Is what divides Islam and the West a minor misunderstanding, or an incipient war of civilizations? One’s answer often depends on whether one sees Islam as a variant of Christianity or Judaism, or a pagan conqueror cult. Pat Robertson, the prominent American evangelical, claims, “The struggle is whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is Supreme.”

President George W. Bush and his advisors, by contrast, aver that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, an argument restated recently by Daniel Pipes, a neo-conservative Middle East analyst. “However hostile political relations may be, a common ‘children of Abraham’ bond does exist and its exploration can one day provide a basis for interfaith comity,” wrote Pipes.[1]

No individual can speak for Christendom in such matters, but the most prominent voice belongs to the pope, the leader of the oldest and largest Christian denomination. Although Benedict XVI has expressed sympathy for Islam, he states quite plainly that the “martyr ideology” of Islamist terrorists amounts to an odious form of idol worship. Most Muslims, and emphatically the Muslim clergy, support this “martyr ideology.”

The pope made these comments at the anniversary celebrations of the Allies’ Normandy landing, at Caen Cathedral on December 6, 2004 [2], and included them in a German-language volume released last March [3], just as he was elected to the papacy. The title translates as “Values in Times of Upheaveal.” Had these remarks appeared in English, they no doubt would have stirred up controversy, but it is surprising that they were ignored in the world press.

Benedict argues that peace flows from the informed conscience, which in turn causes men to band together to share responsibility for justice. With the prostration of European Christianity, conscience turns into an instrument of secular ideology, whose cynicism and self-interest leads men to turn on their neighbors. Quite the opposite of a pacifist pladoyer (final speech) , Benedict’s book warns that the West must strengthen its own values in order to achieve peace:

The graves of World War II present us with a mandate. It is to strengthen the forces of the good, to support, work, live and suffer for those values and truths which God has established to hold the world together. God promised Abraham that he would not destroy the city of Sodom if 10 just men were to be found there. We should make every effort to make sure that the 10 just men are not lacking who might save a city.

As a practical matter, Benedict XVI stands closer to Robertson than to Bush. He did not say that Muslims worshiped idols, but he denounced the “martyr ideology of terrorists,” which “turns God into an idol by which man worships his own will.” Given that the great majority of Muslims, and particularly Muslim clerics, support suicide bombing, the pope in effect averred that idol-worshipers comprise the Islamic mainstream.

Unlike American evangelicals, the pope does not eschew Islam as such. On the contrary, in a May 13 speech before the Italian senate, he stated:

The rebirth of Islam is not only bound up with the new material riches of the Muslim lands, but also it is fed by the knowledge that Islam is in a position to offer a spiritual base that is valid for the life of a people. The traditional Christian basis that made Europe seems to be fleeing from the land of the old Europe, which, notwithstanding the persistence of its political and spiritual power, has come to be seen ever more as condemned to decline and crumble.

Benedict’s respect for Islam does not vitiate his abhorrence of religious terror, however. Here is the full citation from the December 2004 speech:

God, or divinity, can turn into the means to make absolute one’s own power and one’s own interests. An image of God that has been turned thus into an instrument of partisan interests, that identifies God’s absoluteness with one’s own community or its set of interests, destroys law and morality, by elevating what is relative into the absolute. The good then becomes whatever serves one’s own power. The actual difference collapses between good and evil. Morality and law become instruments of partisan policy. This gets even worse when religious fanaticism, the fanaticism of the absolute, informs the will to put everything in the service of one’s own interests, and thus turns completely blind and brutal. God has become an idol by which man worships his own will. That is what we see in the martyr ideology of the terrorists, which, to be sure, in isolated cases simply expresses desperation at the injustice of the world. By the way, we also have before us Western sects that are examples of irrationalism and perversion of the religious, and show how dangerous religion becomes when it loses its compass. [4]

We may assume that the pope is well aware that the vast preponderance of Muslim opinion supports the “martyr ideology of the terrorists.” Last year, the Pew Global Attitudes Project [5] polled Muslims in four countries, all nominally allied to the United States, as to whether suicide bombings were justifiable. In three of the four countries, substantial majorities declared that suicide bombings were justified not only by Palestinians against Israelis, but also by Iraqis against American soldiers.

By Palestinians against Israelis
Against Americans and Westerners in Iraq

Because Islam has no centralized religious leadership, it is hard to quantify the extent to which Muslim clergy promote terrorist “martyr ideology,” but anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that the great majority of Muslim religious leaders support suicide bombings, for example. Among Sunni Muslims, the leading authority is Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque. Sheikh Tantawi has gone back and forth on the issue several times, but his most recent pronouncement (in May 2004) held that circumstances warranted Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis, adding that anyone who blew himself up while defending Islam against an aggressor died a martyr’s death. [6] A survey of the debate among Muslim clerics about suicide attacks by Haim Malka appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the Middle East Quarterly, concluding:

Since the outbreak of the current Palestinian intifada, in September 2000, the Palestinian resort to suicide attacks has won widespread Arab public acceptance as a legitimate form of resistance against Israeli occupation. Some Muslim clerics and other commentators justify them on political, moral and religious grounds. Even those attackers who bomb and kill women and children are hailed as martyrs for their heroism in confronting the enemy. [7]

Benedict XVI does not set out to attack Islam, but to preach to the secularized West. His mission is evangelical, not political. He warns against raising the banner of secular enlightenment against “fanatical” Islam:

It appears that two great cultural systems are crashing against each other – the “West” and Islam. To be sure, they embody quite different forms of power and moral orientation. But what is this “West”? And what is this “Islam”? Both are multi-layered worlds with great internal differences – worlds which act upon each other in many ways. The crude contraposition of the West and Islam is inappropriate. Many commentators tend to deepen the contrast by counterposing enlightened reason to a fanatical, fundamentalist form of religion. That would make the order of the day to destroy fundamentalism in all of its forms and help reason to its ultimate victory, which would tolerate enlightened forms of religion, but only because it recognizes them to be enlightened, because they subject themselves to the criteria of reason. [8]

The failings of Islam as practiced by Muslims are a mirror in which the West can see its own failings, in the pope’s account. Secular ideology, which in its extreme forms produced fascism and communism, worships the brute will with the same idolatrous fervor that drives the Islamist suicide bomber. Benedict ignores the critique of Islamic theology produced by such Catholic writers as Alain Besancon (see Has Islam become the issue? Asia Times Online, May 4, 2004). Rather, he holds accountable Islam as well as the West for the perversion of moral purposes in the service of the will.

No one should mistake for sentimentality Benedict’s demand that the West hold itself accountable for its own flaws, however. The present pope sees the world with brutal clarity and makes no excuses for an Islamist ideology that recalls the ideology of the Germany of his youth.

Im Deutschen luegt man, wenn man hoeflich ist,” said J W Goethe – if you are polite in German, you are lying. In his mother tongue, the pope writes with Teutonic candor; it might be a good thing that few Muslims read German.

[1] Is Allah God? by Daniel Pipes, New York Sun, June 28

[2] See Auf der Suche nach dem Frieden. No English translation of this address appears to have been circulated on the Internet.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs (Verlag Herder: Freiburg in Breisgau 2005). 156 pages, euro 8.90. Page 142 (my translation).

[4] op cit, page 131.

[5] A year after Iraq war , released March 16, 2004.

[6] “Anatomy of a Flip-Flop,” by Hadia Mostafa, in Egypt Today, June 2004.

[7] Must Innocents Die? The Islamic Debate over Suicide Attacks

[8] Benedict XVI, op. cit, page 130.

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