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September 19, 2006

The Pope's Stupid, Stupid Remarks

Roy Meachum

Almost exactly one year ago a handful of Danish cartoons brought demonstrations and riots in Middle East capitols. And that involved artists expressing their right to free speech by attempting to only depict Muhammad, Islam's founder.

"Only" applies in this case because there have been, over the centuries, various attempts to picture the man called the Messenger of God, and sometimes by Muslims.

Friends around me expressed confusion; even those who said they knew about the prohibition against rendering any part of a human being in art. What I heard were words to the effect these were modern times and the Muslims should "get over it."

This dismissive attitude denies the fact the Islamic society sits on a knife's edge; it has felt under siege since 9/11 and especially after Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel's overreaction to Hezbollah performance did nothing to reduce the paranoia. George Bush leading the cheers as missiles killed hundreds of Lebanese seemed to link all the events together, and reinforce the notion Muslims faced a new crusade.

While our society entertains visions of gallant knights attempting to win the Holy Land and carries a romantic aroma, in the Middle East the phrase "the crusaders will getcha" was enough to thoroughly scare many a child in the Middle East.

On a more grave note, the presence of so much oil in Arab nations and Iran, in this time of dwindling Western supplies, endows any not-fully-friendly gesture with a threat for the West to invade and take the oil it so desperately needs. Indeed, whatever the political rationalizations, American troops going into Iraq was characterized, throughout the region, as an effort to take over the rich fields that Saddam Hussein had used for so long as his private cash cow.

Remembering the ravishing of hopes for independence that followed World War I, the folks on the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean tend to mistrust people over here. The rise of extreme Islamists has been fueled in great part by this deep-bred suspicion, particularly given the West's overwhelming firepower.

Sketched here are the most rudimentary elements of the reason why there exists at this moment crippling tension between Christians and Muslims. Indeed, the papal trip in a couple of months was designed to bring the two faiths closer together. So we were told.

Evidently no one told Benedict XVI. He has been scheduled in November to become the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit a Muslim nation, Turkey. He may have thrown a monkey wrench into that piece of history.

Returning to his native turf last week and perhaps anxious to show off his erudition to the hometown crowd, Bavarian-born Josef Ratzinger chose to quote a 14th century Byzantine emperor. In a losing battle to save Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks, Michael II Paleologus was scarcely a model for diplomatic intercourse, of the sort needed today.

While there have been protestations aplenty and explanations tinged with deep rue, Vatican officials say the pope meant no harm when he quoted:

"'The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war. He said, I quote, '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 was dead wrong. For openers, the Prophet did not preach conversion by the sword. People with a book, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, could keep their faith but subject to a tax, which drove nobody into bankruptcy. That many accepted the faith of their conquerors speaks to the aspect of humanity that wants to be on the winning side.

Whatever the source, even by quotation attributed to someone else, accusing Muhammad of bringing things "only evil and inhuman" drowns out reason and reasonability in the present atmosphere.

The Turkey I visited last month may just be the least Muslim state in Islam, including Morocco where the French influence glosses over the Berber tribal tones. Never once, in Istanbul or any of the several towns visited, did I hear an "Insha'llah." - "God willing," - in the Arabic, rolls off Islamic tongues with fluidity and a persistence that baffles most foreigners.

But in the Qur'an a surah specifically orders the phrase must accompany any talk about the future, which is entirely in the hands of the One God. Otherwise, there is a prayer to be said for the omission.

Also virtually missing was the other word so common in Islamic society, "alhamdhulillah." - "Thanks be to God" - is rarely uttered. I saw enough Turks going to mosques that there was no doubt the national faith stands strong. But as a people they keep their belief to themselves.

Mustapha Kamal Ataturk, the father of Turkey - that's what Ataturk means - founded a nation, after World War I, that is more European than Middle Eastern. Istanbul and the lesser cities are reminiscent of Italy and Spain. The country is determinedly secular, which does not remove the faith from individuals.

As individuals and as a nation, the people and the republic were sorely offended, but not as much as in other places. Bombs were thrown at Christian churches in the region. The generally laissez faire Morocco recalled its ambassador.

Everywhere voices were raised demanding an apology. It finally came on Sunday morning at a public audience held in his summer palace. But first an Italian nun was killed in Somalia, an incident that the Vatican admitted could have been caused by her pope's loose lips and even looser logic.

Rationalizing to the end that the words were not his and moreover did not reflect his opinion did not absolve his guilt; he is the pope, literally for God's sake, and it was irresponsible as the devil for him to cast, even by indirection, an atrocious slur at another faith.

The question remains will he further endanger lives in the nation that produced the assassin who failed to kill John Paul II. Whatever Ankara decides, Benedict XVI must have the decency now to at least "postpone" the November visit. Of course, he will not, unless the firestorm generated by his callous stupidity blows up a wind that takes even more lives.

As a cardinal Josef Ratzinger proved himself innumerable times completely incapable of the least Christian charity. With hands-on control of the Curia he elected himself to St. Peter's throne. Benedict XVI is an abomination, but unfortunately not the first in the Vatican's history.

My poor church!

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