DR MOHAMMAD MANZOOR ALAM on the furore over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam

The unfortunate controversy raised by Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in Germany last week has brought to fore the long and intricate relationship between Islam and Christianity. Muslims worldwide heaved a sigh of relief when the dust of the storm kicked by the remark began to settle down with the official declaration of regret by the Vatican on September 16, and a personal apology a day later from the pope himself.

Despite Muslim-Christian rivalries, periodic conflicts and occasional recriminations Islam has traditionally been sympathetic to a large part of the Abrahamic legacy contained within Christianity. Also, Islam and Muslims have always been respectful of Jesus Christ (PBUH) as respect for him is part of a Muslim’s faith. Traditionally Muslims have treated the pope and other priests with respect and dignity.

When Muslims see that the immense respect they show for Christ, pope and other religious persons is not reciprocated and, instead Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) are denigrated, they are understandably hurt. Muslims generally ignore provocations from American Christian religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell dismissing their loutish remarks on Islam as unworthy of serious attention. However, something coming from the pope " or even the Archbishop of Canterbury " is taken very seriously.

Coming to the incendiary remarks of the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus quoted by the pope, Muslims could not figure out what was the need for resurrecting a dead and forgotten monarch and his peeved comments on a great religion and its prophet (PBUH).

The whole idea of going back to Paleologus is anachronistic in any case as harping on the viciousness and brutality of Inquisition or even the more recent European colonial oppression of Asia, Africa and Latin America is. Emperor Paleologus, whose forefathers ruled some of the best Arab lands, was understandably unhappy with Islam and Muslims. After all, they were kicked out by their subject people when they (the Arabs) embraced the vibrant Islamic faith.

But what was the need for the pope to rake it at this moment of heightened tensions between the Christian West and Islam? Muslims can’t be blamed if they put two and two together and see everything " from the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the plans against Iran, and American-British backing of Israeli attacks on Palestine and Lebanon, to the pope’s remarks " as part of a larger Western anti-Muslim drive. Caught in the pincer of Western military and ideological campaign, Muslims do have reason to see the 2001 Nobel Prize of Islam baiter, VS Naipaul, the oafish remarks of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwel as a single strand in the Western ideological discourse on Islam.

Despite ideological and military onslaughts on Islam, Muslims have held on to their tradition of treating Christ, Christianity and its symbols like papacy with utmost restraint and dignity. Never is a slander against Prophet Muhammad replied to with an abuse (God forbid) against Christ, or pope. Muslims remember the Quranic declaration, "The Nazarenes (Christians) will be the closest to you in affection". Or, for that matter, Caliph Omar’s instructions to the Muslim army moving on to Byzantine territory.

The caliph had clearly told the commander of the army not to destroy the standing crops or trees, not to kill animals, not to attack civilians, not to harass non-combatants. He was clearly told that the people (Christians) against whom the Muslim army was moving had God-fearing, holy persons among them. They had to be treated with utmost respect. The priests too had to be shown due deference. The caliph’s commandments of 1400 years ago read like a prototype of the Geneva Convention of mid-20th century. Christian monarchs or armies (much less the European colonial oppressors of 19th-20th century) never had any such qualms.

That still leaves us with the question: "What was the immediate cause of the pope’s reference to Emperor Paleologus?" Well, we can only hazard a guess. We think he was upset over the rapid spread of Islam and the freedom struggle going on in occupied Muslim lands. That said, we don’t endorse (and no sensible person would endorse) the hooliganism in Palestine and the reported incendiary attack on two churches there. One wonders as to what kind of a "Muslim" one would be to attack a church, and that too in the holy land. Frankly, such behaviour is impossible to explain, and unambiguously reprehensible.

Finally, it all shows that there is no substitute for mutual respect, liberation of occupied Muslim lands and a just economic and political world order. The sooner we understand it, the better.g

(The author is chairman of Delhi-based Institute of Objective Studies)

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