Monday, September 18, 2006
One need not have the education and intelligence of Tariq Ali to identify the omissions of one of the most profoundly ignorant public statements in recent memory:
In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he 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 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". 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. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..."
So, after engaging in the laborious task of hacking through the underbrush of the language of Vatican pseudo-scholarship (strangely enough, eerily reminiscent, in its own way, of the purported dialectical analyses of Russian and Chinese Communist Party figures in the 1950s and 1960s), and discovering the avoidance of the most commonly known aspects of the history of the Pope's own church, it is evident that he is implicitly expressing one of the great historical fictions, namely, that Islam is singularly responsible for the legitimization of religiously inspired violence.
The reaction in the Muslim world was predictable, but depressingly insufficient. Islamic civilization cannot be reduced to the power of the sword. It was the vital bridge between the Ancient world and the European Renaissance. It was the Catholic Church that declared War on Islam in the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. Mass expulsions, killings, forced conversions and a vicious Inquisition to police the cleansed Europe and the reformist Protestant enemy.
The fury against 'heretics' led to the burning of Cathar villages in Southern France. Jews and Protestants alike were granted refuge by the Ottoman Empire, a refuge they would have been denied had Istanbul remained Constantinople. 'Slaves, obey your human masters.For Christ is the real master you serve' said Paul (Colossians 3: 22-24) in establishing a collaborationist tradition which fell on its knees before wealth and power and which reached its apogee during the Second World War where the leadership of the Church collaborated with fascism and did not speak up against the judeocide or the butchery on the Eastern Front. Islam does not need pacifist lessons from this Church.
Violence was and is not the prerogative of any single religion as the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine demonstrates. During the Cold War the Vatican, with rare exceptions, supported the imperial wars. Both sides were blessed during the First and Second World wars; the US Cardinal Spellman was a leading warrior in the battles to destroy Communism during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Vatican later punished the liberation theologists and peasant-priests in Latin America. Some were excommunicated.
We must speak candidly here: the Pope's emphasis upon Islam as the progenitor of religious violence is as credible as the astronomy of Aristotle, and as offensive as claims of racial intellectual superiority and Holocaust denial. As Ali so bluntly observes, Islam needs no pacifist lessons from this Church. But why has the Pope embraced the deliberate distortion of history in a way that is so transparent? To what end?
Imperialism is the magic interpretative key to the discovery of the answers, as suggested by Ali's article. Through imperialism, the Catholic Church spread its faith all around the world at the point of swords held by the soldiers of Spain, Portugal and France. It is rarely recognized that the old adage, the sun never sets on the British Empire, first applied to the Catholic Church. Priests enriched themselves upon the slave labor of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, with Father Junipero Serra being one of the most notorious examples.
Hence, the Pope sought to exploit the violence of Islamic fundamentalism as a means of trying to more effectively suppress the more odious aspects of the Church's own conduct. He was promoting a mythology of Catholicism as a religion that has inspired billions to spiritually identify themselves with it non-violently. Under this Pope, the Church cannot acknowledge the history of Western imperialism without condemning itself.
All of this should have a familiar ring, especially to Americans. It is the same propaganda exercise utilized by the neo-conservatives to justify the invasion of Iraq and the purported war on terror. An emphasis upon Islamic terrorism facilitates that concealment of the much greater evils of American foreign policy over the last 200 years just as it also effectively distracts from the Church's even longer association with imperial conquest and cultural destruction. It transforms the violence and coercion of American policy into the rhetoric of democracy, free trade and free association, just as the brutal proselytization of the Church is described as the liberating, divine discovery of faith by the individual.
Pope Benedict XVI has not yet joined his fellow neo-conservatives, and openly supported the violence of the present by reference to the violence of the past, but he came dangerously close to doing so in Germany, an accidental geographical symbolism of the most frightening kind, and his remarks may foreshadow even greater conflagrations just over the horizon.