Monday, September 18, 2006

Context time

See what happens when I take a couple of days off from blogging? A new Crusade gets going and I miss it.

The right wing blogosphere is all over the story like a...well, you supply your own metaphor, because if I use an ill-advised one I may be in trouble. (If only I was that popular!)

By comparison it's pretty much the sound of crickets coming from the Left-ish side. You try it for yourself, but the search terms I have used on Technorati are coming up pretty empty handed on "progressive" commentary.

(I have found a "pox on both your houses" style comment on Anonymous Lefty, but that's about it. And by the way, I don't think he does a fair job in the extracts he takes from the Pope's speech. The parts he selects may seemingly be designed to be putting it in fuller context, but it does not go far enough.)

What do I think of the Pope's use of the comments? Captain's Quarters has an analysis that I agree with. My shorter version:

The Pope clearly says the old quote is a "starting point" for his review of the role of reason in religion over the centuries. The emphasis is on the argument about whether reason can dictate that religion can be made compulsory through violence, not on the part of the quote about Mohammed having only brought things "evil and inhuman." In context, it is clear that this was not the point of the quote at all.

(It goes without saying that there should no question that the Pope does not need to apologise for holding the view that conversion by the sword is against both reason and divine law.)

The most for which he can be criticised is for leaving open the possibility that the he also agrees with the "evil and inhuman" assessment of Mohammed. While Googling for the Benedict's past statements today is only bringing up links to this recent controversy, I find it hard to believe that he has made previous comments showing an intention to vilify Mohammed.

Should the Pope have apologised for causing offence that was not intended? People normally do, but in this case it is very close to the line where the careless reading and/or an insulting lack of goodwill on the part of the complainant renders an apology unnecessary and, if given, somewhat demeaning.

UPDATE: Chief apologist for all things Muslim, Karen Armstrong, writes in The Guardian about this in quite extraordinary terms. (The Pope is just reflecting Western bigotry against Islam that dates back to the Crusades.) She says:

Coming on the heels of the Danish cartoon crisis, his remarks were extremely dangerous. They will convince more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic and engaged in a new crusade.

We simply cannot afford this type of bigotry. The trouble is that too many people in the western world unconsciously share this prejudice, convinced that Islam and the Qur'an are addicted to violence. The 9/11 terrorists, who in fact violated essential Islamic principles, have confirmed this deep-rooted western perception and are seen as typical Muslims instead of the deviants they really were.

With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity.

This article deserves a very thorough Fisking. Again, I don't have time to do this, except I will note one or areas where she should be criticised.

She argues that the West is wrong to think that Islam spread its faith by the sword:

The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet's death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations.

Assume for the sake of the argument that she is correct. Fine. After all most people only have a vague knowledge of the era, but everyone knows that the deliberate conflating of religious and political motives was extremely common throughout history.

Yet why does she not apply the same standards to today's Muslims who will believe the Pope's words mean that the West is "engaged in a new crusade" (see quote above)? I agree that this is a dangerous view, and what's more it is one that should be easier to correct, dealing as it does with current affairs, and as such does not depend so much on judging which historian is interpreting past events correctly.

But she doesn't spend time telling them that they are wrong. (I presume she agrees that it is an incorrect view. If not, she is not worth taking seriously at all.) No, Armstrong would rather spend time castigating the West for inflaming the Islamists who are not following the dictates of the "religion of peace".

He entire article is a vilification of the Western role in the Crusades, bringing in Christianity's ill treatment of Jews to boot. (It is remarkable that she spends time on pointing out that it was originally Christians who believed the "blood libel" of the Jews, when today it is primarily within Muslim nations that rampant anti-Semitism still repeats the libel to its children. If this upsets her, it doesn't show. The West gets no "brownie points" for repudiating it, only criticism for believing it first.)

Armstrong writes as if everyone in the West still thinks the Crusades were a black and white series of conflicts, with the Christians entirely in the right and the Muslims entirely evil. But doesn't every sensible person assume that both sides acted out of mixed political and religious motivation, and in the course of the conflict committed what we would today (rightly) consider atrocities?

I maintain that you do not have to know much at all about the history to be able to tell simply from her one-sided style that she is not to be trusted on her interpretation of Islam past or present.

[And finally: one point on which I will concede. My original post assumed that Muslims were taking take insult from the quote because of its reference to Mohammed bringing "evil and inhumane" things; in other words, that it was seen as an insult against Mohammed personally. Armstrong and others point out that the insult some Muslims see is against the religion as a whole (ie. that Islam is an inherently violent religion.)

If anything, it seemed to me that the Pope was hinting at Muslims should be able to use reason to endorse its "religion of peace" aspects over those passages which are taken by some as justifying violence. In other words, it can be plausibly implied from the speech that he agrees with Armstrong: that those who believe in violent Jihad are those who have the wrong interpretation of Islam.

So there is that positive way of looking at it. But, as with the Jihadists, Armstrong would rather assume the worst possible interpretation.

Moreover, it seems to me that Karen Armstrong's idea of "projection of guilt" (which she alleges is why we in the West are all Islamophobic) more plausibly works the other way around. Even moderate Muslims know full well why the West is worried about Islam, hence their over-reaction to anything raising the issue of violence in their religion. ]

UPDATE 2: Back on the issue of Left leaning non-commentary about this, prominent Australian blogger Tim Dunlop simply refers to Anonymous Lefty's snide anti-religion post. Lavartus Prodeo so far only links to one other blog on it, which takes the view that the Pope is clearly insulting Muslims, but at least argues that Muslims should ignore the provocation.

Why this reluctance to discuss this case in detail, and to look at whether it is fair to read the alleged insult into the speech or not?

I think the instinctive reaction of most progressives would be to criticise the Pope, but given the reaction of some Muslims, they can hardly be seen to be encouraging that side either. Hence Muslim violence, both real and threatened, gets downplayed by the Left again, (or in the case of Armstrong, is seemingly blamed on the West itself.) The consequence is that once again voters are left with the feeling that at least the Right takes the issue, including its national security implications, seriously.

UPDATE 3: At last there is a detailed post on Lavartus Prodeo by Mark which is pretty reasonable. (His additions in the comments also have some useful background links too.) What a nice surprise.

NOTE: I have fiddled with this post on and off throughout the day, so don't be surprised if even my first post reads a little differently from earlier. This is not a "journal of record", as I often post quickly, then re-read it, find errors, and go back to correct things or add further argument. Major changes to argument are, however, acknowledged in clear updates rather than secret revision.

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