18 September 2006

The Pope and Islam

Dear readers,

I know, the title is fat and juicy as it should be, an easy trick... But well, it also represents something which has become a topic. Let's coldly review the facts, once again.

Indirectly, and in a way which conveniently left him a way out, the current Pope (Benedictus XVI, ex Cardinal Ratzinger, ex German citizen) has dropped a very Huntingtonian bomb in the world of religions. He quoted a medieval byzantines sentence (how appropriate !) to describe the relations between islam, politics and violence. Please note that the Byzantines were never fed up with the three, but this is another story.

The reaction in the islamic world was immediate and easy to foresee. Muslims flet insulted, most of them expressed their indignation by demonstrations and through the media, some of them used violence and in some extreme cases (Somalia, Iraq and Palestine) death and church arson was the result. The Pope said he was sorry and that he had been misinterpreted, that the sentence was not reflecting his views, taken out of its context. All quite true but the point is not there...

First, the Pope was quite right (and as an atheist I hate to admit it). Islam still has a poor relationship with politics and violence and it also has a bad relationship with rationals. Before all of you ban me for racism and a terrible political incorrectness, please let me explain a bit what I mean. Islam is a religion which has many aspects and many potential interpretations, indeed. Not all are violent, fortunately, and not all are interested at all in politics. There is of course Sunni, Shia, Druzes (who are not really Muslims in the true meaning, according to the others), Alaoui, as well as many sub-categories such as the different Sufi brotherhoods.

But more important than these purely internal doctrinal differences, there are others, which we could simplistically call "schools of thinking". They used to be real schools indeed, but religious ones, in the first centuries of Islam. They were the ones which actually fixed the main relation of Islam, the Quran and human intellect. This debate happened in all organised religions, but in Islam it took a very particular way, as the school which literally made the others disappear was the one which maintains that human intellect can not be applied to interprete the holy books in any way. Not even for a simple translation. This of course had dreadfull results on the political sphere. Especially when it came to violence. No society where the the main ideological current is accepting rational thinking as a basis sustainably accepts violence as a way of progressing.

Well, of course, all our societies had a phase when violence was accepted as a "noble" way of conquest, progress, conviction, etc. Our own, the Western society, with its Judeo-Christian roots, its belief in an organisation of the States based on nations and its interest in material progress also had its bad times, its dark ages. Not so long ago, in Europe or later in the Americas, people commonly accepted that violence was a good thing, at least temporarily, "to make the right triumph"... But a long time ago already, this way of thinking was getting in contradiction that politics as well as ideas was better served through peace, rational discussion and philosophy. This is in fact one of these basis that we nowodays accept (subconsciously) as fundamental for our civilisation. Even during the Middle Age, when the Catholic Church had just as violent views against "heretics", Jews, Muslims or simply non-believers, it was trying to justify these ideas through rational thinking (scholastics philosophy was essentially this). This was self-defeating, but they didn't realize it until it was too late and the XVIIIth century developped the idea of secularism.

Islam never went through this. People with these ideas in the Islamic world were systematically persecuted and eliminated by the Hanafi school, one of the most intransigeant in Islam. Nowodays, of course, things are changing, but much more through outside pressure, the media, globalisation, etc. than through the debate of ideas. This has still to be developped by Sunni or Shia Muslim intelligentsia.

The best proof of this is the reaction of (some in) Islam to this relatively minimal event. Accused of being a religion prone to violence and poorly rational, some Muslims just went straight in the trap and used violence and irationnal reactions to express their legitimate anger. I guess there is still a long way to go before Islam develops rationalist thinkers... and let them survive long enough to spread their teachings.

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