The irony of angry Muslim mobs burning the pope in effigy for mentioning (in passing) in a lecture that Islam has a history of approving of forced conversion and jihad has hardly been lost on the commentariat.
Nay-the-less, smug western commentators have perhaps forgotten how recently burning in effigy was so common as not to merit comment in 'civilized' western nations. Burning the pope in effigy has a long history in England (especially on Guy Fawkes Day) and is still carried on by the most orange of the Ulster Unionists. Of course, the Ulster-ites don't in the same breath demand that we think of them as a people of peace -- so the irony isn't as great even if the smoke is much same.
And here in the states, during the two world wars, burning Kaiser Bill and Adolf Hitler in effigy was certainly not unknown.
Such strong feelings (or at least crass expression of them) have gone out of fashion in modern Europe and America. And that, really, is what makes the situations so fraught with irony. Various self proclaimed Muslim advocates have declared that the pope should show more respect for Islam and celebrate Christianity's similarities with Islam rather than its differences. That's not necessarily a bad thing to do at times, and yet, if (as the pope clearly believes) Christianity contains the fullest expression of God's revelation, then the words of the Emperor Manuel II which Benedict quoted are unquestionably true: "Show me just what Mohammed 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."
If we believe, and believe with conviction, that Christianity contains the fullness of God's revelation, then those elements of Islam which touch upon the truth do so only by parroting Christianity. And those elements which disagree with Christianity are false. And while a statement of "Whenever you agree with me, you're quite right" may (if disguised enough by glowing prose) seem diplomatic, the emperor's words remain the bottom-line truth, at least from a Christian perspective.
The sense in which Benedict has caused offense is that he has quoted a statement about the objective nature of truth (and that divine revelation as held by Christianity is truth) in a world which considers such statements rude and insensitive. Various spokesmen of the Muslim community have become all to used to using this modern Western disbelief in objective truth to win concessions -- and yet their words ring false, because they clearly do not really believe that Islam and Christianity should both be celebrated as true. They believe Islam is true and Christianity is false.
So rather than saying that they object to the pope's statement because it is insensitive, they should get down to business and say that they object to it because they believe Christianity is a false religion and Islam is a true one.
Forest & Mote provides some lengthy further thoughts on the historical sources of rage on the Arab street.
Standing on the edge of the groove
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