Saturday, January 12, 2008

The True Sense of the Regensburg Address

(Posted to my MySpace Weblog on September 16, 2006)

Reuters has reported this morning that Pope Benedict XVI has offered what can only be called a non-apology apology for having quoted the "brusque" claims of the Emperor Manuel II against Islam. In fact, the Pope did not even offer it. The Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone did, and it was an expression of regret for the offense which the Manuel II quote may have caused and not for the quote itself. Bertone said further that the Pope has great esteem for Islam and hopes that Muslims will understand his words "in their true sense." This is, of course, Vatican diplomatese for "You didn't understand the Pope's speech, you illiterate Mohammedan bastards!"

Needless to say, the non-apology apology will not satisfy the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the religious police in Saudi Arabia, the Libyan religious police, or The New York Times, which today called for the Pope to make a "persuasive apology". Well, if a lonely, cranky blogger like me isn't persuaded by Bertone's remarks, neither will the Paper of Record.

All that said, the Pope was right to have Bertone respond with pretty much the diplomatic version of "Nuts!" He was also right to imply none too subtly that those kvetching Muslims (and anyone else who has joined this uproar, e.g. the editorial staff of The New York Times) really didn't understand "the true sense" of the Regensburg address for if they had, they would realize that the Regensburg address was not so much a harsh slap against Islam as it was a root and branch attack on the protestantized/secularized West that the neo-cons wish to globalize with their Jacobin Wars for Freedom.

So, let's take a careful look at the address. The whole address is almost seven whole single-spaced pages when printed out. Of those seven pages, only one is devoted to the dialogue between Manuel II and the learned Persian. It is this dialogue from which the Pope takes that now very notorious quote. Discounting the one page of Ratzinger's fond memories of university life at Regensburg, one can fairly say that the rest of the text is a rather densely detailed philosophical and theological critique of the West. To be sure, no one sentence in that critique is nearly as incendiary as the one the Pope quotes about Islam, but if this address was his idea of an updated Deus vult, as the Libyan General Instance of Religious Affairs has suggested, do you really think that the Pope would rally the West to a bloody Crusade by saying, as we will presently see, that it needs to abandon its subjectivism which can only lead to more and more violence and return to the quiet study of metaphysics?

The question naturally arises then: if the Pope's intention was to critique the West, then why did he bother discussing Islam at all, much less go out of his way to quote a very incendiary claim about the Prophet, which the Pope had to know in light of the recent cartoon riots would at the very least provoke some Islamic ire? Part of the answer lies in Ratzinger's memories of his early days of the university, where, as he says, even the most radical skepticism with regard to religion remained reasonable. That is to say that even the religious skeptics acknowledged that religious matters were within the sphere of a reasoned discourse and that it was at least possible to approach the question of God with reason.

The Pope then contrasts this expansive view of reason's ability with an Islamic theology that makes God so transcendant that He has no connection at all with human reason. If this theology is correct, then questions about God cannot in principle even be reasonably discussed, much less find a reasonable solution, because this theology takes reason entirely out of the equation. All that is left is the will of God, and in a theology that can only focus on will, then only the strongest will can solve answers about God. According to this analysis Islam, despite Surah 2:256, has no other choice than to convert by displaying the stronger will, i.e. by the sword.

Now, of course, I understand why this would piss Muslims off, but reacting to such analysis of Islam with threats and histrionic condemnations only serves to confirm this analysis, not refute it. Remember, the Pope is contrasting this analysis of Islamic theology with his university days of reasoned debate, during which time he had reasoned discussions with people who thought the Catholic Faith was nothing but mythological drivel. Ratzinger did not burn his intellectual opponents in effigy. No, he set out to refute them with argument, and so if the analysis by Manuel II of Islam is just wrong, the offended Muslims should not just say so with their slamming fists but also explain why. They should explain why it is simply Western Imperialistic Ignorance to say that the Islamic conception of God is one that utterly transcends all reason. I for one would love to hear that explanation.

But I digress a little. It is clear that the Pope then was contrasting a world of reason with a world of violence, but why pick on an already insulted and humiliated Islam as an example of the latter? Surely, a native German could find an even more suitable example of an ideology that exalted the will above everything else. And here we come to the very heart of the matter.

Islam, or at least what is called "Radical Islam", is the new bogeyman of the West. Before it was the Cold War with Communism; now it is the Clash of Civilizations between the Liberal Democracy of the Enlightenment and Islamic Theocracy.

Now, when the Pope quotes Manuel II and explains his critique of Islamic theology, you can just see Samuel Huntington and his epigones slobbering and hear them crying out in a burst of nearly orgasmic revelry, "Yeah, the Pope gets it! Fallaci (God rest her atheistic soul!) knows how to pick 'em!." The Pope, to be sure, only prolongs this neo-con jouissance by declaring that this problem of violence and theology (as emperor Manuel framed it) poses a challenge for today, but look what follows. A neo-con would expect with drooling anticipation an endorsement of the global war on Islamic fascism, a clarion call to continue the fight, as George W. Bush puts it, for civilization, but the Pope disappoints. Instead the Pope shows how the West has through the development of voluntaristic theology, the Protestant abandonment of metaphysics, and the Enlightenment's instrumentalization of reason produced a reason so narrow that it must exclude not just questions about God but those of the good and the ethical as well and relegate them to the sphere of pure subjectivity. Thus, the West is in the very same predicament that Manuel II accused Islam of being in. The Pope does not say this, but the implication is clear: The West cannot now demonstrate the goodness of its new religion, liberal democracy, with argument and must, therefore, resort to force. The Pope does not give much of an argument for the applicability of Manuel II's claim to Islam, but he does indeed give one for why Manuel II's words fit the Modern West, but with this important qualification: The Modern West has deadlier power at its disposal than just the mere sword.

The prominent Saudi cleric Salman al-Odeh is reported to have asked in apparent exasperation these rhetorical questions: ''How can (the Pope) imply that Muslims are the creators of terrorism in the world while it is the followers of Christianity who have aggressed against every country of the Islamic world? Who attacked Afghanistan and who invaded Iraq?'' If this Muslim had bothered to read the Regensburg Address carefully, he might have discovered that the Pope has a little more sympathy with the frustration behind these questions than this Muslim cleric can now imagine.

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