Faith leaders : Pope has broken unwritten compact

Pope Benedict XVI has joined the club. Like many before him the pontiff has found himself at the centre of a free speech row. In 1999 Glenn Hoddle, then the chief coach of the England soccer team, suggested that disabled people were the victims of bad karma, punished for their conduct in an earlier life. In 2004 the British politician and TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, then presenter of a daytime TV show, described Arabs as “suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors”. Both Hoddle and Kilroy were eventually sacked, their defenders hailing them as free speech martyrs, cut down for daring to speak their mind.

The Pope won’t suffer Hoddle and Kilroy’s fate - the only authority that can sack Benedict wears a hood and carries a scythe - but he is already being elevated, as they were, into a symbol of freedom under assault. It’s as much a mistake now as it was then, a product of a repeated confusion over the nature of free speech. To be clear, we all have the right to free speech. In some countries that right is all but absolute, guaranteed in the US by the constitution’s first amendment. In Britain it is limited by laws on incitement, libel and the like. But essentially we have the right to say what we want. Still, we know instinctively that certain roles or positions of responsibility limit that right. Hoddle was free to believe the disabled were wicked souls trapped in damaged bodies, but he couldn’t voice that view and expect to hold a nationally symbolic job. Kilroy is now free to denounce Arabs, but he couldn’t do that while he was a presenter for the avowedly neutral BBC. The position we hold alters the meaning of our words.

At a 1983 British Conservative party rally, the comedian Kenny Everett called out, “Let’s bomb Russia!” A year later, a microphone caught Ronald Reagan ad-libbing a mock radio address: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Both had an equal right to make the joke. But it was rather less wise for the leader of a Cold War superpower.

Pope Benedict is in the Reagan category. Of course he has the right to quote whomever he chooses, but there is now a significance to his words that did not apply when he was a humble scholar. This is what makes the Pope’s defenders so disingenuous when they insist that he was merely engaged in a “scholarly consideration of the relationship between reason and faith”. He is not a lecturer at divinity school. He is the head of a global institution with more than a billion followers. So he has to think carefully about the sources he cites. When he digs out a 700-year-old sentence that could not be more damning of Islam - “Show me just what Muhammad 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” - he has to know there will be consequences. Again, that is his right but he should have known, given who he is, that it would have the most calamitous results.

That’s not because Muslims are uniquely touchy. It is rather because of two dramatic shifts in our world. First, religion is becoming more political. It is possible to have an academic discussion about the competing claims of different religions, but it has to be done with great care. Second, politics is becoming more religious. For many years people in Arab and Muslim lands have resented western meddling in their affairs: toppling governments, propping up dictators, invading countries. They have cheered on different movements to fight this intrusion, whether socialism in the 50s or Arab nationalism in the 60s and 70s. Each effort has been thwarted, usually with western connivance.

Today the lead movements of opposition are Islamist and, in their most extreme versions, seek to cast the battle of east and west not as a political clash about imperialism but as a holy war.

What makes me shudder about the Pope’s Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. If the most senior figure in Christendom effectively takes Bin Laden’s bait and says that, yes, this is a war of religions, ours against yours, how can this end? Such a war cannot be quieted by the usual means of diplomacy or compromise. There can be no happy medium in matters of core belief: Muslims cannot meet Christians halfway on their belief that God spoke to Muhammad, just as Christians cannot compromise on Jesus’ status as the son of God. Most religious leaders have long recognised that, and agreed to tiptoe politely around each other, offering a warm, soapy bath of rhetoric about “shared values” and “interfaith dialogue”.

Of course they have known that, if pushed, they would be obliged to say their own faiths are better than the others, but they have avoided doing so. Now this Pope has broken that compact and who knows what havoc he has unleashed. — The Guardian