However, the Pope also threw in a gratuitous swipe at Islam, which was mostly tangential to the main thrust of the argument and (as the Pope's own defenders concede), could have been readily omitted without undermining the speech as a whole.
The Pope has since apologized, saying that the views of Emperor Manuel II towards Islam do not reflect his own, and that he sincerely regrets the offense he caused. I accept this apology unreservedly.
I also remind fellow muslims that we take great exception to the moving goalpost syndrome that our own condemnations of terror invariably attract, and so we must as a matter of principle take the Pope at his word.
But we should also be very realistic about the probable intent of the Pope's original remarks, and the true consequences.
The riots and tragic murders that the Pope's remarks set off are tragic, foolish, and yet more evidence of the profound vacuum that exists at the center of the muslim world's discourse. But riots and murder in the name of insult to religion are hardly limited to Islam. My aim is not to engage in tu quoque but rather to illustrate that violence in the third world is worthless as a metric. Such violence is the product of professional thugs who exploit the lack of civil order in their societies, and seek any pretext upon which to wage chaos. Their efforts are barbaric, and they are transient, and they are ultimately futile.
The violence is a red herring; far deeper damage has been done.
First, the needless propaganda gift to our enemies - the enemies of all civilization, Islamic, Western, whatever label you choose. Marc Lynch illustrates in detail why the Pope's comments amounted to a gift for bin Laden - he minces no words in describing the comments as "strategically dumb." He summarizes:
To put it another way: It is just really dumb to "fight radical Islam" by handing it rhetorical weapons and then doing everything you can to drive ordinary Muslims - the vast majority of which have no truck with al-Qaeda's ideology - in their direction. The point should be to drive al-Qaeda farther away from the Muslim mainstream, not to try to force them together. The sorts of confrontational statements that some folks seem to consider to be courage or moral clarity or whatever aren't.. they're just strategically dumb. They actively help al-Qaeda and hurt al-Qaeda's opponents, whatever the intent behind them.
But the damage is far worse than just a PR gift to al-Qaeda. The Pope's comments also were disastrously timed with respect to the critical struggle for women's rights in Pakistan, the face of whom is Mukhtar Mai. True reform has been proceeding in minimalist, incremental fashion. And now, the fate of reform hinges upon the judgment of Pervez Musharraf.
However, Musharraf is in a delicate balance between the wealthy elite and the Islamists. And now with the outrage over the Pope's needless highlighting of thousand-year-old insults to Islam, the pressure on him from the Islamists will be tremendous.
Think of the opportunity that has been lost. Pope Benedict could have lent moral support to Musharraf. The bully pulpit of the Papacy, coupled with the eloquent appeal to Logos, would have given great power to the reformers in the muslim world - and the Christians who abide therein.
Why would the Pope, noted for his mastery of language, have sought to open an old wound of rivalry between the faiths at such a critical time? Victory in the war on Terror requires that we give the reformists succor, not undermine them. One possible answer is that the Pope's speech was aimed at multiple targets, Catholicism's "chief competitors for souls" - Islam, Protestants, and secularists alike. I think however that a better answer lies in this rather fair-minded article in the Telegraph (via Bill Cork), that goes into some detail about Benedict's perceptions of Islam:
no pope in history has made a deeper study of Islam. Having explored every verse of the Koran, and engaged in long debates with Muslim scholars, he rejects the simplistic notion held by fundamentalist Christians, and by the Roman Catholic Church until the middle of the 20th century, that Islam is evil. Yet he is convinced that some of its doctrines are morally indefensible.
In Benedict's view, a profound ambiguity about violence lies at the heart of Islam, arising from the Prophet's belief that faith can be spread by the sword. Mohammed, after all, was a general whose troops beheaded hundreds of enemy captives.
Asked recently whether he considered Islam to be a religion of peace, the Pope replied: "Islam contains elements that are in favour of peace, just as it contains other elements." Christianity, by contrast, he sees as a religion of pure peace which is why he adopts a near-pacifist approach to conflict in the Middle East.
(with regards to that last sentence, Razib points out that Benedict's view of Christianity benefits from the unique and different geopolitical landscapes into which Christianity and Islam expanded into. Razib summarizes, "In short, the fact that Islam has bloody borders is a natural consequence of its expansion into cultures which need no civilizing and have religious ideologies which are naturally resistant to marginalization and offer compelling narratives to elites.")
The article continues, drawing an important difference between Benedict and his predecessor:
John Paul II hoped that prayer could bring Christians and Muslims closer together, and famously prayed alongside Islamic leaders at Assisi in 1986. He also reassured Muslims that "we believe in the same God".
Benedict would emphasise that the Islamic understanding of God is radically different from that of Christians.
In a sense, JPII saw muslims as brothers in Abrahamic faith, whereas Benedict sees them as truly Alien. Note that the default understanding of Christianity for a muslim is that we are indeed heirs to the same tradition. In that sense, John Paul's passing and Benedict's ascension represented an easily-foreseeable souring of Christian-muslim relations.
The Telegraph article continues,
"The Koran is a total religious law," he wrote in 1996, "which regulates the whole of political and social life." Therefore, a devout Muslim living in the West must aspire to live under sharia law. A multi-faith society "is not consistent with Islam's inner nature".
In other words, the Pope subscribes to a version of the "clash of civilisations" theory, which sees a fundamental incompatibility between Western and Islamic cultures. In his opinion, the primary aim of Christian-Muslim discussion is to avoid conflict.
(emphasis mine). That the Pope subscribes to the "clash" thesis - and rejects the idea that both Islam and Christianity have anything in common or have any common cause (against secularism, for example), is hardly surprising. The former Cardinal Ratzinger was known for his hardline stances. He is a religious partisan first and a spiritual leader second; the previous Pope (partly due to his role in articulating the universality of Enlightenment values against Communism during the Cold War) was the exact opposite.
But then why provoke that clash?
How could a man who is so notoriously careful with words have committed what, in the eyes of liberal society, is a diplomatic blunder? The answer may be that underlying Benedict's nuanced world view is a deep-seated fear of Islam, which crops up in the daily conversation of Italian Catholics and stretches as far north as his Bavarian homeland.
He does not believe that the Koran condones terrorism; he bears no animosity towards peace-loving Muslims; but he is worried that the aggressive ethos of authentic Islam may provoke a crisis in Western society. And if the price of making that point is a "diplomatic blunder", then so be it.
And here I think we have the true answer. Fear of Islam - literally, "Islam phobia". Rather than a race for souls, he fears that Islam will destroy all of them. The Pope sounded an alarm against secularism in the short run, but Islam is the threat on the horizon. Perhaps his words were even deliberately intended to provoke, to better prove the point.
What is truly tragic about Benedict's world view is that the fear he holds towards Islam could be largely mitigated if he followed the footsteps of John Paul II, and helped use his influence to bring Enlightenment values to the Islamic world. Helping Musharraf rather than hindering him would have been a truly momentous start. It is the liberalization of the muslim world, a liberalization that was not even fully completed in the West until August 26, 1920.
It is not too late for women's rights in Pakistan. We must stop talking about the Pope and start talking about this instead. There is only so much media oxygen and the Pope affair has consumed almost all of it until now. Muslim bloggers are relatively powerless in this regard, however - what is needed is the alliance of non muslims to bring pressure upon the mass media, to shine a spotlight on Pakistan and to speak the language of human rights and tolerance rather than demonization and fear. Muslims and Christians together must join forces and pressure Musharraf for true reform of the hudood laws.