Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI’s outreach tour of the Middle East this week failed to placate critics still smarting from his riot-inciting comments in a 2006 speech at Germany’s Regensburg University. The pontiff at that time quoted 15th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus who said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The pope said he regrets any hurt feelings, but some Muslims want more contrition. Sheik Yusef Abu Hussein, mufti of Karak in Jordan, said, “We wanted him to clearly apologize. What the pope said about the prophet Muhammad is untrue. Islam did not spread through the power of sword. It’s a religion of tolerance and faith.” A recent post on a jihadist Web site took a somewhat different tone, denouncing “this cursed Pope” and calling on its readers to “strive to kill him, strive to slaughter him.” That Muslim poster must have missed the sermon on tolerance and faith.

Paleologus, the Byzantine emperor, was something of an authority on Muslim military power. He spent much of his reign defending his hard-pressed realm from the predatory Ottoman Empire. Before ascending to the throne, he spent a year in the court of Sultan Bayezid I as an honorary hostage and was forced to accompany the Ottoman army that conquered Philadelphia, the last Christian bastion in Anatolia. The city was renamed Alasehir, the city of Allah.

Those who object to the idea that Islam was spread by the sword are not at war with Pope Benedict but with history. What are now called Muslim lands used to be Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian lands. Force was the key element in the rapid expansion of the caliphate in the century between the death of Muhammad in 632 and the Muslim defeat at the hands of the Franks in the Battle of Tours in 732 in what is now southern France. The rules of engagement were laid down in the Hadith Sahih Muslim 19:4294, which instructs Muslims to offer any unbelievers they encounter three choices: to convert, pay tribute or be forcibly subjugated.

The martial underpinnings of Muslim expansion conveniently are summarized in the flag of Saudi Arabia, which features the Shahada, the first pillar of Islam, underlined by a sword. According to the Web site of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the sword was added in 1906, “symbolizing the military successes of Islam” as well as those of founding King Ibn Saud.

Muslims who object stridently to the implication they are not peace-loving would have a stronger claim if Islam’s most ardent proponents did not resort instantly to violence over perceived slights. The Muslim world’s supposed universal culture of tolerance also is open to question. Muslims in the West enjoy freedoms that frequently are denied in the Middle East, such as repairing their ancient houses of worship or publicly discussing their faith. Islam is the only major religion in which it is settled religious law that those who convert to another religion face the death penalty.

The pope is brave to stand by his faith. Mutual respect can only come when both sides face reality and embrace history, warts and all. It is plainly farcical to assert that Islam was never spread by the sword, just as it would be historically inaccurate to say Christians and Jews never raised the sword. If apologies are in order, we are still waiting for any apology from the Muslim world for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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