As communism was to Pope John Paul II, so radical Islam is to Pope Benedict XVI--the most pressing geopolitical problem of his time, of course, but also something more: a test of whether Catholicism is going to buttress the moral, political, and intellectual struggle against a violent and tyrannical ideology, or whether the Church is going to go squishy.
At first glance, the pope's four-day trip to Turkey last week makes the answer look like squish. Newspapers around the globe announced that the pope had barely gotten off the plane in Ankara before he told Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he now considers Islam "a religion of peace." What's more, he is reported to have said that the Vatican will no longer oppose the admission of Turkey to the European Union.
Off he then went to a lecture hall, sitting quietly and apparently undisturbed while Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the Turkish government's religious-affairs office, introduced him by denouncing those who did not understand the "vast tolerance of Islam"--a tolerance that wears dangerously thin, Bardakoglu warned, when people attempt to "demonstrate the superiority of their own beliefs" with discussions of "the theology of religions" or claim that Islam "was spread over the world by swords."
Bardakoglu's words were widely understood to be what, in fact, they were: an open continuation of the attack on Benedict XVI for his negative depiction of Islam in his September 12 lecture at Regensburg, Germany. "Pope, don't make a mistake, don't wear out our patience," Islamic activists shouted when they occupied the Haghia Sophia to protest Benedict's visit. And in response to Bardakoglu's undiplomatic ambush, the pope read a diplomatic speech, all about how Christians and Muslims are brothers who "believe and confess to one God, even if in different ways." Indeed, he added, Turkey "is very kind to Christians," and he quoted John Paul II on the need for Christians and Muslims to "develop the spiritual bonds that unite them."
By the time he was photographed praying in a mosque and waving a Turkish flag, Benedict seemed to have managed little but to make nice and surrender on every point--all to undo the damage done when his Regensburg address was followed by anti-Catholic and anti-Western riots across the Islamic world. "Pope Visit Eclipses Image of Anti-Turk Islamophobe," ran a typical headline as the papal trip to Turkey wound down to its dull conclusion.
Well, maybe. It's difficult to say what else Benedict should have done. The journey to Turkey was intended to be about Eastern Orthodoxy, not Islam. From the genocidal destruction of the Armenians by the Turks during World War I, to the enforced atheism of the Soviets, and down to the rise of Islamic nationalism, the last hundred years have been brutal to Christianity in the East. The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople--Bartholomew I, bishop of the highest and most famous see in the Orthodox Church--has only 3,000 people left in his diocese. His seminary has been padlocked by the government since 1971, his few converts are subject to prosecution under Article 301 of the penal code that prohibits "insulting Turkishness," and his flock has been squeezed into a small corner of Istanbul by the official secularism of the Turkish government on one side and radical Islam on the other.
Still, Bartholomew represents the world's Orthodox in a way no one else can, and it was primarily to advance the dialogue between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism that the pope arranged his visit to Turkey. And then Islam got in the way.
Benedict's Regensburg talk and the Muslim reaction massively changed how the long-scheduled trip would be perceived. Given the change, Benedict could hardly do more than make diplomatic noises to his hosts about Islam and go on to his meetings with Bartholomew. Besides, he actually believes most of what he said--except, perhaps, the part about Turkey being "very kind to Christians": It was in Turkey, after all, that a Catholic priest was murdered last February for the crime of being Christian, and during one of his public appearances with Bartholomew, Benedict referred to the 1915 slaughter of the Armenian Christians (even to call it genocide is a crime under Turkish law).
In fact, the pope seems genuinely to think that some "spiritual bonds" might unite Christians and Muslims. John Paul II was, by training, a philosopher, while Benedict is, at root, a theologian. And for Christian theologians, the question of Islam is a knotty one: Is it a Christian heresy, as the last Church Father, John of Damascus, thought? Is it an entirely separate religion, like Hinduism? Or a related one, like Judaism? Still, despite their very different understandings of human dignity and the role of free will and rationality in God's plan, pious and serious Muslims manifestly seek the divine. For Benedict XVI, Islam itself is not the problem.
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.