Every generation has its moment where an older politician brings the fire and brimstone and plays cultural Moses....
Good riddance to Pope Benedict XVI.
Back in 2006, the Pope created an uproar when he said during a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, quoting a Byzantine emperor: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only bad and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Muhammad didn't issue such a command, as dozens of top Muslim clerics pointed out in a letter to the Pope in response.
"The notion that Muslims are commanded to spread their faith 'by the sword' or that Islam in fact was largely spread 'by the sword' does not hold up to scrutiny," the letter said. "'There is no compulsion in religion' [in the Quran] means now what it meant then."
The Pope engaged in a standard vilification of Islam, a stereotype that has continued to exercise a hold on people's imagination, in spite of scholars repeatedly debunking this.
"Muhammad did not achieve victory by the sword but by a creative and ingenious policy of nonviolence," writes Karen Armstrong, perhaps the foremost comparative religionist (and an ex-nun, no less). "The last time Muhammad preached to the community before his death, he urged Muslims to use their religion to reach out to others in understanding, since all human beings were brothers: 'O men: behold we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.'"
In fact, Muhammad developed a reputation as a peacemaker in his lifetime. He is said to have signed several peace treaties.
"There are many accounts of interventions by the prophet in which he utilized skills and principles in arbitrating or mediating disputes; these examples serve as powerful referents and resources for conflict resolution efforts," writes Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, the author of a landmark work on Islam and peacebuilding.
And, contrary to popular perception, Muhammad was a reluctant warrior. Scholars point out the completely nonviolent conduct of Islam's prophet during his more than a decade in Mecca. The early Muslims were beaten and even tortured in Mecca by their opponents (with at least one death), but even then refrained from retaliation. Instead, Muhammad preached the value of patience and steadfastness in resisting oppression.
When Muhammad finally did take action in response to the oppression, it was with the nonviolent act of emigration (hijrah) to Medina, an act held in reverence by Muslims. Although there was a shift after the emigration to Medina due to the exigencies of circumstances, it can still be said that Muhammad was an essentially nonviolent person who most often applied skillful diplomacy rather than force to win over enemies.
But the Pope did not pause before repeating a centuries-old calumny against Islam. Indeed, when there was an uproar, he hid behind the facade that the words were not his and never offered a full apology.
The Pope's remarks in 2005 on the relationship between Christianity and the Holocaust took the opposite tack, with the Pope claiming no substantial relationship between the two. The Pope asserted that the Nazi worldview was "born of neo-paganism."
By doing this, the Pope refused to acknowledge Christianity's influence on Nazism. In "The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945," Richard Steigmann-Gall contends that the Nazi ideology had a much closer relationship to Christianity than people think.
"Steigmann-Gall buttresses his case with a wealth of information drawn from across the period of National Socialism's existence," writes British Professor Martyn Housden in a review of the book. For instance, "Josef Goebbels once interpreted Nazism as involved in the struggle of Christianity against Marxism. So the purpose of the author's discussion becomes the case that many Nazis understood themselves to be the true political expression of Christianity."
The broader question here is how much the Nazis' anti-Semitism drew from traditional Christianity.
"Nazi hatred of Jews was born of two parents, and the other one -- the long history of Christian anti-Judaism -- the Pope did not mention," writes James Carroll in the Washington Post. "The crimes of Hitler were not the crimes of Christianity, but the Final Solution depended, both for the recruitment of active perpetrators and for the passivity of a continent's worth of bystanders, on the ingrained anti-Jewishness of Christian theology, liturgy, and tradition."
Here's hoping that Benedict's successor will be more open to honestly examining his own faith -- and less prone to pointing fingers at others.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "John Kerry's Conventional Mindset."
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter.