The Pope and the Ethics of Exclusion

Tarik Kochi

A move is being made by many ‘Christian’ thinkers and political actors to paint Islam and, thus European Muslims, as inherently violent. The recent comments of Pope Benedict XVI may be seen as part of a renewed anti-Muslim discourse used to draw together and defend the heritage of ‘Christian Europe’. How should the Left respond to such a strategy of portraying Islam as unreasonable and violent and Christianity as reasonable and non-violent? One way is to engage directly with the religious concepts mobilised by the Pope, to question his portrayal of the relationship between reason, violence and ethics as a means of undercutting his rhetoric. Such an approach might also help us to think through some of the presuppositions of our own ethical demands and the way we relate to the nature of post-secular conflict more generally.  


Wayward Comments

On the 12th September 2006, a day not very far from a date etched into many of our memories, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, gave a speech in Germany. This speech had many Muslims in uproar, and left many others questioning the Catholic Church’s official approach to Islam, religious tolerance and inter-faith communication more generally. The controversy was such that the Pope was obliged to offer points of clarification and something close to an apology.

In giving a speech within the context of a German university, Pope Benedict addressed generally the topic of the relation between ‘faith and reason’ and introduced this theme by recounting a dialogue between a Medieval Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II and a so-called “Persian interlocutor”.[1] As a spokesperson for the Pope has subsequently claimed, the Pope had used the reading of this dialogue as a means of reflecting in an “academic context” upon the theme of the “relationship between religion and violence in general”, with the conclusion of a “clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation of violence, from whatever side it may come”.[2] We might reserve our judgment upon the Pope’s purpose for recounting this dialogue, whether it was academic, strategic or otherwise, and consider for the moment the content of the now notorious dialogue as recounted by the Pope.

Pope Benedict recounts a moment in the seventh conversation which touches upon the theme of ‘holy war’. The Pope notes that the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II addresses his Persian interlocutor with “startling brusqueness” on the central question of the relation between religion and violence in general. The Emperor says: “Show me just what Mohammed 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”. Pope Benedict argues that Emperor Manuel, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. This involves the argument that violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, Emperor Manuel says:

(I)s not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats … To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death. 

Pope Benedict goes on to claim that the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is that: “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature”. To which, drawing upon the modern editor of the dialogue (Theodore Khoury), he suggests, is self-evident to the Byzantine Emperor influenced by Greek philosophy, but this however, is not apparently so evident to what the Pope refers to as, “Muslim teaching” – of which he claims contains the conception that “God is absolutely transcendent” and therefore, not bound up with human categories, or even that of rationality.

For Pope Benedict, this supposed distinction is key, and the rest of his lecture is an extrapolation of a relationship shared between Greek philosophy and Christian thinking – the equating of God’s nature with the logos. Pope Benedict quotes approvingly then, the line in the Gospel of John (1:1) – ‘In the beginning was the logos’ – noting that here the logos is for us not simply the ‘word’, but also, ‘reason’.  For Benedict then, Christian faith and reason are intertwined. His quotation of Emperor Manuell II is to affirm the argument that religious faith begins with and is to be spread by, reason, and not by violence – that is, by reasoning, communication, enlightenment, and by love.

Yet, while this line sounds at first convincing, or at least appeals to the ear, there is something more, something amiss here, something is rotten in this account, something stinks. At a surface level there involves a particular historical hypocrisy. This is perhaps bad enough, but there is something more, something about the all too neat division between reason, on the one hand, and violence on the other, which I find unsettling and which gives ground for further investigation.


Misunderstanding and Hypocrisy

What might initially be amiss within the Pope’s comments? While the Pope does mention one central injunction given in the Qur’an – that “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). He, however, still presents a very limited, distorted and reductionist account of Islam and gives no reference the multiple historical traditions of Islamic thinking – or to the continued plurality of perspectives within Islam upon the question of the relation between the reason and divine.

One element that is troubling about the Pope’s depiction of Islam is the manner in which he sets up a dichotomy containing Greek philosophy, Christianity and the logos on the one side, and Islam on the other. The Pope takes one particular account given by a Muslim thinker – Ibn Hazn – that God is absolutely transcendent, beyond our categories, beyond rationality – and portrays the whole of Islam as adopting this position. Such a move is erroneous, naïve and in bad faith. It is akin to one pointing to a particular Christian thinker, say Origen, or Joseph Smith Jr.(the founder of the Mormons), and claiming that either of their accounts of the relation between reason and the divine are representative of the whole of Christian thinking. No decent Christian theologian would make such a blatant error in ignoring the plurality of theological conceptions within their own tradition of thinking, so why should it be okay to speak in such a manner about another faith?

Through building such a sharp dichotomy between the logos or reason, apparently shared by Greek philosophy and Christianity but not by what the Pope ambiguously calls “Muslim teaching”, Pope Benedict erases, silences, distorts and suppresses at least 500 years of Islamic thought which engaged with and developed the notion of the logos of post-Socratic Greek philosophy. Major figures of the Islamic enlightenment, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), not to mention the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, are completed ignored by the Pope’s account. These philosophers, who were also men of deep faith, and the many others who preceded and followed them, (including Muslim philosophers of the present) thought through precisely this question discussed by the Pope – the relation between God and the logos, between the divine and reason. While many of these thinkers have been marginalised by mainstream Islam, their historical importance should not be forgotten, and there is good reason to re-emphasise their teachings in response to dogmatism and religious fundamentalism.

Such figures are also historically important to Medieval Christianity’s re-engagement with Greek philosophy which took place through the mediation of Islamic scholarship and via a critical reflection upon the relationship between reason and the divine, laid out by the scholars of the Islamic enlightenment. The cross-over of ideas between the Islamic and Christian worlds was central to a post-Roman Christian heritage. To not acknowledge this, and to repress it, as Pope Benedict has done, is to not only live within a world of historical abstraction, but to ignore the movement and sharing of ideas between cultures and religions that is at the heart of modern conceptions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

While the Pope’s comments are unsettling they are not uncommon. His portrayal of Christianity as the religion that is of the logos, the religion of reason, is placed in sharp contrast with his depiction of Islam as the religion which shuns the logos, the religion of unreason, ‘the unreasonable religion’. Such a depiction, as clearly pointed out by Edward Said[3] over twenty years ago, has been typical of a dominant Western, Christian attitude towards the Islamic world which was used to justify and legitimate the colonisation of the Middle East by Europeans and United States Americans.[4] The Pope’s portrayal of Islam as the religion of unreason follows in the footsteps of countless Christian and secular Europeans and United States Americans who have painted the Muslim as irrational, stupid, unreasonable, uncivilised, violent, dirty and so on. The Pope’s move is an old and typical move, one which portrays the universe as cleaved into two, reason against unreason, civilisation against barbarism. There is an old colonial voice emerging from the Pope’s robes, one which is mobilised now in the climate of the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the ever-louder calls from both Social Democrats and Conservatives in Europe to hold onto and affirm so-called ‘Christian values’ against the cultural threats of non-white immigrants from the various parts of the Islamic world.

What is perhaps most disturbing within the Pope’s speech was his perpetuation of a thoroughly medieval prejudice that Islam is and was a religion ‘spread by the sword’. Now while Pope Benedict has subsequently attempted to distance himself from the content of his quotation of Manuel II, the implication of using this quote without caution, or direct criticism, perpetuates the erroneous view that Islam is a religion spread by violence. This is an old prejudice and while the Pope has distanced himself from it he has not directly refuted it. Rather, his failure to talk about the historical violence carried out by religious believers and to simply attribute this violence to “cultural limitations” is a mark of theological inadequacy and historical hypocrisy.  

If Pope Benedict was to have seriously engaged with the question of the relation between violence and religion this would have to begin with, I would suggest, in the least, two points of examination. Firstly, with an analysis of the context and rationale of any acts of violence attributed to the prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – whether this be the throwing of the money lenders out of the Temple in Jerusalem, or, of the defence of Medina. Secondly, such an examination would have to involve an honest acknowledgement of the violence committed historically by religious institutions and their believers. For Pope Benedict this would necessarily have to involve an open acknowledgment of the massive violence of the Crusades, the re-conquest of southern Spain, the invasion and colonisation of Central and South America and an institutional silence within the highest levels of the Catholic Church during the genocide of the Jews of Europe. If the Pope was to take the question of the relation between violence and religion seriously, to investigate it seriously in the name of reason, then he would have to ask these hard questions and he would have to recognise and face up to a large number of highly uncomfortable historical facts.

Yet, Pope Benedict has not taken this question seriously, he has merely engaged in an exercise of mud slinging against the world of Islam and has participated in the expression of European prejudice against non-European religious belief. This attitude is not one of inter-faith dialogue, nor of open, unprejudiced debate in the name of reason. Rather, the attitude, marked by prejudice and aggression shares far too many uncomfortable resonances with earlier Christian violent actors, the Crusaders and Conquistadors. And while the hypocrisy of Pope Benedict’s comments has been infinite – the depth of his apologies has been particularly shallow.


Violence and Reason

While holding onto these criticisms of Pope Benedict’s comments I would like to push on a little further into one question opened by the Pope, that of the relation between reason, religion and violence. The assumption made by Pope Benedict, is one that has been echoed by many religious and secular thinkers within recent times: that is, violence is contrary to faith and reason. The assumption is that violence is an exception, an aberration, and that it is opposed to the non-violent ethos of love within faith, and non-violent communication or dialogue within reason. The idea is quite beautiful, but is it a correct representation of either faith or reason – might not each contain degrees of violence? Or, at least, might not an ethics of love, one which sits at the intersection of faith and reason, contain a violence which we too often overlook? Perhaps there is a certain degree of violence contained within love, a violence sitting within the intersection of faith and reason. I call this violence the ethics of exclusion, and aspects of this can be seen within two prominent religious injunctions shared by Christianity and Islam.

The injunction, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13), might be considered as a general prohibition upon killing, a prohibition against murder, a prohibition perhaps even against violence in general. The injunction may be thought in one sense to be an expression of an attitude towards non-violence stemming from and attributed to the divine, the logos or reason of the divine, given in the quotation of Emperor Manuel, that “God”, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature”. Yet, does this injunction involve an absolute prohibition upon killing and violence? There are of course multiple and conflicting answers to this question, and I am not pretending here to offer the definitive solution.

Yet, in thinking about this question some comments by Augustine are relevant, and have been highly influential over many Christians and those who inherit Western traditions of law and ethics influenced by aspects of Christianity. For Augustine, the commandment against killing is not absolute. Rather, he argues that “divine authority itself has made certain exceptions to the rule that it is not lawful to kill men”.[5] For Augustine, he who is commanded by God to kill, such as the commandment by God to Abraham that he kill his son, is excepted from the prohibition upon killing. Further, those who wage wars under public authority, or maintain peace and civil order against crime and civil war, may kill and use violence without acting in contradiction of the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Furthermore, for Augustine, and for the majority of Christians, the killing of plants and animals is exempted from this general prohibition.

The prohibition upon killing becomes even more complicated when considered in light of the injunction – ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew, 22:39). While at first glance one would normally assume that the notion of love has little to do with violence and killing, a brief extrapolation of the concept shows this not to be the case. One can quite easily think of the notion of a political community that is guided by an ethic of love – love as the ethic which binds humans together and brings them closer to the divine through the activity of ethical behaviour. Such an ethic of love involves also notions of protection, notions of care for the weak, the poor, the social outcasts, the marginalised, and as such it is a radical ethic of inclusion. And yet, such an ethic also necessitates the defence of those who are loved against those who may threaten or do violence to them.[6]

The injunction to love thy neighbour involves the injunction to help one’s neighbour against those who might do violence to them. So in the situation where the neighbour is injured by crime, love may necessitate the provision of public order, peace and security and maybe even punishment against those who break the civil law. In the situation where the neighbour is attacked by an enemy, the injunction to love might even involve going to war to assist and defend one’s neighbour, and in such a situation killing and violence may be a practical and necessary outcome of the ethical injunction to love. This is not to say that the use of violence is necessary, in a situation of conflict there may be other methods of defending or safeguarding the neighbour. However, there remains a certain potentiality for violence contained within the concept of love and a certain aspect of its necessity it buried deep within the normative structure of the concept.

One way of thinking about the ethics of exclusion, at least in its relation to love, might be to think of it as the failure of love. That is, love sets out an ethical demand that we should embrace, help and care for our neighbour. However, in practice each human individual, or each institution, because each is limited and finite, can only extend its love, in space and time, to a limited and discreet set of others. In this respect, while the demand of love may be infinite, its practice might only be finite, and thus, as a result of finitude, one neighbour is left behind, left out, excluded, left to go hungry, or left to stand at the border or outside the city wall.

However, to split love and ethics in this way might be to discount the exclusionary aspect, the violent aspect of love, to push it towards the outer boundaries of the concept of love itself and thus to consider it as only a pragmatic afterthought. Such an approach is politically dangerous. One can do profound violence but justify this after the act by claiming that violence was done with all the good intentions of love. Too often the violence of love is explained away, rendered irrelevant, repressed even, by placing blame upon the wretchedness of finite, human, earthly life. Such an explanation is used all too commonly today to justify the civilian causalities within war – so-called ‘collateral damage’. Those innocents bombed and killed by aggressive war are represented as the failures of love, the people we tried to save through love but killed through error.

Such a rigid dualism between the infinite and the finite, between supposedly pure notions of love and reason on the one hand, and the muddied and violent operation of human practicality on the other, is both conceptually tenuous and ethically irresponsible. By subscribing to such a dualism Pope Benedict is able to wash his hands of the historical violence carried out by Christians and the Catholic Church. For the Pope, the violence of history seems redeemed by the pure idea, the pure logos, and by ‘good intentions’ directed towards such an end. 

This dualism, either within theology or within secular ethics, should be rejected. The relation between reason, ethics and violence is not properly understood if we think of an ethical concept, such as love, as being pure in theory, within a realm of pure reason, but which subsequently becomes impure, dirtied, complicated and violent in the move from theory to practice. The better approach is to think about the nature of normative demands within ethical concepts and to think about the conflicts, or what might be called normative contradictions, that occur within reason, within the logos. That is, within every ethical norm, such as love, there resides a demand that it be realised – this demand is an infinite demand, an infinite potentiality. Also contained within this normative demand is the potentiality for violence. The potentiality for violence occurs within thought, within reason, and can be seen to occur as soon as the norm, say love, is directed or extended towards distinct objects. At the level of reason, at the level of only thinking in our heads or on paper, this violence is not yet real physical violence; it is only yet the potentiality for violence. Yet, this potentiality is contained within the ethical concept itself, it is a certain potentiality for violence contained within the word.

A certain sense of this might be seen to be present within a parable about the story of the fall of Satan (Iblis) in the Qur’an (2:34). The story goes that Satan formerly an angel (or a jinni in other accounts) was commanded by God to prostrate or bow down before the newly created Adam. Satan refused to prostrate himself before Adam and was subsequently thrown out of heaven. The standard account is that Satan was punished for his arrogance and for his disobedience to God. One Sufi reinterpretation of this story is that Satan, out of all of the angels was the only one who followed the Islamic notion that there is only one God. Hence, that one should only prostrate oneself before God and one should not bow down to idols, or set other beings near or on the level of God. On this counter interpretation Satan attempted to fulfil the word of God but this brought him into contradiction with the word of God.

In part the story of Satan is representative of the sense of normative contradiction contained within reason, within the logos, which as irreconcilable contains the potentiality for violence within it. It is this parable of Satan which paints a much clearer picture of the relationship between reason, faith and violence. Conflict and violence are contained within reason – within divine reason itself. Here there is no split world; violence is not separated off from a pure reason by the introduction of finitude, human arrogance, or human error as is the case of the narrative of the fall of man through sin. Rather, the error is already contained within reason and it is this point we need to hold onto if we are properly to come to terms with the relation between reason, faith and violence.


Contemporary Relevance

So how might the notion of the ethics of exclusion help us think about contemporary political questions such as the so-called ‘war on terror’ or the West’s relationship with the multiple worlds and traditions grouped under the broad heading of ‘Islam’? Well, we should reject the type of story that is becoming increasingly popular in many circles, not just conservative, but also liberal-democratic and social democratic, that Islam is a religion of violence while Christianity is a religion of non-violence. One way of rejecting this false dichotomy is, contra Pope Benedict, to attempt take an unbiased, empirical view of history, to accept the violence performed by many different religious and secular actors throughout history.

Yet, such an approach may not be enough, because the violence of the past, whether this be carried out by Jews, Christians, Muslims, or by the secular modern state, is almost always justified and legitimated after the event by many of our ethical conceptions. That is, empirical violence of the past is all too easily re-described, re-legitimated, re-narrated as having ethical legitimacy. Too often historical and contemporary violence is portrayed as the failure of love; painted as well-intentioned but unplanned violence, the result of error and human limitation. The colonial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are often painted this way. For many, their violence is redeemed by love, and the answer is always to be more ethical, to act in accordance with love, regardless of the violence which this produces.

Instead of such a view what is required is an effort to hold onto the violence of love – the violence contained within reason, ethics and the operation of normative contradiction. This violence occurring as a potentiality should not be separated from a pure reason, ethics or love. Rather, these three need to be re-conceptualised by a focus and emphasis upon the role and status of the potentiality of violence contained within them.[7] Such an approach to the thinking about ethics is needed, especially so, when attempting to come to terms with the nature of post-secular violence trampling upon the present.

For many on the Left, such an engagement with the operation of religious concepts, as I have attempted to sketch out here through the constellation of reason, violence and love, appears as a form of intellectual regression. However, by taking such a stance the Left loses a field of engagement that might otherwise be used to refute on their own terms many of the religious arguments put by institutional figures such as the Pope, and those made by political figures who attempt to hold onto the religious-moral higher ground as a means of countering their disastrous and violent policies within empirical-social reality. Further, by engaging with some of the concepts and forms of thinking characteristic of what can be termed – post-secular reason – the Left opens itself to a wider dialogue with members of the Islamic world who share many of the ethical and political goals central to the struggle against imperialist war and global capitalism. We can take the differing critiques of religion given by Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx seriously, and still engage critically with the content of religious concepts that are used to mobilise millions of religious actors around the world. Many on the Left are already doing this and as long as we do not lose ourselves completely within religious concepts the project of such an engagement can be a productive one.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, Lecture Presented to the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, Tuesday, 12 September 2006.

[2] Statement of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisco Bertone.

[3] Said, E.W. Orientalism, (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1978).

[4] The term ‘United States Americans’ is a clunky term, but necessary in distinguishing the population of the USA from those many other populations that make up the continents of North and South America.

[5] Augustine, City of God against the Pagans, Dyson, R.W. tr. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 33, I, 21.

[6] This ‘war of love’ is taken up by the ‘just war’ tradition.

[7] I try to outline a more thorough account of this relation in my forthcoming book: War and Order.


Tarik Kochi is Lecturer at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast.