Religion is a touchy subject

Gulf News, September 20, 2007

Relations between the Muslim world and the west have seldom been good since European nations replaced Muslim empires as the dominant power in the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia.

But there is no need for western leaders to take the bait offered by extremist jihadists who wish to revive the tensions originally created during the course of medieval crusades.

The only way the West can win the global war against terrorism is with the marginalisation of extremist jihadis within the Muslim world and by widening of the circle of Muslim moderation and reform.

In this context, Pope Benedict XVI made a serious blunder when he cited a medieval Christian source to wonder aloud whether Islam’s message was inherently violent.

The Pope has now expressed regret over his remarks and explained that he did not intend to cause offence. But the damage is done.

Perceived attacks on Islam and on Muslims as a whole tend to galvanise the cause of Islamist hardliners who seek to gain new recruits for their ranks with calls of “Islam is in danger”.

Islamist sensibilities cannot and should not lead to self-censorship within the West. At the same time, Christian leaders such as the Pope should be sensitive to the likely impact of their words.

This sensitivity is all the more important in the context of the global war against terrorism and the need to convince the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims that the effort to root out the crescentade of people such as Osama Bin Laden is not, in fact, a thinly disguised plot to revive the European Christian crusades that attempted to overwhelm the Muslims between 1095 and 1291.

Any student of history knows that none of the world’s major religions have a monopoly over bigotry, prejudice and violence in the name of God.

Followers of all religions have killed heretics, apostates and followers of other religions at different times and justified their actions on the basis of their own religion.


To paint Islam alone as the religion of the sword and to insult Islam’s Prophet has been one of the ways in which the predominantly Christian West has managed, in the past, to antagonise large numbers of Muslims.

But at this juncture, when Western Civilisation is meant to represent secular pluralism and includes a growing number of Muslims within its fold, reviving old stereotypes is certainly not a good idea.

By all accounts, the Pope’s offending speech titled Faith, Reason, University at Regensburg University need not have contained the reference to Islam at all.

The speech was meant to elaborate the nature of reason from the Christian perspective.
Pope Benedict seeks to be the restorer of Europe’s ethical values and his primary concern so far has been the excessive secularism he sees as having seeped into the lives of western Christians during the 20th century.

The mention of Islam in the Pope’s speech came only to try and compare what he thought is the Muslim concept of God (as the Almighty above human reason) and the Christian view that equates God with reason.

Only a sense of prejudiced superiority could have encouraged Pope Benedict XVI to venture into such a comparison at a time when inter-faith dialogue with Islamic scholars and reform within the Muslim world are considered vital for global peace and security.

Direct attacks

Muslims have historically always reacted to direct attacks on their faith by embracing fundamentalist theology. Literalism in interpreting religion and admiration for defiant militants has followed whenever Islam’s ummah (community of believers) has been humiliated by non-Muslims.

With over one billion Muslims around the globe, the swelling of fundamentalist ranks poses serious problems for the major western powers.

If only one per cent of the world’s Muslims accept radical ideology and ten per cent of that one per cent decide to commit themselves to a militant agenda, we are looking at a one million strong recruitment pool for terrorism.

In the interaction with the West, especially since the end of the 19th century, Muslims have found themselves in the midst of successive defeats and repeated humiliation. Widely publicised pronouncements about Islam’s early history, coming from leaders such as the Pope, contribute to the sense of weakness of contemporary Muslims that plays straight into the hands of religious radicals.

Winning Muslim hearts and minds, inviting Islam’s theologians to adopt new ideas of religious tolerance and encouraging larger numbers of the world’s Muslims to embrace modernity without seeing it as a threat to their faith are important elements in any strategy to combat the extremist streak.

Under such circumstances, the world cannot afford comments by the Pope and other religious leaders that provide grounds for renewed religious extremist frenzy in the world of Islam.

The militant interpretation of Islam has usually failed to penetrate the thinking of over-whelming numbers of Muslims, especially in recent times.

But this could change if leading personalities in the West themselves provide the grist for Islamist propaganda mills by insulting Islam’s Prophet or by suggesting that Islam is inherently flawed and violent.