Asking the rhetorical question ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ has long been considered a way of emphasising that something under discussion is an obvious, unquestionable truth. If there are two things of which we are supposed to be certain beyond reasonable doubt, they are that the Pope is indeed a Catholic, and that bears really do shit in the woods.
However, the global controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam suggest that we can no longer take even these absolute truths for granted. Apparently it is now widely deemed to be unacceptable for the Pope to be a Catholic. Indeed, it is considered outrageous for a Pope, whose many job titles include that of The Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, to suggest that his is the one true faith, or that it might be in any way superior to other religions.
Even some leading Catholics have made clear that they think the Pope, officially recognised by their faith as the ‘infallible’ representative of God’s will on Earth, has made a big mistake by making derogatory remarks about another religion. Perhaps some smart young researchers are even now applying for grants to inquire into whether ursine defecation habits should also now be called into question.
I am not a Catholic, a Christian, or of any other religious persuasion. For its part, spiked advocates a godless, human-centred morality. We do not care too much what the Pope says about anything. However, the globalised agonising over the Pope’s words does reflect a broader problem of our time.
The heated row has focused on the Pope’s use of a quotation from a medieval text, in which a Byzantine Emperor besieged by an Islamic army described the legacy of Mohammad as ‘evil and inhuman’. No doubt there are interesting theological issues raised here. And the bigger point that the Pope’s speech was making, about the relationship between religion and reason (arguably more of an attack on atheists like me than on Muslims), could keep unemployed philosophers busy for hours.
But the furore is not about any rarefied points of theology or philosophy. It is a reflection of the wider political culture in which we all live today.
This bizarre ruckus over the words of a medieval monarch has turned into a revealing picture of the modern world. A world in which nobody, not even the leader of a major faith, is allowed to express a strong opinion without risking condemnation and demands for an apology. A world dominated by a victim mentality, in which groups with hyper-sensitive ‘outrage antennae’ are always on the lookout for the chance to claim that they have been offended, insulted or oppressed by the words of others. And a world where striking moral poses takes precedence over serious debate, so that a minor issue of a few cartoons in a Danish newspaper or a paragraph in an obscure Papal address can be blown up into a phoney image war staged for the benefit of the global media.
The reaction of outraged Muslim groups to the Pope’s remarks typifies the contemporary search for offence that can legitimise a victim identity. As has been argued elsewhere on spiked, however, this outlook is a product more of Western multicultural identity politics than of Islam (see The price of multiculturalism, by Michael Fitzpatrick).
Just as the reaction to the Danish cartoons featuring Mohammad began in the West and was broadcast to the Muslim world, so it seems a safe bet that the Pope’s remarks in Germany were first picked up on somebody’s outrage antenna in Europe (see Those cartoons: a caricatured argument, by Mick Hume). These protests are then exported to the Islamic world, complete with pre-edited script, where they are turned into angry demonstrations for the benefit of the media over here. Note the slogans on those protests in Palestine or Pakistan, mostly written in poor English – not the protesters’ language, nor the Pope’s, but that of the internet and the US/global media.
(Muslim groups are often the most militant expression of the outraged victim identity today, but it is not all one-way traffic. Thus gay and human rights groups in Britain were recently up in arms over remarks made by Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain, condemning homosexuality as an abomination in the eyes of Allah. This was simply a statement of the conventional Islamic attitude, yet there were immediately calls for an apology and even a prosecution. Leading British Muslims responded with a letter to The Times (London), asserting their religion’s right to freedom of speech. Their one-eyed victim identity prevented them from seeing any contradiction in that, but the irony was not lost on others.)
The row over the Pope’s remarks also highlights another fact of contemporary political culture. These manufactured protests by outraged marginal groups – often, as in this case, relatively small to start with – draw their strength from the uncertain, defensive reaction of those accused of using offensive words. Almost before there had been any protests, the Catholic hierarchy in England had issued a statement distancing itself from the Pope’s speech. Before long the Pope himself was apologising for any offence he had caused. This all seems a long way from the historical notion of papal infallibility. The result, of course, was not only to legitimise the outrage of the protesters, but also to prompt demands for more fulsome apologies. There is no way to appease a self-styled victim’s demands for redress.
The uncertain, defensive reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to Islamic protests is a result of its own crisis of authority, which has called into question many traditional Catholic stands – a retreat which some saw as symbolised by the decision to abandon the Pope’s title of Patriarch of the West earlier this year. The speech that the Pope was making in Germany, apparently arguing for the compatibility of Christianity with reason and rationality, could be interpreted as another sign of the church’s retreat from its anti-Enlightenment traditional ground.
The church’s crisis of authority in turn is a reflection of the wider loss of confidence in Western society and culture. One symptom of this crisis on which we have often commented is the increasing fear of free speech and the moves to outlaw ideas or opinions that are deemed offensive or inflammatory.
It was striking that Oriana Fallaci, the famously provocative Italian journalist who died this week, was awaiting trial in Italy charged with vilifying a religion recognised by the state, because of her anti-Muslim rants about the war on terror. The British authorities, too, have pushed to make incitement to religious hatred a crime.
It is against this background that the Pope’s use of a medieval quote about Mohammad has become politicised and blown up into a major issue on both sides. While at least one Muslim statesman sought to compare Pope Benedict to Hitler, some liberal commentators in Britain and the West worried that the Pope’s words would give the green light to a wave of nascent Islamophobia, as if there were mobs waiting to launch a religious pogrom at the drop of the pontiff’s hat. On the other side, some commentators rushed to defend the Pope as the champion of Western freedom and rationalism against militant Islam – not qualities many of us would normally associate with the Catholic Church or the Vatican State.
Enough of this phoney war about the meaning of a few old words quoted by a Pope. Let us take a stand for something really worth defending – freedom of speech, the right to offend, and the expression of firm beliefs.
Those of faith should be free to criticise other faiths as they see fit – just as those of us who have no religion must be free to criticise or ridicule them all. If the Pope had meant to condemn Islam, it might not have been diplomatically wise, but it would be perfectly legitimate – or even obligatory – for the leader of a worldwide Christian church. However distasteful others might find it, it should also be accepted that Muslims or Christians can express the belief that homosexuality is a sin (violence is, of course, another matter entirely).
Indeed it is far better for all of us if these things can be stated and debated out in the open. It is when people’s beliefs are suppressed that they can find other outlets. Thus, the you-can’t-say-that culture has not countered the growth of the fundamentalist fringe in our societies. On the contrary, it has given fringe groups legitimacy. With the Pope under fire for being a Catholic, for example, where is there left for true believers to go? To join Mel Gibson and the cranks?
And this is not just, or even primarily, about religion. The notions that strong beliefs are a problem, that free speech must be curtailed in the name of tolerance, and that causing offence is the worst offence of all, have become powerful conventions across Western society. These secular conventions have shaped the debate about Christianity and Islam, rather than the other way around. Here, the unconditional defence of free speech is even more important, as the only way for us to have the issues out, clarify differences, and argue the way ahead for our society.
Contrary to what has been suggested, freedom and civilisation are not at risk from a few over-publicised Islamic protests against the Pope. They could, however, be at risk from a culture that refuses to stand up for its own basic beliefs, such as freedom of speech and genuine tolerance – which involves tolerating (while arguing against) the expression of views you violently disagree with, not trying to silence them as ‘intolerant’ or offensive.
Let us have less victim politics, and more expressions of political conviction. Less striking of moral postures and demands for apologies or bans, and more taking a stand for what you believe and fighting your corner.
Let the Pope be a Catholic, let Mohammad be a Muslim, and let bears do their business where they will. The rest of us surely have other things to protest and argue about.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked. [Spiked]