Between two worlds

It is quite possible that Pope Benedict XVI genuinely regrets his decision to quote the Emperor Manuel Paleologos II, who, half a century before the fall of Constantinople, described the prophet Muhammad as «inhuman» because «he ruled that the faith he proclaimed must be enforced by the sword.» From his expressions of remorse, however, it would appear that Benedict is saddened more by the reactions his statement provoked in the Muslim world than by the provocation itself. In any case, the pope’s speech brought to the fore one of the greatest issues of our time – Islam’s increasing influence at a time when Christianity is in decline. And it was surely no coincidence that the pontiff should turn to the words of a Christian emperor who stood on the shifting border between Byzantium and the Ottoman invaders, between Christianity and Islam, between Europe and Asia. The Byzantine Empire may have collapsed in 1453, but its more than 1,100-year history casts its shadow right up to today. And Benedict knows his history. In fact, he is said to refer even now to Constantinople, not Istanbul, in conversation. And so, as Turkey stands on the EU’s threshold, and Islam grows more empowered, Benedict may just feel that he, like Manuel Paleologos II, is standing at the battlements. He picked the emperor’s words and shot them like an arrow at a Europe that he feels is turning its back on religion and at the Muslim world. And he hit his mark. It would be ironic if it were not so predictable: Many Muslims (among them many Turks) reacted violently, prompting Europeans to again look carefully at the issue of religion. As in the case of the Danish publication of cartoons of Muhammad a few months ago, the rage and acts of violence served only to confirm the words of the lost emperor. Islam may be a religion of peace: In the past its followers may have shown great tolerance of the minorities in their midst, and it may have played a prominent role in the advance of science during the Middle Ages, but the autocratic regimes of later years have suffocated the development of these societies. At the same time, we have seen the rise of fanatical groups which aim to promote their religion through violence. In the midst of this, it is most disheartening to see that Turkey – the most enlightened of Muslim societies – should place its EU accession in jeopardy simply to prevent the reopening of the Halki Seminary and rebuff EU calls to open its ports and airports to Cyprus. Last century, after colonialism’s unlamented end, it seemed that Christians would stick to their lands and Muslims to theirs. But this great age of migration has seen the rise of large Muslim communities in Europe. And these two worlds must readjust. All these issues must be on the pope’s mind as he prepares to visit Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios in Istanbul in November.