In the fall of 1776, as the newly independent American colonies set about drafting their individual state constitutions, a furious debate erupted over the rights of religious minorities. Preachers and populists warned that letting non-Protestants vote and hold public office, as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were urging, could result in “Jews, Turks and Infidels” taking over America. The cry was taken up in state after state and became a national movement. The association between Jews and “Turks” was a natural one for Americans of that era. Judaism and Islam were linked in the popular mind as kindred Middle Eastern cultures. The few Jews who had settled in America were mostly Sephardim, Portuguese Marranos who preserved the melodies, the recipes and even the ceremonial dress of their lost golden age in Muslim Spain.
The association continued long after Jews won their rights. For nearly a century and a half after independence, American Jews who received senior diplomatic postings overseas usually got sent to Muslim capitals, where it was assumed that they would readily find a common language. That custom came to a sudden halt only in 1917, when the Balfour Declaration inaugurated a century of Muslim-Jewish hostility. No American Jew was appointed chief of mission in a Muslim country again until 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
That history is worth recalling this week as we consider the furor touched off by a recent speech of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he seemed to suggest that Islam contains an innate streak of violent evil. His words have touched off a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world, reminiscent of last winter’s Cartoon Jihad and similar incidents going back to the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.” Whether or not the pope actually meant to say what the protesters think they heard — that Islam harbors violence and evil — the protests seem ironically to have proved the point.
Even more ironic, it’s not at all clear that Benedict actually meant to say that. His speech was a learned discourse, before a college audience, on the importance of dialogue and the supremacy of reason. The address included a brief quote from a 14th-century Byzantine Christian prince, complaining to a Muslim — “with a startling brusqueness,” the pope noted — of Islam’s “evil” tendency to “spread by the sword.”
The words come from a distant time. Christianity had swept Europe, in large part by the sword, but then lost a two-century holy war to capture Jerusalem. The prince, the future Emperor Manuel II of Byzantium, was waging a lifelong, losing struggle to defend what remained of his own Christian empire from Muslim conquest. In a struggle for world domination between two competing empires, harsh words may be used. Such moments don’t necessarily produce useful philosophical dialogue. That’s partly what the pope was driving at.
None of that has stopped a small army of Western commentators and editorialists from rallying behind the papal message that the Muslim protesters thought they heard. Benedict was right, these pundits say, to call Islam a violent faith. Muslims, they say, are conditioned by their religious tradition to neglect economic growth and good governance and to blame the parlous state of their societies on the West, Jews and anyone else they can find. Their religion teaches intolerance and celebrates violence, they say, and it’s about time that somebody had the guts to stand up and say it. Nowhere is this sentiment more keenly felt than in some quarters of the Jewish community, where fears for Israel’s survival in the face of Muslim rage have reached a fever pitch of late. In such circles, it’s considered the height of wisdom to stand tall and speak truth to Islam — and to press at every opportunity for a confrontational Western response to Muslim provocation. Their hope is that the enlightened forces of Christendom, the Jews’ natural and historic ally, may yet knock some sense into the benighted faithful of the Umma, and in the process, they reason, make Israel safe.
But bad history makes for bad policy. The violent convulsions wracking the Muslim world today are no more inherent to Islam than the Crusades or the pogroms were essential to Christianity. As for the current confrontation between Islam and Judaism, it is, in the broad sweep of history, a mere blip, compared to the two-millennium nightmare of Christian persecution.
History teaches that there are times to confront evil and times for dialogue. The ravings of an Ahmadinejad in Iran leave little room for useful exchange. Bin Laden and his ilk can only be hunted down, not wooed. But the Muslim world also includes major leaders, from the Egyptian, Pakistani and Palestinian presidents to the kings of Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, who want to end this sorry chapter in history and open a new one. It’s important to know when — and how — to talk.
Popes like to speak in enigmas. It’s an old tradition, a way to help preserve their mystique. But there are times when clarity is what’s called for. Benedict himself lectured a group of Muslim scholars last year on the importance of using words carefully. “Words are highly influential in the education of the mind,” he said at the time. He was right; words have consequences. He’s learning that all over again this week. We’d all do well to pay heed.