TAKING ISLAM SERIOUSLY
Some guys have all the luck. I heard that from Rod Stewart. And I’m beginning to believe it.
Take, for example, the current Pope. Here’s a man who earlier in his life was a member of the Hitler Youth, and now he finds himself with perhaps the most venerated title in the world. Am I suggesting that promotion was undeserved? No. I’ve made no suggestion one way or the other. My point is simply that he got one heck of a break that somehow his past wasn’t used to disqualify him from his current job. You can easily imagine that for appearance reasons alone, the College of Cardinals would have stayed away from creating the connection between Pontiff and Hitler Youth. But somehow, they weren’t worried.
Fast forward a bit to recent weeks, and you’ll see Pope Benedict in a bit of hot water. Undeniably, he made statements that were undiplomatic, to say the least. Quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor, he uttered the following words: “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 comments sparked protests in the Islamic world and – get this – the Muslim street was depicted in the western media reacting violently to the above comments. What a laugh, right? The Pope questions their faith as being overly violent, and how do they respond but … with more violence.
So, according to conventional wisdom, the Pope turned out to be right all along. His fundamental point – that the Islamic faith is overly prone to violence – was corroborated by the failure of the Islamic world to respond to his comments peacefully. They made his point for him in graphic detail, by burning churches and, according to one disputed report, savagely killing a nun.
That, at least, is conventional wisdom. But to me, it merely once again illustrates this Pope’s luck. In this case, it wasn’t the College of Cardinals who gave him a break. It was the Western media.
When I heard the comment at issue, I had a very different reaction to the one discussed in the American press. Yes, I caught the fact that the Pope was making a statement against Islamic violence. But why should that bother me as a student of philosophy? Was the comment diplomatic, when uttered directly by a Pope? No. Then again, can any rational person alive today – Muslim or not – deny that the Islamic world is overly prone to violence? And can anyone deny that Mohammed’s status as a warrior-Prophet may have lent fuel for the violent passions in some of his present-day followers?
What caught my attention wasn’t so much what the Pope said about violence but the first part of the above sentence. “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new …” That’s what pissed me off. Here he is, one of the modern leaders of the second-in-time of the great Abrahamic faiths, and he is rekindling the idea that the third-in-time of the great Abrahamic faiths gave the world nothing that is truly new. … At least nothing good.
Now that’s offensive.
I suppose I lack the standing to speak on this issue. The Creed Room, my philosophical novel set in 1999-2000 made virtually no references to Islam. I rationalized the omission in my mind by the fact that the action took place prior to 9/11, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty about the slight. I promise to redeem myself in my next novel, but as of now, my public comments on Islam are shamefully few and far between.
Then again, I’m just a friggin’ lawyer, I’m not the Pope. He should know better. He should be wise enough to understand that each of the great Abrahamic faiths has a unique spirit that needs to be appreciated by any person serious about exploring spirituality. The problem, of course, is that in the Western World, Islam is discussed as a poor stepchild of Judaism and Christianity. Let’s not deny the fact. Even my use of the term “Abrahamic” is a relatively jarring sight. People in the West are more comfy with the term “Judeo-Christian,” for those are the only two Western faiths that most Americans and Europeans respect. Few Americans who don’t associate themselves with Islam could possibly identify anything worthwhile about that faith that adds to the religions that were long established at the time of Mohammad’s birth. Don’t believe me? Just ask your friends. You’ll be met with lots of silence.
Consider that even the most Fundamentalist Christian can’t help but recognize their faith’s debt to Judaism. Jesus was, after all, a Jew. Now consider the mindset of the traditional Christian. Once the “Christ” came along, and his message was interpreted and reinterpreted by the early fathers, and the Nicene Creed was formulated that announced Jesus as Lord and belief in the Trinity as essential for salvation, what “new” message were Fundamentalist Christians ready to hear? Mohammed didn’t show up on the scene for several hundred more years. When he preached a monotheism that was more rigorous, more complete, than anything said by his Jewish or Christian forbears, who in the West was listening? I don’t think we wanted a more rigorous monotheism. I think we wanted a more watered-down variety, replete with deities who can be described with human-like language, who can be depicted on the ceilings of our chapels, or who actually took human form.
The Pope’s choice of words could have been a wake-up call to the West that not only do we owe Muslims respect but we owe Islam respect. But the media doesn’t want to get into that issue. That would involve asking people to delve into issues of theology. That would involve asking people to question whether their only beloved religion offers all the answers. That might be too much to ask. Better, apparently, to play it safe and continue to call attention to the savagery of the Muslim people. In the end, it will save this Pope’s reputation and our own precious self esteem.