Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Crusade of Pope Rat

(Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion)

"Recall that the Greeks, aside from shaping rational western thought, also shaped our ideas about geography. The Greeks first divided "Europe" from "Asia," and opined that Greeks were unique and superior to the "Asiatics." The Greeks, declared the Father of History, Herodotus, knew that they were "free," whereas the Asiatics (particularly the Persians) were prone to enslavement by nature.This ideological construction derives from a century of conflicts---the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century---but it has been echoed by Orientalists for centuries. Repeated by the Pope, for example, who while still Cardinal Ratzinger told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Turkey should not be admitted into the European Union "on the grounds that it is a Muslim nation" which has "always represented another continent during history, always in contrast with Europe."

In beginning his remarks citing that exchange between a Byzantine Greek emperor and this "learned Persian," the pontiff was perhaps conveying a not-so-subtle political message. It may have been a response to the learned letter from Iranian President Ahmadinejad to President Bush. Ending his speech with two references to the need for a (truly reasonable, nonviolent) "dialogue of cultures" Benedict unmistakably alludes to former Iranian President Khatami's campaign for a "dialogue of civilizations." This is the Pope's rejoinder to that plea, presented as the response of the western world (growing out of that remarkable Judeo-Christian Greco-Roman synthesis), to today's Persia---the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Did the Byzantine emperors generally act according to "reason"---any more than their Persian, Turkish, or Arab contemporaries? And when did the Byzantine Empire ever tolerate a "dialogue of cultures" or apply "reason" to religious issues?

Seems to me that the Byzantine emperors, including the Palaeologan line from the thirteenth century, persecuted religious minorities, including Jews, Manichaeans and dissident Christians, during centuries in which the Islamic world showed relative tolerance. I've read the texts of anathemas that virtually everyone in some parts of the Empire was obliged to pronounce publicly in the sixth century: "I renounce Mani, Buddha his teacher," etc. On pain of death, basically. There was no division between church and state. Many Byzantine Jews welcomed the initial Muslim Arab advances, providing relief from Christian persecution.

One increasingly expects historical distortion and hypocrisy in the speeches of Bush administration officials. The effort to depict the Terror War as a war on "Islamofascism" shows their desperation. They must be delighted to hear the pope conflate Christianity, the west, and Reason explicitly while implicitly linking Islam, violence, and irrational intolerance. How sweet that His Holiness's erudition should elliptically reference Iran, while the Bush administration prepares to attack it!"

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