Crusader in the ‘Clash of Civilisations':

Pope Benedict Echoes Bush

In his first reaction to the British police's claim to have uncovered a plot to blow up Heathrow airport in August, George Bush declared that it was a “stark reminder” that “this nation is at war with Islamic fascists”. In another speech which was a run-up to the 9/11 anniversary, Bush compared Bin Laden to “evil and ambitious men” like Lenin (!) and Hitler.

A month later, Pope Benedict XVI made a speech at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria, where he quoted a 14 th century Byzantine emperor who, in a debate with a Persian scholar of the time, was believed to have said: “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.”

Among the Pope's defenders are India 's home-grown fascist K Sudarshan of the RSS (which incidentally also orchestrates a hate-campaign against Indian Christians), as well as two rival US Presidential wannabes – Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich. The Pope's statement has been variously interpreted as a blunder, or attributed to the fact that the media/Muslim fanatics plucked a quote out of context from his scholarly speech that was in fact a call for dialogue between faiths. The echoes of Bush-speak in the Pope's speech, however, is a warning that his exposition on theology should be taken seriously as a carefully planned contribution to the discourse of the ‘clash of civilisations'.

What did the Pope's speech actually say? He argued for the need to broaden the concept of reason and science to accommodate faith and religion. Reason, he said, is the basis of Christianity, which synthesised faith with the best of Greek knowledge and Aristotelian spirit of philosophical enquiry. Christianity, he claims, holds that to act without logos, without reason, is to act against God's nature. Islam, on the other hand, repudiates reason, since it believes that God is not bound up with earthly concepts, even that of rationality. By implication, then, Islam is godless, “evil and inhuman”, spreading its word through violence rather than through persuasive and loving reason.

Further, the Pope argues, given the convergence between Greek rational philosophy and Christian faith, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its birth and “some significant developments” in “the East”, found its “historically decisive character in Europe ”. In other words, what is being said is that Europe is the natural seat of reason, which made it the natural home for Christianity. In fact, this convergence, says the Pope, “with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe .” In Bavaria , on the border of Turkey , in a town with many Turkish migrants who face daily racism, the Pope is saying that reasonable Christianity is the foundation of “what can rightly be called Europe ”. This phrase begs the question: what, in the Pope's opinion, is wrongly being called Europe ? Why, Turkey , of course! It is the same Pope who argued not so long ago against the inclusion of Muslim Turkey in the EU.

Much has been said about the Pope's learning – but it seems he, like Bush, needs some lessons in history. How does Pope Benedict think the medieval European Christian world laid hands on Aristotle and all that Greek philosophy, logic, and science in the first place? Aristotle's treatises, Euclid 's Mathematics, Ptolemy's astronomy, the medicine of Galen and Hippocrates, – all these reached Europe through the Arabic translations and learned commentaries of Muslim scholars (Ibn Sina's commentaries on medicine and Ibn Rushd's on Aristotle, for instance), not to mention the science of advanced optics and mathematics of the Arab scholars themselves. The Church itself remained highly ambivalent and suspicious towards Aristotle's writings for centuries, seeking to control and censor the access to these texts.

The Pope of Rome quoting ‘logic' and advocating ‘non-violence' is a bit like the Devil quoting scripture. An institution that in the 21 st century, continues to ban birth control and declare that the excommunication of women ordained as priests is “not only just but also necessary”, can hardly claim to be too much more rational or scientific than the Sabarimala priesthood or the Taliban. Did the Catholic Church gracefully accept the reasonable arguments of those who pointed out that the Earth moved around the Sun rather than the other way round? Did the Church show benevolent and loving reasonableness in its dealings with those who challenged its theology – the so-called ‘heretics' or the ‘witches'? Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno, a champion of the Copernican system of astronomy which placed the Sun, not the earth, at the centre of the solar system, was burnt at the stake. At his execution, the Church decreed that his tongue be tied, so that he should be unable to speak to the gathered people. Galileo Galilei, under threat of torture, recanted his views on Copernican astronomy. The Vatican has in 1992 expressed reluctant regret for the censorship of Galileo – but none for the brutal execution of the ‘atheist' Bruno. Thousands were tortured in Inquisitions, forced to confess to heresy and witchcraft, and burnt at the stake. The Vatican refused to come clean on its shameful silence during the Holocaust; the present Pope himself was a member of Hitler's youth brigade.

Those in glass houses should not, perhaps, throw stones. A holier-than-thou manner especially ill suits religious institutions which have organised, participated in, and condoned terrible violence (and this, needless to say, includes the daily violence of caste and gender sanctified by the laws of Manu).

-Kavita Krishnan