The most striking aspect of Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam at Regensburg on 12 September was the way they harmonised with George Bush and Tony Blair’s propaganda line on the Middle East.
This cannot have been an accident. Nor can it be entirely coincidental that he delivered his message so close to the fifth anniversary of 11 September 2001.
These men are defending intervention in the Muslim world to sort good Islam from bad Islam.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 atrocity, Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, declared on Vatican Radio, “It is important not to attribute simplistically what happened on 11 September to Islam.
“It is true that the history of Islam also contains a tendency to violence, but there are other aspects, too - a real openness to the will of God.
“It is thus important to help the positive line... to prevail and to have sufficient strength to win out over the other tendency.”
At Regensburg, Benedict drew a more basic distinction between Islam as a whole, which “is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality”, and Christianity, in which “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to god’s nature”.
Compare these comments with Tony Blair’s speech in Los Angeles in August, which was his most comprehensive justification to date of the US/British “war on terror”.
Blair said, “What is happening today out in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and beyond is an elemental struggle about the values that will shape our future.
“It is in part a struggle between what I will call reactionary Islam and moderate, mainstream Islam.We want moderate, mainstream Islam to triumph over reactionary Islam.”
More broadly, said Blair, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon were part of “the wider struggle for the soul of the region”.
The Independent’s longtime Iraq correspondent Patrick Cockburn commented on this speech, “I only hope Al Qaida, Hizbollah or Hamas do not translate [the] speech into Arabic.
“Every paranoid paragraph confirms their claim that they are battling a Western crusade against Islam.”
The same can be said of Benedict’s remarks on 12 September.
This is the reason many Muslims around the world are outraged. It has nothing to do with the supposed irrational sensitivity of religious fundamentalists. It has to do with the war.
Aggressors in all wars lie in order to elevate their own purpose while demonising that of their enemy.
Benedict’s specific charge at Regensburg was that, historically, Islam has justified “spreading the faith through violence”.
The dishonesty is not unexpected, but is nonetheless breathtaking.
It was in the context of Western invasion of what we now call the Middle East that the notion of suicide killers being rewarded by instant paradise was sucked from the thumb of a pope a thousand years ago.
Pope Urban II raised an army in 1009 to avenge the destruction by the caliph al-Hakim of the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem (built around the tomb from which Jesus supposedly rose up from the dead).
He promised a plenary indulgence to any volunteer who died in battle.
In 1198, Pope Innocent III extended the offer to those who chose not to go to war themselves but who donated enough money to pay the costs of somebody who did.
Not even the most demented imam in Islam has endorsed the idea of sponsoring suicide bombers as a fundraiser. Nor is the idea of killing for Christ in the hope of salvation a quaint episode from dusty history.
There’s scarcely been a Western army gone into battle in the last millennium without some version of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” speeding them on their way.
Some of us can remember Cardinal Spellman of New York ceremonially blessing US warplanes on the runway before they set off to napalm villages in Vietnam.
In the meantime he invited US forces to see themselves precisely as “warriors for Christ.”
All religions are religions of peace, in that they can provide the personally troubled with an artificial sense of ease.
They are all, too, and more importantly as far as the rational world is concerned, ideologies of war, supplying a justification for slaughter transcending all earthly considerations.
Institutionalised religions have ever been available to endorse the wars waged by their patrons.
Benedict’s Regensburg speech cannot meaningfully be seen other than in the context of the invasion and occupation of Muslim lands by Western armies.
He’s a war propagandist for imperialism.