Benedict XVI's journey to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is laden with the wounds of history both ancient and painfully contemporary. The Pope's controversial Sept. 12 lecture in Regensburg, Germany, quoted a 14th century exchange between a Byzantine Christian Emperor and a Muslim intellectual in which the Emperor made some distinctly uncomplimentary observations about Islam. The Pope admitted that the Emperor's statement was brusque. But his point in reaching so far back into history was to demonstrate that problems between the Christian West and Islam long precede today's "war on terrorism."
Although the West, and most notably Europe, may be less Christian today, Muslims still view it as the Christian West. For a thousand years, from the days of Muhammad in the 7th century, Islam enjoyed a run of triumphant conquest, interrupted only momentarily by the Christian Crusades. The time of conquest lasted until the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. After Vienna, and most dramatically under 19th and 20th century Western colonialism, Islam was sidelined from history--one of the main sources of the rage and resentment of today's jihadists.
The jihadists believe their time of resumed conquest has come. Through terrorism and the mass immigration of Muslims in Europe, the jihadists are pressing for the reversal of the military outcome of 1683. This is the context in which Benedict attempted to make a larger point at Regensburg. He acknowledged that Christians have sometimes had a problem, and he suggested that Muslims still have a problem, in understanding the relationship between faith and coercion. Violence, said the Pope, is the enemy of reason. Violence has no place in the advancing of religion. To act against reason is to act against the nature of God.
The violent responses to the Pope's speech reflect the belief of jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda, that their religion mandates the use of any means necessary, including suicide bombers and the mass killing of civilians, to bring about the world's submission to Islam. In an Oct. 12 "Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI," 38 distinguished Islamic religious authorities, including Grand Muftis in Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Syria, Kosovo, Bosnia and Uzbekistan, wrote that "jihad ... means struggle, and specifically struggle in the way of God. This struggle may take many forms, including the use of force." The signers delicately criticized some acts of Muslim terrorism, such as the killing of a nun in Somalia, but failed to address the relationship between religion and politics in Islam, or whether the "maintenance of sovereignty" includes, as radical jihadists claim, the violent reconquest of Western lands that were once Muslim. Whether out of conviction or fear of being targeted by terrorists, the 38 did not frontally reject the linkage between violence and the advance of Islam.