In the ninth century, a monk in Cordoba, Perfectus, was confronted by a Muslim mob. The mob put a simple question to him – who was the greater Prophet, Jesus or Muhammad? To deny Jesus would be to surrender his faith; to deny Muhammad would have meant an instant beheading by law. In answer to the question, Perfectus launched a violent attack on Muhammad, denouncing and debasing the Prophet’s character and principles. Although Perfectus won himself a rapid execution, he quickly became one of the “greatest” Christian martyrs of his time.
On Saturday 12th September, Pope Benedict XVI declared in a speech at Regensburg University, by means of a quote from the fourteenth century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his comment to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The Regensburg speech caused outrage among Muslim countries and groups.
In its fullest form, the Pope’s educational speech is provided with reasonable context – the historical context of a debate between the emperor and a Persian Muslim. (The Pope was a former professor at the university). However, when taken at face value, and misquoted by the Muslim community all over the world, the speech was not received in the context of reasonable debate. The global Muslim community took it as an insult to the prophet Muhammad. Violent protests ensued across the Middle East and aggressive demands for an apology were sent to the Vatican from some of the largest Muslim groups in Europe.
Inevitably his public apology did follow, read out by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone from the Vatican. It came as some relief that he half-heartedly apologized, focusing on Muslim sensibilities rather than the speech itself. Joseph Ratzinger – who, believe it or not, is a staunch supporter of Catholicism – need not have apologized for his “story” for two reasons: first, religious expression is carefully legitimized in all its forms under the free speech laws (laws which arose in civil war precisely because of corruptive barring on religious expressions), and second, Catholics and Muslims by their very nature believe in distinctly separate faiths. Nobody has agreed to an ultra-democratic glorious respect for each and every faith that arises in a modern society – a falsehood of both theology and everyday personal practice.
Modern society has willingly obstructed its discussion of religion by preaching the democratic rhetoric of respecting each religious faith, as if Catholics can truly respect the banality of the Islamic faith (and vice versa). To many Christian-secularists, Islam has been nothing more than a violent and elitist seventh-century political project, prior to it serving any religious purpose for mankind. It is on the basis of those two concerns of freedom of speech and the freedom of religious worship that the Pope need not have apologized. After all, a basic extension of Catholic doctrine is the undeclared and clandestine position on this militant prophet – that everything new about Muhammad was essentially political, evil and barbaric.
In essence, the reason why the Pope cited the words of Manuel II for a particular part of his speech, in which the Prophet is depicted as evil and inhuman, is that at the most basic level, the religions have been and will continue to be quite distinct. It sounds simple but it is surprising how many Muslim groups – in a hasty, malevolent and explosive reaction – displace this basic premise, in search for an unqualified personal respect for all religious faiths.
What of reconciliation? In a conflict such as this one – between Papal-facing Catholics and ill-educated Muslims – we might ask: what is the real objective truth or certainty that might underpin a stable reality of peace between the groups? There is no objective truth. For Muslims, the prophet Muhammad could not be evil and inhuman and for Catholics, it would be impossible to live in a society whereby certain Muslim groups frequently insult the Trinitarian doctrine, an organized Church, and its faith in the message of God through Jesus. (I also equally understand that Jesus and Muhammad should not be thought of as ‘counter-prophets’, but that there are essential differences in their doctrinal beliefs). In the clarity of those differences, how can we then assume that both groups are able to subscribe to an objective set of liberal criteria? The truth is that in the liberal democratic procedures, there is no objective truth imparted to each doctrine – the position of liberal governance occurs simply at the governance level. It says nothing of a substantive moral judgement on doctrinal claims.
Western states should err towards not intervening precisely because it should not declare a bias or position on religious doctrine, which might then preclude it from imparting a neutral ruling – some kind of modus vivendi. This modus vivendi is not a mere neutral equilibrium established between the principles of Catholicism and the principles of Islam. The structures of liberal governance develop from consensual principles which can be used to govern a wide variety of competing ethical, religious and political doctrines. Even as a Catholic, I hold no view on either of the private parties in this case – other than the Vatican appeared to offer an acceptable half-hearted apology relative to its stature as a global power, whilst Muslim groups grossly misread and misjudged the Regensburg speech (if indeed, they had heard it all).
The Pope, in many ways, has possibly used the historical example as incitement to ‘engage’ Muslims in his speech – in no way can that be taken as incitement to religious hatred. (To be certain, the only example of religious hatred in this case stems from the subsequent killing and antagonism demonstrated by Muslims groups towards Catholics, on Eastern soil). Pope Benedict XVI could just have easily used an alternative example. Personally, I felt that he would have been better off using an example from Spain in the ninth century, when even before the qadi, the monk Perfectus debased the Prophet.
Perfectus was one of the 48 “Cordoba martyrs”, who were murdered between 850 and 859. In 711, a Muslim army from North Africa had invaded Christian Spain. Once the Muslims conquered Spain, they governed it in accordance with Islamic shariah law. Blasphemy against Islam, whether by Muslims or dhimmis, and apostasy from Islam were all grounds for the death penalty. Most of the executions occurred as a result of Christian priests making statements that are considered blasphemous in Islam (for example, the notion that Jesus is God). There were also several executions for apostasy from Islam, involving laypeople. Reccafred, Bishop of Cordoba, told the Christians they had to be “tolerant” and sided with Muslim authorities against the martyrs, whom he regarded as fanatics.
Returning to our current dilemma, perhaps the example of Perfectus would be a more fitting example – the moral of the monk’s story is that no matter how venomous the disagreement over religious doctrine is, we now have the liberal procedures of governance which are able to adequately supervise and control religious disagreement. Catholicism and Islam will never be reconciled into an ultra-objective personal truth system which can incorporate the inherent truths of both religions. The reconciliation that does come about and that remains respectful occurs at the governance level. Thus, reconciliation comes about only through public deliberation and adherence to liberal procedures of governance, where each is allowed to practise according to his or her own ethical, religious or political doctrine. In sum, Islamic groups and individuals (Muslims) are in urgent need of education according to the modern procedures of a liberal democracy and how that is balanced alongside religious belief. That still requires an effective programme of citizenship.