I'm probably going to have to apologize for this column, so let's get that out of the way:
I'm sorry. I did not intend to offend Islam or its followers. I respect Islam and, indeed, all the ways humanity worships and seeks its Maker.
With that taken care of, let us get right to the point: Would somebody tell the pope to stop explaining himself?
We are, for those of you who haven't been keeping count, up to the fourth clarification and/or expression of regret from Pope Benedict XVI for comments he made recently that inflamed much of the Islamic world. The apologias began with a Vatican statement issued Sept. 14 that said in part, "It was certainly not the intention of the Holy Father ... to hurt the feelings of Muslim believers." From there, you can trace the evolution of papal regret through headlines from The New York Times.
Sept. 17 - "Vatican Says Pope Benedict Regrets Offending Muslims"
Sept. 18 - "In a Rare Step, Pope Expresses Personal Regret"
Sept. 21 - "For 4th Time, Pope Clarifies Islam Remark"
I'm not here to defend the pope. The words that got him in trouble - they came during a speech about faith and reason at Regensburg University in Germany - were indeed ill-considered. The pope quoted 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor Manuel II Paleologus as saying, "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." Religious conversion at sword point is contrary to reason, said the pope, and thus, contrary to God.
His use of the emperor's quote infuriated much of the Muslim world. In Somalia, a radical cleric reportedly called for the pope to be killed. In Iraq, a terrorist group vowed war against "worshippers of the cross." In the West Bank, churches were firebombed.
All of which could and should have been foreseen. Though he called the emperor's comments "brusque," Benedict did not take time to otherwise dissociate himself from them. That was foolish. And yes, there was something rather weasel-ly about the papal apology: "I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address, which were considered offensive." In other words, I'm not sorry for what I said; I'm sorry for how you responded to it.
For all that, though, I've had my fill of papal genuflection. In the first place, clumsily framed as it was, Benedict's point was clear and unassailable: true religion and violence are mutually exclusive.
In the second place, the violent response of some Muslims not only makes the pope's point, but also slanders their religion more effectively than some centuries-old quote ever could. What is the Arabic word for irony?
Between this latest controversy and the rioting earlier this year over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, there seems something pathetically reflexive about some Muslims' reaction to perceived religious insult. It's as if they are addicted to the faux power to be found in throwing a tantrum, threatening violence, demanding attention, forcing apologies.
Of course, faux power is, by definition, not real. Real power effects change. Faux power makes noise and changes nothing. When they behave like this, Muslim radicals highlight the difference - and the fact that they don't know the difference.
Ultimately, this latest episode speaks less to papal error than to the fact that Islam is being hijacked by ignorant thugs who use violence - both threatened and real - as a conduit to power. Not justice, power. And fake power at that. In the process, they make Islam seem synonymous with bombings, beheadings and blood.
If anybody owes Muslims an apology, it's them.