Since the days when Roman Emperors threw Christians to the lions, the
relations between the emperors and the heads of the church have
undergone many changes.
Constantine the Great, who became Emperor in the year 306 - exactly 1700
years ago - encouraged the practice of Christianity in the empire, which
included Palestine. Centuries later, the church split into an Eastern
(Orthodox) and a Western (Catholic) part. In the West, the Bishop of
Rome, who acquired the title of Pope, demanded that the Emperor accept
The struggle between the Emperors and the Popes played a central role in
European history and divided the peoples. It knew ups and downs. Some
Emperors dismissed or expelled a Pope, some Popes dismissed or
excommunicated an Emperor. One of the Emperors, Henry IV, "walked to
Canossa", standing for three days barefoot in the snow in front of the
Pope's castle, until the Pope deigned to annul his excommunication.
But there were times when Emperors and Popes lived in peace with each
other. We are witnessing such a period today. Between the present Pope,
Benedict XVI, and the present Emperor, George Bush II, there exists a
wonderful harmony. Last week's speech by the Pope, which aroused a
world-wide storm, went well with Bush's crusade against "Islamofascism",
in the context of the "Clash of Civilizations".
IN HIS lecture at a German university, the 265th Pope described what he
sees as a huge difference between Christianity and Islam: while
Christianity is based on reason, Islam denies it. While Christians see
the logic of God's actions, Muslims deny that there is any such logic in
the actions of Allah.
As a Jewish atheist, I do not intend to enter the fray of this debate.
It is much beyond my humble abilities to understand the logic of the
Pope. But I cannot overlook one passage, which concerns me too, as an
Israeli living near the fault-line of this "war of civilizations".
In order to prove the lack of reason in Islam, the Pope asserts that the
prophet Muhammad ordered his followers to spread their religion by the
sword. According to the Pope, that is unreasonable, because faith is
born of the soul, not of the body. How can the sword influence the soul?
To support his case, the Pope quoted - of all people - a Byzantine
Emperor, who belonged, of course, to the competing Eastern Church. At
the end of the 14th century, the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus told of a
debate he had - or so he said (its occurrence is in doubt) - with an
unnamed Persian Muslim scholar. In the heat of the argument, the Emperor
(according to himself) flung the following words at his adversary:
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will
find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the
sword the faith he preached".
These words give rise to three questions: (a) Why did the Emperor say
them? (b) Are they true? (c) Why did the present Pope quote them?
Constantinople fell in 1453, not
WHEN MANUEL II wrote his treatise, he was the head of a dying empire. He
assumed power in 1391, when only a few provinces of the once illustrious
empire remained. These, too, were already under Turkish threat.
At that point in time, the Ottoman Turks had reached the banks of the
Danube. They had conquered Bulgaria and the north of Greece, and had
twice defeated relieving armies sent by Europe to save the Eastern
Empire. In 1452, only a few years after Manuel's death, his capital,
Constantinople (the present Istanbul) fell to the Turks, putting an end
to the Empire that had lasted for more than a thousand years.
During his reign, Manuel made the rounds of the capitals of Europe in an
attempt to drum up support. He promised to reunite the church. There is
no doubt that he wrote his religious treatise in order to incite the
Christian countries against the Turks and convince them to start a new
crusade. The aim was practical, theology was serving politics.
In this sense, the quote serves exactly the requirements of the present
Emperor, George Bush II. He, too, wants to unite the Christian world
against the mainly Muslim "Axis of Evil". Moreover, the Turks are again
knocking on the doors of Europe, this time peacefully. It is well known
that the Pope supports the forces that object to the entry of Turkey
into the European Union.
IS THERE any truth in Manuel's argument?
The pope himself threw in a word of caution. As a serious and renowned
theologian, he could not afford to falsify written texts. Therefore, he
admitted that the Qur'an specifically forbade the spreading of the faith
by force. He quoted the second Sura, verse 256 (strangely fallible, for
a pope, he meant verse 257) which says: "There must be no coercion in
matters of faith".
How can one ignore such an unequivocal statement? The Pope simply argues
that this commandment was laid down by the prophet when he was at the
beginning of his career, still weak and powerless, but that later on he
ordered the use of the sword in the service of the faith. Such an order
does not exist in the Qur'an. True, Muhammad called for the use of the
sword in his war against opposing tribes - Christian, Jewish and others
- in Arabia, when he was building his state. But that was a political
act, not a religious one; basically a fight for territory, not for the
spreading of the faith.
Jesus said: "You will recognize them by their fruits." The treatment of
other religions by Islam must be judged by a simple test: How did the
Muslim rulers behave for more than a thousand years, when they had the
power to "spread the faith by the sword"?
Well, they just did not.
For many centuries, the Muslims ruled Greece. Did the Greeks become
Muslims? Did anyone even try to Islamize them? On the contrary,
Christian Greeks held the highest positions in the Ottoman
administration. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and other
European nations lived at one time or another under Ottoman rule and
clung to their Christian faith. Nobody compelled them to become Muslims
and all of them remained devoutly Christian.
True, the Albanians did convert to Islam, and so did the Bosniaks. But
nobody argues that they did this under duress. They adopted Islam in
order to become favorites of the government and enjoy the fruits.
In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and massacred its Muslim and
Jewish inhabitants indiscriminately, in the name of the gentle Jesus. At
that time, 400 years into the occupation of Palestine by the Muslims,
Christians were still the majority in the country. Throughout this long
period, no effort was made to impose Islam on them. Only after the
expulsion of the Crusaders from the country, did the majority of the
inhabitants start to adopt the Arabic language and the Muslim faith -
and they were the forefathers of most of today's Palestinians.
THERE IS no evidence whatsoever of any attempt to impose Islam on the
Jews. As is well known, under Muslim rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a
bloom the like of which the Jews did not enjoy anywhere else until
almost our time. Poets like Yehuda Halevy wrote in Arabic, as did the
great Maimonides. In Muslim Spain, Jews were ministers, poets,
scientists. In Muslim Toledo, Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars
worked together and translated the ancient Greek philosophical and
scientific texts. That was, indeed, the Golden Age. How would this have
been possible, had the Prophet decreed the "spreading of the faith by
What happened afterwards is even more telling. When the Catholics
re-conquered Spain from the Muslims, they instituted a reign of
religious terror. The Jews and the Muslims were presented with a cruel
choice: to become Christians, to be massacred or to leave. And where did
the hundreds of thousand of Jews, who refused to abandon their faith,
escape? Almost all of them were received with open arms in the Muslim
countries. The Sephardi ("Spanish") Jews settled all over the Muslim
world, from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, from Bulgaria (then
part of the Ottoman Empire) in the north to Sudan in the south. Nowhere
were they persecuted. They knew nothing like the tortures of the
Inquisition, the flames of the auto-da-fe, the pogroms, the terrible
mass-expulsions that took place in almost all Christian countries, up to
WHY? Because Islam expressly prohibited any persecution of the "peoples
of the book". In Islamic society, a special place was reserved for Jews
and Christians. They did not enjoy completely equal rights, but almost.
They had to pay a special poll-tax, but were exempted from military
service - a trade-off that was quite welcome to many Jews. It has been
said that Muslim rulers frowned upon any attempt to convert Jews to
Islam even by gentle persuasion - because it entailed the loss of taxes.
Every honest Jew who knows the history of his people cannot but feel a
deep sense of gratitude to Islam, which has protected the Jews for fifty
generations, while the Christian world persecuted the Jews and tried
many times "by the sword" to get them to abandon their faith.
THE STORY about "spreading the faith by the sword" is an evil legend,
one of the myths that grew up in Europe during the great wars against
the Muslims - the reconquista of Spain by the Christians, the Crusades
and the repulsion of the Turks, who almost conquered Vienna. I suspect
that the German Pope, too, honestly believes in these fables. That means
that the leader of the Catholic world, who is a Christian theologian in
his own right, did not make the effort to study the history of other
Why did he utter these words in public? And why now?
There is no escape from viewing them against the background of the new
Crusade of Bush and his evangelist supporters, with his slogans of
"Islamofascism" and the "Global War on Terrorism" - when "terrorism" has
become a synonym for Muslims. For Bush's handlers, this is a cynical
attempt to justify the domination of the world's oil resources. Not for
the first time in history, a religious robe is spread to cover the
nakedness of economic interests; not for the first time, a robbers'
expedition becomes a Crusade.
The speech of the Pope blends into this effort. Who can foretell the