The furor over the Pope’s speech in Regensburg is pitiable and unsurprising. Enough has been said on the content of the remarks: though it is stressed that Benedict XVI merely quoted Manuel II Paleologue’s condemnation of the historical legacy of Muhammed without expressing approval of the assessment, it does seem unlikely that the Vicar of Christ on Earth wholly disagrees with the penultimate Emperor. “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new,” the Pope quotes the Emperor, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
There are several points of protest against this passage, and the Papal invocation of it. Some argue that Muhammed never issued a “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” and that a statement to the contrary is therefore a slander on Islam and its Prophet. The historical evidence against this is thin: Muhammed himself was, among other things, a conquerer and eventual theocratic despot, and his successors hacked their way through Roman and Sassanian armies to seize the better part of the known world for the Caliphate. These were the very founding conditions of Islam, and the unkind contrast with the generally pacific circumstances of other faiths’ foundations – see Christ and the Buddha, for example – is stark. Islamic apologists claim variously that the Prophet was forced into his wars – remarkably and regrettably often for a man of peace – or that the Caliphate’s conquests were perversions of Islam, or that those conquests were rationally defensible actions in the historical context.
This is, to us non-Muslims, wholly irrelevant. We owe Muslims the respect due to them as possessors of the common natural rights of man – but we do not owe Muhammed or Islamic orthodoxy any respect for their own sake. The fact remains that whether Manuel II Paleologue’s estimation was accurate – and it was not wholly so – his final phrase, that a “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached” was “evil and inhuman,” is indisputably correct. It seems fairly clear, on historical and pragmatic grounds, that the doctrine of jihad is such a command, and has been since the time of the Prophet. Captives to the delusion that legitimate faith is ipso facto benign, such as the New York Times editorial board, insist that jihad primarily or meaningfully signifies a purely spiritual struggle, and therefore presumably should not per se be condemned. (One wonders whether the Pakistani parliament, in its irate defense of “the philosophy of jihad,” meant the NYT version of the concept.)
The defenders of jihad on these grounds engage in a profoundly foolish exercise. No reasonable non-Muslim condemns Muslim spirituality within its own bounds; and no Pope would bother speaking publicly on another faith’s adherent’s inner struggle for spiritual betterment. If jihad means peaceful spiritual betterment, so be it. Christianity too has a tradition of “spiritual warfare,” notably but not solely amongst the Orthodox – but it has managed to develop this without a lasting foundational and doctrinal accompaniment of proselytization by conquest and rapine.
When may this be said? When may it inform policy? When may truth, or even opinion, be uttered without fear of conflagration? Salman Rushdie still lives under threat of death. Danish cartoonists wrought inadvertent havoc across the globe. And now Benedict XVI is under threat of suicide attack from the “Mujahideen’s Army” and others – and churches in the Muslim world suffer for his words. “Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence,” said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. Indeed.
The Pope referred to a Byzantine Emperor, one suspects, purposefully. He may have wished to remind the Turks whom he is due to visit in November that Constantinople is a glorious prize wrested – by jihad, no less – from a predecessor more sublime than the Sublime Porte ever was. Or he may have wished to recall the extinguishing of the Eastern Empire by the very phenomenon of jihad that he condemned. (Since that breaching of the Constantinoplitan walls in 1453, only the Papacy itself remains as a lineal descendant of Imperial Rome’s great offices.) Whatever his reason, he could easily have recalled other episodes from its history that might have illustrated his point as well.
There’s an illuminating historical incident from the tenth century that deserves wider dissemination, and that the Pope might have used in lieu of Manuel II Paleologue’s quote. That Emperor was the last to enjoy a full reign in a free Empire; but nearly four hundred years before, the Empire was enjoying a resurgence. Manuel II Paleologue ruled barely more than Constantinople itself – but Nikephoros II Fokas ruled from Italy to the Caucasus, and from Bulgaria to Syria. He was a longtime foe of the Muslim Caliphate, and he observed that a signal advantage of the Muslims was their jihad doctrine. The Orthodox Church then – as now – regarded war as a regrettable necessity, with emphasis on the regrettable part, and soldiers returning from war would be made to perform some manner of penance before again receiving communion. By contrast, Nikephoros II Fokas observed that the Muslims who went to war were directly fulfilling the commandments of their faith, and were accordingly more motivated, violent, and relentless. The Emperor decided that the Christians needed a similar spiritual edge, and so he asked the Patriarch Polyeuktos in Constantinople to declare that any Christian who fell in battle was automatically a martyr. In effect, he requested a Christian version of jihad. The Patriarch and the entire Church hierarchy, so often in that era mere tools of Imperial policy, refused. The Emperor was forced to back down, and within a few short centuries, the Empire was overrun by the Muslims.
It’s a little-known turning-point – and certainly a relevant one for this day and age. As we look toward the plight of the Christians of the Middle East at large, we must be reminded that they are an embattled minority in large part because their doctrinal precepts are simply more humane. And as we look at the reflexive moves toward conciliation of the deathly host denouncing Benedict XVI – including, in a grim confirmation of Scruton’s warning of a “religion without irony,” Hamas, Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah! – we must be reminded that the lulling effect of that humanity renders too many of us incapable of grasping the awful magnitude of the peril before us. The Pope’s crime, in the minds of the Muslim masses denouncing him, is to allude to precisely this. The superior creed in the eyes of history may be that with the more force and fury on its side; but in the eyes of history’s God, the criteria for rectitude are doubtless rather different.