violence and war.


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