Religious Bullies

It is no coincidence that Rosie O’Donnell is not afraid to conflate “radical” Christians with Islamic terrorists on television. It is no accident that that Madonna is willing to mount a crucifix to entertain us. The calculation of consequences is not difficult. Some Christians will be offended, but all they will do is complain. Other people will praise O’Donnell’s and Madonna’s faux courage, while the controversy will increase their marketability.

Pope Benedict XVI learned that the calculation changes when one even indirectly criticizes Islam. On September 12, he delivered a papal address at the University of Regensburg on the relationship between faith and reason. The essence of the talk was the observation that Christianity and the Greek tradition of logic had reached a synthesis. Faith and reason are not exclusive, but complimentary.

One consequence of this accommodation is the recognition — not always, but generally, respected by Christians — that faith can only be spread by moral witness and persuasion built on reason. Pope Benedict argued that reason and openness are the only foundation upon which there can be honest dialogue between faiths.

In passing, the Pope cited a fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor who said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find thing only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The Pope did not argue that this was the essence of Islam or that it was his view of Islam. Indeed, he cited the part of the Koran, (Surah 2) “There is no compulsion in religion.”

Even if upset about the negative portrayal of Islam by someone dead over six-hundred years, Muslims faithful to a more modern interpretation of Islam, one that had reached an understanding between faith and religion, would have understood the intellectual and exploratory nature of the Pope’s remarks. Even after the Pope expressed regret about the misinterpretation of his remarks, a large number of Muslims appeared eager to remain offended and threaten the Pope. There is more than a little irony in the observation that when Islam is indirectly criticized for unreasonably resorting to violence, some Islamist threatened the Pope, burn churches, and slay a nun.

As Charles Krauthammer argued, “the inconvenient truth is that after centuries of religious wars, Christendom long ago gave it up. It is a simple and undeniable fact that the violent purveyors of monotheistic religion today are self-proclaimed warriors for Islam who shout ‘God is great’ as they slit the throats of infidels — such as those of the flight crews on Sept. 11, 2001 — and are then celebrated as heroes and martyrs.

There is an important if not quantifiable portion of modern Islam, maybe just the loudest and most conspicuous, which is not only intolerant, but does not even have a fully developed theology or understanding of religious toleration. What remains is the theology of the religious bully. The distinction between that part of Islam that has embraced religious tolerance and that part that has not is relatively easy to recognize. The element that embraces tolerance does not react violently when criticized and refrains from suggesting that Christians are swine and Jews are apes.

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