September 19, 2006
By Raheel Raza
TORONTO - It's ironic that while more than 1,000 delegates met at a congress in Montreal called World's Religions After September 11, where they discussed initiatives aimed at building greater understanding among followers of all faiths, halfway across the globe Pope Benedict XVI was making a speech that would have the opposite effect.
Now, despite his apology, the inflamed responses to his remarks continue worldwide. Like all Muslims, we too felt deep anguish as once more our faith had been ridiculed by no less a figure than the leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.
In fairness to him, the Pope himself did not say anything negative about Islam, but was quoting the 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said: "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."
On Sunday, the Pope apologized in person for causing offence, saying the medieval text he had quoted did not in any way express his opinion. But the damage had been done. Extremists pounced on the opportunity, burning churches in the Palestinian territories, shooting dead a 60-year-old nun in Somalia and uttering inflammatory rhetoric that has set back Muslim-Christian relations.
We were more disappointed than angry at Pope Benedict. After all, the Pope is not just any ordinary priest. He is a religious icon, and what he says has clout. What was he thinking when he uttered those words?
As the London Guardian newspaper noted in an editorial, the Pope made no effort to say that this was not his belief. "There was no phrase distancing himself from the claim that Muhammad was responsible for evil. It's little surprise, therefore, that the remarks have roused anger and demands for a personal apology."
We live in times when religion is used as a tool to enhance political power. Irresponsible rhetoric on the part of religious leaders can cause fragile threads to quickly unravel. Just as we progressive Muslims have repeatedly, and at great risk, confronted clerics and extremists within the Muslim community, we now expect our Catholic brothers and sisters to step forward and condemn the ill-timed, irrational and ill-informed remarks of the Holy Father.
We are particularly disappointed because Pope Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, spoke at length about similarities rather than differences. While speaking to the Catholic community of Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II said:
"My brothers, when I think of this spiritual heritage (Islam) and the value it has for man and for society, its capacity of offering, particularly in the young, guidance for life, filling the gap left by materialism, and giving a reliable foundation to social and juridical organization, I wonder if it is not urgent, precisely today when Christians and Muslims have entered a new period of history, to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, `peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.'"
In his unfortunate and inopportune remarks in Germany last week, Pope Benedict XVI may have made an error in judgment when he chose to quote a medieval emperor.
Later he talked about "that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today." That dialogue will become meaningful only when all of us learn, not just to respect each other, but also to be willing to stand up and hold our own clergy to account, and take them to task for making offensive remarks that are hurtful and set back peacemaking efforts worldwide.
The Pope may not have intended to cause such worldwide hurt, and he has apologized, but the nature of the Pope's remarks and their dangerous consequences must be understood in the context of our times. This was best explained by Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. He wrote:
"... it's born-again Christians who have been at the forefront of support for the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, and the whole `reorganization' of the Middle East — a catastrophe in which many thousands of Muslims have lost their lives. Any comments by a Christian leader that touch upon this wound are bound to be interpreted from every possible angle. The Pope must have known this. If millions of Muslims were offended by the scribblings of a few unknown Danish cartoonists, it's pretty obvious the enormous potential for harm that might flow from a few ill-judged comments by the vicar of Rome."
Having said that, the response from the conservative Muslim leadership, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the ayatollahs of Iran, has been to use this unfortunate incident to stoke more anger and hatred; one more reason to march in streets, attack churches and hurl counter-insults at the Pope.
Muslim leaders should resist this temptation. Now is not the time to pour fuel on the fire; now is the time to douse these flames with compassion and patience. We must use this as an opportunity to follow the example of our Prophet, who ignored insults levied at him.
The Pope's remarks have been criticized the world over and he has apologized. That should be enough. In this crisis, there is an opportunity for Muslims. The Guardian put it best when it said: "There cannot be dialogue without rigour and openness. The Muslim world should also take pains to be thoughtful in its response, and perhaps less quick to take offence."
Now is the time for Muslims to follow the Qur'an and forgive. Now is the time for Muslims to turn the other cheek. That, indeed, would be the "greater" jihad.
Raheel Raza sits on the board of the Muslim Canadian Congress and is author of Their Jihad ... not my Jihad. Tarek Fatah is founder of the MCC.
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