Just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks dramatically altered the future of the Bush presidency, the 9/12 speech of Benedict XVI will shape the future of his papacy.
Ever since he emerged smiling through the doors of St. Peter's, as the Cardinals' choice to lead the Church, Benedict XVI has successfully avoided reinforcing the stereotype of a tradition-bound conservative academic. He was not unaware, however, that the Catholic Left was ready to pounce on any miscue and hold it up to the world as proof of the disaster they predicted his papacy to be.
The Left didn't wait long. No less a critic than John Cornwell, famous for his depiction of Pius XII as anti-Semitic, announced that the pope's speech at the University of Regensburg has "set back relations with Islam several eras" (The Australian, September 18, 2006).
Cornwell fails to mention how the 9/11 attacks with reports of terrorist pilots plowing into American targets while praying to Allah put a stain on Islam that will take "several eras" to remove.
Cornwell, not surprisingly, connects the pope's criticism of Islam with the U.S. President and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. He quotes from the spokesman of an extremist Muslim group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, that the pope's comments "follow consistently negative, violent, and extreme descriptions of Islam: the use of the term Islamo-fascist by George W. Bush and evil ideology by Tony Blair…."
Cornwell makes no attempt to dissociate himself from the opinion of this extremist group. Indeed, the Left would love to spin the present chaos in the Muslim world into an indictment of the three most important defenders of freedom in the Western world.
Try as they may, it will backfire. Here's why:
In my last Window, The Ten Things Republicans Must Do to Win the Religious Vote" (August 27, 2006), I included the suggestion that the religion of Islam, as a whole, should not be "demonized." Yet, the level of violence in response to the pope's speech, including public calls for his murder, do nothing but encourage our worst fears about the Islamic faith.
For example, what are the quantity and quality of the so-called "moderate Muslims?" They seem to be hiding in closets all over the world because their voices are not being heard. I've observed no public denunciations of Muslims burning Christian churches on the West Bank, the murder of an Italian nun in Somalia, or the death threats against the Holy Father.
The Muslim reaction to the Regensburg speech will only strengthen the Western world's resolve to confront the threat of radical Islam, whether it is best called fascistic or jihadist. It will reinforce the resolve of Bush, Blair, and their supporters to stay the course in the Iraq war and keep the pressure on Iran to cease its nuclear enrichment program.
Benedict XVI's basic point at Regensburg was that religion, whether Christianity or Islam, should not be spread by violence or conversion at the point of a sword. Such beliefs and practices, he argued, are contrary to God's nature. I don't know anyone who disputes his point, but there are thousands, evidently millions, who do. Why they believe that an authentic religious faith can be spread by force is a puzzle to me, but even more so is the desire to physically attack someone who publicly questions this teaching.
The broader subject of the pope's lecture was faith and reason in modern culture, specifically how the role of reason has been diminished in religions such as Islam and Protestantism. None of the Protestants I know are calling for retribution, although they might disagree with the pope, believing his comments to be unfair and inaccurate. Of course, there was a time, several centuries ago, when Catholics and Protestants killed each other over just such theological disputes. We should remember that.
And we should also remember that a fight is brewing, with millions of Muslims who are not afraid to die. Unfathomably, they view the invitation to rational debate as the occasion for declaring a holy war on anyone who would question the tenets of their faith. (I feel a personal irony in saying this because the professor who first introduced me to the subject of the relationship between philosophy and religion at the University of Texas was a Muslim from Iran.)
Benedict XVI took the lid off the ugly truth about the threat of radical Islam and how that threat is supported by their concept of God. The god of radical Islam is nothing but, "I Am Who Wills," to emend slightly a line from the Book of Exodus. Now it's up to the Holy Father to find those leaders in the Muslim world, the kind who sat next to our Catholic negotiators in Cairo and Beijing, and defuse the time bomb that ticks ever faster.
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