Among the many comments made in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II was that he was the first truly modern Pope. By this it was not meant that he was what Western commentators would regard as liberal and progressive, in line with the model for western-style modernisation generally demanded of Muslim societies: he was in fact regarded as a voice of conservatism and tradition by those who favour the marginalization of moral values and the general secularization of society. Rather it refers to the fact that John Paul II was a master of the media age, and the cult of celebrity, the first Pope to travel the world accompanied by spin doctors and public relations experts, carefully cultivating the image of a religious leader for the modern world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It was this assiduous image-building that was reflected in the coverage of his death and funeral, and for popular calls for his immediate canonization. Muslims, however, have good reason to resist this hype, quite apart from the obvious fact that the modern, trinitarian Christian establishment is far removed from the true, monotheistic message of the Prophet Isa as, and arguably closer to kufr than deserving of the status of Ahl al-Kitab.
Much of the Pope’s status was based on the fact that he was seen as providing a moral and spiritual focal point in a world dominated by a secular, amoral West. This point was used to promote him as a leader not just of Catholics, or even Christians, but of all religious peoples and communities of whatever faith. Many of the criticisms he made of modern Western society echoed concerns of people elsewhere in the world. It must be noted, however, that far from challenging the bases of modern Western society, and its claims to the universal validity of its values, principles and methods, which are used to justify the West’s drive for global political hegemony, Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly proved themselves to be closely allied to the dominant forces in modern western society and perfectly willing to work in alliance with their political arms. John Paul’s support for political reform and the end of communism in Poland and elsewhere are often and approvingly cited; much less well known are the criticisms from some quarters of his reluctance to be equally frank about the problems and inequities of the capitalist democratic order that was established in Poland after the fall of communism, despite the fact that it left many Poles markedly worse off in several respects.
Another of his political interventions is also less well-known: his decisive intervention in Latin America to suppress “liberation theology”, an intellectual and political movement among some Roman Catholics, including the clergy, to support oppressed peoples in their struggles against right-wing dictators backed by the US. John Paul II came out strongly against priests who supported popular movements for social justice, while promoting right-wingers to positions of power and authority within the Church, including Angelo Sodano, who was close to Chilean dictator Augustin Pinochet. In 1998, when Pinochet was threatened with arrest in London for human rights abuses in Chile, the Pope himself publicly defended the former fascist dictator. While this was entirely in line with the right-wing traditions of the Catholic Church, which has been close to fascist regimes in Italy, Spain and Croatia during the early part of the twentieth century, it also established John Paul II as an ally of the US. Little wonder, then, that George W. Bush, himself an evangelical protestant Christian, made such play of his attendance of John Paul’s funeral last month.
All this is not irrelevant to Muslims, as John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul’s right-hand man and “enforcer”) has been spoken of as being a man willing and able to deal with “moderate voices” among Muslims to promote a global religious front against secular modern society. A few of his quotes, expressing sympathy with Muslim criticisms of western society, have been widely publicised. Less well known are his positions that Catholicism is “true” and other religions “deficient”, which – while understandable and only to be expected from a man in his position – are less likely to be welcomed by non-Catholics around the world. He has also been a major supporter of Catholic missionary activity around the world, and has spoken of Catholicism and Islam being “in competition”, particularly in Africa.
As Benedict XVI reaches out to “moderate” voices among Muslims in the early part of his papacy, there will be many Muslims eager to take him at face value as a defender of religious values against aggressive secularism. Muslims would do well to remember, however, that Islam is more than just a “religion” in the limited western sense of the word; central to the Islamic movement is the sort of social and political activism that liberation theology tried to introduce to Catholic teachings in Latin America, an area that has suffered greatly from American political interference and exploitation, and that theCatholic establishment worked extremely hard to defeat. When westerners speak of “moderate” Muslims, they mean Muslims who are willing to restrict themselves to “religious” issues while effectively acquiescing with Western capitalist global hegemony. This is entirely in keeping with the tradition established by the Roman Catholic church in recent years, but must be resisted by Muslims who have a broader understanding of the true essence of Islam. This demands of us clarity about issues involved, and firm resistance to global hype about the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church.