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ND scholars weigh in on pope’s remarks

Maddie Hanna | Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Since Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech one week ago that ignited controversy among vocal and violent segments of the Muslim world, the riots and protests have only accelerated.

But at Notre Dame, the hope is for everything to slow down. Faculty experts say the pope’s remarks – however insensitive – were taken out of context, and on Monday, Muslim members of the University community denounced the ongoing violence.

Benedict XVI spoke at the University of Regensburg in Germany last Tuesday on faith and reason at modern universities, said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an expert on religious violence. The pope quoted 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel Paleologos II: “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”

“But he also quoted the Quran, which says there is no compulsion in religion,” Appleby said. “This reference is in key with Benedict’s previous remarks on Islam, in which he argues Islam is being betrayed by extremists who invoke violence. Although the remarks were taken out of context, the subtext is unfortunate.

“The subtext is a pope speaking from Germany and invoking a period close to the Crusades and pronouncing upon jihad without making explicit references to the violence done in the name of Christianity.”

That subtext, Appleby said, made it “understandable that many Muslims connected the dots in a way that the pope may not have intended [them] to.”

Connecting the dots, in this case, meant violence – violence that includes the burning of an effigy of the pope in Iraq, attacks on churches in the West Bank and Gaza and the killing of an Italian nun in Somalia, among other incidents. On Sunday, Benedict XVI told pilgrims in Rome he was “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address,” The New York Times reported.

A. Rashied Omar, an imam and research scholar of Islamic Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, said he “welcomed” the pope’s “statement of regret.”

“[I] call upon his Holiness to use this unfortunate episode as an opportunity for initiating a high-profile dialogue about the root causes of violence in the world today and the ways in which religion can contribute towards overcoming such violence,” Omar said in a statement Monday.

Internationally, several prominent Muslim associations have backed the pope’s statement of regret, while others have refused to accept what they say is no apology. Like Omar, Shawn Ahmed – a second-year sociology graduate student and member-at-large of the Notre Dame Muslim Student Association – said Muslims must come to terms with the pope’s statement and move on in a constructive manner.

“It’s the responsibility of reasonable people, Muslim or not, to accept an apology when one is given and work toward better understanding when possible,” he said.

Ahmed referred to the Muslim Council of Britain – which on Monday termed the pope’s statement of regret “exactly the reassurance many Muslims were looking for,” according to a BBC report – and said he shared the group’s view.

As soon as word of the pope’s remarks spread, Ahmed said there was “ambiguity” within the Muslim community about his choice of quotation, which he described as “very hateful.”

“Islam itself means peace,” he said, “so that can be painful to hear for many Muslims.”

The offensive nature of the quotation has raised questions about why Benedict XVI would choose to ever include it in a speech – regardless of the broader topic. Notre Dame law professor Vincent Rougeau said the decision could be due to inadequate consideration.

“There may have been a lack of attention to the way things might be communicated,” Rougeau said. “The information was communicated immediately around the world. If they had had someone vetting his remarks more closely … I’m not saying it would have prevented it, but there’s some who believe … they need to think a little more closely about having his remarks vetted.”

Like Rougeau, Appleby noted how quickly the news hit the Islamic world – and how quickly Muslims responded.

“I think the pope underestimated the power of his own words, given the growth of a strong Islamic network of response, a network that has becoming increasingly sophisticated in the last number of years,” Appleby said. “Like Jews and Christians, Muslims are sensitive to the way they are portrayed publicly, especially in the current political setting.

“And the pope perhaps made the same miscalculation that many professors make – they can be too subtle for their own good.”

That subtlety, said theology professor Lawrence Cunningham, is what’s important to consider when evaluating the pope’s speech.

“Leave it to the pope, who is a very good scholar,” to include that particular quotation, Cunningham said. He labeled the remark “a small part of a big talk” and a “sound byte” that has been blown out of context.

“Here’s the ironical thing – what was the reaction in part of the Muslim world after this talk? Violence,” he said.

Cunningham was quick to point out that just a small percentage of Muslims acted in violence. But his point wasn’t lost on Ahmed, who also described the Islamic community’s violent reaction as contradictory to the religion’s message.

“The biggest irony is that a lot of acts of violence are sending the wrong impression about Islam,” he said. “The culture of Islam and the culture in Islamic nations – sometimes they are very, very different. I think you have to look at cultural factors instead of religious factors.”

Despite the backlash, the pope is not out of touch with Islam, Appleby said.

“Because he’s very careful, his statements up until last week have been very precise and well considered,” Appleby said, “which is one reason why people believe his statement last week was intentional.”

Benedict XVI has been working to “establish a position toward Islam that is consistent with the documents of the Second Vatican Council,” he said.

While Vatican II said the Catholic Church has “correctly interpreted the full and final revelation of God and Jesus Christ,” it also “recognizes that other religions are from God and contain important elements of truth,” Appleby said. “Some of those elements are not fully developed in Catholicism.”

In keeping with that Vatican II teaching, Appleby said, the pope “seems to be putting forth the following consideration – [Islam] is a religion of goodness and peace that is being distorted by a minority of its members who teach and evoke violence.”

And the events of the past week point to that distortion, Rougeau said.

“We certainly can’t interpret acts of violence committed by [certain] Muslims … as reflections of the general sympathies of the Muslim people,” he said. “There are always some very disturbed people who will do horrible things based on what they perceive to be an insult.”

Emphasizing the already elevated tensions and tempers in the Middle East, Rougeau said it was “not surprising words can inflame people easily.”

“We need to be much more prudent, I suppose, and careful,” he said. “… I think the pope and the Vatican need to demonstrate that they’re interested in maintaining a positive relationship with Islam.”

Omar also called for a “renewed dialogue” that will “then bear fruit in a positive exchange between Muslims and Catholics to clarify the issues that have been raised in a more appropriate manner.”

But for the moment, it’s hard to tell when the passions will subside and when that dialogue will be renewed, Appleby said.

“The impact of these remarks will be decided in part in how the Vatican responds in the near future,” he said. “Unfortunately, Muslim-Christian dialogue has suffered a setback.”