Tolerance must flow two ways

REX MURPHY

It is not often that lectures on the finer points of theology and philosophy, delivered from so retired a venue as the University of Regensburg, turn the world, or at least a good part of it, on its ear. But it must be said as well that not every lecturer is the Bishop of Rome.

In Pope Benedict XIV's lecture, one that may be fairly characterized as both subtle and erudite, we have a talk whose explosiveness was almost entirely determined by a few words in it, and the fact it was the Pope who gave it.

Most of the Pope's address was a nuanced exploration of the relations between reason and faith. A good sense of the tone and nature of his talk, which is readily available in full on the Internet (see here), may be taken from this sentence, which contains, as I see it, its central thesis: "Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?"

Hardly a red-flag item, even for the most excitable bull.

It was a few words of that address, which were cited by His Holiness to assist in the illustration of an elegant argument, a quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, that ignited, or at least has been the occasion for igniting, a great storm across parts of the Muslim world. The quotation and the words leading to it are these: ". . . he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: '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."

That one-sentence quotation of an ancient emperor, from an otherwise quiescent address, has set off a fury of anger and outrage. Churches were attacked in the West Bank, there have been demonstrations, and the Pope reviled as another Hitler or Mussolini.

Pope Benedict has invited Muslim envoys for talks, and has twice expressed his regret for the reaction to his lecture, but — and this is not the same thing — he has not apologized for his talk. Nor should he.


These considerations are troubling. First, because the respect and privilege claimed by some Muslims is not afforded religions other than their own in their societies. There is a magnificent mosque in Rome close to the Vatican. Do I need to say there is no basilica in Mecca? One religion should not claim rights it will not afford to all others.


The fury in the Muslim world following the Pope's talk seems similar in two respects to the greater fury that followed the publication of those now famous Danish cartoons. The first similarity is that the volume and spread of outraged response gives every evidence of having been mobilized or concerted. That there is here, in other words, a "determination" to display outrage, less as evidence of profoundly wounded religious sensibility, than as political leverage against the West.

Not that I question some Muslims may well have taken deep offence in both instances, but that the offence taken has been magnified, and perhaps manipulated, for secondary motives.

The second point uniting these episodes, the point that I think the more consequential, is the expectation from some Muslim authorities that their sensibilities and beliefs are owed, as of right, a singular respect and immunity from all negative comment and remark. It is more than curious that those who don't believe in Islam should be expected to uphold the same codes of respect as those who do.

There attends this expectation, sometimes phrased as a demand, a further one: that should "offence" be taken, then whatever violence should ensue — be it rioting, the burning of churches, or death threats — must be laid at the door of the parties who "insult" Islam, not those who undertake violence in response.

These considerations are troubling. First, because the respect and privilege claimed by some Muslims is not afforded religions other than their own in their societies. There is a magnificent mosque in Rome close to the Vatican. Do I need to say there is no basilica in Mecca? One religion should not claim rights it will not afford to all others. In too many Muslim countries, Christianity is institutionally — and this is a kind word — disadvantaged.

Secondly, the rhetorical violence visited on Christianity and Judaism ("apes," "pigs," "crusaders," "infidels") by various Muslim spokespeople is both fervid and frequent, and in some of its expression, utterly eclipses in its ferocity and deliberateness either the bywords of the Pope here, or the famous cartoons.

Tolerance, like its elder, respect, is very much an equal current that flows between two parties. I cannot see how burning churches — as happened in the West Bank — or crude attacks upon, and threats against, the Pope, provide a foundation to calls for "greater sensitivity toward Islam."

There are precious things in the West, too, two of which are freedom of speech and critical analysis. Storms of outrage, and almost predictable violence after every perceived slight, leaves me feeling that the cardinal values of the West will wait a long time for a portion of that respect that parts of the Muslim world insist upon, immediately and in full, as their due.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy, "Tolerance must flow two ways." Globe & Mail (September 23, 2006): A19.

Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.

THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2006 Rex Murphy


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