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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Pope and His Muslim Critics

The global brouhaha over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks quoting a fourteenth century theologian who deplored contemporay Islam’s practice of forced conversions has amply illustrated the many false choices that tempt all sides in the religious dimensions of the war against jihadist terrorism.The most obvious malefactors are those jihadists who have rushed to confirm the “insult to Islam” purportedly contained in the Pope’s remarks by sacking churches, burning Benedict in effigy, and otherwise seeking to “conquer by the sword.” They could care less about the actual content of the Pope’s comments; it’s all about seizing on any opportunity to foment irreconcilable conflict between the West and Islam. I agree with my colleague The Moose that Democrats, and all other American and European officials, should denounce such violence categorically.But I don’t agree with those who view this incident as indistinguishable from the earlier dispute over Danish cartoon caricatures of Muhammad, or who consider the non-violent protests against the Pope’s comments indistinguishable from the violent protests in all but tone or degree.The Danish cartoonists were private citizens exercising the free speech rights they enjoy as citizens of Denmark and members of the European Community. Pope Benedict XVI is a head of state, and also head of the largest Christian faith community. He is, moreover, holder of the office which in fact authorized the anti-Muslim Crusades that jihadists so often point to as representing the enduring hostility of Christians towards Muslims. However absurd it may seem to Americans that anyone could fail to understand the vast changes in Vatican attitudes towards non-Christians (and for that matter, non-Catholic Christians) over the ensuing centuries, it’s not completely irrational that Muslims would be a little sensitive on this point.More importantly, it should be obvious that most of the official and non-violent statements of Muslim dismay over the Pope’s remarks are not slightly less rabid versions of the jihadist fury, but something very different: expressions of anxiety about the western stereotypes of Islam as inherently intolerant and violence-prone, and about jihadist stereotypes of malevolent western intentions towards Islam. If, as most Americans profess to believe, moderate Muslim opinion is critical to our success in the war with jihadism, then it’s irresponsible to breezily dismiss moderate Muslim opinion in this case. So does that mean the Pope should be badgered into more fully apologizing for his remarks, even though they have clearly been taken far out of context by his Muslim critics? No, but I think it would be wise of him to issue a clarification that explains the context, and reassures Muslims that they are not the exclusive target of his concerns. From everything I’ve read about Benedict’s speech, he was essentially arguing that violence is incompatible with religious faith of every variety. Perhaps if he frankly acknowledged that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has been guilty of the same sort of grievous resorts to coercion and violence as jihadists advocate today, his message would carry more moral weight, and create less offense among non-jihadist Muslims. To cite the most obvious example, forced conversions of hundreds of thousands of Muslims (and of Jews) represented a central chapter in the history of Spanish Catholicism. Indeed, the Spanish Inquisition was primarily aimed at rooting out residual Muslim and Jewish religious practices (e.g., refusing to eat pork) among the population that chose to convert rather than leave Spain. A little historical candor, and the kind of collective act of contrition that Benedict’s predecessor so notably exercised with respect to Catholic persecution of Jews, might go a long way not only to end the current protests against the Vatican, but to re-establish the general principle that any faith that tries to “conquer by the sword” is incompatible with its own best traditions, and with civilization itself.

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