The Pope, and whether he has a big mouth

Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam ruffle feathers in Turkey too
Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVIBenedict XVI’s remarks on Islam ruffle feathers in Turkey too

So a man who leads a branch of the largest religion in the world quotes something said by some emperor six hundred years ago and manages to offend followers of the world’s second largest religion in the process. Is that an accurate summary?

Pope Benedict XVI would probably not have expected such a ferious response to his lecture as he stood up to deliver it at the University of Regensburg, in the German state of Bavaria. He’s been compared to Hitler and Mussolini, he’s had effigies of himself burned, and several churches in the Middle East have been attacked. Yesterday, an Italian nun living in Somalia was shot in the back and killed. So far, the backlash has not reached the levels of demonstrations against Danish cartoonists earlier this year, although the risk has been there.

I read a copy of the lecture on Saturday, soon after the story of the first protests broke, and although I did not have a chance to update this blog at the time, I do remember thinking that the Pope’s words had been misunderstood. Yes, he does quote a Byzantine emperor who says that the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings are “evil and inhuman”. And yes, the rest of the lecture does consider the matter of spreading faith by force. But just as importantly, he never does say that he agrees with the Emperor’s words. I would wager that protestors in India or angry AKP politicians in Turkey had hardly read the quotation, let alone the entire speech.

The Pope did make a mistake by failing to make a clear distinction between the thoughts of Emperor Manuel II and those of his own. He has since apologised through a statement, and then in person, for the mistake and for the reaction it caused. He needs to make no further apology for daring to discuss the matter of spreading faith through violence. It would help though if he visited a mosque when he comes to Turkey in November.

In Turkey, there has been some genuine anger, but many have taken the opportunity to use the backlash for political gain. Yestrday, True Path Party (DYP) demonstrators appeared outside Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara with a banner reading “Easy to be the Pope, Hard to be the Human”, as foreign press cameras clicked away. The Pope’s words were condemned by Deniz Baykal, the CHP leader, and Mehmet Agar, the DYP leader, as well. It’s funny how staunchly secular parties have suddenly jumped on the religion bandwagon.

But it was Salih Kapusuz, the head of the AKP paraliamentary group, who rocketed to international attention as the face of Turkey’s reaction when he compared Benedict XVI to the first fascist dictators that sprang to mind. His words were lapped up by an eager foreign press – “angry words from a high ranking Turkish official”, they cried. Mr Kapusuz is no such thing, and in his full statement he said the Pope’s “insolent words” had shown he was ignorant and had “a mentality left behind from the darkness of the Middle Ages”. He was livid, and clearly had no idea that simply by using Hitler’s name he would catapult himself into the pages of every broadsheet in the West.

Response from the higher levels have government has been far more measured. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday thtthe Pope had made “an unfortunate statement” and should apologise, while foreign minister Abdullah Gül confirmed November’s papal visit would not be called off. It is a commendable response, one that showed there are people in govenment who understand that running amok will do them no favours, however offended they might be.

I won’t call the last few days a PR victory for Turkey, but it could have been a lot worse. Imagine if Mr Kapusuz was prime minister.

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