By Jonathan Power
A range of people—from cardinals to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel—have told Pope Benedict XVI, or communicated to the press, their profound unhappiness at his lifting the excommunication of an ultra-traditionalist British bishop, Richard Williamson, who has questioned the extent of the Holocaust and denied the existence of gas chambers in Nazi death camps. The notorious interview on Swedish radio was only broadcast last month, but a Google search of the bishop reveals that he has long held these views.
In June 2006, during a visit to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, the pope seemed to pass over the culpability of ordinary Germans in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Only four months later, at a major speech in Regensberg, he seemed to tar the whole of Islam with the violence of one long-forgotten aggressive Muslim leader.
Can he be allowed to make another big mistake, alienating millions? Pope Benedict XVI lives in the twenty-first century, but the values of the Church are begining to look totally anachronistic—more like that of the last German pope, Victor II, who took office in 1055. Benedict lives in more sensitive times.
The Regensburg “Islam” speech showed oddly inconsistent thinking, at least compared to the way Anglo-Saxon scholars are trained. One point did not feed logically to the next. It is difficult, reading the whole text, to discern exactly the principal theme of the speech. Yet his use of a quote from the fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, on the violent nature of Islam and the pope’s concluding remarks, it seems quite clear that the speech was aimed at the issue of Muslim/Christian relations.
These relations have a fraught and complicated history.
If the pope had been more sensitive to the Islamic world, he might have used as an example of the dangers of violence done in God’s name the activities of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who having first decreed the radical mass conversion of Muslims, killed many of them and drove the rest of the 700 year-old community out of Spain in 1492. They then turned on the Jews: some 80,000 were forced out, a great many perishing of hunger on the way to refuge.
Yes, Mohammed did conquer Mecca by the sword. And yes, within 20 years of his death his followers had conquered large parts of the Roman Empire and absorbed the remnants of the great Persian civilization. In contrast, under the Romans, Christians submitted themselves to the lions rather than fight. Not until the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity some 300 years after Jesus’s death did Christianity take on the auspices of state authority with its well-embedded military traditions.
But in those first 600 years of the spread and development of Islam one of the most intriguing aspects was Islam’s tolerance for Judaism and Christianity. The Koran requires that Muslims should respect “The People of the Book.”
Indeed, following Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 churches remained open—for the next 700 years. And Jews were given funds to rebuild their synagogues. This was in marked contrast to the way Christian Crusaders had ruled Jerusalem: Muslim and Jews were mainly forbidden from living within the city walls.
Likewise, under 500 years of Ottoman rule, Christians and Jews were recognized and protected. Many of the Jews expelled from Iberia were granted refuge in the Ottoman Empire. German, French, and Czech Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution were also given protection.
The Christian West, with its long propensity to go to war against Muslims, has a not only a selective memory, but a deeply ingrained prejudice that, sadly, continues to this day, particularly regarding the violent tendencies of Muslims.
The same can be said of the attitude that Christian states used to hold towards the Jews. Anti-Semitic—often violently so—antagonism was well embedded within Christian societies long before before Hitler came to power.
But why should a pope who seems not to know clearly and without ambiguity what went on in his own country during his youth be aware of the import of all this today? Perhaps now is the time to resign before further damage is done.
Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).