Public Comment

Commentary: What the Pope Should Have Said to the Islamic World

By Rosemary Radford Ruether
Tuesday September 19, 2006

On Sept. 12 Pope Benedict XVI aroused the fury of the Islamic world with a speech given at the University of Regensburg in which he assailed the Muslim concept of holy war as a violation of God’s will and nature. The pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who derided Islam and the Prophet Muhammad for introducing “things only inhuman and evil,” such as spreading the faith by the sword. The pope held up (Catholic) Christianity, by contrast, as a model religion that promoted a “profound encounter of faith and reason.”  

From many parts of the Islamic world there were angry reactions to the pope’s words, reminding the pope of the evil history of Christian crusades. Although Western Christians may think the crusades are ancient history, these medieval wars in which Christian crusaders slaughtered Muslims and established crusader states in Palestine are vivid memories for Muslims. Current Western threats against Islam and invasions of Islamic countries, such as Iraq, are seen as a continuation of the crusades. The United States and other Western nations who promote such wars are regularly referred to as “crusaders” in the Muslim press.  

The pope’s words condemning Islam and the Prophet for holy war, while holding up Christianity as innocent of any such warlike tendencies, has infuriated Muslims and deeply damaged Catholic-Muslim relations. In using a Byzantine emperor to assail Islam, the pope also failed to reckon with the fact that the Fourth Crusade (1201-4), called by Pope Innocent III, was diverted into an assault on the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. The Crusaders pillaged and occupied the city, leading to a weakening of the Byzantine world and its eventual fall to the Muslims 

Although the Vatican has not invited me to be a papal speech writer, I would like to suggest what the pope should have said about holy war that would have won Muslim good will and opened up new dialogue between these embattled worlds. The pope might have opened with some generalities deploring the current state of war and violence in the world. Then he would remark that such tendencies to war are deeply aggravated when religion and the name of God are wrongly used to foment violence and hatred between peoples. God desires peace and love, not war, he might have said.  

The pope would then turn to the history of the crusades and acknowledge with sorrow that Christianity has often been wrongly used to promote hatred and violence against others, perhaps quoting some pithy statements of popes who called for crusades against Islam. He would then declare that Christians must repent of such religiously inspired war-making. He would ask for forgiveness from “our Muslim brothers and sisters” for having wronged them in the past by calling for crusades against them. He would end with a call for all peoples to unite to overcome war and violence, and to reject any use of religion to promote violence.  

This speech, I suggest, would have won the hearts of Muslims around the world and would have made the pope welcome in Turkey for his planned visit there on Nov. 28 of this year rather than putting this trip into jeopardy. Catholic-Muslim dialogue would have been put on a new and positive footing by having the “leading cleric” of the Western world publicly repent of the errors of the crusades. It would also have put Christians in the United States and elsewhere on notice that the language of promoting Western “anti-terrorist” wars against the Muslim world in the name of a “crusade” (the term George W. Bush actually proposed for his wars against Afghanistan and Iraq) is not acceptable.  

Some more historically aware advisors of the Bush administration realized the volatile nature of this term and warned him against his use of it. But Christians need to do more than not use the term “crusade,” while continuing the reality of such war and warlike God-talk. We need to confront the questionable history of such wars against the Muslim world and the use of Christianity to promote such wars.  

Is it too late? Although my influence in Vatican circles is limited, there is no reason why other Christian bodies, Catholic and Protestant, might not come together to publicly issue an apology to the Muslim world for the crusades and to call for a rejection of militarist responses to terrorism and the use of religious language to justify such militarism. 


Rosemary Radford Ruether is a renowned Christian feminist theologian.