If the Pope were to kiss a man, would he kiss Ahmed el-Tayeb? Apparently not.
The Vatican has shown Rome still rules Milan when it forced Italian clothier United Colors of Benetton to pull an ad depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb of Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque.
Spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi called the ad an "unacceptable" use of the Holy Father's image, which offended "the feelings of believers." Benetton removed the image from their "Unhate" campaign, but not before offering some cute pointers on interfaith relations.
The ad campaign, Benetton crowed, consisted of "symbolic images of reconciliation—with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation—to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation."
Ultimately, the clothier was "sorry that the use of the image had so hurt the sensibilities of the faithful."
Benetton's "Unhate" campaign is aimed at building some fairy tale "global culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity" while establishing "educational programmes on tolerance" to combat "hate." The campaign will also create a nebulous "Global Tolerance Index." The index will "make an annual analysis of the extent to which the lack of tolerance and failure to accept diversity," which Benetton suggests perpetuates poverty and injustice.
Suffice to say, United Colors of Benetton should stick to sewing fabric.
Pope Benedict XVI is perhaps the last person on Earth who needs an outfitter telling him how to "dialogue" with other faiths. In fact, it was el-Tayeb who refused to participate in Benedict's October interfaith summit in Assisi.
What's more, it seems Benetton is taking too many cues from its so-called "new generation." The campaign is especially targeted at "the young, who are agents of change against hatred," including those youth "from areas with the highest ‘hate-risk.'"
One need look no further than a college campus—or now, Zuccotti Park—to get a sneak peak at what Benetton's "educational programmes on tolerance" might teach.
Six years ago, faculty from DePaul University in Chicago formed the Difficult Dialogues Committee. It created a website "for historically excluded and marginalized people."
For those who aren't marginalized—and for those who wish they were—the Difficult Dialogues Committee was created to "promote, convene, and encourage difficult dialogues on the unique cultural and educational challenges and responsibilities confronting historically excluded or marginalized people." The committee said it's "particularly interested in exploring the tensions between academic freedom and hate speech."
There's that "hate" word again.
A closer look at the composition of the committee would reveal how it may define such a word. The committee's chair was Sociology professor Ted Manley, who has authored papers with titles such as "Teaching on White Racism: Tools for Consultant Training" and "Teaching Whites about Others and Social Change."
Another member of the committee was law professor Sumi Cho who once suggested her unsolicited advice to another University committee charged with drafting campus speech policy.
Upon review of a draft policy, Cho highlighted words and phrases in the document she considered to be "hegemonic." Hegemonic phrases allegedly exclude the marginalized and oppressed.
Do your best to follow along here; among the highlighted phrases were: "free speech and expression," "exercise of reason," "competing arguments," and "immeasurably enriched by exposure to differing points of view."
According to Cho, free speech should provide "an environment that encourages enfranchising the disenfranchised" and discontinues "the practice of exclusion and marginalization."
For DePaul University's Difficult Dialogues Committee, the United Colors of Benetton, and the like, communities have a responsibility to "protect" others from being "wounded" or "hurt" by speech. If they were to actually undertake this responsibility, there would in fact be no speech for anyone. A model of "free speech" which involves controlling speech in order to correct perceived injustices of the past is just a means of furthering a political agenda.
For now, the clothier is plowing ahead, buoyed by the controversy it's created. One of the first projects Benetton's campaign will be an "UNHATE DOVE" constructed with recycled "used war bullets for a 4 meter long dove that will be then donated to a country that has recently faced conflicts." As if a dove made of old bullets would suddenly open al Qaeda to religious freedom and civil society.
If the United Colors of Benetton really wants to "stimulate reflection," it should understand that a dialogue between a Pope and an imam would not begin with a kiss.
Nicholas G. Hahn III is Deputy Editor for RealClearReligion.org.