Tuesday, September 19, 2006

If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, political correctness is the tribute intelligence must pay to ignorance.

That’s the moral in the controversy between Benedict XVI and radical Muslims, which cooler heads are working to prevent becoming a war between the Vatican and the “religion of peace.”

The chronology of this dispute is a ride through the fun house: The pope, in a theological lecture to scholars at a Roman Catholic university in a small town in Germany, cites a long-dead emperor’s rebuke of the long-dead prophet of the Muslims for instructing his followers to kill infidels in the name of peace. And what happens? Muslims eager to demonstrate what a canard it is to accuse them of violence slay a Catholic nun and firebomb a half-dozen Protestant churches. (Who wouldn’t be “deeply sorry” about that?) You can’t talk about some things because ignorant people might misunderstand, so it’s safer to keep the conversation low and dumb. A peaceful believer might cut off your head.

But logical or not, you can’t blame the Muslims for thinking they’re on to something. They’ve got a lot of the civilized world looking for a hole to hide and hunker. Muslim holy men, alas, often look and sound a lot more robust than ours.

The radicals may be outnumbered by their moderate co-religionists but they’re never out-shouted or out-rioted, always making it abundantly clear on these occasions that they expect Jews, Christians and other infidels not merely to tolerate their religion, but to pay it the same servile tribute they do. Islam for the radicals is less a religious faith than a political ideology, to be enforced with dour Stalinist resolve.

The argument at hand is about what the pope said, but the underlying issue is whether the civilized West will accept the proposition that Islam must be “respected” as the radical Muslims and the terrified and cowed moderate Muslims insist, that everyone hold it above not only criticism but above nothing less than mindless obeisance.

Benedict reminds his hysterical critics that he merely quoted the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus, much as he might have cited Hitler, Stalin or even Godzilla: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and then you shall find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached.” He did not say, as some of the Muslim hysterics are saying he said, that Mohammed was evil. Even the emperor, however much he might have thought it, did not say that. It was the spreading of the faith by the sword that is evil. Who but a crazed jihadist would argue with that? “Faith” by the sword is an oxymoron, anyway, since faith, like love, is embraced only willingly and held as private and precious in the secret places of the heart. This is the essential difference between the heartfelt Christianity of the Bible and the cold, severe Islam of the Koran.

The pope’s point, clear enough to everyone but people who riot for a living, is that reason and truth are under siege, and he wants to rescue them and put them once more to work in the public arena where reasonable truth-seekers can argue, debate, dispute and contend, and depart with their scimitars sheathed.

Certain old women among us, terrified of unsheathed scimitars, naturally counsel retreat, apology and escape. The danger, writes author Karen Armstrong in London’s Guardian, the chief repository of British media squishiness, is that Islamic violence is merely a myth fed by papal indulgence: “We may even be strengthening [the myth] by falling back into our old habits of projection.” The West, in this reading, bears the responsibility for Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon.

There’s a shrinking market for squishiness like this. The Australian minister for multiculturalism called his country’s Muslim leaders in for tea on Sunday and — speaking of rioting — read them the act: “We live in a world of terrorism where evil acts are being regularly perpetrated in the name of your faith,” said Andrew Robb, the minister. “And because it is your faith being invoked as justification for these evil acts, it is your problem. You can’t wish it away, or ignore it, just because it has been caused by others.”

Unless the Muslims themselves do something about it, big trouble lies ahead for everyone. You don’t have to be a prophet to see trouble coming.

Pruden on Politics runs Tuesdays and Fridays.

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