One year has passed since Pope Benedict XVI’s public remarks about Muslims caused furor in the Islamic world. On the occasion of that anniversary, an Ithaca College professor is calling for greater understanding of the full breadth of the pope’s remarks, as well as deeper knowledge of Islamic beliefs.
The controversy was sparked by Pope Benedict’s address on Sept. 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg in Germany. In his speech the pope used a quote from 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who characterized Islam as a violent religion. The pope’s allusion to a religion fueled by violence created an outcry among Muslims that included street protests of the pope, as well as demands by leaders of Muslim-populated countries that he apologize.
Pope Benedict did offer an apology but said his remarks were misinterpreted. In fact, Juan Arroyo said, the pope was actually disavowing the emperor’s comments, calling for dialogue with other religions and cultures.
“Reading the entire text with an open mind, one will also find an eloquent defense of the role of faith in our modern lives, and a forceful attack against contemporary science for its claims to be the exclusive arbiter of truth,” said Arroyo, a political-science professor at Ithaca College and member of St. Catherine of Siena Parish. “Finally, one finds beautiful language hinting at what we might achieve if we look beyond the conflicts between faiths, and beyond ourselves in this modern world.”
However, Arroyo recalled that “from the news reports the next morning, you would never know that this was his topic. I first heard about the speech on my way to work the day after it was delivered. The radio reports treated it as breaking news, quoting one sentence out of 14 double-spaced pages, and then moving on to catalog the reactions from the Islamic world.”
Arroyo said he was frustrated that reports “did not make any effort to explain (the pope’s) comments or their context,” and that his remarks were slammed by people who “clearly had not read the whole text, misunderstood it or deliberately highlighted the most controversial part.”
Even so, Arroyo also felt the pope’s reference to the Byzantine emperor’s quote “did nothing to help the main argument of the text, which actually highlights many commonalities between our faith and Islam.” The resulting controversies “did not help the Catholic community. They reinforced a common perception of our faith as oppressive and antagonistic.”
Arroyo said misunderstandings between Christians and Muslims also were evident in coverage of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He said ensuing news reports contained “superficial explanations of Islam, Muslim extremists, etc. In a college where we try to break down barriers to understanding, we were hit by popular images of ‘us vs. them.’ It was very frustrating to see such broad-brush characterizations.” Conversely, he applauded such efforts as the “Agreement of Understanding and Mutual Cooperation,” calling it “a great step forward.” The pact, signed in Rochester in 2003 by Catholic and Muslim leaders, reaffirmed their belief in one God; recognized their common histories and traditions; and pledged to create opportunities for dialogue and learning.
Arroyo noted that only a handful of Muslims attend Ithaca College yearly and participate mainly in cultural and religious activities offered at nearby Cornell University, which has hundreds of Muslims. However, his college does offer courses on the Koran — the central religious text of Islam — as well as Islamic culture, politics and economics. The professor called for Catholic young adults to strive toward learning more about Islam as well as their own faith.
“Most students withdraw to pop culture and just avoid uncomfortable topics or issues,” Arroyo commented.