In a world less given to wiggly brain waves amongst the homo sapiens element, the current brouhaha over Herr Ratzinger’s sampling of a stone-cold anti-Islam riff from a long, long, dead, dead man would of course occasion less comment and reaction than the latest permutations of the Paris Hilton DUI case. (Itself deserving of less-than-zero attention). For what the Pope’s boneheaded recitation, and the heated reaction to it by Muslims (actually an infinitesimal percentage of the world’s vast Muslim population), really boils down to is this:

German guy: “My rather absurd cult based on a highly selective, historically conditioned and ruthlessly hidebound understanding of the Bronze Age Middle Eastern desert god is better than yours!”

An infinitesimal percentage of Muslims: “No, it’s not. Our rather absurd cult based on a highly selective, historically conditioned and ruthlessly hidebound understanding of the Bronze Age Middle Eastern desert god is better !”

Unfortunately for those of us who don’t hold high office in the Bush Administration, we must deal with reality as we find it, not as we might wish it to be. And the reality is that when some guy called the pope dredges up an ancient quote about Mohammed bringing evil into the world, it’s going to goose a lot of people the wrong way. That’s just how it is, and that’s just what happened. It will doubtless blow over soon enough — despite the fervent wishes of America’s right-wing jihadis, forever hoping for something, anything, that will lead to a full-blown war of conquest, conversion and/or extermination against the devilish Saracens (as long as said right-wing jihadis don’t have to actually fight said full-blown war, natch). But while the Bronze Age imbroglio is still stirring, the Guardian offered some telling insights on the matter.

First, in a letter from Dr. Jon Cloke of Newcastle University, who writes:

If I were a Muslim I don’t know what I’d find more surreal; being lectured on the “evil and inhuman” nature of my beliefs by an ex-member of the Hitler Youth, or the fact that when Manuel II Palaeologus wrote his infamous letter he was sitting in the ruins of an empire still shattered by the attentions of Pope Innocent III’s fourth Crusade in 1204, a violent sack in which a large part of the population was massacred by their fellow Christians.

This particular example of spreading the Christian faith so unimpressed the late John Paul II that he was moved to comment: “How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust,” in an address in which he also apologised to Muslims for the Crusades. If Muhammad did command the spreading of the faith by the sword, what was he doing if not following the Catholic example?

And then the remarkable scholar Karen Amstrong takes it a bit deeper in her column, We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam. Some excerpts:

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted, without qualification and with apparent approval, the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II: “Show me just what Muhammad 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.” The Vatican seemed bemused by the Muslim outrage occasioned by the Pope’s words, claiming that the Holy Father had simply intended “to cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, and obviously also towards Islam”…..

Our Islamophobia dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is entwined with our chronic anti-semitism. Some of the first Crusaders began their journey to the Holy Land by massacring the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley; the Crusaders ended their campaign in 1099 by slaughtering some 30,000 Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. It is always difficult to forgive people we know we have wronged. Thenceforth Jews and Muslims became the shadow-self of Christendom, the mirror image of everything that we hoped we were not – or feared that we were.

The fearful fantasies created by Europeans at this time endured for centuries and reveal a buried anxiety about Christian identity and behaviour. When the popes called for a Crusade to the Holy Land, Christians often persecuted the local Jewish communities: why march 3,000 miles to Palestine to liberate the tomb of Christ, and leave unscathed the people who had – or so the Crusaders mistakenly assumed – actually killed Jesus. Jews were believed to kill little children and mix their blood with the leavened bread of Passover: this “blood libel” regularly inspired pogroms in Europe, and the image of the Jew as the child slayer laid bare an almost Oedipal terror of the parent faith.

Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. It was when the Christians of Europe were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims in the Middle East that Islam first became known in the west as the religion of the sword. At this time, when the popes were trying to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy, Muhammad was portrayed by the scholar monks of Europe as a lecher, and Islam condemned – with ill-concealed envy – as a faith that encouraged Muslims to indulge their basest sexual instincts. At a time when European social order was deeply hierarchical, despite the egalitarian message of the gospel, Islam was condemned for giving too much respect to women and other menials.

In a state of unhealthy denial, Christians were projecting subterranean disquiet about their activities on to the victims of the Crusades, creating fantastic enemies in their own image and likeness. This habit has persisted. The Muslims who have objected so vociferously to the Pope’s denigration of Islam have accused him of “hypocrisy”, pointing out that the Catholic church is ill-placed to condemn violent jihad when it has itself been guilty of unholy violence in crusades, persecutions and inquisitions and, under Pope Pius XII, tacitly condoned the Nazi Holocaust….

We simply cannot afford this type of bigotry. The trouble is that too many people in the western world unconsciously share this prejudice, convinced that Islam and the Qur’an are addicted to violence. The 9/11 terrorists, who in fact violated essential Islamic principles, have confirmed this deep-rooted western perception and are seen as typical Muslims instead of the deviants they really were.

With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity. The Qur’an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.

The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet’s death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations. Until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur’anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own….

Or as Bob the Bard says: “For the love of God, y’all take pity on yourselves….”

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