Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope and the defence of reason (September 17, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

At the height of the war in Lebanon two months ago, an assortment of Arabs, British Muslims, radical socialists and bleeding heart liberals marched through the streets of London with placards proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah.” Since Pope Benedict XVI delivered his scholarly but contentious lecture in Regensburg last Wednesday, an equally unlikely assortment of individuals bound by a common distaste for Islamist terrorism have been whispering the counter-proclamation: “We are all Papists now.”

Before rushing to take rival positions in the trench warfare of civilisations, it is prudent to remember that the contemporary Islamist assault on the “decadent” West, epitomised by “American imperialism”, has long enjoyed the backing of influential Muslim theologians. This is perhaps the first time that the philosophical gulf between Islam and western civilisation has been delineated by someone who wields authority in the Christian world.

Pope Benedict, unlike many of his colleagues in Rome, has not succumbed to either the pretensions of Christian universalism or the mumbo jumbo of inter-faith dialogue. He has rightly viewed both Christianity and the Catholic Church as load-bearing pillars of Western civilisation. He has disavowed the growing secularisation of national cultures and, by implication, called into question the moral relativism which accompanies the practice of multiculturalism in the EU.

In an article “If Europe Hates Itself” written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope despaired about Europe’s growing inability to distinguish good from evil: “The West reveals … a hatred of itself, which is strange and can only be considered pathological; the West … no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.” In November 2004, he despaired that secular ideology which is “imposed through politics… does not give public space to the Catholic or Christian vision (and) runs the risk of becoming something purely private and thus disfigured.”

The Regensburg lecture amounted to a Christian critique of the violence that is inherent in political Islam. However, rather than fall back on the politically expedient and customary detachment of Islamism from Islam, the Pope chose to distinguish between Christianity’s reason-based European underpinnings and Islam’s faith-based traditions centred also on literal acceptance of its texts. By implication, his lecture was also an attack on some of the more aggressively evangelical churches found in the US and would have been treated as such if the references to the Byzantine experience had been omitted. In arguing that violence was at odds with reason, the Pope was also tacitly repudiating some of Christianity’s bloody inheritance, but this aspect of his lecture has been overshadowed by the furore over Islamic certitudes.

What the Pope argued last week is not strikingly original. Many of the contemporary critiques of Islam have dwelt at length on the fact that the apparent finality of the Quran has made it difficult for Islam to experience a Reformation. What is also undeniable is that whereas the claims of Islam to be a religion of peace have been unceasingly made, almost all the Islamists have justified their terrorism in terms of religious obligation. Heinous crimes have been committed and justified in the name of religion. Concern has also been voiced that the tenets of brotherhood in Islam do not always extend to non-believers, making them incompatible with multi-religious existence.

These are issue which warrant dispassionate debate and dialogue. The Pope may have been injudicious in citing a 14th century assessment by a Byzantine emperor but the questions he has raised are relevant both in theological and political terms. What is alarming is the fierce reaction to his lecture. They suggest that any debate on Islam based on critical scrutiny is bound to be accompanied by threats and intimidation. Far from encouraging sympathetic understanding of Muslim societies, this climate of intolerance is certain to fuel Islamophobia.

Political correctness necessitates debunking the clash of civilisations but realities on the ground are beginning to suggest otherwise.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, September 17, 2006)

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