The Pope should know better than to endorse the idea of a war of faiths

By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 20/09/06):

Glenn Hoddle and Robert Kilroy-Silk were there first, of course, but Pope Benedict XVI has joined the club. Like those two other great scholars, the pontiff has found himself at the centre of a free speech row.In 1999 Hoddle, then England manager, suggested that disabled people were the victims of bad karma, punished for their conduct in an earlier life. In 2004 Kilroy, then presenter of a daytime TV show, described Arabs as “suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors”. Both Hoddle and Kilroy were eventually sacked, their defenders hailing them as free speech martyrs, cut down for daring to speak their mind.

The Pope won’t suffer Hoddle and Kilroy’s fate – the only authority who can sack Benedict wears a hood and carries a scythe – but he is already being elevated, as they were, into a symbol of freedom under assault. It’s as much a mistake now as it was then, a product of a repeated confusion over the nature of free speech.

To be clear, we all have the right to free speech. In some countries that right is all but absolute, guaranteed in the US by the constitution’s first amendment. In Britain it is limited by laws on incitement, libel and the like. But essentially we have the right to say what we want. Still, we know instinctively that certain roles or positions of responsibility limit that right. Hoddle was free to believe the disabled were wicked souls trapped in damaged bodies, but he couldn’t voice that view and expect to hold a nationally symbolic job. Kilroy is now free to denounce Arabs, but he couldn’t do that while he was a presenter for the avowedly neutral BBC. The position we hold alters the meaning of our words.

An example from the 1980s. At a 1983 Conservative rally, the comedian Kenny Everett called out, “Let’s bomb Russia!” A year later, a microphone caught Ronald Reagan ad-libbing a mock radio address: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Both had an equal right to make the joke. But it was rather less wise for the leader of a cold war superpower.

Pope Benedict is in the Reagan category. Of course he has the right to quote whomever he chooses, but there is now a significance to his words that did not apply when he was a humble scholar. This is what makes the Pope’s defenders so disingenuous when they insist that he was merely engaged in a “scholarly consideration of the relationship between reason and faith”. He is not a lecturer at divinity school. He is the head of a global institution with more than a billion followers. So he has to think carefully about the sources he cites. When he digs out a 700-year-old sentence that could not be more damning of Islam – “Show me just what Muhammad 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” – he has to know there will be consequences.

If he did not fully agree with the statement by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos, he should have put some distance between himself and it. But read the lecture and the only hint of papal disavowal is a description of Manuel’s “startling brusqueness”. Which means the Pope was either inept, failing to disown Manuel’s sentiment effectively, or that he in fact agreed with it and wanted to say so. Again, that is his right – but he should have known, given who he is, that it would have the most calamitous results.

That’s not because Muslims are somehow, as their accusers have written, uniquely touchy. It is rather because of two dramatic shifts in our world.

First, religion is becoming more political. It is possible to have an academic discussion about the competing claims of different religions, but it has to be done with great care. Yet the Pope wades in almost casually. Note how his weekend apology to Muslims quoted St Paul to describe the crucifixion as a “scandal for the Jews”. There must be a hundred lines the Pope could have cited without evoking the two blood-soaked millennia during which Christians blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. But, almost in passing, he touched that landmine, buried deep in the European soil. (In so doing, he performed one useful service, reminding us that the Crusaders of the past had not one infidel enemy, but two: Muslims and Jews.)

The Pope seems unaware that, for hundreds of millions of people, religious affiliation is not a matter of intellectual adherence to a set of abstract principles, but a question of identity. Many Muslims, like many Jews or Hindus, may not fully subscribe to the religious doctrine concerned, and yet their Muslimness, or Jewishness or Hinduness, is a central part of their make-up. Theology plays a lesser part than history, culture, folklore, tradition and kinship. In this respect, religious groups begin to look more like ethnic ones. Which means that a slur on a religion is experienced much like a racist insult. Plenty of secularists and atheists struggle to understand this – wondering why they cannot slam, say, Catholicism the way they might attack, say, socialism – but the Pope, of all people, should have no such trouble. He should realise that when he declares Christianity a superior religion, as he did some years ago, that is heard by many as a statement that Christians are superior people.

Second, politics is becoming more religious. For many years people in Arab and Muslim lands have resented western meddling in their affairs: toppling governments, propping up dictators, invading countries. They have cheered on different movements to fight this intrusion, whether socialism in the 50s or Arab nationalism in the 60s and 70s. Each effort has been thwarted, usually with western connivance. Today the lead movements of opposition are Islamist and, in their most extreme versions, seek to cast the battle of east and west not as a political clash about imperialism but as a holy war.

What makes me shudder about the Pope’s Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam.

But what sense is there in such a contest? If the most senior figure in Christendom effectively takes Bin Laden’s bait and says that, yes, this is a war of religions, ours against yours, how can this end? Such a war cannot be quieted by the usual means of diplomacy or compromise. There can be no happy medium in matters of core belief: Muslims cannot meet Christians halfway on their belief that God spoke to Muhammad, just as Christians cannot compromise on Jesus’s status as the son of God.

Most religious leaders have long recognised that, and agreed to tiptoe politely around each other, offering a warm, soapy bath of rhetoric about “shared values” and “interfaith dialogue”. Of course they have known that, if pushed, they would be obliged to say their own faiths are better than the others, but they have avoided doing so. Now this Pope has broken that compact – and who knows what havoc he has unleashed.