Bob Gould, 2006

The pope as right-wing cultural warrior
And his loyal backstop, His Eminence George Pell

Source: Leftwrites, September 17, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, who died a year or so ago, was at some pains to soften the cultural clash between the Catholic church and Muslims and Jews, and tried to thread his way between the conflicting interests of Muslim countries, the state of Israel and the Catholic church. The late pope was obviously pretty conscious of past Catholic anti-Jewish prejudice, and past Catholic Crusaderism in Islamic countries, and he was obviously concerned about the interests of his Catholic and Orthodox co-religionists in mainly Muslim countries such as Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Egypt.

The Christians of Palestine, in particular, are victims, along with their Muslim fellow-Palestinians, of Israel’s aggression against Palestine, and the Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem was once imprisoned by the Israeli state as a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

No such sensible restraint for the new pope, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), and his energetic ideological backer, his eminence George Pell. They’ve suddenly become instant experts on the theology of Islam, and they both, for essentially political purposes, join in the current Islamophobia with learned theological inquiry into violence in the Koran.

The reactionary Quadrant magazine has even published a lengthy address by George Pell on the question of violence in the Koran. In the Australian context this is clearly designed to give aid and comfort to the Howard government’s xenophobia about Muslims.

Theologically this is bizarre. My departure from the Catholic church as a teenager was partly precipitated by the impossibility of squaring the Bible, which according to Catholic theology is the inspired word of god, from Genesis to Revelations. I can even remember the passage that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was the allegedly inspired passage in which Jehovah tells the Hebrews to exterminate the Amalkites as a tribe, and not to spare the women and children. I couldn’t square that, and many other pieces of extraordinary violence in the Old Testament with any idea of a benign god.

Yet Ratzinger and Pell have the extraordinary hubris to say the Koran is violent because of its appeals to jihad. What about Western Christianity’s jihad: seven Crusades of it against the Muslims, which also included the casual diversion to sack Constantinople and thereby settle accounts with Orthodox Christianity? What about the murderous crusade against the Cathar heretics in Languedoc? What about the creation of the Teutonic Knights Catholic order to conquer the Baltic and the Slav lands and forcibly convert them to Christianity? What about the barbaric practises of the Holy Inquisition for up to 400 years?

It would be cynical to avoid the question of a certain problem with some aspects of fundamentalist Islam and there is a certain amount of violence in the Koran. But the problems with fundamentalist Islam, as it currently exists, are direct products of 300 years of Islamic experience of Western imperialism.

The theological problem of a certain amount of violence in the Koran arises from the fact that the Koran was produced by Mohammed in the context of the cultural influence of Judaism and Christianity, particularly the Old Testament, shot through as it was with a human-created notion of a barbaric god that supported the interests of a particular tribe.

The problems of religious conflict and cultural practices are historically defined, and it would be philosophical idealism to expect Muslim victims of imperialism to do any better in these matters than their imperialist enemies and oppressors. In every imperialist war of the past few hundred years, including many wars between ostensible Christians, most of the religionists, priests, parsons and bishops, with a few honourable exceptions such as Archbishop Daniel Mannix in Australia, have invoked god as being on their side.

To Christian leaders in these imperialist wars, god is a convenient ideological cement to peddle the particular imperial interest, even when fighting against co-religionists. World War I was the extreme example of this. God, some were told, was on the side of the British, Italians, French, Russians, but according to the German government and clergy, he was on their side.*

This notion of god is a strange one. It ill behoves the god-fearing Christians, whether they be of the Catholic persuasion or the evangelical Protestants such as Bush, to be carrying on about violence in the Koran at this point in human history. Over the past few days we’ve seen the god-fearing evangelical, Bush, justifying torture at Guantanamo Bay and the equally god-fearing Bible-thumper Howard whipping up xenophobia against elderly migrants who might not speak English. These humbugs and hypocrites call themselves Christians and have the hide to single out the Koran as uniquely violent. Who can believe any of them?

Discussion on Leftwrites

jimbo September 18, 2006 @ 7:23am Lenin’s Tomb writes: “To be honest, I’m not sure if Muslims should be protesting or rolling on the floor laughing at this guy talking about “reason”. He believes a wafer and Ribena transubstantiates in the Eucharist into the body of Christ. The fuck does he know about reason? Yes, Catholicism for Enlightenment! I don’t know if the Pope intended his remarks as a provocation, as the editors of Jyllands-Posten so obviously did with their ‘cartoons’, but if he didn’t then it wouldn’t take two minutes to issue a retraction, roughly with the following words: “Dear Everyone, what the fuck do I know about reason and religious tolerance? I’m sitting on a mountain of unholy riches accrued through global conquests, and I’m still raking it in from worshippers all over the world thanks to European colonialism. Last time we had anything serious to do with Islam, we were torturing people in the Iberian peninsula. We failed every moral test from the Nazi holocaust to AIDS, and now we’re going to fuck it up again. Seriously, I am a total dickhead and I don’t know what got into me. Next time I will keep my big mouth shut. Contritely Yours, the Pope.”

Weekbyweek September 18, 2006 @ 8:43am Granted Christianity does not have a sparkling history of its own. However, is using grievance as a political weapon, and the related threats itself appropriate? The victim-nature of Islamic responses to any form of criticism, implied or otherwise, has just become ridiculous.

Ed Lewis September 18, 2006 @ 8:53am I guess that’s why Mr Ratzinger has now apologised.

nick mallory September 19, 2006 @ 2:24pm Mr Gould, are you really arguing that Islamist terrorism today is justified because 1000 years ago ill-ordered christian armies made largely unsuccessful attempts to retake small areas of land in the middle east which had earlier been conquored and annexed by invading muslim armies? You seem to be making the point of many of the critics of Islam by justifying its followers current activities with reference to the actions of Christianity in medieval times — in essence you are agreeing that “modern” Islam is indeed medieval. The west has endlessly agonised and apologised for its actions in the past and is a far different place today, Islam shows no sign of recognising its own wrongdoings and, indeed, grows ever more violent to anyone who dares raise a word of criticism about it. You mention the Spanish Inquisition, without putting any figures to substantiate your assertion of its evil. You perhaps, in fairness, could have added that more people are currently killed every year by Islamist terror attacks than died in the entire 350 year history of the Inquisition. Terrible though it was, its days are long past, if only we could say the same of the terrorism you seem to eager to excuse. You seem keen to blame George Bush for everything, naturally, but are you aware that 8877 Iraqi civilians have been killed this year by Islamic Terrorists, while just 60 Iraqi civilians have been accidently killed in actions undertaken by Coalition forces to fight such terrorists? How many people has the Pope killed, exactly? One of the few things Stalin got right was his observation about the lack of divisions wielded by the Vatican. As for your claim that Islam learnt its violence through contact with “western imperialism” over the last 300 years, perhaps you might read the work of the early chronicler Ibn Ishaq who recounted some of the raids and battles in which Muhammad fought: 1 Waddan, the raid of al-Abwa; 2 Buwat in the direction of Radwa; 3 Ushayra in the valley of Yanbu; 4 The first fight at Badr in pursuit of Kurz b. Jabir; 5 Battle of Badr; 6 Banu Sulaym until he reached al-Kudr; 7 Al-Sawiq in pursuit of Abu Sufyan b. Harb; 8 Ghatafan; 9 Bahran, a mine in the Hijaz; 10 Battle of Uhud; 11 Hamra’u’l-Asad; 12 Banu Nadir; 13 Hatu’l-Riqa of Nakhl; 14 Last battle of Badr; 15 Dumatu’l-Jandal; 16 Al-Khandaq 17 Banu Qurayza; 18 Banu Lhyan of Hudhayl; 19 Dhu Qarad; 20 Banu’l Mustaliq of Khuza’a;; 21 Treaty of Hudaybiyyah 22 Battle of Khaybar; 23 Last pilgrimage; 24 Conquest of MeccaBattle of Hunayn; 26 Siege of Ta’if; 27 Battle of Tabuk. In the end, doesn’t the Pope have the right to say what he wants to say? Isn’t freedom of speech something you believe in? Isn’t freedom of thought a precious thing? Isn’t western liberal democracy worth defending? Oh, I see you’re a Marxist. Silly me. Obviously not.

Chav September 19, 2006 @ 2:48pm Sure the Pope has the right to say what he wants … it’s just that what he chooses to say is racist.

Robert Bollard September 19, 2006 @ 2:55pm “As for your claim that Islam learnt its violence through contact with ‘western imperialism’ over the last 300 years.” What Bob actually said was: “The theological problem of a certain amount of violence in the Koran arises from the fact that the Koran was produced by Mohammed in the context of the cultural influence of Judaism and Christianity, particularly the Old Testament, shot through as it was with a human-created notion of a barbaric god that supported the interests of a particular tribe.” His point was that Islam shared its propensity for violence with the other Mosaic religions from which it largely sprang. He could have added that this doesn’t prove that Islam is inherently prone to terrorism anymore than the ethnic cleansing in the Book of Kings proves an inherent tendency to imperialism in Judaism or Christianity. Of course the Book of Kings has been used to justify imperialism, just as the battles you list have been used by Islamic terrorists to justify their acts. Of course, as we all know with regard to the bible, you can find something in it to justify any position. The same applies to most religious books, and the Koran is no exception. No one here has been using the example of Christendom’s misbehaviour in the middle ages to justify “its [Islam’s] followers’ current practices” as you allege. The argument is with a Pope who quoted a 15th Century Byzantine Emperor who (speaking at a time when the Islamic world was clearly more tolerant than the Christian states of Europe) argued that Islam was an inherently violent religion. Our point is that at one moment in history Christianity was arguably more violent than Islam. The point then is not to try and look at the words in old books — but to analyse the way those words are used to justify actions. Then you can look behind the words and begin to understand the real forces at play: oil, imperialism, nationalism etc. You can compare “the raid of al-Abwa” with the siege of Jericho if you like. I’d rather look at the siege of Fallujah. It tells us more.

Will Anderson September 19, 2006 @ 3:21 pm I hope Bob that, given your objection to the Pope’s commennts, you will not be voting Labor at the next election, the party whose NSW leader this afternoon stoked the fire of intolerance by endorsing Pell’s comments and reciting the veiled slur: “I support the moderates in the community in asserting a leadership role to rein in extremists”. Can you vote for such a politician?

Ed Lewis September 19, 2006 @ 4:27 pm Spot on Robert. Karen Armstrong’s article in The Guardian is worth a look: “We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam. The Pope’s remarks were dangerous, and will convince many more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic.”

silkworm September 21, 2006 @ 5:21pm Moderate Muslims in Australia have done a good job in trying to quieten the situation, but then we have comments by George Pell trying to reinflame it. I would like to see moderate Catholics come out denouncing George Pell in the same manner as moderate Muslims have come out and denounced their immoderate brothers overseas. I also want to express my disappointment in Larvatus Prodeo over this issue. When the Pope made his initial comments I complained at LP that a thread should be opened, and in due course two threads were opened. However, after some mild stoushing, both threads were closed. The moderators of both threads said they would reopen the threads, but somehow they never got around to it. LP is a great left-wing site on most issues, but when the Church comes under attack, they close down debate.

Ed Lewis September 24, 2006 @ 10:40pm Yuri Avneri presents a thoughtful view of Islamic-Christian-Jewish relations. Jesus said: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” The treatment of other religions by Islam must be judged by a simple test: How did the Muslim rulers behave for more than a thousand years, when they had the power to “spread the faith by the sword”? Well, they just did not. For many centuries, the Muslims ruled Greece. Did the Greeks become Muslims? Did anyone even try to Islamize them? On the contrary, Christian Greeks held the highest positions in the Ottoman administration. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and other European nations lived at one time or another under Ottoman rule and clung to their Christian faith. Nobody compelled them to become Muslims and all of them remained devoutly Christian. True, the Albanians did convert to Islam, and so did the Bosniaks. But nobody argues that they did this under duress. They adopted Islam in order to become favorites of the government and enjoy the fruits. In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants indiscriminately, in the name of the gentle Jesus. At that time, 400 years into the occupation of Palestine by the Muslims, Christians were still the majority in the country. Throughout this long period, no effort was made to impose Islam on them. Only after the expulsion of the Crusaders from the country, did the majority of the inhabitants start to adopt the Arabic language and the Muslim faith — and they were the forefathers of most of today’s Palestinians.

* Charles Alexander Richmond, a US clergyman, summed this up in a popular poem about World War I:

They were two ordinary soldiers, just the common Jean and Hans
One from the Valley of the Rhine and one from fair Provence
They were simple-hearted fellows — every night each said his prayer:
The one prayed vater unser and the other notre pere

Then they met beyond the trenches and they ran each other through
Just the ordinary kind of work the soldier has to do
As they lay there close together, on the still October air
Hans was gasping vater unser and Jean whispered notre pere

So they went to find the Father. He will understand thought Hans
For he knows and loves the Rhineland. But Jean thought of fair Provence
And St Michael came to meet them and he smiled to see them stare
when he told them vater unser was the same as notre pere