The latest uproar over a perceived slight to Islam isn't going quietly into the night. One week on it's spawned its own wikipedia entry, a slew of rants throughout the wingnut blogosphere and obssessive mainstream media coverage. A speedy resolution hasn't been helped by Muslims round the the world again deciding that the appropriate response to barbs about their faith's peacefulness is to bomb churches and issue death threats.
Nor by the fact that this time the offending observations came not from a Danish newspaper but rather the head of the Catholic Church, albeit wrapped in a theology lecture (full text here). It's unfortunate that the Pope couldn't make a point about faith and reason without a reference to jihad. And he couldn't even do that without quoting that bosom buddy of medieval Catholicism, the Byzantine emperor -
Naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war... [he] addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature... But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.
This passage amounts to the following claims: a) spreading faith through violence is irrational; b) Islam teaches violent conversion; c) Islam teaches an irrational approach to faith. The Pope's speech has to be read as tacit endorsement of all these propositions. You don't use quotes to illustrate a point unless you believe the quotes to be true in substance, even if you find their expression 'startlingly brusque'. And you can't seal yourself off from controversial assertions by putting them in the mouths of medieval monarchs, or by protesting that the statements were tangential to your main point.
The issue here is not whether the claims about Islam are true. The Pope is an official figure and as such doesn't have the freedom that he enjoyed as Joseph Ratzinger, Professor of Theology, to comment on the teachings of other religions. He has the right to say what he wants, but also responsibility for the consequences, especially when pointed observations about the religion in question have a history of generating violence. This isn't 'political correctness', it's political common sense. The pontiff can no more wash his hands of this than politicians who accuse foreigners of stealing jobs can divorce themselves from a xenophobic backlash in the electorate.
Pope Benedict would have done better citing the example rather than the ideas of the said Byzantine emperor. Manuel II may have argued that Islam is disposed to violence, but he and his Muslim interlocutor were debating the issue with words rather than swords (not that Manuel had much choice, at a time when the Turks were tightening the noose round his beleagured 'empire'). One might have expected some progress on interfaith relations over the intervening six centuries. Instead they seem to be heading back to an era captured by the opening scene of Alan Savage's Ottoman, in which Manuel II's son is presented with the severed, uncircumcised penis of a Hungarian knight as proof of the fate of the last crusade.
For firebreathing secularists, the natural response to this sort of thing is a pox-on-both-your-houses. I stick by my angle: the trouble isn't with religion per se, but with trying simultaneously to be a theologian and a politician.