Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Flavia Monteiro Colgan | WILL ISLAM RISE TO POPE'S CHALLENGE?

POPE BENEDICT XVI, who inflamed the Islamic world with a single quote, has now met with Muslims to calm the furor.

Looking back at last week's storm, it's clear that the media were quick to pounce on the pope for "decrying" the religion of Islam as both "evil and inhuman," yet were more sluggish in reporting that the incendiary remark was a quotation, taken out of context, and from a 14th century text to boot. The pope's remarks were not a slander of Islam, but rather an invitation to debate.

The pope's speech at the University of Regensburg was not an exercise in doctrinal finger-pointing, but a rich academic examination of the fate of religious thought in the clutches of Western reason.

Arguing elegantly, he discussed how the seemingly incompatible camps of faith and modern secular reason were once a cohesive whole, and that both the New Testament and early Christian thought were a fusion of divine wisdom filtered through the tradition of Greek philosophical reason and inquiry. Yet his speech made no claim for the primacy of the Christian faith. Instead, it championed the universality of reason and its role in the foundations of faith - all faiths.

The source of the uproar, the by-now familiar quotation from a medieval dialogue between a Christian emperor and a Muslim intellectual, was not meant to be a voice for the pope's own views on Islam's "inhumanity," but to illustrate the fact that even seemingly irreconcilable positions on faith are bridgeable by human reason, the very bedrock of faith itself.

The pope's rationale for invoking this centuries-old debate was in essence a plea for reason to help foster understanding between different faiths in our deeply divided times. He warned us that "only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

Had the media not scavenged the pope's words, at first picking bits out of context, ripping them from the skeleton of his message, this controversy would have never ignited. But when controversy sells, the media's metal detector is content to skim the surface, looking only for loose change spilled in the sand. Its refusal to dig deeper is a failure of reason, and with that, the media, not Pope Benedict, has insulted Islam.

The pope's speech was an invitation to Muslims, not invective against them. He welcomed them to the table to peel back the veil on the tensions that hold the world in their sway. And the pope was right to open this crucial dialogue at a university, a place where the great and dangerous ideas must be discussed openly, in their whole context, without fear or favor. It was a wise choice, because the impetus for the western university and its curriculum comes to us from the medieval Catholic Church.

But, sadly, most of the media, even with its greater reach, has proven itself untrustworthy with these critical discussions. Where does it offer a forum? On TV shows dominated by sound-bites and in news environments that pit pundits against one another in ways that only polarize opposing groups and their ideas.

Headline-hungry newspapers fanned the flames in this instance, with their seeming inability to investigate the reasoning behind the pope's choice of words before they printed their own.

The pope may have rightly given up on the media as the institution that will propagate the grand ideas of our time and uncover its truths, returning that role to the universities. In a sense, the pope is jogging the West's memory, defying it to remember that the university has a duty to be such a place.

And he's got a point perhaps we in the secular West have forgotten. Remember how so many at Harvard cowered and wrung their hands when their president, Larry Summers, dared to discuss openly the dangerous idea of gender?

Benedict also challenged the very cloistered audience he was addressing to let reason prevail among the faithful, and to remember that their ivory towers were first built to grapple with the tenets of faith.

He challenged all religions, including Islam, and all modern secular institutions, including the media, at the most profound level - asking, can you prove you're good for human freedom? He begged us all to have "the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur."

Benedict exemplified this courage in his address. The media betrayed that courage to make it seem a denunciation of Islam rather than a question for it.

And Muslim leaders must exhibit that same courage to engage in a potentially world-altering debate. Let this be a "positive provocation," as the ex-prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, termed it - one that encourages Muslim leaders to uniformly stand up and testify, my religion does not justify violence.


Flavia Colgan is a member of the editorial board and an MSNBC commentator. Check out her blog, CitizenHunter, at www.citizenhunter.com. P.P.J. D'Andrea Jr. contributed to this article.
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