Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Pope, again....

The speech by Pope Benedict on reason and it's relationship with faith has reignited old wounds and triggered a wave of indignation and outrage across the Arab and Islamic world. Meanwhile people in the West scratch their heads and wonder what's wrong with these Muslims "crying foul" everytime somebody mentions Islam. After the big hullabaloo surrounding the cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammed, those in the West might be forgiven if they began wondering whether it was possible for any dialogue with these raging masses. That impression would be mistaken since without looking at the context of any of the remarks, and the motives for their announcement, you end up with an incomplete picture, like a rough sketch of the Mona Lisa.

Whether the pope's speech was intentionally aimed at Islam or not, I find the message it conveyed was not so offensive in its ultimate subject and conclusion, but in the Popes methodology, sources and of course, his examples.

Firstly, his quote of the Stoic-like Emperor of Byzantium was based in a time (the 15th century) when the great Arab Islamic nations' and their influence had already began to fade and wane. These nations were now firmly entering their own dark ages under the control of a Turkish people, the Ottomans, noted for their harshness and cruelty to their enemies, as well as their unusual punishments to any unruly subjects who misbehaved. The emperor, at the time, was fighting for his own empire (Byzantium fell about 60 years after he made this comment). Citing him demonstrates a remarkable lack of knowledge in history, as well as understanding of that man's motives and the politics of the time. Using a quote regarding the practices of the Ottoman armies (who were of course Muslim) is misguided simply because the causes of the conflict were not due to the Ottomans trying to spread Islam, though that may have been a small part of it, but rather due to realpolitik and the tempting riches of a once great empire now ripe for the picking.

Another problem I had was that the sources he cited with some authority were Orientalist to the extreme and had their own interest in stereotyping and dissecting the crumbled Islamic world. Citing examples from the work of a Professor Khoury, the Pope made his most inflammatory remark. Furthermore, Professor Khoury had used work by the "renowned Islamist" R Arnaldez. Renowned by whom? Except maybe for other scholars eager to reinforce and develop the Orientalist tradition. For more information on what I mean by Orientalism I do recommend you read the excellent book with the same title by Edward Said. Arnaldez, like other Orientalists seeks to add legitimacy to his work by quoting from a marginal Islamic thinker and philosopher. He wants to prove his point by citing "one of them", in this way hoping to give his work some sense of authority. The modern day equivalent is with some American and British news stations quoting from "experts" such as Dr. Fouad Ajami and his ilk who tell the West what it wants to hear. The Pope, though learned I'm sure, is either unaware, or unwilling to recognise the motives of such "renowned Islamists" in their naive representations of theological and philosophical doctrines in the Islamic world.

This brings me on to a third point, where he seems to point with some satisfaction, that the 'new and improved' Christianity practised in the West had come to terms with a Greco-Roman heritage to produce what he believed, "could truly be called Europe.". He again is unaware or unwilling to acknowedge that Greek philosophy also had a huge impact on Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy and political thought. The Pope is not alone in such an impression, and even thinkers such as Bertrand Russell dismissed entire bodies of Islamic political and philosophical thought as some kind of crude commentary, which preserved Greek thought for the Europeans, who would ultimately put it to much better use. Insulting, and even more so when somebody in his position consciously or unconsciously subscribes to this superior belief in a Europe which is out to show the rest of the world how it should be done. This kind of narrative implies that history was nothing more than that of Greece, Rome, some obscure dark ages followed by a gradual awakening and fulfillment of destiny. The rest of the world is just an interesting side note in history, or so the Pope, Western leaders and Hollywood are keen to make us believe.

My problem is with this perception that somehow the West has the cure to save the Islamic and Arabic world from itself. Through a chivalrous missionairy zeal, the powers that be seem keen on assaulting these nations from a military, social and economic plateau. Western political philosophy is trumpeted as the end all and be all (The end of history and the Last man) and the Asiatic hordes, denied humanity, initiative and their own history are to be made into obedient consumers with "safe" values. A kind of American led Disney-world. The cultures of the East, and particularly the Arab and Islamic worlds were held in awe and reverence by Western European warlords and princes for centuries. Crudely attempting to rewrite history, the Pope dismisses an entire world system and it's billions of past and present incumbents to a horde of misguided fools. Rather than acknowledge the damage this idea of a "Europe" has wreaked throughout the world as well as it's benefits, Pope Benedict has simply continued preaching from the perspective of a man suffering under "The White Man's Burden".

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