Friday, September 15, 2006

The Political Fallout from the Pope's Speech

The world is about to witness the next wave of Muslim rage against the West.

Addressing an audience at Regensburg University in Germany on Sept. 12, Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI delivered a controversial speech, in which he quoted 14th Century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II regarding the issue of jihad: "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."

Muslim leaders from Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, Kuwait, France and Germany loudly criticized the pope for his remarks and demanded an apology. A Vatican spokesman began the damage-control process Thursday by spreading the message that the Holy See fully intends to carry on Pope John Paul II's legacy of building bridges between religions and clarifying that Islam was not the focus of the speech.

But the damage has already been done. READ MORE

While Muslim governments are still issuing official complaints against the pope's comments on Islam, the message of fury is quickly disseminating to the streets. Public demonstrations have already been organized to follow Friday prayers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. These protests are likely to spread rapidly across the Islamic world, particularly in Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Kashmir, Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey.

Coming at a time of heightened feelings of religiosity among Muslims in the lead-up to Ramadan, the pope's remarks are bound to kick up a massive sandstorm -- inspiring fiery speeches during Friday prayers on the U.S.-led "war on terror" being the new Crusade against Islam. The size and intensity of protests in different places will, of course, depend upon whatever local issues are currently in play that might distract attention from this issue. Protests might also be limited by a certain degree of "outrage fatigue" in places where Muslims have already been protesting the West for other reasons. But in the eyes of many Muslims now catching wind of the protests, the pope's speech is far more damning than, for instance, the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed; a religious official of the highest order in the Christian West has publicly called Islam an inferior religion. The context in which the statements were made is certainly debatable, but it does not really matter in the end what the pope said. What matters is how it will play out in the Muslim world.

It is important to note that the public condemnation of the pope's remarks by Muslim leaders did not appear until two days after he made the speech. The motor of fury is still revving up. While the February cartoon uproar is still a fresh memory in the minds of many, it was largely overlooked during the flag-burnings and embassy-stonings that the outrage over the cartoons did not actually surface until months after they were first published. A group of Muslim clerics in Denmark made a conscious decision to publicize the cartoons and draw attention to the Western insensitivities toward Muslims worldwide by taking a tour throughout the Middle East. The campaign allowed the Muslim diaspora to vent their frustration over their economic and social troubles in Europe, while enflaming anti-Western sentiment already brewing throughout the Islamic world over a growing list of complaints involving the Iraq war, U.S. support for Israel, the Koran desecration scandal and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

In a similar way, the current protests will play into the hands of many looking for a distraction, a cause to unite Muslims or simply a catalyst to intensify Muslim extremism against the West.

In the wake of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, surrounding Arab regimes came under intense pressure as they battled between supporting Hezbollah against the Jewish state and taking a public stand against Shiite power in the region. A controversy fueling anger toward the West would be a welcome distraction in many of these police states. Syria, a secular majority-Sunni state ruled by an Alawite minority, will also likely seize the opportunity to foment such protests in a bid to consolidate the regime's position.

Iran, meanwhile, is in the midst of an aggressive geopolitical push to establish itself as the kingmaker of the region. Iran's biggest handicap is its label as a Persian Shiite state in a Sunni Arab world. Playing up the pope protests will assist Tehran in trying to overcome the Sunni-Shiite divide and unify Muslims in their opposition to the West. Iran, after all, is currently the only Muslim regime that is taking a strong stand against the United States and is actually maintaining the upper hand in the stand-off through its nuclear gambit, its control over Hezbollah and its expanding influence in Iraq.

And let us not forget the jihadists. Al Qaeda thrives on offenses to the Muslim world to attract support for its transnational jihadist movement.

While the present imbroglio will be a serious flashpoint in tensions between Islam and the West, it can be cleared up more easily than the cartoon controversy. Whereas the cartoon uproar revolved around the Western adherence to free speech in addition to what was viewed as a serious offense to Islam, the pope's speech does not compromise core values of the West to the same degree. The "Crusade against Islam" theme will fester for a number of days, but can be defused with relative ease if the Vatican views it as its duty to clear up the issue. This will all depend on an official apology from the Holy See itself, and only time will tell whether the Vatican sees a need to put out this latest fire.