The Pope, Jihad, and 'Dialogue'

The most important address commemorating 9/11/01 was delivered on 9/12/06, a day after the fifth anniversary of this cataclysmic act of jihad terrorism. It was not delivered by President Bush, and was not even pronounced in the United States. On September 12, 2006 at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture ('adding some allusions of the moment') entitled, 'Faith, Reason and the University'.

Despite his critique of modern reason, Benedict argued that he did not intend to promote a retrogression,

...back to the time before the Enlightenment and reject[ing] the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: We are all grateful for the marvelous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.

Christianity, the Pope maintained, was indelibly linked to reason and he contrasted this view with those who believe in spreading their faith by the sword. Benedict developed this argument by recounting the late 14th century  'Dialogue Held With A Certain Persian, the Worthy Mouterizes, in Anakara of Galatia' between the Byzantine ruler Manuel II Paleologus, and a well—educated Muslim  interlocutor. The crux of this part of his presentation, was the following:

Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. 'God', he [the Byzantine ruler] says, 'is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death'....

However, it is Benedict's discussion of the Byzantine ruler's allusions to  '...the theme of the jihad (holy war)'—Koran 2:256, 'There is no compulsion in religion', notwithstanding—that has unleashed a firestorm of condemnation and violence from Muslims across the world. Here are the words deemed so incendiary by both Muslim leaders, and the masses:

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels', he [Manuel II Paleologus] turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: '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.'

The historical context for these words—which were likely written by Manuel II Paleologus between 1391 and 1394—turns out be much more banal, albeit unknown to fulminating Muslims (here; here),
and Islamic apologists of all ilks, especially the disingenuous Muslim (here; here) and hand—wringing non—Muslim promoters of empty 'civilizational dialogue'. 

When Manuel II composed the Dialogue (which Pope Benedict excerpted), the Byzantine ruler was little more than a glorified dhimmi vassal of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid, forced to accompany the latter on a campaign through Anatolia. Earlier, Bayezid had compelled the Byzantines under Manuel II to submit to additional humiliations and impositions—heavier tribute, which was already onerous—as well as the establishment of a special quarter in Constantinople devoted to Turkish merchants, and the admission of an Ottoman kadi to arbitrate the affairs of these Muslims.

During the campaign he was conscripted to join, Manuel II witnessed with understandable melancholy the great metamorphosis—ethnic and toponymic—of formerly Byzantine Asia Minor. The devastation, and depopulation of these once flourishing regions was so extensive that often, Manuel could no longer tell where he was. The still recognizable Greek cities whose very names had been changed into something foreign became a source of particular grief. It was during this unhappy sojourn that Manuel II's putative encounter with a Muslim theologian occurred, ostensibly in Ankara.

Manuel II's Dialogue was one of the later outpourings of a vigorous Muslim—Christian polemic regarding Islam's success, at (especially Byzantine) Christianity's expense, which persisted during the 11th through 15th centuries, and even beyond.  The Muslim advocates' (particularly the Turks) most prominent argument was the indisputable evidence of Islam's military triumphs over the Christians of Asia Minor (especially Anatolia, in modern Turkey). These jihad conquests were repeatedly advanced in the polemics of the Turks. The Christian rebuttal, in contrast, hinged upon the ethical precepts of Muhammad and the Koran. Christian interlocutors charged the Muslims with abiding a religion which both condoned the life of a 'lascivious murderer', and claimed to give such a life divine sanction.

Manuel, and generations of Christian interlocutors, argued that the 'Christ—hating' barbarians could never overcome the 'fortress of belief,' despite seizing lands and cities, extorting tribute and even conscripting rulers to perform humiliating services. Manuel II's discussions with his Muslim counterpart simply conformed to this pattern of polemical exchanges,  repeated often, over at least four centuries.

Returning to Pope Benedict's now controversial lecture, even if one accepts an apologetic interpretation of Koran 2:256 as prohibiting forced conversion to Islam (see below), this verse was abrogated by the verses of jihad, for example 9:5, and many others in sura 9, as well as sura 8. Indeed Koran 9:5 alone is held to have abrogated (here, pp. 67—75 ) as many as  100 pacific (or seemingly pacific verses).

Koranic sources, in particular the timeless war proclamation (the Koran being the 'uncreated word of Allah' for Muslims) on generic pagans (not simply Arabian pagans), Koran 9:5, offers pagans the stark 'choice' of conversion or death:

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor—due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

The idolatrous Hindus (and the same applies to enormous populations of pagans/animists wherever Muslim jihadist armies encountered them in history, including, sadly, contemporary Sudan), for example, were enslaved in vast numbers during the waves of  jihad conquests that ravaged the Indian subcontinent for well over a half millennium (beginning at the outset of the 8th century C.E.). And the guiding principles of Islamic law regarding their fate —derived from Koran 9:5—were unequivocally coercive. Jihad slavery also contributed substantively to the growth of the Muslim population in India. K.S. Lal elucidates both of these points:

The Hindus who naturally resisted Muslim occupation were considered to be rebels. Besides they were idolaters (mushrik) and could not be accorded the status of Kafirs, of the People of the Book — Christians and Jews... Muslim scriptures and treatises advocated jihad against idolaters for whom the law advocated only Islam or death... The fact was that the Muslim regime was giving [them] a choice between Islam and death only. Those who were killed in battle were dead and gone; but their dependents were made slaves. They ceased to be Hindus; they were made Musalmans in course of time if not immediately after captivity...slave taking in India was the most flourishing and successful [Muslim] missionary activity...Every Sultan, as [a] champion of Islam, considered it a political necessity to plant or raise [the] Muslim population all over India for the Islamization of the country and countering native resistance.

The late Rudi Paret was a seminal 20th century scholar of the Koran, and its exegesis. Paret's considered analysis of Koran 2:256, puts this verse in the overall context of Koranic injunctions regarding pagans, specifically, and further concludes that 2:256 is a statement of resignation, not a prohibition on forced conversion.

After the community which the Prophet had established had extended its power over the whole of Arabia, the pagan Arabs were forcefully compelled to accept Islam stated more accurately, they had to choose either to accept Islam or death in battle against the superior power of the Muslims (cf. surahs 8:12; 47:4). This regulation was later sanctioned in Islamic law. All this stands in open contradiction to the alleged meaning of the Quranic statement, noted above: la ikraha fi d—dini. The idolaters (mushrikun) were clearly compelled to accept Islam — unless they preferred to let themselves be killed. [Note—Koran 9:5];

In view of these circumstances it makes sense to consider another meaning. Perhaps originally the statement la ikraha fi d—dini did not mean that in matters of religion one ought not to use compulsion against another but that one could not use compulsion against another (through the simple proclamation of religious truth).

Such coercion applies not only to 'pagans'. Princeton scholar Patricia Crone makes the cogent argument that those of any faith may be forcibly converted during acts of jihad resulting in captivity (including, for example, the jihad kidnapping of the two Fox reporters, Centanni and Wiig). In her recent analysis of the origins and development of Islamic political thought, Dr. Crone makes an important nexus between the mass captivity and enslavement of non—Muslims during jihad campaigns, and the prominent role of coercion in these major modalities of Islamization. Following a successful jihad, she notes:

Male captives might be killed or enslaved, whatever their religious affiliation. People of the Book were not protected by Islamic law until they had accepted dhimma (Koran 9:29). Captives might also be given the choice between Islam and death, or they might pronounce the confession of faith of their own accord to avoid execution: jurists ruled that their change of status was to be accepted even though they had only converted out of fear.

An unapologetic view of Islamic history reveals that forced conversions to Islam are not exceptional—they have been the norm, across three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—for over 13 centuries.

Moreover, during jihad—even the jihad campaigns of the 20th century [i.e., the jihad genocide of the Armenians during World War I, the Moplah jihad in Southern India [1921], the jihad against the Assyrians of Iraq [early 1930s], the jihads against the Chinese of Indonesia and the Christian Ibo of southern Nigeria in the 1960s, and the jihad against the Christians and Animists of the southern Sudan from 1983 to 2001], the dubious concept (see Paret, above) of 'no compulsion' (Koran 2:256; which was cited with tragic irony during the Fox reporters 'confessional'! ) , has always been meaningless.

A consistent practice was to enslave populations taken from outside the boundaries of the 'Dar al Islam', where Islamic rule (and Law) prevailed. Inevitably fresh non—Muslim slaves, including children (for example, the infamous devshirme system in Ottoman Turkey, which spanned three centuries and enslaved 500,000 to one million Balkan Christian adolescent males, forcibly converting them to Islam), were Islamized within a generation, their ethnic and linguistic origins erased.

Two enduring and important mechanisms for this conversion were concubinage and the slave militias—practices still evident in the contemporary jihad waged by the Arab Muslim Khartoum government against the southern Sudanese Christians and Animists . And Julia Duin reported in early 2002 that murderous jihad terror campaigns—including, prominently, forced conversions to Islam  —continued to be waged against the Christians of Indonesia's Moluccan Islands.

Recently, at the close of a compelling, thoroughly documented address (delivered  April 2, 2006, at The Legatus Summit, Naples, Florida) entitled, 'Islam and Western Democracies,' Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, posed four salient questions for his erstwhile Muslim interlocutors wishing to engage in meaningful interfaith dialogue:

1) Do they believe that the peaceful suras of the Koran are abrogated by the verses of the sword? (see here, pp. 67—75 )

2) Is the program of military expansion (100 years after Muhammad's death Muslim armies reached Spain and India ) to be resumed when possible?

3) Do they believe that democratic majorities of Muslims in Europe would impose Shari'a (Islamic religious) law? (see here)

4) Can we discuss Islamic history (here and here)—even the hermeneutical problems around the origins of the Koran (see here, here, here, and here)—without threats of violence?

Dr. Habib Malik, in an eloquent address delivered February 3, 2003 at the at the 27th annual Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Presidents Conference decried the platitudinous 'least common denominators' paradigm which dominates what he aptly termed the contemporary 'dialogue industry':

We're all three Abrahamic religions, we're the three Middle Eastern monotheisms, the Isa of the Koran is really the same as the Jesus of the New Testament.... This is politicized dialogue. This is dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Philosophically speaking, this is what Kierkegaard called idle talk, snakke in Danish; what Heidegger called Gerede; what Sartre called bavardage. In other words, if this is dialogue, it's pathetic... it needs to be transcended, and specifically to concentrate, to focus on the common ethical foundation for most religions can also be very misleading. Because when you get into the nitty—gritty, you find that even in what you supposed were common ethical foundations, there are vast differences, incompatibilities. Suicide bombers is one recent example. Condoned by major authoritative Muslim voices; completely unacceptable by Christianity.

Cardinal Pell's unanswered questions highlight the predictable failure of the feckless 'We're all three Abrahamic religions', 'dialogue for the sake of dialogue' approach to both Muslim—Christian, and Muslim—Jewish dialogue.

Eschewing the comforting banalities of his predecessor, Benedict XVI has acknowledged that real dialogue, as opposed to bavardage, begins not by kissing the Koran, but reading it. Most importantly, he is impatient with an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians limited to platitudes about 'Abrahamic faiths', which scrupulously avoids serious discussions of the living, sacralized Islamic institution of jihad war.

Until Muslims evidence a willingness to engage in such forthright discussions, Benedict appears to share Dr. Malik's sobering conclusions from his February 2003 speech:  'One certainly needs to be open at all times to learn from the Other, including to learn at times that the Other right now has nothing to teach me on a particular issue.'

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad.