Some Italians began
to refer to Pope Benedict XVI on his ascenscion to the throne of Peter as
"the Panzer Kardinal," a nickname bestowed on him apparently by his
German curiae colleagues. This was a sly reference to Benedict's disputed
military past in the last days of the terminally delirious Third Reich -- and,
perhaps, to his continuing reactionary politics.
Today, a better
label might be "the neocon pope."
In a recent lecture
("polemic" would be a better word) at the University of Regensburg,
where he had lectured in theology from 1969 to 1977, Pope Benedict XVI
apparently made the dubious decision to catapult the Vatican into the fray of
the fraudulent discourse on the "clash of civilizations." Propagated
by Samuel Huntington, the "clash of civilizations" thesis is an
"orientalist" piece of policy-driven, pseudo-scholarly screed on
"orientalist," in case you are wondering, is a "scholar" in
the West who reveals the workings of the "Arab/Muslim mind," the
supposed hang-ups of Arab/Muslim sexuality and "cultural" values, and
the opinions on the "Arab/Muslim street" to "us."
"orientalist" does not allow the "East" to speak for
itself. It interprets the "East" for us, often as autocratic,
passive, decayed after losing its past "greatness."
"orientalist" creates a "discourse," meaning a rhetorical
construct, through which the reality of the "East" is filtered and
translated into a kind of scholarly fantasy, complete with vested terms, that
enable and justify the project of imperialism.
So, for example,
according to the "orientalist," "the Arabs/Muslims"
typically are said to be incapable of conceiving of democracy. Thus
"we" must bring it to "them." "The Arabs/Muslims"
keep their women submissive. Thus "we" must "liberate"
"them." "The Arab/Muslim" religion has a tendency toward
authoritarianism. Thus, "we" must instruct their clerics to be more
"democratic." "Islam" has unfortunate tendencies toward
violence. Thus, "we" must talk "reason" to "it."
thinking is rooted in idealist dualistic thinking, typical of western
philosophy since at least the time of Plato, which maintains that reality is
but a pale echo of perfect forms "out there" beyond the material
world (God being the most perfect of "forms," the essence of
therefore, that Catholic dogma would fall into the trap of believing that it is
the superior religion, since it worships the most perfect of forms -- not only
the omnipotent, benevolent god, but also the omniscient one, the all knowing
and all-rational one.
Benedict's lecture carps on the virtues of reason as the faculty that ties the
Christian's reason to God's reason.
It is with this
philosophical background in mind, that the pope's pronouncements on Islam must
be read, unfortunately -- as an exercise in hierarchical thinking. There is
"us," and there is "them." In this hierarchical thinking,
the "them" term comes off as the lesser category -- the one that
needs to learn from "us."
It is a way of
thinking that has been under assault by philosophers, linguists, historians,
literary critics, even scientists, and other thinkers since the sixties.
Multiculturalism is a product of thinking not hierarchically but in terms of
"differences." According to "difference" thinking, it is
not a question of regarding cultures with a view toward deciding
"either/or" but toward acknowledging that both terms may be valid in
thinking embraces cultures and can foster tolerance; hierarchical, dualistic
thinking separates cultures and can be regressive because it sets one category
above the other in merit.
thinking can be democratic; hierarchical thinking often is not.
Benedict's argument, we notice that he implies that Christianity is the
superior religion because it links human reason to God's reason whereas Islam's
god is "transcendent," meaning, Islam's god stands above human faculties
and does not connect to them. Muslims, by this inference, would appear to have
a tendency to act irrationally because god's reason has not been passed on to
them. Thus, the pope sees Islamic "jihad" as "contrary to the
nature of God, who acts with 'logos,' which means both 'word' and
'reason.'" I might add, that the pope here exhibits a very limited notion
of "jihad" which really is akin to the Greek concept of
"agon" or struggle to strive to be the best, morally and socially.
One is also tempted
to point out that the idea that "we" are rational and
"they" are "irrational" is the oldest cliche' in the
Western discourse of imperialism, which sought to "civilize" the
not-quite fully human "primitive," "childlike," and
"savage" tribes in the lands that Europe coveted for conquest!
The fact that the
pope spoke with authority on what one can only suspect, by the sound of it, was
vintage CIA propaganda on "jihad," conceived in the years of the
agency-funded and trained "jihadist" fervor in Afghanistan against
the Soviets in the 80s, shows just how uninformed his platitudes on Islam
really are. What does he know -- or want to know -- of the hotly contested and
diversified intellectual milieu within Islam on the nature of Islam?
Judging by his
remarks, practically nothing. Has he consulted with any historian of Islam in
the "East" about which he speaks with such confidence?
Has the pope heard
of Ali Shariatari, for example, arguably the most influential
"rational" Iranian interpreter of Islam in the twentieth century?
Shariatari sought to reinterpret Islam in terms of social justice. His notion
of Islam, and particularly of Shi'i Islam, was as a potentially democratic
force, capable of reforming Muslim political societies. His vision ran parallel
to reformists within the Catholic church, who, since Vatican II, sought to
return to Christ's teachings about caring for the poor, the oppressed, the
"meek." Like the Vatican's own rebel priests and nuns who profess
"the option for the poor," known as "Liberation Theology,"
Shariatari's interpretation of Islam did not call for a "violent"
Islam but an Islam devoted to the elimination of social injustice for the
impoverished and exploited Muslim masses.
This does not sound
to me like an irrational "jihad" -- and it was properly called
"jihad" -- as in the "struggle" for an egalitarian and
democratic society, which, since the French Revolution, has been the struggle
of Western societies for inclusive forms of democracy -- bitterly opposed, I
might add, by the Vatican, with the notable exception of Pope John XXIII.
liberation theology is not something the pope wants to mention. "The
option for the poor": Catholic jihad is frowned upon by the Vatican. Archibishop
Romero of El Salvador, for example, died for defending the poor in 1980, but he
has yet to be sanctified by the Vatican, while pro-Nazi, Croatian Archibishop
of Zagreb, Stepinac, had no trouble entering the Olympos of Saints, in spite of
a reprehensible record of collaboration with the Croatian Nazi-puppet regime
that exterminated a good portion of Serbs, gypsies, partisans, and Jews in WW
And then again, who
is the Vatican to speak for the supposedly traditional ties of human reason to
God, having authorized the Inquisition to regularly barbecue Renaissance
scientists in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome -- and other sites of papal
roast-fests, broiling "heretics" throughout Europe -- and having
hounded and terrorized Galileo Galilei into recantation of his gravitational
theories? Poor Rene' Descartes spent his life shivering in fear of papal terror
for pronouncing his faith in the integrity of the human individual as a
rational being -- the very philosophy now championed 400 years too late by this
pope as a badge of Christian superiority!
Ah, but the pope
speaks on reason because reason can go too far! If, to quote from Benedict's
lecture, "to act against reason is to act against the nature of god,"
then to try to substitute faith for science is the ultimate sacrilege.
"Since the Enlightenment," Benedict opined in a mass prior to the
lecture, "at least a part of science has engaged in rendering God
superfluous and useless in our lives." Does he contradict himself -- is
reason a good thing or not? Who judges when it goes too far? The Vatican! And
similar issues in
the "East"? Supreme Councils of Muslim jurists, that's who. Only the
Supreme Councils have no "infallibility" provisions and are not a
council of one!
And yet, the pope
has the gall to speak against aspects of Islam that are "irrational"
and fanatic, like any indoctrinated, US mass-media parrot of the official
"war on terror" line. He says, "'Holy war' is against God, and
fundamentalist Islam contradicts the prophet Mohammed." If you say so --
even if you don't bother to define or contextualize "holy war,"
"fundamentalism," or "Islam," relying instead on the
sloganeering diction of the American neocon crazies and orientalists.
In a disastrous
rhetorical choice -- or provocation -- this pope made a diplomatic blunder of
the highest order in an already tense and strained moment in East/West
relations. Why, for example, did he choose to quote from a historical nonentity
like the Byzantine 14th-century emperor Manuel II Paleologos? Why, moreover,
choose that particular quotation -- that Mohammed had brought to earth
"evil and inhuman things such as his directive to spread the faith through
the sword"? And what did Manuel's Muslim interlocutor say to that? Or was
he, like the "orientalist's" "East," a construct of
I must say, as an
aside, that the pope has some chutzpah quoting -- without distancing himself
from the quotation's assertion -- someone who condemns Islam for allegedly
spreading the faith through the sword! The pope could have provided some
background here on religions of the sword, but he chose, instead, to fake
What, pray, was the
imperial standard of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the guy who made
Christianity the official religion of the crumbling Roman Empire? The
"Labarum," or imperial standard was "a cross of light,"
described by Christian historian Eusebius, "as a long spear overlaid with
gold" transversed by a bar to form a cross, within which were inscribed
the Greek letters "chi" and "rho," (the "chi-rho"
or initials of the Christ). From the spear was suspended a banner with the
inscription in Greek, "TOUTO NIKA," or "Conquer by This
Sign" -- "In Hoc Signo Vinces" in Latin. This standard applied
to all of Constantine's neo-Christian legions and was placed on the
legionnaires' military shield.
Don't they teach
this stuff at children's catechism schools anymore?
religion of peace? Give me a break! The Christianization of Europe was anything
but "nonviolent." The Christianization of the Americas was anything
but "nonviolent." Christianity, indeed, like Islam, may have been
embraced as a religion of peace and justice and may be so taken by individual
practitioners to this day, but the Christian hierarchy, especially at its
apogee of political power in the Middle Ages, certainly didn't practice it as
Talk was cheap then
and, apparently, is cheap now.
leaders are calling for an apology for the pope's remarks on jihad, and for
linking Islam with violence. The Head of the French Council for the Muslim
Religion (CFCM), Dalil Boubaker, said, �We hope that the Church will very
quickly . . . clarify its position so that it does not confuse Islam, which is
a revealed religion, with Islamism, which is not a religion but a political
[That remark would
be referring to the Ayatollah Khomeini's "political Islamism"?
Shariatari's "socialist Islamism"? Or the "Islamism" of the
usual suspects -- "resistance Islamism," the one the US calls
"terrorist" even when, like Hezbollah, it is a party of social-service
providers with a military wing no one else, besides Israel, calls
"terrorist"? The "terrorists' Islamism" of 9/11, which the
FBI cannot identify as al-Qaeda's? See? Which "Islamism" is the
speaker here referring to? If, in the Islamic context, the term is contestable,
how can the pope, outside that world, pontificate on it?]
Bardakoglu, the head of the state-run religious affairs directorate, opposed
the pope's planned visit to Turkey in November. His �is a statement full of
enmity and grudge,� said Bardakoglu.
secretary general of the Umma Party in Kuwait, urged the pope to apologise to
the Muslim world for "calumnies against the Holy Prophet Mohammed and
president of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, reminded the pope of violent
chapters in the history of the Roman Catholic Church: �After the bloodstained
conversions in South America, the crusades in the Muslim world, the coercion of
the Church by Hitler's regime, and even the coining of the phrase �holy war' by
Pope Urban II, I do not think the Church should point a finger at extremist
activities in other religions."
I am aware (and was
aware when I read Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture) that he was calling for a
dialogue "between civilizations" grounded in reason, which would mean
grounded in the essence of the divine essence.
I was aware that
the pope did not "intend" to malign Islam -- openly, as his lecture
has been interpreted by critics, including by me.
dialogue he was calling for had one, huge, gaping hole right at the center of
its argument. It was calling EXCLUSIVELY on Islam to renounce violence.
That, no matter how
you spin it, is neocon propaganda.
How a pope, the
head of a state which only recently had been brought to condemn the
US-sanctioned Israeli attack on Lebanon, could ask Islam to renounce violence
and embrace dialogue while holding up to it the example of an allegedly
rational Christian faith as a paragon of nonviolence, able to ditch violence by
the grace of embracing god's reason -- THAT breathtakingly blind and arrogant
assumption passes all limits of biased judgment and uncharitable opinion and
crosses into prejudice. The pope simply cannot apply to his own confessional faith
the standards he applies to the other faith, Islam.
He calls for
peace-loving rationality in the other's faith while failing to administer the
same medicine to his own.
We must put
ourselves in the shoes of people digging themselves up out of the bomb debris
in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. We must hear the pope's words with the ears
of these victims of objectively experienced violence, dumped from planes and
caused by weapons wielded, as the pope sees it, by the rational, peace-loving
Judeo-Christian West. Would the pope's call on you to call on your Islam to
embrace nonviolence through reason find an echo in your ears? Or would you
think the pope had no eyes or heart or lips to condemn the violence that
destroyed your village, your home, your family, and your limbs because that
violence is not violence when perpetrated by the Judeo-Christian West?
In your eyes, as
the victim of violent aggression by the "rational,"
"enlightened," and "peace-loving," "Christian"
West, the pope's words calling on you to make your religion more rational,
gentler, less violent, and more in tune with god's nature might sound a bit
eccentric, wouldn't you say?
Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.