Article in "International Herald Tribune"

2 October 2006

Article in "International Herald Tribune"
Politicus: What the pope meant: his co-author's view.
By John Vinocur

ROME - When Marcello Pera, who collaborated two years ago with Pope Benedict XVI on a book about Christianity and Islam, is asked to explain what his co-author really thinks now about a collision between Islam, Europe and the West, the answer, at first, sounds like a pre- emptive roadblock.
"I have not talked to the pope recently," Pera says in his quietly intense way. "I am not a friend of his. I am not an intimate."
This barricade of modesty erected, its caution lights flashing, he pauses. Pera, with a long silence, lets ambiguity creep to the edge of a totally self- imposed qualification. And then, painstakingly, he begins to let a vehicle or two up the ramp to the highway of his understanding.
Compacting his view of the pope's speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor's view that Islam was "evil and inhumane," the explosion of criticism in the Muslim world about that citation, and a meeting last week with Muslim ambassadors to the Vatican which produced a call from Benedict for a dialogue with Islam, Pera said:
"I believe he really didn't apologize to the ambassadors. And in using the word dialogue, he knows what he's doing. He also introduced the word 'reciprocity.' That, I think, represents his notion of the necessity of respect for the West."
Against a hodgepodge of vague Vatican explanations of a speech that could have been deliberately misinterpreted (or perhaps too well understood), and vaguer outside glosses of what the pope believes about Europe and the West's response to Islam and its radical interpretations, Marcello Pera brings a unique presumption of authority to the discussion.
In his preface to the book compiled with the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and titled "Without Roots, The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam" in its 2006 American edition, Pera asserts their common goal.
"We hope that these pages will help to pierce the curtain of reticence and timidity that impedes discussions of our destiny today."
The book says that timidity is entirely on the side of Europe.
Pera's text quotes Ratzinger insisting that Europe has lost its faith, the foundation of its identity. The result, Ratzinger said, was a European value system that "seems hollow, as if internally paralyzed," or at the "end of the road." A self-described nonbeliever, Pera pushed Ratzinger's argument further, and wrote: "Try saying that Western institutions are better than the institutions in Islamic countries. A warrant will be sworn for your cultural arrest."
In talking to me, Pera would not acknowledge this was the kind of political correctness that Ratzinger earlier bemoaned - a Europe refusing to accept it was involved in a struggle to preserve its identity - and that the pontiff wanted to challenge in his controversial speech.
Instead, Pera chose another point of attack. He accused European politicians of fearing to come to the pope's side and avoiding the reality that the pope was defending the West. He said these leaders' nonresponse to what he called preplanned Muslim criticism of Benedict led many Europeans to think their retreat had gone far enough. It was indeed fair for Westerners to ask if jihad had a place in the varying interpretations of Islam.
In trying to move forward, Pera laid out his own view on the kind of Christian-Muslim dialogue of reason the pope was proposing.
"It is possible politically, culturally," he said. "I don't really believe it's possible on the religious level. Of course, I don't speak for the pope. Dialogue is more than just talking. It means a dialectical dispute. If you come into it without a truth, there's no dialogue. The goal of a dialogue is a victory, or at least changing your interlocutor's view. A dialogue is accepting, 'I may be wrong, you may be wrong.' But without a truth to defend, it's just surrender."
Pera also brought a magnifying glass to a couple of significant phrases used by Benedict in his remarks to the Muslim ambassadors.
In calling for "more authentic reciprocal knowledge" between faiths, the pope was repeating a well-known complaint that Christians don't have the same reciprocal rights and protections to worship in parts of the Islamic world as Muslims do in Christian countries.
Pera has extended this idea in the past to emphasizing Europe's right to require a kind of political/cultural "reciprocity" from the Muslim populations in its midst. Talking about absorbing the Muslim presence in Europe, Pera wrote in his book with Ratzinger, "Integration presumes there is a dialogue that takes the host's position as a starting point. Integration does not mean having equal departure points."
The audience with the Muslim ambassadors also produced a not-so- cryptic reference by Benedict to "a world marked by relativism." In their book, Ratzinger praised Pera for his "remarkable" and "precise" analysis of what the cardinal then called this "basic problem of the Western world."
The "relativism" infecting Europe, Pera wrote in explanation, holds that "all cultures are equivalent. It refuses to judge them, thinking that to accept and defend one's own culture would be an act of hegemony and intolerance that betrayed an anti-democratic, anti-liberal, disrespectful attitude" toward others.
Projected onto Europe's daily reality in 2006, that comes down to Pera making the case, with the pope-to-be's seeming approval, that there is nothing racist, fascist or shameful about being alarmed by the threat to democracy in Europe from Islamic fundamentalism.
In fact, if this is part of what Benedict thinks (no argument from Pera here), it looks like pretty mild and reasonable stuff. In countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, politicians both right and left have no trouble in making clear these days that Muslims in Europe need to engage in Western values, accept the primacy of constitutional law and reject all forms of violence.
The intricacies and whorls of Vatican tradition, and quotations from Byzantine emperors apart, it's hardly a bold leap to ask why the pope, even through the filter of pontifical language, couldn't have said all this himself a few weeks ago - or say it as simply now.

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