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The Pope’s Speech at the University of Regensburg - CS EN


The author points out the tensions emerging between Christian and Muslim communities after the speed of the Pope.

Interreligious conflict has arisen in the wake of the Pope’s speech at the University of Regensburg in September 2006


It is debatable whether the conflict I will describe in this paper is actually an interreligious conflict. All the same, the actual starting point does suggest so. It depends a great lot on the definition of the word „religion‟ whether or not a conflict can be regarded as such. Assuming that the Pope represents Christianity but also the West in general which is, even if it is without a doubt secular, very much influenced by its Christian heritage, and Muslims on the other, I dare taking it as such without excluding that many things influencing the conflict between these two parties may have their origin in other fields than religion.


Setting of the conflict

On 12. September. 2006, Pope Benedict XVI held a speech called „Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflection‟ at the University of Regensburg in Germany. In his speech, questioning the concept of holy war, he quoted the 14th Century Christian Emperor Manual II Paleologos of the Byzantine Empire, who apparently said: “Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Following this quote, the pontiff made his point that violence was "incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul".

The reaction to this statement was immediate and vigorous: wide-spread protest marches, some Muslims said that Jehad is a means to oppose tyranny and injustice prevailing in many Muslim parts of the world, an Italian nun in Somalia was killed and Christian churches in the Palestinian territory were attacked. However, this is only part of the picture: other Muslims participated in a public debate and expressed their views in the media (however, what prevailed in the media were negative headlines – which of course does not mean that this proportion of negative and positive reactions corresponds to reality): “The Byzantine emperor's views about Islam were ill-informed and, frankly, bigoted," Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, The Muslim Council of Britain‟s secretary general, said for instance. In Egypt, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said that the remarks quoted "do not express correct understanding of Islam and are merely wrong and distorted beliefs being repeated in the West". Again other Muslims also criticised the violence that emerged as a reaction to the speech and would have preferred to lead an intellectual discussion with the Pope instead.


After these reactions, which the media broadly reported on, the Pope said:

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.

These, in fact, were quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought." The majority of the Muslim world, however, does not accept his „apology‟ of which many say it was a mere uttering of regret for them not having understood the real meaning of his words rather than an actual apology.

This is the context of the interreligious conflict, I want to analyse. The above report of events describes how I perceived the incident from a Western and thus Christian point of view merely observing various comments in different newspapers, radio and TV stations in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and the UK. Acknowledging the complexity of reality, I am aware that I will never be able to fully understand all aspects of the situation at hand. In order to get a better picture of the issue, though, I talked to people from both creeds in my surrounding which definitely helped me to get a broader understanding of the conflict.


Origins of the conflict

I am well aware that the example I am choosing for a case study may be widely selected as it is of utmost topicality. Nevertheless, exactly this kind of interreligious and intercultural communication between what is publicly (in the media) defined as „the West‟ which implies „Christian‟ and „Muslims‟ has been of major personal interest to me in the past few years. In the current conflict, as it was the case in the cartoon war in March 2006, the debate is – exaggeratedly stated – triggered, spread and continued by media.

However, the media as a communication channel bears a great conflict potential: media are a mere reflection of reality, however, are perceived as being reality itself. Receivers of information (information rather than data in order to emphasise that it is judgemental – not only in content but also in terms of what is selected for publication, how often and in what context and proportion) from the media often take the content as the absolute truth. In addition, the medium as such acts as an intermediary between the sender and the receiver who often never actually meet in person.

There are, in fact, several intermediaries until the information uttered by the sender gets to the receiver: the sender says something which a journalist interprets and hands over to his newspaper which may adapt it again, then the reader receives the information from the printed newspaper and interprets it in his individual way. Depending on the situation, there may even be further players involved such as news agencies for instance. A number of stages the data has to go through from the sender to the receiver suggests that there is a considerable discrepancy between the original data and the final information.

Working as a media analyst and translator, I carried out a qualitative media analysis (Issues Monitoring) in the framework of my final paper for the MIC during the cartoon war in March 2006 in order to detect the way the reporting on Muslims and Islam in the three main newspapers in the German and the Italian speaking part of Switzerland was constructed during this specific period of time. What I found was quite surprising to me: what prevailed were not explicit pejorative statements, but rather the fact that the Islamic religion and its followers were mainly embedded in a negative context (e.g. in connection with security risks) which, in turn, also shed a negative light on the subject itself.

In addition, the terminology created in connection with terrorism after September 11 is often imprecise, wrong or negatively connotated (e.g. the word Islamist implies that the religion of Islam prescribes or at least supports violence. In addition, the word is sometimes used as a synonym for the word Muslim which is completely and utterly wrong). Thus, readers in Switzerland, and probably across many Western parts of the world, are presumably influenced towards a negative judgement of Islam and Muslims in a very subtle and unconscious way and on a daily basis.

As a consequence, the atmosphere of hostility towards this religion and its followers is continually increasingly. Fear plays a major role in the interaction between Westerners1 and Muslims, above all in the wake of September 11th  and due to subsequent terrorist attacks, and reinforces the creation of stereotypes further. In addition, I strongly assume that the media in Muslim countries is also fostering a negative image of the West.


The most dangerous construct that is emerging on the basis of this kind of reporting is the viewpoint that Muslims all belong to one and the same group or category. Having none or only a very limited knowledge of Islam and Muslims, „Westerners‟ can not and often do not want to take a sophisticated look at what constitutes the Muslim world: a huge diversity of traditions, peoples, languages and customs. Vice versa, however, this is also true: Muslims also do not acknowledge the complexity and variety which exists within the category of „Westerners‟. The reason why the two categorisations „Muslims‟ and „Westerners‟ are so broad in terms of what they contain indicates the very fact that ignorance about the other‟s actual nature is the basis of these allocations.

The fewer people know about others, the broader is the category to which they (can) allocate them – this is a simple principle which is applied on a daily basis and helps us to break down the complexity of reality surrounding us. The action per se of categorising things around us in order to make sense of them and understand them is nothing negative, however, we have to be aware that this routine has a certain explosive potential in the sense that categorisations may, once they are created, remain inflexible and be incompatible with an ever-changing reality. In addition, what is even more alarming is the fact that stereotypes are prone to manipulation.

The more individual people we get to know from a certain broadly-defined group, the more should our predefined categorisation alter and also create new subgroups. Sadly enough, though, this is exactly where many people are not prepared to or can not (since they are not aware of this process) make adaptations since they are more comfortable with their original, clearly defined but simplistic groups that most often do not appreciate exceptions and inconsistencies. Not including these inconsistencies though promotes misperceptions and stereotypisations of the Other and thus becomes a major problem in communication. Since stereotypes are deep- rooted and often unconscious, it is particularly difficult to challenge and eventually dismiss them.

Thus, the conflict is generally perceived as one between the Pope as the representative of the West and the Muslims reacting violently to his speech as the representatives of Islam and the Muslim world. As mentioned above, we can assume that the Western media, as well as the media in Muslim countries, are strongly biased as the communication between the two parties has been one of frustration in the past few years. This atmosphere of mistrust makes that only little is needed in order to ignite the explosive relationship between the West and the Muslim world. Thus, the atmosphere had already been tense before the Pope held his speech which makes the current conflict even more serious and complex. I claim thus claim that the media can partly be blamed for the stereotypisation of the two groups involved in this conflict.

It is of utmost importance, however, to be aware of the fact that these two groups ostensibly opposing each other in this specific conflict are mere artificial groups. All the same, there is the danger of identifying with these artificially created groups as we may feel threatened by the others and feel that we have to defend ourselves from them and focus on the differences between them and us. I thus claim that the media can also be blamed for the creation of certain prevailing stereotypes on both sides. If the Pope stands for us Westerners, for instance, I have to point out that he is a Catholic and thus does not represent Protestants as well as the non-negligible number of people adhering to other religious communities or no institutionalised faith at all.

Along the same line, considering the small Muslim population which reacted violently to the Pope‟s speech as representing the Muslim community, in general, is also completely far-fetched: it is possible or even probable that they only represented a tiny minority within the huge community of the umma. Despite the many Muslim voices condemning these violent reactions, however, what prevailed in the media in the West – and presumably also in Muslim countries – were negative reports which considerably impaired the launch of a real communication between the two parties involved and thus turning Huntington‟s Clash of Civilisations more and more into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Values at stake for the two parties involved

In the following paragraph, I want to focus on the main Muslim arguments and the reaction of the Christian West after the Pope‟s speech. In order not to go beyond the scope of this paper, I will break down the arguments raised in the debate even if this will imply a certain simplification of the issue at hand. All the same, it should give the first approach to the conflict. These are the three arguments most frequently brought up by Muslims after the pontiff‟s speech:

1.) Nobody is allowed to criticise Muhammed as he is a saint.

2.) The Pope does not understand Islam, however, dares to say that Muhammed preached violence by citing an emperor from the 14th century who also did not have a clue of what Islam actually is about.

3.) The Pope implicitly – by using this quotation – accuses Islam of supporting violence and says that the religion has not brought about anything that is good and human and is not, if compared to the Christian religion, based on reason. However, Islam is a peaceful religion. The problem is that some Muslims abuse it by saying that their violent acts are taking place in the name of Allah.

Furthermore, if Islam is not based on reason: who defines what is reasonable and what is not? Are Western values universal? And does not also the Bible contain certain statements calling for violence in order to spread the Christian faith? What about the crusades etc.? What about Christian America invading innocent countries?

The reactions of Christians to these three arguments were about as follows:

1.) As the principle of freedom of speech is a democratic value which forms the basis of our democratic value system, we can talk about and criticise everything and everyone. Why should we give up such a fundamental principle just in order not to offend Muslims? Why are their core values more important than ours – and this here in Europe?

2.) The British newspaper the Guardian wrote: “Clearly aware of the delicacy of the issue, the Pope used the words "I quote" twice before repeating the emperor's reported remarks on Islam, which he described as "brusque".” In fact, this was not a criticism, as the Pope only used this quotation without the opinion expressed in it. If only Muslims would be listening properly before applying violence – again.

3.) Is not it so that all Muslims regard anyone not belonging to the umma as a non-believer and thus inferior? Is it reasonable to oppress women? Is it reasonable to kill innocent people in the name of Allah? The enlightenment in Europe lead to the separation of religion and state, something that has not taken place in the Muslim world. This is the reason why we can regard our religion as reasonable and Islam incompatible with our democratic values such as the one of freedom of speech. We are free to chose or leave any religion – and we are free to challenge it, too.


Strategies for mediation

I deliberately will not reveal my own opinion on the issue as I am taking on the role of a mediator in the above-mentioned conflict. Even if it is never possible to actually be completely neutral – thus also not in the role of a mediator – I have to try to understand both groups‟ stance and try to make sense of their reactions (which is what I have tried to do by breaking the conflict down to its main arguments on both sides) in the most objective way possible in order for me to be able to find a way of bringing the conflict to another level. It is also on purpose that I am avoiding the word solution since I want to emphasise that this is not what I am looking for in a first instance. What is important to me in the first place is to find a common starting point for the two parties from where they can continue their debate on a respectful, and thus more fruitful, level.

As I have not chosen a conflict which essentially concerns two individuals but rather a quite diffuse mass of Muslim people on the one side and the Pope and a diffuse mass of Christian Westerners on the other, I would start by setting up several committees consisting of at the most 10 representatives of the two groups in order to create personal contact between the two parties involved. These committees would have to be established in many Muslim and Christian countries and would have to contain people from the two groups, however, within each group, there should also be people who can understand the other group‟s point of view.

The committee would have to meet regularly in order to create a certain consistency over time and would have to discuss the differences and similarities between the two religions, the difficulties which may arise but also the creative force which may evolve and finally present their results to a wider public. In order to be able and willing to listen and maybe start to understand the other, respect, a true interest in where the other party is coming from and a lot of time is required. Thus, the committee would have to work primarily on that. By bringing a small group of people together, the possibility that personal relations also play a role is relatively high and may simplify the process, however, may also complicate it.

What is of primary importance is that the two parties start to have an actual face to face communication without intermediaries such as the media, that they have time to address a conflict and time to express their views but also time to listen to what the other wants to convey, time to learn about the other‟s background and get to know each other on a more personal level.

What will particularly cause problems is the exclusive nature of monotheistic religions. If it contradicts your core religious values to criticise Muhammed, there is no space for compromise. The same is true for values which occupy a crucial position in a secular society or for an individual person such as the freedom of speech for instance. Depending on how restrictive and prescriptive a society and/or a religious community is, there is more or less leeway for an individual decision and thus more or less room for compromise.

While the West is very much based on individualism (which, of course, can also turn into an intransigent philosophy of life), it is collectivism that reigns in literally all Muslim countries. And while monotheistic religions are – due to their very nature – more exclusionary, polytheistic religions are less so. The range of tolerance for each individual in which compromises can be found and the limits which define what each person can and/or want to respect strongly depend on the manifold categories or groups each specific person belongs to (religion, family, class, profession, country of residence, country of origin, educational and professional group etc.) and thus shape the will and ability to resolve a conflict significantly.

What may be a helpful approach is to enlarge the context of the conflict (Robert Cooper‟s the fifth maxim in The Breaking of Nations) – something that can also be applied to the above-mentioned committee: bring in new actors, change the framework of people involved by also engaging them in other activities together (sports, arts etc.) so that they can find to each other through a less conventional way which may put stereotypes aside for a while. A precondition in order for two parties to find their way out of a conflict, as simple as it may sound, is mutual willingness to actually solve the problem at hand. If only one party is reluctant to full- heartedly engage in a debate – in what way ever that may be –, no solution can ever be found, unless this one party will change its mind again (time may help too, as, over time, things change without active intervention).

What can increase the willingness of a party reluctant to settle a conflict may be exactly the above described personal contact: affection for a person belonging to the other party, thus an open ear to this specific person‟s concerns, thus a better understanding of the conflict at hand and finally, which usually seems to be the highest hurdle, make a positive stereotypisation valid: if one person from this group is dear to me, there is the possibility that also other people from that group (in this case religion) may grow close to me once I got to know them. In order for the person not to make this positive stereotype a permanent perception, however, a further step would be needed, i.e. the one of realising that every single person is, at the end of the day, different from all the other people, no matter what culture, country, profession, religion, family etc. he or she belongs to.

No doubt, religion influences people‟s behaviour, including communication and thus negotiation. However, belonging to a certain religion is again only part of the picture. A person‟s character and worldviews are influenced by far more factors than just religious orientation. The following quotation points out exactly that, however, talks of culture (which also includes religion though):


The diversity of cultures probably exceeds the differences between cultures. So just knowing a person’s cultural identity doesn’t provide complete and reliable information about that one person. Knowing another’s cultural identity does, however, help you understand the opportunities and challenges that each individual in that culture had to deal with (…).But how any one person deals with those opportunities and challenges may be quite similar to or quite different from how others do.

Any kind of rule (also in science) always contains exceptions. In the same way, identity and the personality of an individual are influenced by too many inapprehensible factors for it to be captured in a simple scheme of cause and effect. To me, the smallest cultural unit is thus actually the individual person rather than the family or the country since there are only tendencies and no general rules. Otherwise, there would not be any misunderstandings and rows over values between nationals of the same country, adherents of the same religion etc.

As Flavia Monceri rightly stated during her lecture during the MIC, what is crucial when trying to find ways to bring two conflict parties together is also to be prepared for a negative outcome. More often than not, conflicts are hard to solve, they are dynamic and may reoccur, and they are as much an element of our relations with others as happy moments are. There again, we have the natural principle of opposition resurfacing. Even if we wish to find a ready-made solution to a problem, reality is often far too complex to correspond to our wish for harmony. This does not mean, though, that it is not worthwhile to try and find solutions to conflicts.

These solutions, however, even if they work in a particular situation, should be regarded as a one-off remedy rather than a permanent guideline as each situation at a particular point in time has its specific features which make it unique. Thus, it also needs unique and maybe temporary resolutions as they have to do justice to the dynamic and complex nature of a conflict.