The Magazine

Benedict Meets Bartholomew

The real reason for the pope's visit to Turkey.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Even the terrorism and political tyranny of radical Islam may not be the problem, in the pope's view. After the riots and protests and endless editorials denouncing Benedict, we can forget that the reference to the violent history of Islam constituted only a small portion of what he said at Regensburg. Through most of the lecture, he spoke instead of European history and his worries about the decline of belief in reason throughout Western culture.

This is a well-worn theme for Benedict: In his first papal address, he warned against the relativism and nihilism that has seized much of the modern world. Not the existence of violent Islamic political movements, perhaps, but certainly the success of those movements is an effect of something deeper happening outside the Muslim world. The pope's analysis seems to come down to this: Radical Islam ascendant is a symptom. Western hollowness is the disease.

Can this be right? In many ways, it looks implausible. Inheriting the rhetoric of twentieth-century anti colonialism, figures from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden condemn the West precisely for its arrogant confidence, from the Crusades to British imperialism and on to American economic and military might. How would they hate us less if we grew more certain of ourselves?

And yet, in other ways, Benedict XVI's analysis has real power. Just as the collapse of European birthrates allowed and even required the immigration of huge numbers of Islamic workers, so nihilism and self-hatred provided an opportunity for radical Islamic political movements to push hard against the West. The moral and intellectual weakness of Western culture encouraged tyrannical governments to flourish in the Middle East, backward cultures to be affirmed as authentic by Western intellectuals, and terrorists to believe that victory was possible.

In that context, the pope's work in Turkey--calling Muslims to share a commitment to peace, drawing together the remnants of the ancient Christian communities, refusing to repeat the Regensburg provocation--looks quite different from what it appears at first glance. It may be the boldest proposal any figure on the geopolitical stage has yet made. In any event, it's a long way from squishy.

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is editor of First Things.