Creating people's geographies
Monday September 18, 2006
**SEE also Guardian Special Report (compendium of articles) on this topic**
Just as the scorching Australian sun dries out the bush to the point where the smallest spark can start an uncontrollable inferno, so the perception of a clash of civilisations evaporates good will between the faiths until incidents that might once have gone unnoticed can explode right around the world. The question now is whether the Pope’s citation of an anti-Muslim Byzantine emperor is about to become a case in point. Without disowning any part of last week’s speech, Benedict XVI yesterday expressed sorrow about “the reactions in some countries”. By the time he spoke, however, Molotov cocktails had been thrown at churches in the West Bank, and moves were under way to increase his own security following death threats. His ability to douse the flames was further called into question when an Italian nun was shot in Somalia.Pessimists can make a powerful case. The aftermath of 9/11 left some westerners falling into the trap of interpreting world events through the prism of a single global struggle against radical Islam. And then Afghanistan, and more particularly Iraq, left many Muslims viewing the west as waging an imperialist crusade, leaving them angry and hyper-sensitive. The result is a global tinderbox whose capacity to ignite was seen clearly last year in protests after the publication of Danish caricatures of Muhammad, which after a slow start reached violent heights. A year – and the Lebanon war – have since passed, and today the offender is no mere cartoonist, but the head of the Catholic church. Worse still, there are plenty in the Muslim world with a desire to fan the flames, while the Pope is a known conservative with a maladroit touch, which was seen again yesterday when, almost unbelievably given the circumstances, he talked about the crucifixion in terms that some are construing as anti-semitic.
With the Vatican claiming a billion Catholics worldwide, and an even larger number of Muslims, prolonged antagonism between between these faiths would be a global disaster. Yet for all the dangers, there are stronger grounds for hoping that this can be avoided. For one thing, any Islamist caricature linking the Vatican with George Bush’s war on terror would not stand scrutiny. The Vatican took a principled and firm stand against the Iraq war, and regularly runs up against Washington on a host of other issues. Wiser heads in the Muslim world are well aware of this, and realise that they need to work with the Vatican, which is why, for example, Turkey was yesterday suggesting that it expects that the Pope can go ahead with his trip there and why the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt moved to accept the apology from the Vatican, in spite of its ambiguous nature.
Doctrinal tensions, too, can be exaggerated. It is hardly surprising that Benedict believes Christianity is superior to other faiths – he would not be Pope if he did not. But that does not make him militantly anti-Muslim. After all, the offending papal speech aimed to highlight the wrongness of conversion by the sword – whether by Muslims, or whether, as in the Crusades, by the Christians. On the Muslim side, the need to distinguish the minority of Ismamist extremists from the far more numerous mainstream believers cannot be underlined heavily enough. Muhammad urged his followers to co-exist peacefully with those of other faiths, and Muslims can and do point to concepts in their faith relating to consultation and the rule of law that are not only compatible with, but supportive of liberal democracy.
It would be in the interests of the Pope to display greater awareness of the sensitive political context into which remarks about other faiths are made. It is still more important that the Muslim majority avoid being taken hostage by the minority of extremists who wish to turn this sorry drama into a global crisis.