A papal faux pas

September 20, 2006

When Pope John Paul II died last year, the need for his successor to engage with the Islamic world was widely discussed. The "clash of civilizations" paradigm had already been invoked because of the war in Iraq. The Vatican was concerned about the treatment of Christians in South Asia, and Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise in Europe. But the new pope, Benedict XVI, has relied on candor, not diplomacy, in these matters. His frankness won't advance understanding if Muslims view him as unduly critical of their faith.

Most recently, he's been accused of far worse for quoting a Byzantine emperor who characterized the Prophet Muhammad as introducing "things only evil and inhuman" to the world and spreading Islam by the sword. The reference in the pope's lecture at a German university may have underscored his argument on faith and reason, but he shouldn't have expected his speech to go unheard outside academe. It provoked protests in Turkey, attacks on Palestinian churches and threats by Iraqi extremists.

Pope Benedict is the leader of the global Roman Catholic Church - which has had its own questionable legacy with the sword. He is a German pope serving at a time of extreme tension between Europeans and their Muslim citizens. And he had to have been aware that his use of a 14th-century reference to Islam would resonate with a modern image of Muslims as suicide bombers and jihadists who have killed thousands in Iraq.

Also, many Muslims see the West, specifically the United States, as intent on remaking the Arab world in its image. When President Bush once more promoted the idea of a new Middle East yesterday in an address at the United Nations, he talked about supporting democracy and freedom. He sought to reassure Muslims of the West's respect for Islam and blamed the propaganda of Islamic extremists for misrepresenting American intentions.

But when citizens of Egypt and the Palestinian territories most recently exercised a fundamental right of democracy, they voted for Islamists. The disastrous war in Iraq - a bloodletting among sectarian rivals, the deterioration of all aspects of civic life - hasn't convinced Muslims or the Arab world of the sincerity of Mr. Bush's intentions. Rather, it has strengthened extremists and isolated moderates within Islam.

Politics can't mend this divide. That's why a dialogue among religious and social leaders is so important. In his response to the Islamic outcry over the reference in his speech, Pope Benedict said he wants a "frank and sincere" dialogue. His concern about the treatment of Christians in the Arab world is real, and the Muslim response to his speech reinforced that concern.

A frank discussion can't shy away from criticism, nor can it be undertaken without mutual respect and understanding. The fallout from the pope's lecture should convince the religious and secular alike of the urgency of this conversation.

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