CAIRO — The reaction to Pope Benedict XVI's comments this week, drawing on sources who argued that there is something inherently irrational about Islam that can lead to violence, underscores the current depth of religious sensitivities – ones that extremists are quick to exploit.
To millions of Muslims, Pope Benedict's words fit into a centuries-old tradition of rhetorical attacks designed to harm their faith. But to many in the West, the violent sectarian reaction by extremists in Palestinian territories, Iraq, and elsewhere indicated that the pope had a point.
The ensuing controversy demonstrates the spread of what could be called "Clash of Civilizations" thinking that serves the interests of violent extremists, experts say, as it provides an opportunity to advocate for their worldview. Central to the thinking of Al Qaeda is their claim that jihad is a response to what they consider 1,000 years of Christian persecution that poses an existential threat to all Muslims.
With extremists successfully exploiting popular anger over comments like the pope's or at cartoons critical of Islam, this fringe view has moved closer to the center, often undermining more-moderate views, analysts say.
"Arabs and Muslims feel oppressed by the West. Afghanistan and Iraq are features, but most important is Palestine ... and all of this built-up anger then sometimes explodes,'' says Abdel Wahab al-Messiri, an Islamist thinker and professor in Cairo. "The anger at the West can't be expressed through the popular channels because of their own regimes, so they wait for something like cartoons or the pope's comments and their totalitarian governments can't stop them because that would be something un-Islamic."
Many prominent Muslim leaders like the Muslim Brotherhood's Mahdi Akef and Yusuf Qaradawi, an influential television preacher based in Qatar, have urged Muslims not to react with violence. The Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman at first said the pope's expression was sufficient, and then later backtracked and demanded a stronger apology. The group may have been responding to popular anger, and seeking to surf with it rather than go against it, analysts say.
Mr. Qaradawi, on Al Jazeera Sunday, urged Muslims to protest Friday "to express their anger in a peaceful and rational manner." Qaradawi also linked the pope's comments to President Bush's recent statement that America is at war with "Islamic Fascists," saying the pope is "giving international cover" for Bush.
Mr. Messiri agrees with what is a widely held view in the region. "It was a bit opportunistic for the pope. He sees the war on terror going on and he wants to jump on the bandwagon and infuse some life into the church,'' says Messiri. "His comments exposed some ignorance. There are many rational schools in Islam. Many Muslims find concepts like the trinity and incarnation irrational."
Pope Benedict has since sought to calm the furor, saying he was "deeply sorry" that anyone took offense and that he didn't share the views of the 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Palaeologus, whom he quoted as saying the only new things Muhammad brought to the world were "evil and inhuman."
On the topic of jihad, the pope also quoted a scholar, Theodore Khoury, as saying the Greek influence left a strong rational strain in Christianity, and this leads to a rejection of propagating the religion by force. This is contrasted with injunctions in the Koran concerning holy war. Carrying on Mr. Khoury's point, the pope said: "For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound with any of our categories, even that of rationality."
The pope has since explained that he ardently wants dialogue between the religions. But his choice of figures to quote, at least, was provocative. At the time Manuel wrote the passage, he was urging European powers to help defend Constantinople from the expanding Ottoman Muslims.
Al Qaeda formally refers to itself as the "Global Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews" and its propaganda seeks to convince Muslims that there is a new, US-led crusade against Islam.
While still only a small minority of Muslims buy into this worldview, their visibility has seemed to grow recently. On Monday, the Mujahidin Shura Council, the chief mouthpiece for Al Qaeda in Iraq, said Bush was leading a "new crusade" and, addressing the pope, said: "We will destroy the cross... then all that will be accepted will be conversion or [death]."
Most Muslim doctrine rejects conversion by force, but some of the schools of the fundamentalist Salafy brand of the faith call for the execution of people who reject the faith. Others call for the murder of those deemed to insult the religion.
While outbreaks of rage were limited, they were a measure of the fact that some people respond to this kind of intolerant thinking. Over the past two days, seven churches in the Palestinian territories suffered arson attacks, a nun in Somalia was murdered in an attack that wire services speculated was linked to the pope's comments, and the pope was burned in effigy in Pakistani Kashmir and in Basra, Iraq.
Also distinctly uneasy were Christian leaders in the Arab world. In Egypt, where up to 10 percent of the people are Copts, a branch of Orthodox Christianity, leaders said they feared the pope's remarks would spur on extremists, which have been involved in a number of attacks on churches in recent years.
Coptic leader Pope Shenouda called on Pope Benedict to apologize in a more forthright manner. "I hope the remarks will not undermine interfaith dialogue,'' he said at press conference. "He knows exactly what he needs to do."
From Pope Benedict XVI's address at the University of Regensburg:
"[Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus] turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: 'Show me just what Mohammed 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 emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.... The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."
From Pope Benedict XVI's apology:
"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.... [T]he true meaning of my address ... in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."
• For the full text of the papal address: http://zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=94748