International: Pope's speech - slander cannot be met with slander

Dr Farish Ahmad-Noor
The repercussions following the statements made by Pope Benedict XVI are being felt till today, though by now the modalities of global Muslim protest have become evident and well-known to close observers of political Islam.
As expected, following the speech that was delivered while the Pope was in Germany recently, there have been hundreds of protests all over the Muslim world, calling on the Pope to apologise for what he had said and calling on the Western world to be sensitive to the concerns and sensibilities of Muslims the world over.
That such a reaction was forthcoming was to be expected: It has to be stated again that the choice of quotes used in the speech by the Pope was anything but enlightened, and that uttered by a man of his standing and delivered before such a public gathering, was bound to lead to a reaction on the scale that we have seen thus far. What is more, it should be noted that apart from the reaction from the Muslim world, there was little unease or disquiet about the Pope's speech elsewhere. Proof, if any was needed, that there exists an unhealthy tolerance for abuse of Islam and Muslims in many parts of the non-Muslim world today.

Furthermore, as it has been noted by the author Karen Armstrong, this pedestrian and common form of Islamophobia and prejudice towards Muslims has become so widespread that there now exists a common consensus between the conservatives behind the Pope and even secular Muslim-haters in the West. In her words: 'Hatred of Islam is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn. Neither the Danish cartoonists, who published the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last February, nor the Christian fundamentalists who have called him a terrorist, would ordinarily make common cause with the Pope; yet on the subject of Islam they are in full agreement.'

But here it pays to take a degree of objective distance from the issue and look at the matter from a broader perspective. While the comments made by the Pope were morally questionable both in their content and intention, one also has to question the logic at work in the reaction of some Muslims to the event. It has also been reported that many an Islamist group had reacted to the speech of the Pope with calls for violence and retribution: A stupid and counter-productive reaction if any, for it simply reinforces the stereotypical view (repeated in the Pope's speech) that Islam is a religion of the sword and that Muslims are fundamentally violent.

Consider the following statements that were issued by one radical Islamist group in Iraq, said to be linked to al-Qaeda: In its press statement the Mujahideen Shura Council stated bluntly that "We shall break the cross and spill the wine. ... God will (help) Muslims to conquer Rome. ... God enable us to slit their throats, and make their money and descendants the bounty of the mujahideen." In bellicose terms bordering on the hysterical the statement then proceeded to "tell the worshippers of the cross (the Pope) that you and the West will be defeated" and that "you will only see our swords until you go back to God's true faith Islam,." If the Pope's speech had done damage to inter-religious dialogue, then such a reaction was calculated to ensure that the final nail would be hammered into the coffin.

It remains an oddity till today that many Islamist groups react to provocation at a drop of a hat, and that their reactions often follow the predictable path of rhetoric and pyrotechnics. Fiery speech may gain a group some precious minutes on the TV screen, but in the long run they do untold damage to the understanding and image of Islam (both in the eyes of Muslims and other faith communities) that will take ages to heal.

It would also be hypocritical for some of these Islamist groups to demand an apology from the Pope while remaining blissfully oblivious to the venomous speeches and tirades that issue forth from their own ranks, be it in the form of mosque sermons, videos, pamphlets, recordings or death threats. Muslims cannot, and should not, demand respect for our faith as long as we are not prepared to show the same respect to the beliefs of others. Yet how many Muslims have criticised the extremists and conservatives in their midst, who continue to ply the crowd with sordid stories of 'Christian conspiracies' against Muslims, or with lurid accounts of the alleged 'decadent, immoral' lives and values of the so-called 'infidels'.

To reiterate the main point of this article: We are indeed living at a time when Muslim-Western relations are at an all-time low. It is also a fact that the divide between the Western and Muslim worlds is not a neutral one, but rather one based on unequal and unjust divisions of power, wealth and privilege. However in order to redress this imbalance and injustice on a global scale, a global view of the world is needed which sees humanity as a singular community. Divisive speech on either side of the divide will do little to help the situation; and if anything it can only perpetuate the very differentials of difference and power which is at the root of this injustice.

Stupid, insulting and even destructive comments from either community should be met with a rational voice tempered with logic and morality, and not threats of violence couched in the flimsy rhetoric of victimhood. If Muslims felt insulted by the Pope's comments, then we need to realise that many non-Muslims likewise feel insulted by the barbed accusations and slander that have come from some self-appointed spokesmen for Islam.

Where is the solution to this? Islam reminds us that logic and reason are universal qualities inherent in all creation. To abandon the way of rational, logical discourse at this stage would not only be an abdication of the responsibility to dialogue, but would also lead to a further marginalisation of Muslims on a global level. And above all, Muslims need to remember that in our reaction to abuse and slander we are nonetheless guided by a moral principle that is higher: One cannot react to slander with even more slander; anymore than one can react to racism with even more racism. If the moral compass has been lost by the Pope, our duty – as Muslims and non-Muslims alike – is to restore this balance, and not to let the ship of humanity flounder even more.