Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 September 2006
Issue No. 813
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The power of words

The Vatican remains under fire despite Pope Benedict XVI's regrets for having offended Muslims. Gihan Shahine explains why

Click to view caption
Pope Benedict's words sparked protests outside the Al-Azhar Mosque

"The pope did not actually apologise," insisted a despondent Mohamed Selim El-Awa, secretary-general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS). "The pope just said he was feeling sorry for the reaction of the Muslim world, but his offensive statement was intentional. What we really need is for the pope to retract it; not to say sorry."

El-Awa and millions of Muslims were incensed when Pope Benedict XVI chose to quote a 14th Century Christian emperor who said that Prophet Mohamed had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things, "such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". Pope Benedict, speaking at a lecture last week at the University of Regensburg, Germany, was exploring the historical and philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity. He made obvious links between Islam and terror.

"We did not misinterpret or misunderstand the pope's statement as he likes to claim. Our dispute with the pope is a scientific one, and definitely not just anger or hyper-sensitivity."

The pontiff's remarks had brought him under local and international media fire, with Muslim and Christian scholars alike slamming his offensive statement as "irresponsible". Many critics said the pope's "shocking" statements put his "wisdom" as the leader of two billion Catholic Christians squarely in question, and revealed his "poor understanding of Islam" and "apolitical background".

In an attempt to quell public anger the world over, Pope Benedict told pilgrims on Sunday that he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims". The pontiff insisted that the Mediaeval text which he quoted did not express in any way his personal opinion, adding that the speech was in fact an invitation to "respectful dialogue". A statement by the Vatican earlier, noted that the pope's position on Islam was in line with Vatican teaching that the Church "esteems Muslims, who adore the only God".

"How can the quote not express the pope's opinion when he chose to use it?" retorted El-Awa. "We are not idiots to be fooled this way." El-Awa further explained that the pope's lecture was "probably prepared and revised by his advisors and included a misinterpretation of a Quranic verse, as well as distorted information that the pope stated in his own words and in reference to what he called 'experts in Quran'." But El-Awa demanded: "Who are those experts he was referring to?"

Meanwhile, protests against the pontiff's original statements and subsequent "apology" continued to rage in different parts of the world, including in India, Iraq, Indonesia and Syria. The remarks at Regensburg immediately provoked a spate of protests and furore across the Muslim world, and were repeatedly denounced by Muslim scholars worldwide.

Pakistan's parliament immediately passed a resolution demanding that the pope retract his remarks "in the interest of harmony between religions". Top Turkish religious official Ali Bardakoglu slammed the "hostile" remarks and recalled atrocities committed by Roman Catholic Crusaders against Orthodox Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims, in the Middle Ages. Violence broke out in the Palestinian territories on Saturday when five churches were attacked in the West Bank.

In Egypt, about 100 demonstrators gathered in an anti-Vatican protest outside the Al-Azhar Mosque, chanting "Oh Crusaders, oh cowards! Down with the pope!" Several MPs called for a boycott of the Vatican and the Vatican ambassador to Cairo was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an explanation. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said the pope's "unfortunate" statement showed a "lack of understanding of real Islam."

The Patriarch of the Coptic Church in Egypt Pope Shenouda III said that Pope Benedict "had to consider the reaction of the Muslim world before making such a statement", adding that "being zealous to one's religion should not mean attacking that of others." Now that the offense is done, Pope Shenouda concluded that it is "up to Pope Benedict to explore ways of dealing with the consequences".

The Deputy Patriarch of Egypt's Catholics Pope Youhana Qalta was equally critical of the pontiff's "surprising remarks that could play into the hands of extremists." Qalta told Islamonline that "Pope Benedict has not dealt enough with Muslims all through his life, and does not have enough knowledge about Islam and Muslims."

Fears that last week's offensive remarks would damage dialogue, spark sectarian rifts and widen gaps between the West and the Muslim world have, in fact, been a major concern. Many religious leaders have come to accept the pope's regrets on Sunday as an "apology", perhaps in order to curb future unrest. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood considered the pope's statement as a "retraction" that would amount to a "sufficient apology". Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy similarly welcomed the pope's apology as "a positive step", as did the Council of Muslims in Germany, the Muslim Council of Britain and Turkey's most senior Muslim religious figure Bardakoglu.

That said, however, there was a clear consensus -- even among those taking a more lenient attitude toward the Vatican -- that the pope needed to go further as to explain his offensive remarks, which would otherwise remain vague.

During a meeting on Tuesday with leaders from the Catholic Church in Egypt, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi demanded that Pope Benedict apologise more clearly for insulting Islam. "We have no objection if the pope makes another speech and declares publicly that what the Byzantine emperor said was wrong," Tantawi said. He added, "The pope must apologise frankly and justify what he said." Until that happens, Tantawi said, all channels of dialogue with the Vatican will be put on hold.

Prominent Islamic scholar Mohamed Emara told Al-Ahram Weekly that Muslims "should busy themselves with more urgent and important issues now that the pope seems to have retracted his offensive remarks." Emara, for one, is now bent on an in-depth study of the Vatican's current pope who "has taken previous stances against Islam."

The Islamic scholar, however, is not the only one concerned about the attitude of the Vatican toward the Muslim world, and the future of dialogue between the world's two major religions. According to a recent BBC study on the issue, "the first signs of a toughening of the Vatican's stance [toward the Muslim world] came with the removal from office of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald" who was believed to be "the smartest guy in the Vatican on relations with Muslims." The pope's recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the European Union was widely seen as yet another sign of the pope's hard-line attitude toward Islam.

This time, the very timing of Pope Benedict's remarks has lent them political significance. They came on the heels of Israeli massacres in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and after a recent statement by US President George Bush describing Muslims as "fascists". His statements also came when the Muslim world was recovering from the Danish cartoon crisis which erupted six months ago, and at a time when the world was commemorating the 9/11 attacks on the US and Bush's declaration of "a crusade" and "a war on terror" five years ago.

The pontiff's remarks were interpreted, in the words of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as "the latest link in the chain of a conspiracy to set in train a crusade." By putting Islam and terror in the same basket, many analysts agree with El-Awa's belief that the "pope was giving a green light for US troops to go on with their occupation plans in the Middle East, while mobilising the West against Muslims living in Europe."

Mohamed Abu Leila, professor of comparative religion and Islamic studies in English at Al-Azhar University, questioned the timing. "The pope quoted an anti-Islamic Bezantine emperor who was not innocent of guilt and terror himself and who invaded Arab lands, torturing Arabs including Christians, Jews and Muslims for centuries," noted Abu Leila. "Was it the pope's choice to quote a man who does not deserve to be quoted, or was it that of the Vatican?"

If the offensive statements did indeed represent the attitude of the Vatican towards Islam, Abu Leila expects "that more fuel will be added to fire, widening gabs between Muslims and non- Muslims, destroying all attempts at dialogue with the West and creating an atmosphere of hatred."

But in an attempt to counter potential perils, Fadel Soliman, the director of the Bridges Foundation -- the first organisation specialised in presenting Islam to non-Muslims -- has called for a dialogue with Pope Benedict "for the sake of happiness and the welfare of mankind".

"The history of the Vatican has names like Pope John Paul II who propagated peace and love, and others like Pope Gregory VII who was behind the Crusades that brought death to hundreds of thousands of people," Soliman stated. "The current pope needs to decide whose steps he would like to follow."

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