Historical Controversy Cuts Both Ways

Alice Whealey has a doctorate in medieval and early modern history from UC Berkeley. Reply to [email protected]

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In his op-ed, Tarek Abdel-Aleem has mischaracterized the pope's recent remarks ("Pope's Insensitive Comments on Islam a Political Misstep," Sept. 19) and makes several historical misinterpretations.

He referred to the comments as a challenge to "the authenticity of one the three main Western monotheistic faiths, and at the same time, calling it inhuman and evil." In fact, the pope quoted the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who evidently characterized Muhammad's teaching about warfare as evil.This is not the same as characterizing Islam itself as evil.

Many people, both past and present, believe that Muhammad's actions and teachings about warfare were evil, but this does not mean that they think that the entire religion of Islam is evil, as a religion is more than the teachings of its founder on one specific issue. Many Roman Catholics, for example, believe that church teaching on contraception is wrong; obviously they do not conclude from this that the entire religion is evil.

The convictions of those who consider Muhammad's behavior and teaching on warfare evil, whether on religious or secular grounds, are frequently as firmly held as the conviction of many Muslims that Muhammad's behavior and teaching about warfare was good. In the contemporary Western world, where freedom of expression and freedom of religion are supposed to be legally protected, each should receive equal protection from violent intimidation.

Abdel-Aleem tries to portray the fact that the term "holy war" does not exactly translate precisely "jihad" in traditional Muslim literature into some insensitive error on the part of the pope. But he himself has no qualms about committing an analogous "error" when he claims that Pope Urban II initiated "the first holy war," by which Abdel-Aleem means the so-called First Crusade.

In fact, Pope Urban II himself never used the term "holy war" to refer to what became known later as the First Crusade in his extant letters treating the topic. The term "holy war" was coined much to describe wars in which religious justification-whether by Christians, Muslims, Jews or others-played a major role.

Abdel-Aleem correctly notes that Christians, Muslims and Jews have at various times sought to justify their territorial expansion and political conquests in religious terms. The fact that those Muslims, Christians, Jews and others did not always use the exact expression "holy war" does not mean that one cannot not use the term "holy war" for religiously motivated conflict.

Moreover, Abdel-Aleem is even more mistaken to claim that Pope Urban II launched the first holy war. The First Crusade was not an unprovoked, expansionist holy war; rather it was a holy war of reconquest, waged in response to the earlier expansionist conquests of Christian territory that the Seljuks and other Muslims had made.

Existing 11th-century primary sources on the conquests of the Seljuk and other Turkish powers reveal that these conquerors did view their attacks in Islamic terms, and that their expansion caused serious destruction to many eastern Christian communities. It was precisely to halt such destruction of eastern churches by Muslims that Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade.

Still other holy wars, such as the one that Manuel II Paleologus was desperately trying to organize in the late 14th century, were entirely defensive, meant to save his empire from complete destruction by war that the Ottomans had launched against it.

In fact, contrary to what Abdel-Aleem insinuates by attributing the "first holy war" to Pope Urban II, in the entire period from the death of Muhammad to the death of Manuel II Paleologus, Christian powers launched only reconquests and defensive wars rather than expansionist holy wars against Muslim powers-the only Christian-expansionist holy wars in this period were against pagans. Muslim powers, in contrast, launched three major expansionist holy wars against Christian powers.

As for Aleem-Abdel's claim that the Quran invites mankind to "choose the religion they please," current Muslim rulers can easily prove that they actually believe this by removing the current penalties that some of them impose on those of their Muslim citizens who apostatize to other religions. Such an act would improve current Christian-Muslim relations far, far more than anything the current pope could ever say.


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