The Pot-and-Kettle Dialogue: Ratzinger’s Faux Pas and Karen Armstrong’s Rejoinder
By Syed Nadeem Ahsan, MD
New Jersey

Like Pakistan Link’s columnist Dr. Nayyer Ali, I too am somewhat nonplussed by the Catholic Pope's amazingly misguided comments. But given the benefit of the doubt ("Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity"), begrudgingly if necessary, the man may have a point about wanting to initiate a meaningful dialogue between two of the world’s greatest religions; not just a theological discourse but, more importantly, a political one that addresses such discrepancies as the ones that exist where it comes to Islam being the fastest growing religion in the West – implying the presence of the prerequisite freedoms that need to exist for this to occur – and any one converting to Christianity in an Islamic country facing very substantial, often fatal, consequences; and new mosques being built all across Europe and North America (often with at least some state funding), and the complete absence of churches in such citadels of Islam as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; and while Muslims in the West are free to roam, there are entire cities in the Islamic East where non-Muslims cannot even set foot; …the list is long.
Unfortunately though, whatever his intentions, Ratzinger's comments are little more than a case of the pot calling the kettle black. And as could be expected, the debate now is on which one is a darker shade of black, the pot or the kettle. It can be hoped though that this whole sordid incident would, if nothing else, engender useful intramural debate within the Islamic community itself such that our past could be evaluated rationally to come up a with a plan of action for the future. Sadly though, one does not see that happening.
There is indeed irony in the leader of the Catholic faith playing holier than thou. But it appears a bit of a stretch when Dr. Ali in his polemic completely denies Islam having been spread by force -- while in the same breath accusing Europeans of this crime; "In the great age of European imperialism, Christian armies seized forcibly most of the Earth's surface, and missionaries justified and followed the armies."
Both religions have an appalling record in these areas, albeit that, at different times in their histories, one or other of them may have behaved less atrociously than the other for a brief period of time. Neither faith is in a position to point the finger at the other. Nor, however, can either religion be summed-up exclusively by reference to these negative traits. On the whole, they have both been great civilizers of humanity and are part of our common human heritage.
But what of Arab and Turkish imperialism? Islam's early history when viewed dispassionately may simply amount mostly to Arab colonialism. What of the letters that went to the rulers of Rome and Persia with the Prophet's (SAW) seal? The message was clear: accept Allah 'voluntarily' or we will come and make you -- which is precisely what warriors like Abu Ubaida and Khalid Bin Waleed did. In 711, Moorish marines, after conquering North Africa in the name of Allah, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and into Spain. They tore across the Iberian Peninsula, crossed the Pyrenees, and made it deep into France before they were finally defeated and driven out of France by Charles Martel. Then came the ferocious Mamluks, and then the Turks, who overran the very inner sanctum of Christendom -- Constantinople -- forever transforming the character of the city to an Islamic one. I daresay the Muslims might have used a sword or two in this process!
Then, in our own unique context, there’s the history of the Indian subcontinent. If Muslims around the world are claiming 'hurt' or 'insult' at the Pope's comments about the sword being used to spread religion in medieval times, then how should Hindu Indians react to what happened to their culture in the name of 'true' religion? Perhaps Hindus could add some perspective to the current debate about Islam's past and the methods used to introduce non-Muslims to the compassion and mercy of Islam.
This is what the American historian Will Durant wrote in his first volume of The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, published in 1935: (At the time there was no such thing as 'Islamophobia') "The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precarious thing…. The Islamic historians and scholars have recorded with great glee and pride of the slaughter of Hindus, forced conversions, abduction of Hindu women and children to slave markets and the destruction of temples carried out by the warriors of Islam during 800 AD to 1700 AD. Millions of Hindus were converted to Islam by the sword during this period."
Remember, this was done to a Hindu culture that had never invaded another country and also had no concept of religious conversion, let alone forced conversion. Just imagine putting up with a 9/11-style calamity every year for 17 years when Mahmud the marauder came calling from Ghazni!
When the Hindus made their last big stand at Vijayanagar in the sixteenth century, local Muslim historians themselves recorded how it took five months to destroy all the kingdom's sculpture and art. They described how, loaded up with loot and slaves, the Muslim armies marched home proclaiming that there was not a breathing creature – either man or beast -- left in a fifty miles radius of Vijayanagar.
There has been much destruction in history in the name of religion, and we should put the past behind us. However, as we know, Muslims can't progress to a better common future if we are too sensitive or immature to acknowledge the truths of the past without demanding constant apologies for perceived 'insults'.
And with reference to Karen Armstrong’s recently published article in UK’s Guardian -- which has rapidly become compulsory reading for all Muslims -- in which she severely castigates the “Islamophobic Westerners, I would venture to say that she is arguably the greatest living apologist for Islam. In her article she demands that the West abase itself for all its crimes, but denies the very existence of any other culture's misdeeds.
Ms. Armstrong presents a one-sided view of history in order to support her thesis. She looks at the West from an Islamic point of view, rather than adopting a dispassionate, objective stance, which would more carefully apportion responsibility for the current crisis in relations. By her account, the West is intrinsically Islamophobic. But this characterization ignores the strains of supremacism and intolerance involved in Islam's past and to which the West is responding with wariness and increasing suspicion.
It'd be great if writers like Ms. Armstrong got over their racism toward Muslims, and started treating them as independent whole human beings, responsible for their own actions, rather than viewing them like Pavlovian dogs, unable to escape their conditioning toward violence and therefore blameless for their butchery. The real issue at the moment, for those like Ms. Armstrong who insist on the inherent peacefulness of Islam, is that 50 people a day are being tortured and executed in Baghdad in a war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. That the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and civilized cannot obscure the fact that ours has become a religion that can spin into the most extreme – usually internecine -- violence, which the perpetrators fervently believe to be justified in the eyes of Allah.
It should be unacceptable for anyone to react to a speech or cartoons with violence and murder. Period. Full stop. Calling for holy war against Ratzinger is unacceptable, as is shooting a nun, or burning a church. These actions are not caused by the West or by the speaker, no matter if you agree or disagree with the words spoken. These acts are caused by the people who do them. And until we come to grips with this concept, no progress is possible.
(The author is a pain-management physician based in Philadelphia, PA.
He can be reached at s.n.ahsan@comcast.net)



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