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Muslim reaction to Pope has air of “organised indignation”

"Pope was making valuable point about faith", Fergus O'Donohgue SJ In an interview with Brendan McManus SJ, Fr Fergus O’Donoghue argues that the Pope is right to regret the effects of his words but not to withdraw his point about faith and reason. The Muslim response, he adds, seems more a political manoeuvre than spontaneous indignation.


The Pope quoted a document from the 1390s in which Emperor Manuel II Paleologos of the Byzantine Empire criticised Islam for using “holy war” rather than reason to spread the faith. The Pope has a right to make a point about the use of violence, and ironically, the reaction to it has been constantly violent and negative.

Pope Benedict was trying to emphasise that violence was “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul” and he used the words “I quote” twice to stress that the words were not his. The Pope states clearly that we can spread religion and knowledge of our faith only through convincing people; that the use of violence to evangelise can never be justified. The Crusades are constantly quoted in this context to illustrate Christian use of violence, which is appropriate, but this cannot be used to justify contemporary events. The quote from Manuel II, who was described by one journalist as an “Islamophobe”, has to be read in the context of the Turkish invasion and the eventual destruction of his country, all done in the name of Islam.

The quotation from the Emperor was part of a long lecture given by the Pope at Regensburg University, where the Pope used to be professor of theology. As such, he was giving an academic lecture; it wasn’t a public speech or intended as “official policy”. He was making some very clear points, especially that here in the West, we have sidelined religion so much that when we are dealing with Islamic, Christian or Hindu countries, where religion is fundamental and central to life, we don’t know how to react.

At the moment Islam is “undergoing the crisis of confrontation with the modern world” in a radically different atmosphere than before. And in such a large and diverse religion there are many schools of thought. There are approximately seventy different schools of thought in Islam, but at the moment the radical fundamentalist Islamists are setting the agenda. There is an element of people orchestrating the recent response to the Pope at a local level for the sake of gaining political advantage. It doesn’t have the ring of spontaneous indignation about it.

The relationship between Islam and Christianity needs to be examined very closely. In Muslim countries, Christians are always regarded as second-class citizens and are often treated very harshly. This is often overlooked in the current debate. What has happened in the last few days is just an example of what’s happening to Christians all the time in Muslim countries. They are constantly coming under attack. It’s a bit ironic, then, for the Islamic or Muslim brotherhood in Egypt to criticise the Pope when they are making life difficult for the Christian 10% of the Egyptian population. Muslim-Christian dialogue is always going to be limited, given that Muslims are convinced that they have the truth and that their religion is going to prevail.

The Pope said that he regrets that his words have caused upset to Muslims. That seems more appropriate than a straight apology. He clarified the intent of his quotation and said that he didn’t want to give offence. He was using the quotation to make a very interesting point, and that has actually got a bit lost.