Stateless Muslims and the Pope

By Arwa Mahmoud
Published in (Sep 26, 2006)

Starting a new day wondering whether it would pass peacefully, I received a phone call from my deputy editor in chief telling me that I was expected to write an op-ed piece on the pope’s speech and the Muslim reaction. I was told that I am the type that writes well when provoked. I searched in me for the faintest sign of provocation and found none. I had learned that with nearly every news I read or hear everyday, there is some killing, some statement, some remark that involves Muslims.

The mere fact that I was not provoked gave me an uneasy feeling about myself. Have I become so numb that I do not even care about my own religion? If I were so numb, what brought me to such a stage? Is it the ongoing insults on Islam coming from all directions? Is it the worldwide violence that nearly always has Muslims involved, either as culprits or victims? Is it the ongoing feeling of insult we get as our governments treat us like subjects or laboratory animals, as if wishing we never existed?

Looking closely, I realized it is everything.

Muslims and the Pope

I realized that there was more to the pope’s remarks than just another provocation against Muslims. This was not an irresponsible editor publishing provocative cartoons or a bellicose president calling for a world war against “Islamic fascists”; the words came from Pope Benedict XVI, the highest Catholic figurehead, a man regarded with high esteem and followed by more than 1 billion Catholics from all over the world. And the pope did not say these words as a passing comment; they came in a thoroughly thought-out and revised lecture, which he gave in the University of Regensburg, in Germany, addressing an academic audience.

In the minds of many Muslims, the late Pope John Paul II and his humanitarian outreach to the Muslim world was a constant reminder of God’s words in the Qur’an:

{And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud.} (Al-Ma’idah 5:82)

When he passed away, their hope in the continuation of the pope’s role as a vanguard of peace and humanitarianism slowly began to diminish as his successor’s views became more apparent. Pope Benedict XVI stood strongly against Turkey’s membership in the European Union, seeing it a threat to Europe’s “Christian identity.” And in March of this year, Richard Owen of the Times reported  that the Vatican was sponsoring a conference on the Crusades which showed that they were fought with the “noble aim” of regaining the holy lands.

And recently, the pope gave a lecture on faith and reason, in which he spoke about the incompatibility of violence with the nature of God and the soul, quoting a medieval dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Muslim. The emperor challenged the Persian to show him what the Prophet of Islam brought other than what was “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope confidently stressed that the Emperor knew about the verse {Let there be no compulsion in religion} (Al-Baqara 2: 256) and that, according to “the experts” — whom he failed to identify — the verse came in an early period in which the Prophet was “powerless and under threat.”

The pope used the text to make a certain argument. He did not explicitly support the quotes he used, but neither did he explicitly detach himself from them except in his first public appearance after the lecture, in the Sunday service. He contradicted himself to any person who read the full text of the lecture, yet he continued to point out that he was “misunderstood.”

The pope’s lecture is confusing. How can the Crusades be defended when violence — any violence — is incompatible with the nature of God? Would I be mistaken if I reached the conclusion that, in fact, it was Muslim violence to which the pope referred?

If examples were to be brought, why Islam? Was the pope provoked by what he sees of Muslims slaughtering each other in Iraq? Al-Qaeda feasting on innocent civilians? Why weren’t Israel’s continuous assaults or America’s “war on terror” an equal provocation? By specifically referring to Islam, wasn’t the pope meticulously placing Islam on one side and the Judeo-Christian tradition on the other, like two opposing poles that can never meet?

What exactly did I “misunderstand”?

Blurring the Problem

The pope’s lecture came in a time in which scholars from all three monotheistic faiths had been engaged in long years of interfaith dialogue, promoting for mutual understanding and respect. This is a delicate phase in which politics blends so strongly with religion, making the clear separation between people’s actions and their faiths an uphill task for academics, journalists, writers, and activists, who address an often confused audience. And in this turbulence, religious scholars often become agents for peace, unity, and tolerance. They become the authorities in religious knowledge to which many refer for answers. To Muslims, the pope’s remarks shook this image, but how many devout Catholics felt the same?

After 9/11, remarks hostile to Islam have accelerated, challenging ongoing Muslim efforts to address problems related to the reality of the Muslim world and to provide a clear and comprehensive Islamic discourse.

I recall that, on the first 9/11 anniversary, consultant Dr. Ahmad Abdullah noted in a meeting discussion that 9/11 put Muslims in a dark room where they kept receiving punches from all directions, rendering them helpless and unable to defend themselves or their faith. Like the rest of the world, they too were taken by surprise, but unlike others, they were placed under the spotlight — asked to speak on behalf of their faith, to speak well, and be convincing. They were simply not prepared.

Many Muslims felt that the wrong agenda was being imposed on them, that with 9/11, the problem which they had to address now suddenly became Islam, and there was little or no attention to political and social problems which they had been facing.

Similar to what happened in the Danish cartoons crisis, after the pope’s lecture, the media quickly broadcast images of Muslims burning the crucifix and the German flag, of the body of the Italian nun who was shot dead in Somalia, and of the numerous aggressive banners that were held in a number of demonstrations around the Muslim world. Such reactions further supported the perception of Islam as a violent and intolerant faith, doing more good to the parties that committed the offense than to any Islamic cause. And once again, the question became “Why do Muslims behave the way they do?”
Apart from the well-known sensational selectivity of the media that in many cases ignores more positive forms of Muslim protest, the question is not to be dismissed as merely a problem of biased coverage; there are reasons why some Muslims behave like this. And those reasons have nothing to do with their faith.


People in an overwhelming number of Muslim countries have been subjected to long years of authoritarian rule and dictatorships that created an atmosphere of fear and repression. Security priorities of the state became the safety of the regime, which sought the maintenance of the status quo as the only means for survival.

All civil activities thus had to be closely monitored by the governments, from education to public welfare. Religious education, consequently, had to be subjected and run by the state. A clear and thorough understanding of religious issues, based on independent, fearless Islamic awareness became a rare commodity.

Consequently, trust in governments is nearly absent; many people in the Muslim world feel stateless, willing to take matters into their own hands. This is the core problem that needs to be addressed, and postponing the solution only promises more violence and bloodshed.

Personally — and I think I am not alone in this — I’m skeptical of some Muslim governments’ quick rise in defense of the Prophet and his Message. Once again, governments who continuously subject their own people to arrests; put a ban on legal civil activities and positive engagement; continue to remain in shameful silence as thousands of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese lose their lives in wars meant to reshape the region, do not hesitate to take “strong” stances against a Danish editor or a pope’s lecture based on erroneous judgment.

Regimes in many Muslim countries feed on such chances to desperately draw a picture of heroism. And the more the violent protests, the more the distraction, the safer the regimes become.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the pope should praise Islam in each talk he gives, but if he speaks with misinformation there should be a response. That response should be clear and rational, and we should move on to more pressing issues.

The picture looks bleak and frustrating, but it is not about pointing fingers at ourselves and always feeling guilty when some of us misact. The misconduct of some Muslims is a sign of an ongoing ailment that isn’t caused by a pope’s remarks, and that ailment does not lie with ignorance or barbarity; it lies with those to whom ignorance and barbarity are an interest that should be protected.

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