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Cheapening of the word
None of this religious row should be earth-shattering for anyone, Christian or Muslim


September 18, 2006

I read Pope Benedict’s apology to Muslims and other offended persons today for his controversial choice of words last week at Regensburg.  Evidently, he did not mean to imply that he, in any way, shape or form, stood by the offending quote that he had chosen to include in his speech.  The quote included the opinion that the prophet Mohammad had brought only “evil and inhuman” things with the faith that he preached.  Pope Benedict’s apology:

“... I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.  These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.”

I see.  Well, I have to wonder then, Pope Benedict... if those words did not express your personal thought, then why did you say them?  I know that there are already a lot of answers to that question, from the Vatican, the Muslim Brotherhood, and from the rest of the world.  To satisfy myself, I read a small amount of the context surrounding his quote (the full text link is on this webpage, if you’re interested). 

In the end, I decided for myself -- and I cannot emphasize enough that I only speak for myself -- that although he was addressing a broader issue about the incompatibility of true religion and violence, he justified the quote by not contradicting or criticizing it.  Yes, he did point out the blunt nature of the Emperor’s words -- not to contradict, but just to say that it was brusque.  Then, he built upon those words towards making his point about violence and religion.  It was a smooth, almost unnoticeable way to criticize Islam -- almost.

That’s what I think.  Am I offended?  Not really.  I do not disagree with the fact that historically, Islam has brought a lot of violence and oppression to a lot of different people.  It has done no less, in fact, than Christianity has done throughout its nearly 2000 years of existence, in Africa, North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.  What do you think it took for them to become the two most significant global religions today?  It was certainly not persuasive reasoning.

Both Christianity and Islam have been invoked as the justification for millions of deaths and uncountable lifelong subjugations of peoples throughout history.  Both religious institutions have profited financially and grown in terms of geography and population from killing, intimidating, raping, taxing, and subjugating others, and today flourish over lands and peoples who at one point in history, if they wanted to continue to live as equals or at all, were forced to accept Deus or Allah (often times they had to switch from one to the other).  These two faiths would not be as widespread or as culturally significant as they are today if it wasn’t for the heinous crimes that were committed in their names throughout history.

Am I saying that Christianity and Islam are bad?  No.  I’m just saying that Christianity does not have a clean slate, and neither does Islam; nor does Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, or any other longstanding, government-backed, institutionalized religion, for that matter.  I’ll stand by my word on that.

What bothers me, however, is that it seems that it is a little unrealistic to expect God’s representative on Earth to stand by his words as well.  Like I said, I don’t particularly care whether the Pope does or does not think that the prophet Mohammad brought only evil to the world.  He is the PR man for Christianity; it’s his job to make other religions look bad, err, to illuminate why the paths of other faiths are not quite as straight as the path of Christ.

And honestly, I don’t think that Muslims should be all that outraged either; I do not say this because I do not think that his words couldn’t easily be taken as an affront to Islam, but because this type of monologue happens on both sides, up and down the chain of leadership, all the time.  Is it really that surprising for the spiritual competition to take pot shots at the other side’s beliefs?  Does it not say numerous times in the Qur’an and in the Bible that hell awaits the unbelievers? 

Is Pope Benedict’s choice of quote surprising, given the institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities (including many Christians) that takes place today in so many predominantly Muslim countries, or on the other hand, would a response in kind about Christianity from a Grand Mufti or an Ayatollah shock anyone, given the (often church-backed) discrimination against Muslims that has boiled over in France and justified centuries of continuing imperialism in the Middle East?  None of this should be earth-shattering for anyone, Christian or Muslim.

So forget the fact that the Pope is-- along with the Bush administration, Muslim and Christian fundamentalists and others-- effectively perpetuating a worldview that portrays the conflicts between the governments of Christian White people and Muslim Brown people as a clash of civilizations.  Forget that his calling out Islam on violent conversion is an example par excellence of the pot calling the kettle black, a legitimatization of blind, one-way criticism to hypocrites everywhere.  Again, at this point, it should not come as a surprise to many.

There is one additional thing, however, that I expect should bother people, in addition to all the things previously mentioned.  Pope Benedict said what he said, then went on to retract it by saying that the words that he chose to voice “do not in any way express my personal thought”.  That’s like saying, “Your girlfriend is ugly” to some dude, and when you realize that he’s going to kick your ass, saying “that’s what my friend thinks, not me!”  Politicians, juiced-up baseball players, your ex -- these people all end up dropping responsibility for the words they speak at some point.  They shouldn’t, of course, but they do, because they say ignorant and false things that (hopefully) have consequences. 

The Pope’s words have consequences too, except that he personally doesn’t have to answer to them.  However, what does happen is that a lot of people, countless millions of them, all over the world, take his words as the closest thing to the gospel itself.  Many of those same people will see through his apology as a noble attempt to protect Christians everywhere from vengeful, church-burning and nun-slaying Muslims, not as a sign that the Pope really believes that Islam is not an evil and inhuman faith.

Barring ignorance unfit for the likes of a pope, he had to have known that his remarks would be inflammatory.  Knowing this, I think that he should have either stuck by his quote as something he agrees with, or kept the quote to himself.  Instead, he played to the crowd, throwing in a quick punch and starting a fight for others to finish while he extricated himself from the conflict, aborting responsibility for what he had said after the damage had been done. 

These days, politicians love to start trouble, and it’s so easy to do it.  One can start a fight with people from six different continents without ever leaving their base of operation, be it Washington, Greenville, Tehran, Cairo, or Regensburg.  The sad but true reality is that almost none of the people who start shit are directly affected by any of the consequences.  No, the aftershocks are for the anonymous masses, not for the politicians and figureheads.  Perhaps we should, for a change, make popes, ministers, presidents and ayatollahs of the world own their words and their cost as well, because unfortunately, people take them seriously. Comment

Maziar Shirazi is a graduate from Rutgers University and holds a B.A. in Spanish. He is currently a medical student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey. Features in

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