Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bush Embraces The Pope

President George W. Bush took the unprecedented step of personally going to a USAF airbase to receive Pope Benedict XVI upon his arrival in the United States yesterday. This is a highly symbolic and extra-ordinary gesture toward the pontiff, a polarizing figure who has drawn strong support and admiration from the conservatives in the West and widespread criticism in the Islamic world.

It should be recalled that, in 2006, this pope quoted Byzantine Emperor Manual II Paleologos as saying "Show me just what Muhammad 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."

The choice of this quote by the pontiff came in a speech at a German university exploring the historical and philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity and the relationship between violence and faith. Later, as the worldwide Muslim outrage mounted,a Vatican spokesman, Father Frederico Lombardi, said he did not believe the Pope's comments were meant as a harsh criticism of Islam.

It is in this context that the Muslims around the world watch this embrace of the pope by a "born again" and "evangelical" US President who once described the US war on terror as a "crusade", invasion of Afghanistan as "Operation Infinite Justice" and uses religious terms such as "evil" and "axis of evil" in desecribing those who oppose the United States in the Middle East. As Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, recently said in an interview, "The rhetoric in Washington is absolutely pernicious--rhetoric that views the outside world as evil. Our foreign policy is trying to convert people to nirvana--that is, our way--or beating them up, humiliating and punishing them."

Many conservatives of all shades in the US and the West see this "war on terror" as a "clash of civilizations" between Christianity and Islam. They assert this "war on terror" is of the same or greater scale and potential duration as the Cold War that preceded it. And they expect the current Pope to play the same role that his predecessor did by siding with the United States and Western Europe against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While the challenge from groups such as Al-Qaeda is serious, it is nowhere close to the existential crisis during the cold war with the nuclear arsenals of US and Soviet Union on a hair trigger. The rhetoric emanating out of the West has the potential of pushing the world toward a catastrophic war, an "Armageddon" that the lunatic fringe on the right is hoping for.

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