Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Papal Bull

Oct 2, 2006 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

As many people, including moderate Muslims, have pointed out, the violent response by some Muslims to a quote used in remarks by Pope Benedict XVI, which was alleged to present Islam as violent and “inhuman,” was more than a bit ironic. These responses were essentially variations on the theme, “How dare you imply that Islam is a violent religion? I’ll kill you and any other Christian I can get my hands on!”

Pope Benedict XVI: speech widely misinterpreted

But to anyone who has looked beyond the headlines and read the whole speech, the irony is even deeper. The speech given by Pope Benedict at the University of Regensburg was not actually about Islam or interfaith relations at all. It was about faith and reason. When the Pope quoted remarks by the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos in a possibly fictitious dialogue with a Persian Muslim scholar – remarks which he criticised for their “startling brusqueness” – he was actually trying to make two points. First, he wanted to establish that the idea of reason as intrinsic to man’s relationship to God was a very old and established part of the Christian religion. Secondly, he was trying to argue that this understanding of God as a god of reason was the cure for religious violence, since a god of reason would never desire such unreasonable actions on behalf of religion, a point the Emperor made. And he mentioned a religious tradition among some Muslim theologians that God is so transcendent that he is above all human categories including reason. (He also implied criticism of Protestant biblical literalism on similar lines.)

The specific quote he used from Manuel Paleologos dealt with the unreasonableness of Muhammad’s alleged “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”, that is, forced conversion. It is especially rich, therefore, that a Palestinian Imam from Gaza, Dr Imad Hamto, demanded on behalf of himself and several colleagues that the Pope “accept Islam” if he wanted to live in peace, using words which the Prophet Muhammad sent to the chiefs of Arabian tribes demanding they convert or be conquered and killed.

Also in the same vein was the reaction of Muhammad Gaddafi, the eldest son of the Libyan dictator, who said, “If this person [the Pope] were really someone reasonable, he would not agree to remain at his post one minute, but would convert to Islam immediately.” He added Muslims “should not look for charity from the infidel…but should fight Islam’s enemies who attack the faith and the Prophet Muhammad.”

Al-Qaeda’s statement also made it clear that they are very much in favour of forced conversion, saying not only would they defeat the West and conquer the world but “We will smash the cross … [you will have no choice but] Islam or death.”

In another irony, Hamto and the other Gaza imams also called on the Pope to, instead of [allegedly] criticising Muslims, criticise Jews, who are “spreading corruption and destruction.”

However, perhaps the weirdest violent and intolerant reaction came from Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who said the answer to the Pope’s words should be attacks on the US. He said the Pope may have been “deceived” into making the remarks, and “Those who benefit from the Pope’s comments and drive their own arrogant policies should be targeted with attacks and protests,” referring to the US.


Arab Investors for Israel

There has been much comment about how Arab opinion, at least at an elite level, was actually somewhat sympathetic to Israel during the Lebanon conflict, because of fear of a Hezbollah/Iranian/Shi’ite power play against the Sunni Middle East. While public expression of this support dwindled as the conflict went on, it is interesting to note that Arab investors appear to have risked their own money based on the belief that Israel’s fight was in the region’s interests.

Top investment consultant Jerry Bowyer examined the “Arab Titans” index, consisting of the top 50 “publicly traded companies which do business in the Arab world” and found that it rose and fell “in step with Israel’s success in the conflict” in a very similar way to the Israeli stock exchange. He concluded, “The complex web of information that constitutes Saudi bankers, Kuwaiti phone execs, and their shareholders” believe that “Israel’s counter-attacks were not the destabilising factor in the region. Hezbollah’s failed-state warlordism was.”

This analysis certainly seems to be a way to cut through the cloud of rhetoric which often makes understanding what is really going on in the Middle East difficult.


Super Dooper All-Purpose Excuse

Despite the above, it is amazing how all purpose the “Zionist plot” excuse remains for Arab and Muslim states to defend a contentious policy. The latest example comes from Sudan, which is refusing a UN Security Council Resolution, passed on August 31, to send 22,500 peacekeeping troops to Darfur, where up to 300,000 people have been killed as the result of war and ethnic cleansing.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whose government is widely reported as having supported the Janjaweed ethnic militia doing most of the killing, raping and ethnic cleasing of fellow Muslims in Darfur, told a news conference at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 19 that Sudan would never allow UN peacekeepers into the region. Why? Because “It is very clear there is a plan to redraw the region. The main purpose is the security of Israel. Any state in the region should be weakened, dismembered in order to protect the Israelis, to guarantee the Israeli security.” He went on to point to Jewish groups participating in global rallies calling for an end to the killing in Darfur as evidence of his thesis.

This is why it hard to take seriously arguments that Israel would be secure and at peace if it only ended all occupation of supposed “Arab land”. The “Zionist” threat is too useful to the region’s regimes, and covers such a multitude of sins, that it is very hard to see it being given up just because the Arabs have had their ostensibly “legitimate demands” met.



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