Interfaith dialogue is a modern phenomenon. It is only in the past 100 years or so that the world's religious leaders have attempted to create a peaceful, if uneasy, coexistence through dialogue, meetings, and declarations of shared values. The purpose of such dialogue is not to impose some sort of artificial uniformity among religions, but to create an avenue through which legitimate critique and differences of opinion can be traded in a civil manner.

The medieval equivalent of this was a dialogue of the sword, where differences of opinion were fought on the battlefield during a time when the unity of religion and state was the norm, and political differences were as much a factor in conflict as religious ones. There was no room for cross-cultural understanding or acceptance.

With that in mind, it is difficult to understand just what Pope Benedict XVI meant to achieve in his recent speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany on Sept. 12th by quoting an incendiary verse from the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II. This quote claimed that the Prophet Muhammad only brought "evil and inhuman" things and Islam was "spread by the sword."

Aside from being untrue and unfair--this quote from the emperor was said at a time when significant violence was being caused in the name of the Catholic Church, and much of the Christian empire was being created by force--it did not offer a legitimate critique that could be addressed by Muslims. In terms of a dialogue, it was a dead end.

If one of the church’s goals remains, as it was under the pope's predecessor John Paul II, to create harmony between two of the world's largest faith groups, then everything about the controversial quote--from the timing, to the message, to the context--was ill-considered. Many have stated that the speech was academic in nature with a specific audience in mind. In the age of the Internet, however, specific audiences no longer exist, and unintended ones should have been considered. If the pope was arguing for the inclusion of reason into religious discourse, as a cursory reading of his speech suggests, he inexplicably left some of it back at the Vatican.

Still, it would be in Muslims' best interests if some of them did not indulge stereotypes that they are accused of on a daily basis: That Muslims are violent, cannot peacefully protest anything, and are looking for any opportunity to lash out at other religions. The fact that some Muslims are doing so reveals not some underlying affinity for disorder, but the relative anarchy of Muslim governance when compared to the strict hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Because Muslims are not subject to a disciplined religious organization, and because much of the Muslim world still lives in societies where deep criticism of Islam or the Prophet Muhammad remains anathema, an emotional reaction unchecked by authority is virtually assured. Perhaps the world did not know this before the Danish cartoon incidents of early 2006, but nobody can claim ignorance of this today.

Emotional reaction is one thing, and violence is another. There certainly is no excuse for the behavior of some Muslims who have turned to violence. Thankfully, the scale of mayhem is limited compared to the response to the Danish cartoons, suggesting that some lessons have been learned on the "Muslim street" as to the efficacy of such actions. The larger question, though, is why Muslims are so easily provoked by such speech (though anything the Pope has to say carries deep symbolism). The answers may be more cultural and political than religious.

The killing of a nun in Somalia and the firebombing of churches in Palestine, none of which were affiliated with the Catholic Church, both occurred in regions of simmering political discontent. Elsewhere, the protests have been limited in size or diplomatic in response.

Whether or not it is apparent in the media, there is an intense soul-searching going on in the Muslim world. Muslim leaders and scholars are struggling with many issues, including religious diversity within Islam, the role of women in society, and the unfortunate acceptance by some of violence as a means for affecting political change. This nascent internal dialogue cannot afford to be sidelined by what many consider to be an attack from the rear, which is exactly how the pope's remarks are being interpreted by the average Muslim.

It is normal and natural that religions have, to varying degrees, exclusive visions of what God has planned for humanity. This does not necessarily preclude the possibility of compassion and understanding between faiths. The death of John Paul II brought tears to the eyes of Muslims worldwide and statements of mourning from Muslim religious leaders of all stripes.

Members of both faith groups should pray that we return to those days soon.

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