Furor over Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on Islam last week has thankfully not morphed into the deadly mayhem over last year's Danish Muhammad cartoons. But the case shows that once again, the Christian and Muslim worlds are talking past each other when, more than ever, they need to talk with each other.
Unlike the case of the cartoons, the Roman Catholic pontiff has apologized relatively quickly. On Sunday he said he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries" caused by the remarks, in which he had quoted from a Byzantine emperor. While he did not apologize for the content of the offending citation, which characterized some of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," he did say the quote was not "in any way" an expression of his views.
Actually, the pope's talk was mainly directed against the West. He criticized modernist thinking that relegates religion to a "subculture" (a point on which many Muslims might agree), arguing that such thinking erroneously concludes that faith and reason can't coexist.
Unlike after the Muhammad cartoons, the Muslim response has been more measured. Hundreds of people died and were injured in rampages after last year's illustrations were published. This time, protests have been far less violent, with government and religious leaders calling for an apology. And the pope's planned trip to Turkey is still on – if tentatively.
And yet, bridge-building between Christians and Muslims would certainly be easier if both sides in this case took more care. The Pope's talk could have been more sensitive. For instance, in its denunciation of violence as a means of religious conversion – certainly a valid warning – it singled out Islam, never mentioning Christianity's own historic failings. And the talk played down the stature of the Koran's message of no religious compulsion by inaccurately placing it in time.
Meanwhile, Muslim reaction in some quarters reinforces the image of a violent, intolerant religion. Palestinians attacked several churches. Demonstrators in India and Iraq burned an effigy of the pope. A Somali cleric said anyone who offends Muhammad should be "killed on the spot," and shortly after a nun in that country was shot and killed.
Openings for better interfaith communication do exist. In an unusual visit to the US earlier this month, former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami called for cooperation among Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, which have common roots. If Turkish leaders resist pressure to cancel his fall trip, the pope can revive messages of mutual respect and reconciliation. Government leaders in Muslim nations should tone down religious rhetoric, and the Bush administration would do well to drop terms such as "Islamo-fascists."
Both Christians and Muslims can, and must, do a better job of understanding each other. But a general caution about taking offense is also in order here. A perceived or real insult can do no harm when the recipient ducks its blow. For this lesson, another Byzantine figure, Emperor Constantine, is an example. When told that a mob had destroyed the head of his statue with stones, he reportedly replied, putting his hand to his head, "It is very surprising, but I don't feel hurt in the least."