Seven hundred years after words Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus wrote about Prophet Mohammed in 1391 are suddenly famous because Pope Benedict quoted them in a speech in Germany on September 12.
Now I had never heard of Emperor Manuel or his words before I read what the Pope said, and I feel sure that's true of much of the modern world. But when the emperor was writing his words, it had been just over a century since the end of the Ninth Crusade, the last chapter in a 200-year long Christian assault on the Islamic regimes of the Middle East.
One century, right: not so long that an erudite emperor -- and in the barrage of news about this event, Manuel is often called just that -- could have forgotten those interminable barbaric wars. What else were those Crusades but a resort to the sword in the name of Christianity?
Take even the best-known of the Crusader kings, Richard I, the famous 'Lion Heart'. Steven Runciman, the historian known for his superb three-volume History of the Crusades, called Richard a 'gallant and splendid soldier', which he certainly was. But Runciman also called him 'a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king'. For Richard was a cruel man who ordered Jews killed in London, presided over a massacre in Cyprus while journeying to fight his Third Crusade, and had thousands of Muslim prisoners killed at Acre (then Akko) during the war.
Such was his Christian kingliness.
So you wonder: Writing in a world that must still have been scarred with memories of the Crusades, what must Emperor Manuel have been thinking? What could have persuaded Emperor Manuel that the brutalities in the name of Islam were so much worse than the ones in the name of his own faith? I mean, this is as if a British historian wrote a book today about the first World War, 1914-1918, and said that the Germans, but only the Germans, were particularly 'evil and inhuman' during that horrific war.
I hope someone would remind him of, picking just one thing, the inhuman slaughter between those European trenches during that war, the slaughter that British and French and Germans alike indulged in for God and country. In much the same way, I hope someone will remind the Pope of, picking just one thing, the evil killing of thousands during the Inquisition in 15th century Spain. What would Emperor Manuel have had to say about that nightmare, had he lived another one hundred years?
So is it my case, then, that Christianity is worse than Islam? Hardly. After all, Islamic kings were no angels during those Crusades. And there has been plenty of other evil done, through history, in the name of Islam, as there has been in the name of other faiths as well. So when it comes to religions, words like 'worse' or 'better' are meaningless.
It is my case, instead, that when you have religion, you have evil and inhumanity. That simple.
I don't think this negates the enormous good that has also been done by every religion; I don't even think this is a particularly provocative or novel thing to say. This is merely history. There is no religion that has remained free of evil caused in its name. Equally, there is no religion that has a monopoly on such evil.
So I take with many pinches of non-iodised salt pronouncements such as the erudite Emperor Manuel's, or their mention by the Pope.
Such fence-sitting, of course, comes naturally to someone like me, who professes no religion. But what surprises me is how naturally the evil comes to some -- thankfully, only some -- who profess religion; yet what surprises me even more is how naturally so many others see the inhumanity only on the other side of religious lines. We're virtuous; those others are the violent maniacs. We're good; those guys are evil. We're human; you're inhuman.
This is what I see in the Emperor Manuel's thoughts. To me, erudite or not, he exhibits just the sort of virtuous superciliousness that left me disillusioned with religion in the first place. So, in fact, does the Papal mention on September 12. Leaves me disillusioned.
I'm no religious pontiff, no theologian, no expert of any kind. I'm just a writer. Therefore I have no idea about how dialogues between religions must go. What I do know is that such dialogue is a very hard thing. Because religions find it next to impossible to truly respect each other, to understand and accept other beliefs.
And given all the bloodshed that lack of understanding has caused, all through history, I wonder if that impossibility is intrinsic to religion itself.
Maybe to humanity itself.
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