Stratfor on the Pope

[I’ve mostly been ignoring all that free Stratfor stuff that flows
in, but this was kind of interesting.]

Faith, Reason and Politics: Parsing the Pope’s Remarks By George Friedman

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on “Faith, Reason
and the University” at the University of Regensburg. In his
discussion (full text available on the Vatican Web site) the pope
appeared to be trying to define a course between dogmatic faith and
cultural relativism — making his personal contribution to the old
debate about faith and reason. In the course of the lecture, he made
reference to a “part of the dialogue carried on — perhaps in 1391 in
the winter barracks near Ankara — by the erudite Byzantine emperor
Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of
Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”

Benedict went on to say — and it is important to read a long passage
to understand his point — that:

“In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor
touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known
that Sura 2,256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’
According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early
period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But
naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and
recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to
details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who
have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels,’ he addresses his interlocutor
with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us
astounded, on the central question about the relationship between
religion and violence in general, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed
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.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully,
goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith
through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible
with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God,’ he says,
‘is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to
God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would
lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason
properly, without violence and threats … To convince a reasonable
soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any
other means of threatening a person with death …’

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion
is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s
nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: ‘For the emperor, as a
Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent.’”

The reaction of the Muslim world — outrage — came swift and sharp
over the passage citing Manuel II: “Show me just what Mohammed
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.” Obviously, this passage is a quote from a previous text –
but equally obviously, the pope was making a critical point that has
little to do with this passage.

The essence of this passage is about forced conversion. It begins by
pointing out that Mohammed spoke of faith without compulsion when he
lacked political power, but that when he became strong, his
perspective changed. Benedict goes on to make the argument that
violent conversion — from the standpoint of a Byzantine shaped by
Greek philosophy, and therefore shaped by the priority of reason –
is unacceptable. For someone who believes that God is absolutely
transcendent and beyond reason, the argument goes, it is acceptable.

Clearly, Benedict knows that Christians also practiced forced
conversion in their history. He also knows that the Aristotelian
tendency is not unique to Christianity. In fact, that same tendency
exists in the Muslim tradition, through thinkers such as al-Farabi or
Avicenna. These stand in relation to Islam as Thomas Aquinas does to
Christianity or Maimonides to Judaism. And all three religions
struggle not only with the problem of God versus science, but with
the more complex and interesting tripolar relationship of religion as
revelation, reason and dogmatism. There is always that scriptural
scholar, the philosopher troubled by faith and the local clergyman
who claims to speak for God personally.

Benedict’s thoughtful discussion of this problem needs to be
considered. Also to be considered is why the pope chose to throw a
hand grenade into a powder keg, and why he chose to do it at this
moment in history. The other discussion might well be more worthy of
the ages, but this question — what did Benedict do, and why did he
do it — is of more immediate concern, for he could have no doubt
what the response, in today’s politically charged environment, was
going to be.

A Deliberate Move

Let’s begin with the obvious: Benedict’s words were purposely chosen.
The quotation of Manuel II was not a one-liner, accidentally blurted
out. The pope was giving a prepared lecture that he may have written
himself — and if it was written for him, it was one that he
carefully read. Moreover, each of the pope’s public utterances are
thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and there is no question that
anyone who read this speech before it was delivered would recognize
the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the
current climate. There is not one war going on in the world today,
but a series of wars, some of them placing Catholics at risk.

It is true that Benedict was making reference to an obscure text, but
that makes the remark all the more striking; even the pope had to
work hard to come up with this dialogue. There are many other fine
examples of the problem of reason and faith that he could have drawn
from that did not involve Muslims, let alone one involving such an
incendiary quote. But he chose this citation and, contrary to some
media reports, it was not a short passage in the speech. It was about
15 percent of the full text and was the entry point to the rest of
the lecture. Thus, this was a deliberate choice, not a slip of the

As a deliberate choice, the effect of these remarks could be
anticipated. Even apart from the particular phrase, the text of the
speech is a criticism of the practice of conversion by violence, with
a particular emphasis on Islam. Clearly, the pope intended to make
the point that Islam is currently engaged in violence on behalf of
religion, and that it is driven by a view of God that engenders such
belief. Given Muslims’ protests (including some violent reactions)
over cartoons that were printed in a Danish newspaper, the pope and
his advisers certainly must have been aware that the Muslim world
would go ballistic over this. Benedict said what he said
intentionally, and he was aware of the consequences. Subsequently, he
has not apologized for what he said — only for any offense he might
have caused. He has not retracted his statement.

So, why this, and why now?

Political Readings

Consider the fact that the pope is not only a scholar but a
politician — and a good one, or he wouldn’t have become the pope. He
is not only a head of state, but the head of a global church with a
billion members. The church is no stranger to geopolitics. Muslims
claim that they brought down communism in Afghanistan. That may be
true, but there certainly is something to be said also for the
efforts of the Catholic Church, which helped to undermine the
communism in Poland and to break the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe.
Popes know how to play power politics.

Thus, there are at least two ways to view Benedict’s speech politically.

One view derives from the fact that the pope is watching the U.S.- jihadist war. He can see it is going badly for the United States in
both Afghanistan and Iraq. He witnessed the recent success of
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas’ political victory among the
Palestinians. Islamists may not have the fundamental strength to
threaten the West at this point, but they are certainly on a roll.
Also, it should be remembered that Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul
II, was clearly not happy about the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, but
it does not follow that his successor is eager to see a U.S. defeat

The statement that Benedict made certainly did not hurt U.S.
President George W. Bush in American politics. Bush has been trying
to portray the war against Islamist militants as a clash of
civilizations, one that will last for generations and will determine
the future of mankind. Benedict, whether he accepts Bush’s view or
not, offered an intellectual foundation for Bush’s position. He drew
a sharp distinction between Islam and Christianity and then tied
Christianity to rationality — a move to overcome the tension between
religion and science in the West. But he did not include Islam in
that matrix. Given that there is a war on and that the pope
recognizes Bush is on the defensive, not only in the war but also in
domestic American politics, Benedict very likely weighed the impact
of his words on the scale of war and U.S. politics. What he said
certainly could be read as words of comfort for Bush. We cannot read
Benedict’s mind on this, of course, but he seemed to provide some
backing for Bush’s position.

It is not entirely clear that Pope Benedict intended an intellectual
intervention in the war. The church obviously did not support the
invasion of Iraq, having criticized it at the time. On the other
hand, it would not be in the church’s interests to see the United
States simply routed. The Catholic Church has substantial membership
throughout the region, and a wave of Islamist self-confidence could
put those members and the church at risk. From the Vatican’s
perspective, the ideal outcome of the war would be for the United
States to succeed — or at least not fail — but for the church to
remain free to criticize Washington’s policies and to serve as
conciliator and peacemaker. Given the events of the past months,
Benedict may have felt the need for a relatively gentle intervention
– in a way that warned the Muslim world that the church’s
willingness to endure vilification as a Crusader has its limits, and
that he is prepared, at least rhetorically, to strike back. Again, we
cannot read his mind, but neither can we believe that he was
oblivious to events in the region and that, in making his remarks, he
was simply engaged in an academic exercise.

This perspective would explain the timing of the pope’s statement,
but the general thrust of his remarks has more to do with Europe.

There is an intensifying tension in Europe over the powerful wave of
Muslim immigration. Frictions are high on both sides. Europeans fear
that the Muslim immigrants will overwhelm their native culture or
form an unassimilated and destabilizing mass. Muslims feel unwelcome,
and some extreme groups have threatened to work for the conversion of
Europe. In general, the Vatican’s position has ranged from quiet to
calls for tolerance. As a result, the Vatican was becoming
increasingly estranged from the church body — particularly working
and middle-class Catholics — and its fears.

As has been established, the pope knew that his remarks at Regensburg
would come under heavy criticism from Muslims. He also knew that this
criticism would continue despite any gestures of contrition. Thus,
with his remarks, he moved toward closer alignment with those who are
uneasy about Europe’s Muslim community — without adopting their own,
more extreme, sentiments. That move increases his political strength
among these groups and could cause them to rally around the church.
At the same time, the pope has not locked himself into any particular
position. And he has delivered his own warning to Europe’s Muslims
about the limits of tolerance.

It is obvious that Benedict delivered a well-thought-out statement.
It is also obvious that the Vatican had no illusions as to how the
Muslim world would respond. The statement contained a verbal blast,
crafted in a way that allowed Benedict to maintain plausible
deniability. Indeed, the pope already has taken the exit, noting that
these were not his thoughts but those of another scholar. The pope
and his staff were certainly aware that this would make no difference
in the grand scheme of things, save for giving Benedict the means for
distancing himself from the statement when the inevitable backlash
occurred. Indeed, the anger in the Muslim world remained intense, and
there also have been emerging pockets of anger among Catholics over
the Muslim world’s reaction to the pope, considering the history of
Islamic attacks against Christianity. Because he reads the newspapers
– not to mention the fact that the Vatican maintains a highly
capable intelligence service of its own — Benedict also had to have
known how the war was going, and that his statement likely would aid
Bush politically, at least indirectly. Finally, he would be aware of
the political dynamics in Europe and that the statement would
strengthen his position with the church’s base there.

The question is how far Benedict is going to go with this. His
predecessor took on the Soviet Union and then, after the collapse of
communism, started sniping at the United States over its materialism
and foreign policy. Benedict may have decided that the time has come
to throw the weight of the church against radical Islamists. In fact,
there is a logic here: If the Muslims reject Benedict’s statement,
they have to acknowledge the rationalist aspects of Islam. The burden
is on the Ummah to lift the religion out of the hands of radicals and
extremist scholars by demonstrating that Muslims can adhere to reason.

From an intellectual and political standpoint, therefore, Benedict’s
statement was an elegant move. He has strengthened his political base
and perhaps legitimized a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric
in the Muslim world. And he has done it with superb misdirection. His
options are open: He now can move away from the statement and let
nature take its course, repudiate it and challenge Muslim leaders to
do the same with regard to anti-Catholic statements or extend and
expand the criticism of Islam that was implicit in the dialogue.

The pope has thrown a hand grenade and is now observing the response.
We are assuming that he knew what he was doing; in fact, we find it
impossible to imagine that he did not. He is too careful not to have
known. Therefore, he must have anticipated the response and planned
his partial retreat.

It will be interesting to see if he has a next move. The answer to
that may be something he doesn’t know himself yet.

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