At first sight, the controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on Islam and violence appears to be following a similar course to last year's furore over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. At least five churches have already been fire-bombed or hit by bullets in the Palestinian territories, and there have been violent demonstrations in Muslim countries by crowds whose behaviour does as little to uphold the dignity of Islam as the "insult" against which they are protesting. Again there is a debate about freedom of speech versus Muslim sensitivities; again the initial reaction of the party giving offence has been to express regret that anyone has been offended. It remains to be seen whether Benedict is harried into a full apology, which may be the price demanded if his visit to Turkey is to go ahead in November.
But there are important differences between the two affairs as well. The cartoons deliberately sought to be provocative and test the limits of Muslim tolerance, but it is clear the Pope had no such intent. His theme was that violence in the name of religion was irrational, and his quotation of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's words - to the effect that Mohammed's command to his followers to spread the faith by the sword was "evil and inhuman" - was little more than an aside. He appears to have had no idea that his academic musings at his old university in Bavaria would have such an impact, and that is precisely why he deserves to be criticised.
No one should be in a better position to understand the intersection of faith and politics in Islam than this leader of the world's Roman Catholics, who was undoubtedly consulted before his predecessor, John Paul II, issued a historic apology for the Church's role in the Crusades. As a Vatican insider for so long, Benedict would have been intimately aware of all the concerns about a "clash of civilisations" aroused by the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. Both were condemned by John Paul, speaking as a spiritual leader to his own faithful, and as their representative to the rest of the world. It is in the latter role that Benedict has fallen short. Even the most unworldly of Popes, which he is not, should have realised that quoting a centuries-old criticism of Islam's founder without commenting on the Church's past endorsement of violence, or making his own view clear, or adding a rider to the effect that times had changed, would cause trouble. At the very least, it has given ammunition to those seeking to promote tensions between Muslims and Christians, at a time when we can ill afford them.
As the Vatican is now discovering, all nuances evaporate after the firestorm has started, and attempts to explain fall on deaf ears. Some Muslims have genuinely been offended; many others who demand that the Pope crave forgiveness will be doing so for political reasons. Whether the issue is terrorism, Danish cartoons or anything else, it is always difficult to know who speaks for Muslims. Benedict has no opposite number in Islam.
Does that mean he should never have disinterred Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and his views on the Prophet from history? Of course not, but he should have imagined the consequences.Reuse content