12/05/2006, 00.00
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Turkey and Regensburg: the same Pope

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
In his meetings in Turkey, Benedict XVI launched once again the ideas of Regensburg, building opportunities for encounter and dialogue between West and East. The urgency of condemning violence and safeguarding “open” secularity, against the temptation of politics that marginalizes religion and religion that monopolizes politics.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The enthusiasm with which the Turks welcomed Benedict XVI and the positive assessment made by local media have taken everyone by surprise.  On the eve of the Pope’s visit, concerns prevailed in Turkey (and the Pope himself said that he was “worried”) as did fears, in connection with violent threats from Iraqi branches of Al-Qaeda.  

What prevailed most was a certain prejudice against Benedict XVI – that he was “anti-Turkish”, “anti-Islam”, an “inquisitor”, a “conservative” – as well as a partial and ideological reading of his Regensburg speech, labelled as “the gaffe”, the “blunder” of the pontificate which risked sparking war between Islam and the West, with the quotation of Manuel II Paleologus and the “presumption” of bringing together Religion and Reason, excluding violence, and instead implying that too often Islam and violence go together.  But now, most comments are that “finally” Regensburg has been forgotten, wiped out, killed and the Pope changed his “policy” in Turkey, having become even an astute politician who is more careful about opportunity than about truth. 

Actually, though, the Pope’s message in Turkey is a continuation of that of Regensburg.  The essential message at Regensburg was two-fold.  Firstly, with a view toward the West, it was to say that secularization is not a positive thing and does not allow for universal dialogue.  Instead, Reason allows for universal dialogue on the condition that it is not detached from religiosity and from moral principles.  This was a critique of the West.  There was also a critique of the Islamic world, too tempted by violence. 

The final aim of this two-fold critique was a positive affirmation: if we want universal peace and global dialogue, these aspirations are threatened in the West and the East by these two main issues.  The Pope is thus striving to build a philosophical-theological framework centred on rationality, but a rationality which is open to the transcendental dimension. 

In his trip to Turkey, Benedict XVI gave substance to this vision, applying it to a concrete situation, but his thinking remains that of Regensburg.  Speaking to the Muslims, he discretely recalled the question of violence, but avoided the misunderstanding which occurred with his words at Regensburg.  There, media said that the Pope identified Islam with violence.  Instead, he had pointed his finger at an existing and dangerous reality, that of violence in the Islamic world, without establishing a total equivalency between Islam and violence.  The proof of this, we know, lies in the fact that, at Regensburg, the Pope quoted one single verse of the Koran, the most positive, the one according to which, in Islam, on matters of faith, “there is no constriction.”  The Pope thus suggested that for authentic Islam, there can be absolutely no use for either violence or moral pressure.  And quoting the much-discussed text of Manuel II Paleologus – the “novelties of Islam are just violence and evil” – he distanced himself from it, even though he did not say it was false.  It was false in its generalization, but not in having sensed a danger.  The Pope made clear that that is not an accusation against Islam in general, but a risk that exists in Islam.  And who can deny it? 

From this point of view, what was said by the President of Religious Affairs in Turkey, Ali Bardakoglu, seems to me absurd.  He said that it is scientifically impossible to maintain this thesis, according to which, historically, Islam was spread through violence.  This is absurd.  Many Muslim historians have written that the spread of Islam, especially in the initial phase, in the Middle East and North Africa, occurred through war.  In other parts, in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, etc., it occurred instead through commerce and the Sufis (mystics).  Often Islam did not force people to become Muslim, but gave rise to a social and political system by which, to have a say in this society and to play a political role, one needed to become Muslim.  The social system foreseen by Islam – and already foreseen in the Koran – pushes non-Muslims to become Muslim if they want to have a role in society.  In so doing, Islam reduced Christian communities to intellectually, socially and politically weak minorities.  This involves constriction, contrary to what is said in the Koranic verse mentioned above.  Benedict XVI reminded Bardakaglu that collaboration between Christians and Muslims needs to have at its basis attention for “the truth of the sacred character and dignity of the person,” in “respect for the responsible choices that each person makes, especially those pertaining…to personal religious convictions.” 

The message to the West – dealt with in the Pontiff’s meeting with the diplomatic corps at Ankara – is that of secularity open to the spiritual.   The Pope returned to this theme – which he had already dealt with at Regensburg – to apply it to the secularity of the Turkish government, calling for freedom of religion and of conscience.  In theory, the West recognizes religious freedom.  The point is that Western secularity goes as far as to exclude all that is religious, putting it into the private domain.  Turkey’s secularity is Islamic secularity: limits are set on whoever is not nationalistic and Islamic so that national identity is not jeopardized.  In the past week, two Turkish converts from Islam were condemned by virtue of the law on national identity (article 301 of the criminal code).  This is the same accusation (and sentence) that is made against those who dare to speak of or recognize the Armenian genocide.  The Pope insisted much on freedom of conscience.  And he made an appeal to the Islamic world by praising Turkish secularity, which allows for a distinction between state and religion.  He highlighted this aspect, recalling that religions must stay out of politics, “as that [Editor’s note: direct politics], is not their province.” 

Benedict XVI is thus striving to find a middle way for all humanity that allows for the interrelation between religion, spirituality, reason, secularity and state.  Being in the Western world, he insists on a secularity which is “open” to the spiritual.  There thus exists continuity in the Pope’s speeches in Turkey with what he said at Regensburg, in looking for a way of communication between politics and religion, against the monopoly of religion on politics and against the monopoly of politics which excludes religion.

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