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Pope’s Comments on Islam Incite Outrage and Protest

September 18, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The pope’s comments about Islam and holy war have ignited outrage and protests around the Muslim world, from Iran to Pakistan to Indian- controlled Kashmir and Indonesia.

And despite the pope’s attempts to calm Muslim sentiment yesterday, that anger spilled onto the streets of Iraq today; 500 protesters marched on the streets of Basra and burned a papal effigy.

The controversial remarks that sparked the outcry were made last Tuesday, when the pontiff delivered an academic lecture on faith and reason at Germany’s Regensburg University, where he once taught. In it, he quoted a dialogue between a 14th-century Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian on Christianity and Islam.

The pope described an exchange where the emperor “addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying, ‘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.’ 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.”

The Vatican said the speech was intended to open a dialogue and to reject the use of violence in the name of any religion. Instead, the pontiff’s comments set off days of protests, some violent.

At least seven churches were firebombed in the West Bank and Gaza this weekend. And in Somalia, a 65-year-old Italian nun was shot yesterday; it remains unclear if her murder was retaliation for the pope’s comments.

On Sunday, amid heightened security, the pontiff expressed regret about the reaction to the remarks.

POPE BENEDICT XVI (through translator): I’m deeply sorry for the reactions provoked by a part of my speech at Regensburg University considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslim believers, but these words were, in fact, a quotation from a medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought.

GWEN IFILL: While some Muslim leaders welcomed the pope’s statement, others said it didn’t go far enough and demanded the comments be retracted.

MAHMOUD ASHOUR, Former Egyptian Deputy (through translator): I don’t think what he did is enough, because the pope didn’t apologize for the misunderstanding, and he accuses Muslims with misunderstanding him, though what he said was clear and a direct insult to Islam.

GWEN IFILL: The comments have also stirred up discussion among some Catholics, including those who watched the pope’s mass yesterday from St. Peter’s Square.

ITALIAN CITIZEN (through translator): I think the pope did not offend Islamic religion. I believe he preached for peace and fraternity among all these people. Perhaps he was misinterpreted.

Religion and dialogue

George Weigel
Ethics and Public Policy Center
The first is that, in a religious dialogue, genuine dialogue between people of different religious convictions must be based on reason. It can't be based on passion.

GWEN IFILL: A Vatican spokesman said today the pope's visit to Turkey at the end of November will go forward as planned. It would be his first to a Muslim country since becoming pope.

Now, for analysis of the pope's remarks and the reactions to them, we turn to George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He's written several books about Catholicism, including "God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church."

And Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Welcome to you both.

Was this, George Weigel, an offhanded remark that the pope made or was this something he meant to say?

GEORGE WEIGEL, Ethics and Public Policy Center: Pope Benedict XVI is a world-class scholar, a gentleman, who says what he means and means what he says, so this was not an offhand remark at all.

I think he was trying to make three critical points, Gwen. The first is that, in a religious dialogue, genuine dialogue between people of different religious convictions must be based on reason. It can't be based on passion.

Secondly, attempts to justify violence in the name of God are themselves irrational and, therefore, impede that kind of dialogue. And, therefore, the challenge I think he was trying to pose to Islamic leaders throughout the world -- some of whom have accepted that challenge -- is to discipline and correct those within their own community who would make the case that God commands the murder of innocents.

That's not a basis on which genuine religious dialogue can go forward, and I think it's very important to recognize that, until Islamic religious leaders, scholars, legal authorities develop the capacity to chastise, to discipline their own extremists, every Muslim in the world -- indeed, everyone in the world -- is hostage to the most extreme elements which would claim that violence against innocents is doing the will of God.

Understanding Islam

Nihid Awad
Council on American-Islamic Relations
And the unfortunate fact is the pope is a top-notch theologian on Catholicism, but he's no expert on Islam. And therefore most of the quotations, if not all, that he cited in his academic presentation were historically inaccurate.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Awad, in listening to the pope's remark and now listening to Mr. Weigel's interpretation, is that the way it struck you?

NIHAD AWAD, Council on American-Islamic Relations: Well, actually, there is a gross misunderstanding of Islam. Dialogue should be based on knowledge, and that knowledge will produce a correct understanding, a mutual respect.

And the unfortunate fact is the pope is a top-notch theologian on Catholicism, but he's no expert on Islam. And therefore most of the quotations, if not all, that he cited in his academic presentation were historically inaccurate. I'll just go through them very quickly.

Number one, he said that Muhammad commanded his followers to spread the faith by the sword. This was never happened. In fact, historically, it cannot be proven that Muhammad commanded any of his followers to spread the faith with the sword.

In fact, it contradicts the second sentence or phrase that the pope has cited, which is a verse in the Koran, chapter two, verse number 256, and it says there should be no compulsion of religion. That's a direct command from the Koran, God's (inaudible) text, that you cannot spread faith with force and it has to be on conviction and reason.

So these are historic inaccuracies that the pope has cited, and that's what upsets Muslims and those who know about Islam.

The third and last thing is holy war. This is a mistranslation. Although this network and many networks sometimes use the term "holy war," it is inaccurate. There is no term in Islamic text, whether the Koran or the prophetic tradition, the sayings and these of the prophet, that the word "jihad" means holy war.

GWEN IFILL: So...

NIHAD AWAD: It's a term that was born within Christianity.

Faith and holy war

George Weigel
Ethics and Public Policy Center
[The emperor's] dialogue with this learned Islamic gentleman from Persia took place while Constantinople was being besieged by an Islamic army, to which it subsequently fell some 30 years later.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me just ask you, you are taking issue with some of the historic underpinnings of what the pope said. But do you disagree at all with the -- the speech goes on for some time. Do you disagree, as well, with the larger point he says he was trying to make about the need for dialogue, about reason and faith?

NIHAD AWAD: Oh, actually, this is the Islamic faith. And here where we agree that dialogue should be and the faith itself should be based on reason and faith itself.

The first word that was revealed in the Koran was a word, "iqra," meaning, you know, read. And the prophet encouraged Muslims to seek knowledge even in China. Whenever Islam flourish, science has flourished. Muslims have pioneered in algorithm, chemistry, astronomy, and all of the sciences when Islam was practiced in the right way.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's assume that both Catholics and Islamists all believe that there is a right way here. Was this the right way for the pope to bring this subject up, at a time when tensions are so inflamed in Muslim communities around the world?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think it's important to get that quotation from the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos, into some historic context. His dialogue with this learned Islamic gentleman from Persia took place while Constantinople was being besieged by an Islamic army, to which it subsequently fell some 30 years later.

He knew the history, the emperor, by which Islam had burst out of the Arabian peninsula and, within 80 years, had conquered North Africa, the net result of which was the destruction of Christian communities and what was once the center of the Christian Mediterranean world.

And he was trying -- this emperor was trying to raise the question...

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me.

GEORGE WEIGEL: ... of the relationship between reason and holy war.

GWEN IFILL: Now, and I understand what you're saying the emperor was trying to do, but I guess I'm trying to get to the bottom of what the pope was trying to do by quoting this emperor.

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think he saw -- perhaps mistakenly, perhaps not -- he saw in this exchange, between two men of knowledge in a situation, in their historical terms, as difficult as ours, the possibility of a robust, hard-headed, inter-religious dialogue based on the mutual commitment to reason on the understanding that God is reason and that God cannot command the unreasonable, which includes the murder of innocents.

Muslim sensitivities after 9/11

Nihid Awad
Council on American-Islamic Relations
So in the 21st century, we have to update our knowledge. There's no excuse for us not to or just to depend on 500, 600 statements by someone describing someone else while we have access to technology. We have access to Islamic scholars.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Awad, was this the way to raise this point at this time?

NIHAD AWAD: Well, actually, again, it is incorrect, and citing incorrect statement will lead to incorrect impression and incorrect approach to things. The fact that even in -- my colleague is still quoting and saying that it's a holy war. I'm telling you, as a Muslim, nobody forced me to be a Muslim, and I've never read it in the Koran. I've read most of the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

The word "jihad" does not mean holy war. The word in Arabic, "jihad," or holy war, if you translate it backwards, it means "harmuhadisa." (ph) I've never seen that in any Islamic text.

So in the 21st century, we have to update our knowledge. There's no excuse for us not to or just to depend on 500, 600 statements by someone describing someone else while we have access to technology. We have access to Islamic scholars.

You know, for example, let me cite this very important fact. The Vatican in the recent past used to have first-class Islamic scholars, who are Christians, on Islam, including Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was removed from his post and assigned to Egypt. Therefore, the Vatican is missing serious scholarship on Islam and, therefore, advice on how to approach Islam and Muslims based on knowledge, but not on historic stereotypes.

GWEN IFILL: We have seen the violent reaction around the world to the pope's words. Was that reaction justified? And did the pope in his, "I am deeply sorry for the reaction" remarks, was that a sufficient expression of regret?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think the reaction underscores the truth of what the pope was trying to put on the table, namely, that there are, unfortunately -- but in a widespread way -- currents in the Islamic world which attempt to justify violence in the name of God.

GWEN IFILL: So the reaction of burning effigies, that proved the pope's point?

GEORGE WEIGEL: This is not the way rational, serious, civilized people conduct serious arguments. That's not a contribution to any sort of serious inter-religious dialogue.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Awad?

NIHAD AWAD: Well, I think the reaction can be divided in three parts. Number one, you can understand that the Muslim sensitivities around the world in the post-9/11 world, where the cartoons took place defaming Prophet Muhammad and the desecration of the Koran, Muslims feel under siege, that their faith has been defamed and smeared by sometimes learned people, even President Bush when he equated Islam with fascism. He did not use that term in many of his speeches.

So people are worried about the way Islam is perceived and presented at the time of very important...

GWEN IFILL: And that requires violence as a response?

NIHAD AWAD: That's part two of my answer: We condemn violence. There are extremist people on both sides who try to exploit statements and reactions by people. And we condemn the killing of the nun who was killed in Somalia, and we condemn the burning of churches, because, again, in Islam, no sword should suffer for the deeds of other souls.

Even in this very particular statement that we disagreed with, we can communicate in a very civil way, like many heads of states. Some of them protested, voiced criticism, pulled their ambassadors from the Vatican. These are legitimate expressions. And these what I believe are a reflection of a civilized debate, but committing irrational violence and hurting other people is un-Islamic and unethical.

GWEN IFILL: Nihad Awad and George Weigel, thank you both very much.

NIHAD AWAD: Thank you.

GEORGE WEIGEL: Thank you.