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Neocon pope
By Luciana Bohne
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 18, 2006, 02:26

Some Italians began to refer to Pope Benedict XVI on his ascenscion to the throne of Peter as "the Panzer Kardinal," a nickname bestowed on him apparently by his German curiae colleagues. This was a sly reference to Benedict's disputed military past in the last days of the terminally delirious Third Reich -- and, perhaps, to his continuing reactionary politics.

Today, a better label might be "the neocon pope."

In a recent lecture ("polemic" would be a better word) at the University of Regensburg, where he had lectured in theology from 1969 to 1977, Pope Benedict XVI apparently made the dubious decision to catapult the Vatican into the fray of the fraudulent discourse on the "clash of civilizations." Propagated by Samuel Huntington, the "clash of civilizations" thesis is an "orientalist" piece of policy-driven, pseudo-scholarly screed on "cultures."

An "orientalist," in case you are wondering, is a "scholar" in the West who reveals the workings of the "Arab/Muslim mind," the supposed hang-ups of Arab/Muslim sexuality and "cultural" values, and the opinions on the "Arab/Muslim street" to "us."

The "orientalist" does not allow the "East" to speak for itself. It interprets the "East" for us, often as autocratic, passive, decayed after losing its past "greatness."

The "orientalist" creates a "discourse," meaning a rhetorical construct, through which the reality of the "East" is filtered and translated into a kind of scholarly fantasy, complete with vested terms, that enable and justify the project of imperialism.

So, for example, according to the "orientalist," "the Arabs/Muslims" typically are said to be incapable of conceiving of democracy. Thus "we" must bring it to "them." "The Arabs/Muslims" keep their women submissive. Thus "we" must "liberate" "them." "The Arab/Muslim" religion has a tendency toward authoritarianism. Thus, "we" must instruct their clerics to be more "democratic." "Islam" has unfortunate tendencies toward violence. Thus, "we" must talk "reason" to "it."

Hierarchical thinking is rooted in idealist dualistic thinking, typical of western philosophy since at least the time of Plato, which maintains that reality is but a pale echo of perfect forms "out there" beyond the material world (God being the most perfect of "forms," the essence of perfection).

It follows, therefore, that Catholic dogma would fall into the trap of believing that it is the superior religion, since it worships the most perfect of forms -- not only the omnipotent, benevolent god, but also the omniscient one, the all knowing and all-rational one.

Not surprisingly, Benedict's lecture carps on the virtues of reason as the faculty that ties the Christian's reason to God's reason.

It is with this philosophical background in mind, that the pope's pronouncements on Islam must be read, unfortunately -- as an exercise in hierarchical thinking. There is "us," and there is "them." In this hierarchical thinking, the "them" term comes off as the lesser category -- the one that needs to learn from "us."

It is a way of thinking that has been under assault by philosophers, linguists, historians, literary critics, even scientists, and other thinkers since the sixties. Multiculturalism is a product of thinking not hierarchically but in terms of "differences." According to "difference" thinking, it is not a question of regarding cultures with a view toward deciding "either/or" but toward acknowledging that both terms may be valid in their context.

"Difference" thinking embraces cultures and can foster tolerance; hierarchical, dualistic thinking separates cultures and can be regressive because it sets one category above the other in merit.

"Difference" thinking can be democratic; hierarchical thinking often is not.

Turning to Benedict's argument, we notice that he implies that Christianity is the superior religion because it links human reason to God's reason whereas Islam's god is "transcendent," meaning, Islam's god stands above human faculties and does not connect to them. Muslims, by this inference, would appear to have a tendency to act irrationally because god's reason has not been passed on to them. Thus, the pope sees Islamic "jihad" as "contrary to the nature of God, who acts with 'logos,' which means both 'word' and 'reason.'" I might add, that the pope here exhibits a very limited notion of "jihad" which really is akin to the Greek concept of "agon" or struggle to strive to be the best, morally and socially.

One is also tempted to point out that the idea that "we" are rational and "they" are "irrational" is the oldest cliche' in the Western discourse of imperialism, which sought to "civilize" the not-quite fully human "primitive," "childlike," and "savage" tribes in the lands that Europe coveted for conquest!

The fact that the pope spoke with authority on what one can only suspect, by the sound of it, was vintage CIA propaganda on "jihad," conceived in the years of the agency-funded and trained "jihadist" fervor in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 80s, shows just how uninformed his platitudes on Islam really are. What does he know -- or want to know -- of the hotly contested and diversified intellectual milieu within Islam on the nature of Islam?

Judging by his remarks, practically nothing. Has he consulted with any historian of Islam in the "East" about which he speaks with such confidence?

Has the pope heard of Ali Shariatari, for example, arguably the most influential "rational" Iranian interpreter of Islam in the twentieth century? Shariatari sought to reinterpret Islam in terms of social justice. His notion of Islam, and particularly of Shi'i Islam, was as a potentially democratic force, capable of reforming Muslim political societies. His vision ran parallel to reformists within the Catholic church, who, since Vatican II, sought to return to Christ's teachings about caring for the poor, the oppressed, the "meek." Like the Vatican's own rebel priests and nuns who profess "the option for the poor," known as "Liberation Theology," Shariatari's interpretation of Islam did not call for a "violent" Islam but an Islam devoted to the elimination of social injustice for the impoverished and exploited Muslim masses.

This does not sound to me like an irrational "jihad" -- and it was properly called "jihad" -- as in the "struggle" for an egalitarian and democratic society, which, since the French Revolution, has been the struggle of Western societies for inclusive forms of democracy -- bitterly opposed, I might add, by the Vatican, with the notable exception of Pope John XXIII.

But, then, liberation theology is not something the pope wants to mention. "The option for the poor": Catholic jihad is frowned upon by the Vatican. Archibishop Romero of El Salvador, for example, died for defending the poor in 1980, but he has yet to be sanctified by the Vatican, while pro-Nazi, Croatian Archibishop of Zagreb, Stepinac, had no trouble entering the Olympos of Saints, in spite of a reprehensible record of collaboration with the Croatian Nazi-puppet regime that exterminated a good portion of Serbs, gypsies, partisans, and Jews in WW II.

And then again, who is the Vatican to speak for the supposedly traditional ties of human reason to God, having authorized the Inquisition to regularly barbecue Renaissance scientists in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome -- and other sites of papal roast-fests, broiling "heretics" throughout Europe -- and having hounded and terrorized Galileo Galilei into recantation of his gravitational theories? Poor Rene' Descartes spent his life shivering in fear of papal terror for pronouncing his faith in the integrity of the human individual as a rational being -- the very philosophy now championed 400 years too late by this pope as a badge of Christian superiority!

Ah, but the pope speaks on reason because reason can go too far! If, to quote from Benedict's lecture, "to act against reason is to act against the nature of god," then to try to substitute faith for science is the ultimate sacrilege. "Since the Enlightenment," Benedict opined in a mass prior to the lecture, "at least a part of science has engaged in rendering God superfluous and useless in our lives." Does he contradict himself -- is reason a good thing or not? Who judges when it goes too far? The Vatican! And who decides

similar issues in the "East"? Supreme Councils of Muslim jurists, that's who. Only the Supreme Councils have no "infallibility" provisions and are not a council of one!

And yet, the pope has the gall to speak against aspects of Islam that are "irrational" and fanatic, like any indoctrinated, US mass-media parrot of the official "war on terror" line. He says, "'Holy war' is against God, and fundamentalist Islam contradicts the prophet Mohammed." If you say so -- even if you don't bother to define or contextualize "holy war," "fundamentalism," or "Islam," relying instead on the sloganeering diction of the American neocon crazies and orientalists.

In a disastrous rhetorical choice -- or provocation -- this pope made a diplomatic blunder of the highest order in an already tense and strained moment in East/West relations. Why, for example, did he choose to quote from a historical nonentity like the Byzantine 14th-century emperor Manuel II Paleologos? Why, moreover, choose that particular quotation -- that Mohammed had brought to earth "evil and inhuman things such as his directive to spread the faith through the sword"? And what did Manuel's Muslim interlocutor say to that? Or was he, like the "orientalist's" "East," a construct of Manuel's imagination?

I must say, as an aside, that the pope has some chutzpah quoting -- without distancing himself from the quotation's assertion -- someone who condemns Islam for allegedly spreading the faith through the sword! The pope could have provided some background here on religions of the sword, but he chose, instead, to fake historical amnesia!

What, pray, was the imperial standard of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the guy who made Christianity the official religion of the crumbling Roman Empire? The "Labarum," or imperial standard was "a cross of light," described by Christian historian Eusebius, "as a long spear overlaid with gold" transversed by a bar to form a cross, within which were inscribed the Greek letters "chi" and "rho," (the "chi-rho" or initials of the Christ). From the spear was suspended a banner with the inscription in Greek, "TOUTO NIKA," or "Conquer by This Sign" -- "In Hoc Signo Vinces" in Latin. This standard applied to all of Constantine's neo-Christian legions and was placed on the legionnaires' military shield.

Don't they teach this stuff at children's catechism schools anymore?

Christianity a religion of peace? Give me a break! The Christianization of Europe was anything but "nonviolent." The Christianization of the Americas was anything but "nonviolent." Christianity, indeed, like Islam, may have been embraced as a religion of peace and justice and may be so taken by individual practitioners to this day, but the Christian hierarchy, especially at its apogee of political power in the Middle Ages, certainly didn't practice it as such.

Talk was cheap then and, apparently, is cheap now.

Meanwhile, Muslim leaders are calling for an apology for the pope's remarks on jihad, and for linking Islam with violence. The Head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), Dalil Boubaker, said, “We hope that the Church will very quickly . . . clarify its position so that it does not confuse Islam, which is a revealed religion, with Islamism, which is not a religion but a political ideology,”

[That remark would be referring to the Ayatollah Khomeini's "political Islamism"? Shariatari's "socialist Islamism"? Or the "Islamism" of the usual suspects -- "resistance Islamism," the one the US calls "terrorist" even when, like Hezbollah, it is a party of social-service providers with a military wing no one else, besides Israel, calls "terrorist"? The "terrorists' Islamism" of 9/11, which the FBI cannot identify as al-Qaeda's? See? Which "Islamism" is the speaker here referring to? If, in the Islamic context, the term is contestable, how can the pope, outside that world, pontificate on it?]

Turkey's Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the state-run religious affairs directorate, opposed the pope's planned visit to Turkey in November. His “is a statement full of enmity and grudge,” said Bardakoglu.

Haken al-Mutairi, secretary general of the Umma Party in Kuwait, urged the pope to apologise to the Muslim world for "calumnies against the Holy Prophet Mohammed and Islam."

Aiman Mazyek, president of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, reminded the pope of violent chapters in the history of the Roman Catholic Church: “After the bloodstained conversions in South America, the crusades in the Muslim world, the coercion of the Church by Hitler's regime, and even the coining of the phrase ‘holy war' by Pope Urban II, I do not think the Church should point a finger at extremist activities in other religions."

I agree.

I am aware (and was aware when I read Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture) that he was calling for a dialogue "between civilizations" grounded in reason, which would mean grounded in the essence of the divine essence.

I was aware that the pope did not "intend" to malign Islam -- openly, as his lecture has been interpreted by critics, including by me.

However, this dialogue he was calling for had one, huge, gaping hole right at the center of its argument. It was calling EXCLUSIVELY on Islam to renounce violence.

That, no matter how you spin it, is neocon propaganda.

How a pope, the head of a state which only recently had been brought to condemn the US-sanctioned Israeli attack on Lebanon, could ask Islam to renounce violence and embrace dialogue while holding up to it the example of an allegedly rational Christian faith as a paragon of nonviolence, able to ditch violence by the grace of embracing god's reason -- THAT breathtakingly blind and arrogant assumption passes all limits of biased judgment and uncharitable opinion and crosses into prejudice. The pope simply cannot apply to his own confessional faith the standards he applies to the other faith, Islam.

He calls for peace-loving rationality in the other's faith while failing to administer the same medicine to his own.

We must put ourselves in the shoes of people digging themselves up out of the bomb debris in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. We must hear the pope's words with the ears of these victims of objectively experienced violence, dumped from planes and caused by weapons wielded, as the pope sees it, by the rational, peace-loving Judeo-Christian West. Would the pope's call on you to call on your Islam to embrace nonviolence through reason find an echo in your ears? Or would you think the pope had no eyes or heart or lips to condemn the violence that destroyed your village, your home, your family, and your limbs because that violence is not violence when perpetrated by the Judeo-Christian West?

In your eyes, as the victim of violent aggression by the "rational," "enlightened," and "peace-loving," "Christian" West, the pope's words calling on you to make your religion more rational, gentler, less violent, and more in tune with god's nature might sound a bit eccentric, wouldn't you say?

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at



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