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
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
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."
The pope has since explained that he ardently wants dialogue
between the religions. …