Islam is the unexploded bomb of global politics. US foreign policy – the only foreign policy there is, for the United States is the only superpower – proceeds from the hope that a modern and democratic Islam will emerge from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Through democratic institutions, Washington believes, the long-marginalized Shi’ites will adapt to religious pluralism. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Islam, fixed in amber since the High Middle Ages, will metamorphose into something like American mainline Protestantism.
Alas, the available facts suggest that the opposite result will ensue: more freedom equals more fundamentalism. Not the secular Shi’ite parties but the pro-Iranian religious parties dominate the Iraqi polls. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood quadrupled its vote despite heavy-handed measures to intimidate its supporters; Hamas threatens to displace Fatah in the Palestinian elections this month; Hezbollah has become the strongest electoral as well as military force in Lebanon; and, most important of all, Mahmud Ahmadinejad crushed a more pragmatic opponent in last June’s Iranian presidential elections.
Islam was founded as a theocracy, such that the Western innovation of church-state separation remains alien to its culture. Is it possible for Islam to reform? A negative answer implies that Ahmadinejad’s January 5 call for world domination falls within the Islamic mainstream. He told an audience of religious students, “We must believe in the fact that Islam is not confined to geographical borders, ethnic groups and nations. It’s a universal ideology that leads the world to justice. We don’t shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world. We must prepare ourselves to rule the world.” The previous day, the London Guardian leaked a European intelligence report detailing Iran’s efforts to acquire technology required to build nuclear weapons. A very few writers, including this one, have rejected the possibility of Islamic reformation, to the stony contempt of universally accepted opinion.
Now Pope Benedict XVI has let it be known that he does not believe Islam can reform. This we learn from the transcript of a January 5 US radio interview with one of Benedict’s students and friends, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, the provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, posted on the Asia Times Online forum by a sharp-eyed reader. For the pope to refute the fundamental premise of US policy is news of inestimable strategic importance, yet a Google News scan reveals that not a single media outlet has taken notice of what Fessio told interviewer Hugh Hewitt last week. No matter: still and small as Benedict’s voice might be, it carries further than earthquake and whirlwind.
Fessio described a private seminar on the subject of Islam last year at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence:
The main presentation by this [start new-window link here] Father [Christian] Troll http://www.sankt-georgen.de/lehrende/troll.html was very interesting. He based it on a Pakistani Muslim scholar [named] Rashan, who was at the University of Chicago for many years, and Rashan’s position was Islam can enter into dialogue with modernity, but only if it radically reinterprets the Koran, and takes the specific legislation of the Koran, like cutting off your hand if you’re a thief, or being able to have four wives, or whatever, and takes the principles behind those specific pieces of legislation for the 7th century of Arabia, and now applies them, and modifies them, for a new society [in] which women are now respected for their full dignity, where democracy’s important, religious freedom’s important, and so on. And if Islam does that, then it will be able to enter into real dialogue and live together with other religions and other kinds of cultures.
And immediately the holy father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said, well, there’s a fundamental problem with that because, he said, in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through his creatures [emphasis added]. And so it is not just the word of God, it’s the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He’s used his human creatures, and inspired them to speak his word to the world, and therefore by establishing a church in which he gives authority to his followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there’s an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations.
The interviewer then asked Fessio, “And so the pope is a pessimist about that changing, because it would require a radical reinterpretation of what the Koran is?” Fessio replied, “Yeah, which is it’s impossible, because it’s against the very nature of the Koran, as it’s understood by Muslims.”
That is precisely what I argued in an essay titled You say you want a reformation? on August 5, 2003:
Hebrew and Christian scripture claim to be the report of human encounters with God. After the Torah is read each Saturday in synagogues, the congregation intones that the text stems from “the mouth of God by the hand of Moses,” a leader whose flaws kept him from entering the Promised Land. The Jewish rabbis, moreover, postulated the existence of an unwritten Revelation whose interpretation permits considerable flexibility with the text. Christianity’s Gospels, by the same token, are the reports of human evangelists.
The Archangel Gabriel, by contrast, dictated the Koran to Mohammed, according to Islamic doctrine. That sets a dauntingly high threshold for textual critics. How does one criticize the word of God without rejecting its divine character? In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.
I claim no originality whatever in this matter, for I simply follow the leading Muslim authorities, who are unanimous that Islam is in no need of reform. The immutable character of Islamic revelation makes the subject of Koranic criticism into a minefield. It is universally known among scholars that alternative texts of the Koran have been discovered in various archeological sites – something of an embarrassment for the Archangel Gabriel – but the subject has disappeared from the media.  When Newsweek in 2004 published a brief mention of the work of the pseudonymous German philologist Christoph Luxenberg, the government of Pakistan seized the entire print run. Luxenberg became famous for re-translating the Koran to read that martyrs would receive raisins in Paradise rather than virgins. One finds nearly 12,000 Google references to Luxenberg but not a single hit on Google News. The subject, once so passionately debated in editorial columns, has vanished from the media in their entirety.
It is dangerous to publish anything that Muslims might interpret as blasphemy, as Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest newspaper, discovered when it published 12 cartoons of Mohammed, some portraying the Prophet in violent acts. Muslim protests and threats caused two of the cartoonists to go into hiding. After Arab foreign ministers condemned Denmark for refusing to act against the newspaper, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen offered a near-apology in his New Year’s address.
Strange as it may seem, the pope must whisper when he wants to state agreement with conventional Muslim opinion, namely that the Koranic prophecy is fixed for all time such that Islam cannot reform itself. If Islam cannot change, then a likely outcome will be civilizational war, something too horrific for US leaders to contemplate. What Benedict XVI thinks about the likelihood of civilizational war I do not know. Two elements of context, though, set in relief his reported comments concerning Islam’s incapacity to reform.
The first is that Benedict’s comments regarding the nature of Muslim revelation are deliberate and informed, for his primary focus as a theologian has been the subject of revelation. In his 1953 doctoral thesis, biographer George Weigel reports, Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope,
… following Bonaventure, argued that revelation is “an act in which God shows himself”; revelation cannot be reduced to the propositions that result from God’s self-disclosure, as certain forms of neo-scholasticism tended to do. Revelation, in other words, has a subjective or personal dimension, in that there is no “revelation” without someone to receive it. As Ratzinger would later put it, “where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation’, no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed.” 
The Judeo-Christian view of revelation, as summarized above by Father Fessio, expresses the mutual love between Revealer and recipient of revelation, a concept alien to Islam. 
A second element of context is Benedict’s admiration for the US separation of church and state. In an essay published in this month’s issue of First Things, Benedict makes the remarkable (for a pope) statement that the US model is what the early church really had in mind. He proceeds from the famous argument of Pope Gelasius I (492-496) that “because of human weakness (pride!), they have separated the two offices” of king and priest. Neither the state church model of Northern Europe nor the secular model of France, Italy and Spain has sufficed, Benedict observes. But he continues:
Situated between the two [failed] models is the model of the United States of America. Formed on the basis of free churches, it adopts a separation between church and state. Above and beyond the single denominations, it is characterized by a Protestant Christian consensus that is not defined in denominational terms but rather in association with its sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world. The religious sphere thus acquires a significant weight in public affairs and emerges as a pre-political and supra-political force with the potential to have a decisive impact on political life.
It is useless to bemoan the fact that Americans do not understand what they are until a European comes along and explains it to them; that has been true since Alexis de Tocqueville. It is most promising that a European, indeed one who speaks with the authority of the throne of St. Peter, has explained the difference between the Christian foundation of the US political system and theocratic Islam – even if the explanation came in the form of a stage whisper. I expect this to have profound consequences.
Later in the same essay, Benedict takes up a theme I have addressed over the years, namely the moral cause of Europe’s demographic implosion (see Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003), writing:
Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen – at least by some people – as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire.
My investigation of the causes of Europe’s present decline was inspired by comments of then-cardinal Ratzinger in a book-length interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald published in 1996 as The Salt of the Earth. Nothing is really new in Benedict’s present formulation except, perhaps, his sense of urgency as the hour grows late and the moment of truth approaches. In the cited essay, Benedict excoriates the pessimism of Oswald Spengler, who claimed to have discovered a deterministic pattern of rise and fall of civilizations. Instead, he argues that “the fate of a society always depends upon its creative minorities,” and that “Christians should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority.”
I agree with the pope, not with my namesake. My choice of nom de guerre is ironic rather than semiotic. The fact that the West still has such a leader as Benedict XVI in itself is cause for optimism. It might be too late for Europe, but it is not too late for the United States, and that is where the pope’s mustard seeds may fall on fertile ground.
1. See Toby Lester, “What is the Koran?”, in The Atlantic Monthly, January 1999.
2. God’s Choice by George Weigel (HarperCollins: New York, 2005), p 167.
3. For more background see Oil on the flames of civilizational war, December 2, 2003.