To judge from the reaction of our Muslim brothers, you would think Pope Benedict XVI had called for a new crusade to the Holy Land. In fact, all he did at a Sept. 12 speech at the University of Regensburg was quote a sentence from an obscure Byzantine-Roman emperor’s dispute with an anonymous Persian scholar on the subject of holy war: “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Truth, as we all know, is no defense before Sharia law, particularly against the charge of insensitivity and blasphemy. Therefore Pope Benedict, in his two (and counting) apologies, had no choice but to plead guilty and accept his punishment like a man who will think twice before he again comments on jihad, suicide bombings, terrorism or any other rite of radical Islam.
Doubtless in the days to come there will be hundreds of commentators condemning the Pope for his insensitivity toward Muslims and for stoking the flames of hatred and resentment between the Islamic community and, well, the rest of the world. Just as there will be countless pundits and bloggers applauding the Pope for finally speaking out on the subject of jihad, and for — in their view — firing the first official shot in the clash of religions and civilizations.
Likewise there will be those who wish the Pope had gone further. Count me among them. Rather than relying on some emperor of seven centuries past, I wish Benedict had said that holy war was an oxymoron like “tax return.” I wish he’d reminded Muslims that this is the 21st, not the 7th century, that the Age of Reason began three centuries ago, and that the days of vilifying Jews and seeking their extermination should be ended.
Commentators will also seek to explain the Pope’s purpose in the obscure 14th-century reference. The Pope and his crack team of theologians and scholars must have known that the quotation would raise the ire of Muslims and perhaps spark riots similar to the Danish Khartoon massacre. The Pope must have known that he’d be moved to the top of every jihadist hit list. Some of Benedict’s defenders, like German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, suggest he was hoping to start a dialogue based on reason, an attribute that, the Pope acknowledges, is in short supply in Islamic countries. I sincerely hope the Vatican knew better than that. Trying to have a dialogue with Muslims — particularly over an issue of doctrine like jihad — is like trying to dialogue with a dog once he sees a cat. For many Muslims, their idea of dialog is, “Apologize, you infidel swine-eater! The Koran is right, you are wrong. Period.”
THE DIFFICULTY, TO MY mind, is figuring out why the Pope chose to cite this particular quotation from this particular nonentity? Certainly many popes have made similar statements about jihad and Benedict would have had a plethora of popes to quote from. It is therefore instructive to learn more about Manuel II Paleologus. He was, foremost, the antepenultimate emperor of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire. At the time of his reign (1391-1425) the Muslim Turks had their sights set on the empire’s capital of Constantinople. In 1399, Manuel traveled to England, France, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, and Aragon seeking assistance from the various monarchs and courts. His visit was a complete bust. The split between the Greek Orthodox and Roman churches proved too wide. Unless the Greeks agreed to join the Roman Church there would be no troops, no assistance, and the Greeks were not about to surrender their autonomy to Rome, not even to save the empire, their religion and their lives.
The result: Within a few years the Turks would take Constantinople, rename it Istanbul, and the Roman-Byzantine Empire would disappear forever from the earth. (In an ironic aside, Manuel’s son Constantine, the last Byzantine-Roman emperor, was killed in battle defending the capital. Legend has it that he discarded his purple cloak and charged into the fray taking so many cuts and blows that his corpse was unrecognizable. Thus, the last Roman emperor was laid to rest in a mass grave.)
I suspect that the Pope was hoping to make the point that unless the West comes together, heals its divisions, and faces the threat of radical Islam together, it may face a similar fate as the Roman-Byzantine Empire. Naturally Benedict couldn’t come right and make such a bald statement — just as Benedict’s predecessor Pope Pius XII had to be similarly circumspect during Nazi rule — so he couched his remark in an obscure reference by a forgotten historical figure. The pope knew that he would have to apologize later for his statement, still he believed it important enough to risk it.
For the first time since the mid-14th century Manuel II has returned to the world’s consciousness. It’s as though he’s been waiting, nearly 700 years, for just this occasion. On his behalf I’d like to say one thing: “Apologize, hell. I mean what I said, and I said what I mean.”