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September 19, 2006
Well, Who's Slapping Whom?

I looked forward to E.J. Dionne's take on the latest outrage to spread through the Muslim world regarding the exercise of Western free speech and criticism, with both of us being Catholic but coming from different perspectives on the world. He weighs in today in a column that surprisingly blames Benedict for his rhetorical selections and blaming him for "slapping" Islam:

What went wrong here? First, if you read his intellectually interesting lecture, you'll see the passage on Islam was not truly essential to the pope's argument. Indeed, he argued at least as strongly against a liberal Christianity in which "the subjective 'conscience' becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical" and in which Jesus is reduced to being "the father of a humanitarian moral message." (Those quotation marks around the word "conscience" reflect the pope's skepticism of individual moral choice unguided by the church's teachings.) But then why did Benedict take his shot at Islam? And why didn't he pause to acknowledge that at various moments in history, Christians, including Catholics, have themselves been guilty of inappropriate uses of violence? ...

Benedict's defenders have a point when they question whether his comments fully justify the explosion against him in the Muslim world. A significant number of Muslim religious leaders have said some harsh things about Christians, Jews and Western secularists in recent years. Would that all of Benedict's Muslim critics were as critical of anti-Christian or anti-Jewish statements from their own side.

But that is precisely why all who are hoping for a liberalized Islam should take Benedict to task, and why he needs to use that great intellect of his to move this discussion in a different direction. ... It's true that Westerners who reject religion altogether may have trouble opening an authentic dialogue with Muslims. But religious dialogue will not progress very far if it starts off with a slap in the face.

Although we do not agree on much, Dionne is a must-read for me as he provides the best intellectual distillation of liberal thinking and usually makes challenging arguments regarding base assumptions. However, in this case, E.J. is just plain wrong, and considering the role freedom of criticism plays in his job, somewhat shockingly so.

Dionne argues that the dialogue between Manuel II and the unnamed Persian was not necessary for Benedict's point. He may be correct in that, but when I read the speech, I took from his example that the controversy over violence in religious conversion is nothing new. Far from Islam and Christianity being at "sword point" at that time because of mutual martial impulses, by that time Christendom had been reeling backwards for centuries from waves of Islamist expansion. The question is nothing new.

Perhaps Benedict could have chosen less inflammatory quotations to set the table in this manner, but that misses the point of the speech and the controversy. Benedict did not isolate Islam from other religions in historical impulses for violent conversion in any other part of the speech, but spoke about it more broadly. Even Dionne acknowledges this. However, one cannot escape the contemporary context of this speech, and that reflects that only one world religion still uses violence for expansion and conversion -- which is why Isamists became so irate about the speech. They haven't been insulted, they've been exposed, and they don't like it.

Dionne argues that everyone who craves a liberalized Islam should scold the Pope for inciting riots. However, that's exactly backwards. Any liberalized version of Islam has to afford people the right to criticize Islam without resorting to intimidation and violence in response. How can Islam reform when the entire world enables its temper tantrums? Does appeasement ever work? One would hope that a newspaper columnist, operating under the freedom of the First Amendment, would understand that. To reframe the issue on Dionne's terms, does he believe that silence in the punditry would result in a more open government, or a more oppressive and abusive one -- and if he believes the former, then why does Dionne bother to write his column?

I agree with Dionne that religious dialogue does not do well when it starts with a slap in the face. However, sometimes a slap is exactly what it is needed to geta hysteric to understand reality. Besides, when one side is busily bombing and shooting your churches and demanding your execution or assassination, and when they have increasingly oppressed religious minorities in their midst, one has to note that a slap is hardly the extant problem. When Muslims start flooding the streets around the world demanding an end to suicide bombings and terrorism, then we can hope for a liberalized Islam. One cannot start a dialogue with an adversary who refuses to allow one to speak.

UPDATE: Anne Applebaum gets it right.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 19, 2006 6:39 AM

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» More Thoughts on the Pope and His Muslim Critics from GINA COBB
Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters has more on the Muslim overreaction to the Pope's recent speech, including this nugget:Perhaps Benedict could have chosen less inflammatory quotations to set the table in this manner, but that misses the point of the ... [Read More]

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» Contrasting opinions on the Pope in the WaPost from Pundit Review
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Tracked on September 19, 2006 8:54 PM


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