First, the title, "9/11 Provided Difficult Test For Vatican-Muslim Relations", sounds oddly passive and detached, as if "9/11" was a reference to a technical glitch in a computer system, not the premeditated murder of over 3,000 innocents. Then there is the now obligatory "blame as much as possible and more on the Regensburg Address" approach, which comes off as strained and very out of proportion:
"Muslim fundamentalists do not recognize the difference between different traditions of Christianity," Sammak said. "To them, all Christians are the same."
As a result, Iraq's ancient Christian minority of an estimated 1.2 million (the majority of them Chaldean Catholics in communion with Rome) became a target for Islamist militants. According to the CIA, as many as half of Iraq's Christians have fled the country since 2003.
Iraq's dwindling Christians underscored the plight of Christian minorities across the Muslim world, who often suffer from terrorism, official discrimination, or both.
More recent attacks on Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Egypt and Malaysia have made the issue an even greater priority for the Vatican, said John L. Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and author of "The Future of Islam."
Yet in many ways, the Vatican finds its twin efforts to improve relations with Islam and advocate for beleaguered Christian minorities are hampered by the effects of Benedict's 2006 remarks.
The Rev. Vittorio Ianari, head of Muslim relations at Rome's Community of Sant'Egidio, said the Regensburg speech spawned an atmosphere of mistrust and resentment that persists in some of the most influential Islamic circles.
Ianari said that those sensitivities help explain the hostile Muslim reaction last January after Benedict denounced the "vile and murderous" New Year's Day killing of 21 people by a car bomb outside a Christian Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt. In response, Cairo's renowned Al-Azhar University suspended talks with the Vatican.
Let's see: on one hand, you have the Pope (on September 12, 2006) recounting a 600-year-old conversation between "the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian" about the nature of God, the (later, presumably mature) teachings of Mohammed, and the use of violence for religious ends:
But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed 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.” The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. 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...".
This, recall, five years after 9/11, and also following many years of terrorist attacks around the globe—attacks, to state the obvious, that defy good reason and sound moral judgment. In sum, the Holy Father was saying: spreading one's religion through violence is contrary to reason and to the nature of God. He was, put another way, making a perfectly valid and timely point about basic theological and premises, under the (once widely acknowledged) assumption that ideas have consequences (not surprisingly, Richard Weaver's brilliant book of that same name located nominalism as a key reason for the corruption of said premises).
On the other hand, Christians in certain parts of the world are often persecuted and killed by "Islamist militants" and regularly suffer from forms of persecution and "official discrimination". There are more attacks, more violence, more killings; they don't seem to stop. They certainly don't seem to be denounced very often or loudly by many Muslims (more on that in a moment). Some of these acts of violence and bloodshed, we are told by the experts, are due to "sensitivities" caused by "the mistrust and resentment" that were supposedly "spawned" by the Pope's address. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but philosophical reflections by the Pope drive me to acts of terrorism! So, wonders the cerebral and bemused victim of papal insults: what to do when thus offended and nursing bruised feelings? Riot! Destroy! Kill! Threaten! Intimidate! And then play the victim (suspend talks with the Vatican because the Pope denounced evil as "evil"? Really?). As Mark Brumley wrote back in 2006:
We're hearing calls for more dialogue with Islam in the wake of the uproar following Pope Benedict XVI's remarks at the University of Regensburg. Yet the uproar itself underscores the problem with such calls for dialogue. How can you talk seriously with people when they're apt to react violently as soon as you say something they don't want to hear?
Mark also made a point that seems, to me, to be as obvious as the auto-tuning on a Lady Ga Ga vocal:
The trouble is, while most of Christianity has worked through many of the issues regarding reason and the modern world, much of Islam hasn't. That uncomfortable truth has to be addressed. "Moderate" voices in Islam have to speak out forcefully--not against remarks such as those of Pope Benedict, but against those Muslims who resort to violence, whether physical or verbal, when people who hold other points of view defend those points of view.
What might a "moderate" Islamic voice have sounded like in the recent controversy? "We appreciate Pope Benedict's remarks regarding religion and reason. We do not agree with everything in his analysis, nor with his manner of presenting it. We know that Pope Benedict did not intend to embrace the remarks of the Christian emperor he quoted. We concur with his basic point that violence is contrary to God's will for spreading religious truth. We acknowledge that some Muslims today do not accept this. We are embarrassed that they associate the religion of Islam with their violence. We call on all Muslims to renounce violence. We call on them to accept the good will of Benedict XVI and to use his speech as an opportunity to find ways for Muslims and Christians to collaborate and to live together in peace."
That would have been a "moderate" Islamic response. The fact that there were few such responses indicates the extent to which "moderate" Islam has any influence in the world, especially in the Islamic world. This is a fact that the violent, irrational replies to the Pope's comments should compel reasonable people to acknowledge. It should also force us to stop thinking our placid discussions with liberalized Muslims in the West are likely to yield much fruit in the Islamic world at large.
People have criticized Benedict for not anticipating criticism by Muslims. But the fact is, Benedict's comments shouldn't have been seen as especially provocative. That Muslims took his words to be provocative only demonstrates the necessity of his having to say what he said. "Woe to you when all men speak well of you," Jesus said.
If you're keeping score at home: when Islamist militants, radicals, and terrorists kill and destroy, it is mostly the fault of someone or something else (the Pope, the West, Christianity, Danish cartoonists, Jews, etc.); it has nothing to do with Islamic history, beliefs, or scriptures. Nothing at all. To think otherwise is to out yourself as bigoted and Islamophobic. But, when a nutso xenophobic Norwegian who apparently didn't attend Church and did not appeal to a Christian creed or slogan or set of theological principles kills dozens of his fellow countrymen, it is deemed by the über-wise of the world to be at least implicitly the fault of Christianity. Because, in the words of one commentator, "Christians are often reluctant to see these connections between their religion and extreme violence". Hmmm. Is it because almost all Christians around the world who have experience with extreme violence have gained that experience as victims? How many cells of Christian terrorists are there? How many terrorist organizations are killing people in the name of Jesus while quoting John 3:16? How many Christian terrorists cells are training young people how to use bombs? And so forth.
One of the best commentaries five years ago on the Regensburg Address was penned by Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., who summed up the starkly different options set before us:
In the main body of the lecture, Benedict criticizes attempts in the West to "dehellenize" Christianity: the rejection of the rational component of faith (the sola fides of the 16th century reformers); the reduction of reason to the merely empirical or historical (modern exegesis and modern science); a multiculturalism which regards the union of faith and reason as merely one possible form of inculturation of the faith. All this is a Western self-critique.
But as the starting point of his lecture, Benedict takes a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor and a learned Muslim to focus on the central question of the entire lecture: whether God is Logos. The Emperor's objection to Islam is Mohammed's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor asserts that this is not in accordance with right reason, and "not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature". Benedict points to this as "the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion".
It is at this point in the lecture that Benedict makes a statement which cannot be avoided or evaded if there is ever to be any dialogue between Christianity and Islam that is more than empty words and diplomatic gestures. For the Emperor, God's rationality is "self-evident". But for Muslim teaching, according to the editor of the book from which Benedict has been quoting, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality".
Benedict has struck bedrock. This is the challenge to Islam. This is the issue that lies beneath all the rest. If God is above reason in this way, then it is useless to employ rational arguments against (or for) forced conversion, terrorism, or Sharia law, which calls for the execution of Muslim converts to Christianity. If God wills it, it is beyond discussion.