By Neal AbuNab
Several churches in the occupied Palestinian territories were firebombed and attacked by overzealous Palestinian Muslim youths. It was one of the angry reactions to the Pope's comments that enveloped the Muslim world last week. But this kind of extreme reaction is abhorrent. As a Muslim Palestinian I find myself embarrassed by the misguided anger of our youth. I offer a most sincere apology to all Palestinian Christians and to the entire Christian world for such despicable acts. The violent reaction is inexcusable but I blame the dire economic and political conditions for this violence rather than the Pope's remarks. In the past few months, Palestinian youths have vented their anger against almost every institution whether it was their own parliament or the buildings of the United Nations.
Muslims all around the globe seem to have become hyper-sensitive to critical remarks and they are easily aroused by verbal assaults on their religion. It is a sign of insecurity for a culture that feels cornered, under siege and does not like or know how to be comfortable under a microscope.
Islam is going through a renaissance and it is hard to predict what it would look like in the end, but being in the spotlight is sure to have a sanitizing effect. The Pope has every right to speak his mind freely about a religion that has competed with and threatened his own for the past 14 centuries. He is in the business of selling spirituality and he is reacting to a threat that is eroding his market share. He is the head of the "Central Spiritual Agency" and he has the final say so whether we go to heaven or to hell.
Yes, I have heard it many times before; the Pope has apologized for the crusade. And it is time to move on and accept that ideas and theologies are not to blame for the endless crimes of man against man. The Pope was wrong to insist on quoting an ignorant Byzantine emperor and he was wrong in offering a half-hearted apology. I do not question the sincerity of his motive in creating an opening for real dialogue, but I suspect that he wants a piece of the limelight focused on Islam these days. His struggle or jihad has a different objective from the Muslims' jihad. He is combating the idea of irrelevancy and he has conceded that Europe has succumbed to reason and secularism. He wants a piece of the action in reforming Islam which Bush and Blair seem to have monopolized for the past five years. Muslims on the other hand appear as if they are resisting reform like it was the plague. They want to do it at their own snail's pace without pressure or interference from the outside.
I don't blame them because no institution will ever accept reform from the outside and especially from its competition. True reform always happens from within. Reformers from the outside are more interested in breaking down a competing institution and demolishing it in the name of reform. That was Reagan's strategy towards the Soviet reforms championed by Gorbachev back in the eighties. Certain Western powers seem convinced that they can follow the same playbook with Islam. They are mistaken and their insistence on this flawed strategy will only cause the breakdown of their own institutions. Islam is very strong in its flexibility and malleability and it is only a matter of time for its people to control the debate from both sides of the game. Islam has a tendency to suck in every reformer, thinker and theologian into its cosmic allure.
But I blame Muslim politicians mainly in Pakistan and Turkey who were the first ones to jump on this opportunity and ride a wave of demagoguery that inflamed the passions of their ignorant flocks. It is the same type of ignorance that issued a decree to kill Salman Rushdie for writing a book. Instead of engaging in constructive and enlightening rebuttals of the Pope's allegations, they incited people to violence. The Pope's remarks were wrong and the reaction was wrong, and no two wrongs can ever make a right.
The Pope seems to accept and preach the premise that Islam was spread through violence. He has not refuted or repudiated this ancient Byzantine distortion. I would like to debate the Pope and show him that no idea as noble as Islam could have spread so fast and so wide by the use of force. If he studies his own history he will find that his own Vatican papacy rose to dominance because of Islam. The founder of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne (742-814), was educated at the hands of a Christian priest who spent most of his youth learning in Arabic the civilization of Islam in Spain. This priest became Pope Leo III and with his student, Charlemagne, they subjugated and Christianized the Saxons and other Europeans by force.
It can be argued that Islam saved Christianity and Judaism from demise. The respect and confirmation of the divinity of Moses and Jesus are clearly established in the Qur'an. Such clear words from God, prior to the revelation of the Qur'an, did not exist.
I urge Muslim scholars to engage the Pope in an honest interfaith dialogue that does not shy away from highlighting stark differences while at the same time creating an open, respectful and peaceful flow of information that educates the curious masses on all sides. Islam is a decentralized religion and Muslims will not be happy to have an Ayatollah or a politician debate the Pope, because each sect and each group has its own opinion on the subject. The Pope is going to be debating many Muslims on this subject for a very long time.
And we should by all means have a constructive dialogue that will bring more peace and harmony to this world instead of creating more reasons for hate and violence. A civil interfaith dialogue that develops a higher level of tolerance, openness and acceptance of differences is very much needed. Faith is supposed to create harmony with existence and seek peaceful means to resolve differences between people.