Pope Benedict XVI did not write some long anti-Islamic treatise, but delivered a brief lecture, whose text number less than 3500 words, in which he referred to Islam in only two places, at the beginning and end of the lecture. Anyone who bothered to read the entire text should be able to see that the two references were not meant as some theological condemnation of Islam itself, but of the circumstances surrounding its historical emergence onto the scene, which indeed raise some important questions about the relationship between faith and violence.
In raising this issue, the Pope does not betray any signs of ignorance regarding Islam, as the early chorus of critics has contended, on the contrary, he is quite aware of the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse “there is no compulsion in religion.” But he is also aware of the fact that this verse appeared at a time when “Mohammed was still powerless and under threat,” and of the fact that, later, when Muhammad grew more powerful, new instructions appeared in the Qur’an concerning the obligation of holy war. He was also aware of the different treatments accorded in this regard to the “people of the Book” and the “infidels.” But, to him, that still does not excuse Muhammad’s command “to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” in the words of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, as quoted by the Pope.
At a time when much violence continues to be wrought in the name of Islam, and at a time when Muslim jurists remain remiss in their duty to voice a unanimous and clear condemnation of this tendency, this is indeed a very legitimate issue to raise, especially within the context of the call that the Pope later made for conducting intercultural dialogue and for accepting the continued relevance of faith, in all its varieties, to the modern world. By simply attacking the person who raised this question, Muslims all over the world have shown that they are not ready for dialogue.
For if the only thing Muslims can do at this stage is to resort to violence and protests whenever their faith is criticized, whether by internal figures and reformers or external pundits, what sort of role or niche are they carving to themselves in this world?
Why can’t Muslims take a more proactive approach to these matters, and organize some sort of a periodic meeting where certain problematic issues, such as jihad, apostasy, freedom of conscience, academic freedom, relation between Islam and the state, not to mention the ever problematic issues of gender relations and sexuality, are continuously addressed and the Muslim positions on these matters is continuously refined?
True, there will be many dissenting voices, but if enough known scholars gathered and proposed a document that can be used as a reference point by states and regional and international organizations, then, Muslims all over the world will be in a much better position to present themselves as true partners in the making of contemporary civilization, rather than some troublesome relics and throwbacks.
We cannot just continue to give ourselves the right to criticize others for what they have done and continue to do us, without giving them a similar right to criticize us for what we have to done and continue to do to them. This is a simple corollary of the Golden Rule to which both Christians and Muslims subscribe, and it makes perfect sense in this case. But if we are to continue to blind ourselves to the realities of our history, and of its impact, real and perceived, on others, then, we will have no moral right to present our case vis-à-vis the injustices committed against us at this stage.
The Muslims were up in arms not too long ago when the Vatican apologized to the Jews for the way they were treated by the Church all through history. The Muslims immediately demanded that the Vatican issues a similar apology to them for the Crusades. Just like that, Muslim leaders and jurists were willing to forget all about their own occupation and Islamization of previously Christian lands. Many of them did not, and do not still, all attempts at explanation notwithstanding, see the embedded irony and contradiction in this stand of theirs.
Such is the level of our conviction in our own righteousness that we leave no room for any doubt to protrude into our minds and souls regarding the sacred nature of our history and our beliefs. We do not review anything. We do not revise anything. All intellectual analysis in our parts has ceased to exist a thousand years ago it seems. The sporadic attempts at reviving it throughout the last Century have come to naught. The few that are still being made today seem even more pitiful. The Islamic currents that exist today have no real intellectual component or analysis at its core, but mere assertions, usually expressed in the negative, that are better presented in the form of bullet-points.
As for the secular currents out there, they are indeed pure products of western ideologies. No real attempt has so far been elaborated to explain them within the context of the Islamic historical experience. Perhaps such an undertaking is indeed impossible at this stage, seeing that the cut-off between these traditions and whatever Islamic precedent in this regard might just be insurmountable. But, perhaps we really don’t need to tie these ideas and ideologies to Islamic precedents. Perhaps what we need to do is simply to elaborate them using our own unique voice, and on the basis of our own present and historical experiences. Perhaps we just need to learn how to think again even if from scratch, because, in some instances, especially when we are not dealing with the hard sciences, we really need to reinvent the wheel in order to better appreciate it.
So, perhaps the meeting I proposed above should be organized by liberal intellectuals instead, in cooperation with those Muslim jurists, such as Gamal al-Banna, who have shown enough courage, creativity and adventurism to become true partners in a new process meant to finally bring us into the modern era.
We cannot afford to be silent anymore. True, our protests have succeeded in getting the Pope to apologize and recant, and before that, we did manage to punish the Danes over the cartoon controversy, but that is not because we manage to earn any understanding or appreciation for our point of view, but because we have found a way to terrify the world. We have become the barbarians of the modern world. People will fear us, but they will never respect us, or accept us as equals, or appreciate the legitimacy of many of our grievances, no matter how far and wide we spread our terror.
Moreover, our barbarism will give the civilized peoples of the world more excuses to dabble in our lives, ignore our just demands and needs, and impose their will upon us. For, as history has repeatedly shown, when barbarians are not able to be the destroyers of civilizations, either because they are not powerful enough yet or civilization weak enough yet to allow for that to happen, as indeed is the case at this point in time, then, they become the ultimate and unsympathetic victims thereof. Indeed, there is a high price to pay for the foolish pride we continue to harbor within us, because we have nothing to show for it anymore.