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Pope's comments on Islam hit 'civilization clash' fault line

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2006



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.

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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."

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