Thursday, September 21, 2006

Papal Infallibility Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry (Because You Can't)

I read the headlines about muslim reaction to the Pope's lecture with a sense of deja vu, as most of us did, and was not surprised to find that most of the enraged didn't appear to realise he was quoting, not stating. Nor was I surprised to find the vehement comments of non-muslims telling the protesters to stop being so oversensitive, although the language many of them used (even on the normally restrained BBC forums) was unnecessarily aggressive. The reactionary leading the reactionary.

Then I read the full text of the speech, and found it rather alarming that both sides had got it wrong. Most of the offended muslims clearly hadn't read the text: most of the retaliating non-muslims clearly hadn't either. The Pope quoted Emperor Manuel II Paleologos and indicated that it was a quote but did not state that he disagreed, or even acknowledge that this was a pretty unreasonable thing to go round muttering. Maybe it should go without saying but in this day and age it doesn't, and simple politeness demands that one be clear about these things. Muslims who did read the speech and were offended felt as they did because of this omission, not because of the quote itself, and while Newsnight made this very clear (well done, chaps) not many people on either side seemed to take much notice. They were too busy enjoying their rage.

The end result was a manufactured argument. The Pope is not a fool: he knew precisely what he was saying and how it would be taken, knew that muslims would be angry at this heavily implied insult and that non-muslims would be quick to condemn such anger because it was only implied and not explicitly stated.

The Pope's later apology was carefully worded: an "I'm sorry you felt offended" rather than an "I'm sorry I offended you", but then what else could he say? The Pope can't personally apologise. He is the earthly mouthpiece of God, and if he says he's made a mistake then he's essentially saying God is fallible - he can't say sorry. Papal infallibility has been around as long as popes have, so why is anyone even asking him to do this? Technically he would be blaspheming, wouldn't he?

Something has changed. Somewhere along the way the Pope stopped being a well-meaning old guy who tries to present a good PR face for a religion with massive problems and precious little in the way of rigid control, and became a player. A politician, of all things. This worries me, because I'm English and if there's one thing we generally agree on about religion it's that it has no place in politics any more than it has a place in the internal combustion engine: politicians are accountable to the people, religious leaders are accountable only to God, or at least their own refraction of God. This opinion comes of being part of a broadly Christian culture where separation of church and state is the norm thanks to Henry VIII breaking the Church's back all those years ago, something which (although please note I'm not a Middle East historian so I may well be wrong) seems never to have happened to Islam. This would appear to be why religion and politics are so tightly intermeshed in Islamic culture. In a way this actually makes a lot more sense for Islam than Christianity, since the former doesn't really have the same formality of structure and hierarchy as the latter - Islam is, in many ways, more of a people's religion. On the face of it Islam's a better fit for democracy than Christianity.

Sections of the Islamic population - I hesitate to call them 'fundamentalists' or 'Islamists', since such terms have new and foreboding meaning nowadays - in countries not predominantly Islamic are often to be found campaigning for the local laws to be changed and made more Islamic, something that we in the West find bizarre and unreasonable: certainly muslims like the guy on Channel Four last week who believes that either Britain's government must adopt Sharia law or expect to be killed don't help the wider perception of such groups, but part of the reason there are muslims asking for changes in the law in the first place is because law is interwoven with faith in Islam. It's not a bizarre request to them: the fact that we separate government from faith (well, this isn't quite true in the States, but broadly speaking) probably seems bizarre and unreasonable to them.

That doesn't mean we should acquiesce to such demands, but it warrants a polite refusal rather than a rolling of the eyes and dismissal of such muslims as proto-terrorist nutters. Britain isn't an Islamic state: it seems to me that most British muslims don't actually have a problem with this and are happy enough to get on with their worship without trying to force everyone else to join in. It's inevitable, though, that this won't be good enough for some people, especially the young - a generation taught from birth that they are more important than anyone in the world and are entitled to whatever they wish purely by dint of wanting. And that isn't an Islamic cultural problem, it's a British one: mindlessly enraged young muslims are prone to turn to fundamentalism, whereas mindlessly enraged young christians (small C) are prone to turn to binge drinking and bottling each other in town centres. Both are results of the same problem of runaway ego.

But I digress: back to the Pope. He made a politican's insult, a carefully worded dig that he could easily deny was meant that way but would get both muslims and christians very angry with each other very quickly. Then he made a politician's apology, one that took no real responsibility. The end result is that he is now seen as not merely a Christian leader, but a Christian leader with political power. I suspect this is what he was planning when he wrote that lecture, and it worked like a charm - what remains to be seen is what he plans to do with this power, and whether it means that more members of his own religion will, like muslims, start demanding answers, and apologies.

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