Does ISIS Vindicate Pope Benedict’s Islam Remarks, as George Weigel Believes? 

In September of 2006, His Holiness Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sent seismic shockwaves through the terrain of Catholic-Muslim relations. In the midst of a characteristically erudite lecture on the relationship between faith and reason delivered at the University of Regensburg in his native Germany, the pontiff used a quote from a medieval Byzantine Emperor which denigrated the Prophet Muhammad. Benedict then compounded the problem with his implication that Islam has always suffered from a special challenge when it comes to the incoherence of proclaiming a rational faith and irrationally propagating violence in the interest of said faith.

Recently, the widely acclaimed Catholic author and pundit George Weigel argued, in an article published in a variety of Catholic media such as First Things and the Denver Catholic Register, that the controversial references to Muhammad and Islam which opened Benedict’s Regensburg lecture look a lot different now, in light of ISIS, etc., than they did when the latter first delivered the speech in September 2006.

My question to Mr. Weigel is: “To whom does the Regensburg address look so different now?”

Surely he’s not claiming that those who harbor a deep-seated prejudice against Islam see the address any differently? I would venture to say those who were, and still are, convinced that Islam is at best a bastardized version of Christianity with an exceptionally defective violence “gene” in its religious DNA (and at worst a satanic heresy bent on destroying Western civilization) have experienced no significant change of mind or heart.

So is Mr. Weigel claiming, instead, that Regensburg looks different to those of us—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, “faitheists,” etc.—who are committed to a dialogic effort to amplify the voices of the vast majority of our respective faith communities in order to combat violent extremism? I doubt it. Very few, if any, of us believe that the most fanatical and twisted among us are actually authentic representatives of our faiths.

Perhaps, in part, Mr. Weigel is hoping that what he characterizes as “the herd of independent minds in the world press” will finally understand that Pope Benedict did the world—and especially Muslims—a huge favor when he used his alleged “scholarly precision” to identify the key problem with the religion of 1.4 billion of his fellow human beings?

More than this, however, I strongly suspect that Mr. Weigel wants to win the hearts and minds of those of his fellow Catholics, and others, who perhaps were and are on the fence regarding “Islam” and the value of what Weigel wishes to portray as Pope Benedict’s interreligious largesse at Regensburg.

If you place yourself in this category—whether it’s because you understandably found the Regensburg controversy difficult to interpret, or simply never heard of it until now—please accept my frank admission that I am seeking to persuade you to adopt a perspective that differs markedly from Mr. Weigel’s.

Wide exception was taken to the references to Islam in the Regensburg address, not just by millions of Muslims and 38 preeminent Muslim scholars from around the world who penned an eloquent and respectful affirmation of the pope’s main thesis in the address along with a rebuttal and correction of the pope’s factual errors. (In other words, they pointed out where the pope failed significantly to meet the bar of what Mr. Weigel characterizes as Benedict’s “scholarly precision.”) Exception was also taken by a certain Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires (now Pope Francis) as well as by a great many of us Catholic scholars who study Islamic history and theology and know these fields far better than Pope Benedict who, despite being one of the most eminent Christian theologians of our time, knows relatively little.

With all due respect to Pope Benedict, he made a number of errors in his references to Islam at Regensburg. Not only did the pope mistakenly identify the chronological context for a key Qur’anic verse adduced as evidence for his argument (Q 2:256), but he also failed to see the irony in his most neuralgic move: the citing of a very negative statement about the Prophet Muhammad which the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (d. 1425 CE) offered in a debate with a Persian Muslim scholar while the former was a political prisoner at the Bursa court of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (d. c. 1402 CE). The irony is that, if Islam does indeed have the exceptional problem with intolerance and violence which Weigel says the pope was kindly attempting to underscore, why would a Christian political prisoner be invited to speak his mind in a public forum and be allowed to say such scandalous things about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the court of a medieval Muslim ruler hosting an interreligious salon?

Despite Mr. Weigel’s efforts to the contrary, there is simply no ‘vindicating’ inaccurate and hurtful references in an address which the pope himself carefully attempted to recontextualize after the fact. Although his intent may have been strangely altruistic, what the pope actually did at Regensburg vis a vis Islam and Muslims was largely triumphalist in nature. For the Roman Pontiff to point to Islam as exemplifying the insidious and irrational wedding of religion and violence when he could have cited an abundance of historical Christian examples as recent as the Christoslavic ideology of the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s, is ultimately as triumphalist as the baptism, at the 2008 Easter Vigil in St Peter’s Basilica, of a nominal Muslim convert (Magdi Allam) who later left the Church because he found Pope Francis to be too “soft” on Islam.

In a nutshell, Pope Benedict’s references to Islam amounted to an expression of triumphalism which fell short of reflecting the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that the Church “esteems” Muslims (Nostra Aetate 3), not because they were unflattering (flattery has little, if anything, to do with true esteem), but because they were invalid, ill-considered, and misleading.

Indeed had the pope wanted to raise this issue in a truly scholarly, effective, and altruistic way, he would not have done so somewhat off-handedly in the introduction to an otherwise carefully crafted public address given to a group of scientists in Germany. Instead, he would have convened the dialogue of Catholic and Muslim intellectuals he ended up agreeing to convene only after Regensburg. I know I would have appreciated not having to spend so much time and energy in the painful and slow process of repairing valuable but damaged relationships between Catholics and Muslims.