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Benedict and the value gap

All believers, even Muslims, should back the Pope's attempt to close the value gap brought about by the technical implementation of reason in the globalised world. By Stephan Hebel

Perhaps it has to be made clear that the head of the Catholic Church is not a Muslim. Wherever he speaks, Pope Benedict XVI does so as the highest protector and representative of his faith. Whether you're a Christian or not, you must grant him this right. And the right to hold his religion for the sole "true" one – as long as he doesn't treat members of other religions, or those with none at all, with intolerance or aggression.

Pope Benedict XVI © L'Osservatore Romano

One can accuse the Pope of a certain measure of intolerance on controversial issues within his own church, from abortion to priesthood for women. But the accusation hardly holds for what Benedict said about Islam in Regensburg. He simply pointed out something that sets Islam apart, and in a way that probably takes place on a daily basis in the theological faculties of every religious orientation. What he did was indirectly to attest – whether he was correct or not is a moot point – to the Muhammadan religion's rejection of the thesis on the reconciliation of faith and reason. And by the way, he also attributed this this to the Christian Reformationists and the representatives of a purely instrumental "Reason" of the natural sciences in the West.

The Pope can be taxed for one thing, however. The quote from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, on which the conflict hangs, can be read as if the papal criticism about the furtherance of belief through violence was directly solely against the Muslims. However his Regensburg speech as a whole gives no rational ground for the commotion now being stirred up from Pakistan to Europe. With a minimum of understanding, the call for reason in faith can be simply understood as an across-the-board rejection of violent proselytizing, and this includes the behaviour of the Catholic Church in the past.

A year ago when a Danish newspaper published the Muhammad cartoons as a direct provocation, the outrage of many Muslims – not the violent opportunistic protest organised by the Islamists – was understandable. This time however we are dealing with a transparent, politically motivated attempt to foment a culture clash which will not benefit Islam but at the most those abusing it for their own ends.

That Pakistan's parliament has expressed unanimous protest has to do with the political elite there feeling threatened by an Islamism that they believe could be counteracted if they present themselves as the best defenders of the faith. That Friday preachers in Tehran seizes the opportunity is part and parcel of the daily upkeep of the image of the enemy that the fundamentalist regime needs to secure its power base. That there are powers in Turkey who want to make a name for themselves by fostering anti-western sentiments is bound up with domestic infighting. But that agitators throughout the world are confident that their words will fall on fallow ground – this is the most worrying thing in this conflict.

Clearly, the growing aggressiveness among segments of Muslim society born of a lack of prospects and severed social ties can be mobilised and abused on almost any grounds at all. Paradoxically, anyone looking for reasons for this will encounter a phenomenon which Pope Benedict XVI himself has continually addressed, and which his Regensburg speech dealt with as well. In our globalised, technicised, individualised and thoroughly economicised world, the purely "technical", so to speak mathematical use of reason threatens to bring about a sort of value gap. You don't have to be either conservative or Catholic to see that Western societies offer ever fewer answers to the question of what meaning or prospects life may hold over and above the most basic functions. That a Pope should try to close this value gap through religious means may not have proven effective. Yet this is exactly where believers, even Muslims, should agree with him, rather than gleefully proclaiming the clash of fundamentalisms.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 16 September, 2006.

Translation: lp and jab. - let's talk european