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Pope's Islamic stumble baffles the experts

  • 24 December 2006

Pope Benedict is learning the hard way that interreligious dialogue these days is a complex and delicate business. Though he has now affirmed his respect for Muslims, in a long quotation from the official policy enunciated forty years ago by Vatican II, his decision to quote a polemical medieval text against Muhammad and the Qur’an during a lecture last week remains puzzling.

The quoted words were not really germane to his theme, and the lecture would have lost nothing had they been omitted. Ironically perhaps, one of the main aims of the speech was to warn the West that not taking faith seriously and the exclusion of God from the realm of rationality was perceived by the world’s religious cultures as an “attack on their most profound convictions”. The Holy Father’s apologies have failed to convince his critics, as he expressed sorrow not for the offence he caused, but rather for the reactions to that offence. The days to come may shed further light on the puzzle and perhaps bring a measure of reconciliation, but some Christians in vulnerable situations are already paying the price. There were two related issues in the Christian emperor’s attack on Islam which the Pope took as starting points for his reflection: the rationality of God and the irrationality of violence. Neither in Muslim nor in Christian history have these principles always seemed self-evident. In both traditions, contrary to what the Emperor may have thought, it is recognised that any real act of faith must be free and that forced conversion is therefore meaningless. There are several Qur’anic verses to this effect: for example, 2:256; 10:99; 16:125; 26:3-4. The Pope quoted the first of these—“There is no coercion in matters of religion”—though he asserted, against the consensus of both Muslim and non-Muslim scholarship, that that chapter of the Qur’an came from the early period of Muhammad’s career when he had no political power and so could not have coerced anyone even if he had wanted to. In spite of the shared conviction that faith is a gift of God and that forced conversion is therefore irrational, both our traditions have been ready to use coercion and violence to root out schism and heresy, to prevent the practice of other religions, and to enforce at least outward conformity to religion. War and violence still find support among religious people of both traditions, and Benedict seems poised