- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

Nearly a year ago, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, touching off protests both violent and peaceful across the Muslim world. As if the tension that already existed and has been exacerbated wasn’t enough, now Pope Benedict XVI has caused a new controversy.

In a speech last week, the pontiff quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who called some of Mohammed’s teachings “evil and inhuman.” And, like the Danish newspaper editors last year, the pope expressed surprise when Muslims reacted with outrage.

First of all, no matter how provocative or insensitive the statement, reacting with violence is never acceptable. Sayyid M. Syeed, the secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, told me in a telephone interview, “We will join Catholics, Protestants, Jews — anyone to condemn such violence.” Nor does Mr. Syeed challenge the pope’s right to free speech. “No problem; [Pope Benedict XVI] can say whatever he wants to say,” Mr. Syeed said.

However, it is equally important to understand how these incidents represent lost opportunities. The purpose of such statements needs to be absolutely clear before they’re uttered, so that there can be no room for misinterpretation. It is time for everyone — but especially those with far-ranging influence, and even more importantly, religious authorities — to be more responsible about how they use their right to speak freely.

With the Byzantine reference, Mr. Syeed said, Pope Benedict “brings back the memory of crusades and religious bigotry.” When the Pope is responsible for leading Catholics worldwide into the 21st century, and when the debate over the clash of civilizations is no longer an intangible but real, it’s important to ask: Have his words really served to encourage people to move toward an interfaith dialogue, as the Vatican claims?

The Muslim world’s reaction makes the answer clear. Even the most moderate and Westernized Muslims will not tolerate insults to the Prophet Mohammed. But there is a clear distinction between Islam and Islamists. Yes, moderate Muslims should stand up against the extremist Islamists. But when every provocative comment takes a shot at the messenger of Islam, the opportunity is lost for reformist or moderate Muslims to join or encourage a healthy debate among all Muslims. It is an incomparable waste of a chance for real dialogue and a genuine examination of the faith from within.

It’s impossible for those who want to heal the breaches to engage in any bridge building, or to make any headway in convincing people that a moderate or reformist approach is the way forward, when such insults put everyone on the defensive. Each offense unites Muslims against Western prejudices and rejection — and the extremists gain more credibility.

Notably, Muslims’ reactions to the pope’s speech should not escape criticism. Muslims also have the right to say whatever they want, which means that they may react imprudently. But it would be wiser for everyone to exercise some caution. In particular, authorities should always remember that what they say can have a huge impact on the masses, and calibrate their public statements accordingly. It’s about more than merely reacting; it’s time for those in charge to assess what they want the Muslim world to become, and how they want it to be perceived in the world, and then act accordingly. They play an incredibly important role in whether people will behave with restraint and reason, or whether they will react with recrimination and violence.

For example, a member of the ruling party in Turkey is reacting to the situation in a way that can only be described as laughable, to say the least. Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of the Islamic rooted party, said, “[The pope] is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.” It seems fashionable for people to compare leaders who act in a way they don’t agree with to Hitler. But what does that accomplish? It sounds no different than arguments and name-calling between children. Things get out of control, and the focus of the controversy gets lost in the midst of the drama.

In this round, at least one cooler head has prevailed; Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said publicly that there is “no reason to cancel the pope’s trip to Turkey” which is due in November after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had cast doubt on whether he would still be welcome. It’s a good thing that the Turkish prime minister and foreign minister are not always in lockstep. Turkey should be able to provide appropriate security for the pontiff’s visit.

This is the time to prove that Muslims and Christians can trust each other and live side by side.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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