Faith and unreason

September 22, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- The bitter irony of the papal speech that touched off riots, firebombings and possibly the killing of a nun in Somalia is the topic of the speech itself. Pope Benedict XVI called for a compatibility of faith and reason. Sadly, not everyone got his message. One controversial quote in his speech gave Islamic militants another excuse to act irrationally in the name of faith.

In his otherwise eloquent defense of the rationality of faith in God during a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, the pope rather needlessly included the provocative quote from the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. According to the translated text on the Vatican's Web site, the emperor said, "Show me just what Muhammad 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."

Of course, the Prophet Muhammad was hardly alone in this teaching. "There are elements in Islam that can be used to justify violence, just as there are in Christianity and Judaism," Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams noted in his defense of the pope's comments.

It's also too bad that the pope failed to mention, as he did in his later apology, that he disagreed with the quote.

Nevertheless, nothing the pope said justifies a violent response, even if, as professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University said, the pope's words are perceived by Muslims to be "an act of violence against Muhammad."

Violence in defense of Islam only serves to confirm in Western minds the stereotype that Islam is a violent religion - the very stereotype that the protesters protest.

A year ago, Danish newspaper cartoon depictions of Muhammad sparked international riots. Now the pope's quote, ripped from its context, provides more ammo for Islamic militants such as Osama bin Laden who view Westerners as "crusaders" in a holy war against Islam.

We need to have reasoned dialogue, not war, between faiths, cultures and civilizations. That puts a burden not only on Westerners to reach out but also on responsible Muslim leaders to step up and show their support for free speech, even when it is provocative and aimed at something so cherished as one's religion.

That doesn't mean you should bite your lip and remain silent when someone attacks your faith. It means the proper response to objectionable speech is not violence, but more speech. That's how dialogue is established and differences are examined in the hope that mutual understanding will result.

Eventually it does. America is hardly perfect, but our hard-won atmosphere of freedom, tolerance and mutual respect, despite our periodic uproars over immigration, has enabled this nation of immigrants to assimilate Muslims and countless other faiths with more visible success than Europe's ethnic hotbeds are showing.

The days of Christian Crusades and Inquisitions are over, but some folks haven't gotten the message. Even if he had not apologized, nothing the pope said comes close to the hate spewed forth by Islamic militants.

Unfortunately, too many Muslims in the Middle East are held back by repressive political despots who are perceived, sometimes correctly, as puppets of the United States. It is in such hotbeds of misunderstanding that anti-American and anti-Western terrorism are born.

Through dialogue and debate between our various faiths, regions and tribes, we can cut through the myths and stereotypes to educate one another as to who we really are, what offends us and what legacies of history have shaped our attitudes.

I'll leave the theological arguments to the experts, but as far as intergroup relations go, I turn to the gospel according to Aretha Franklin: You begin with R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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