Palestinian Muslims hold up portraits during demonstration against Pope Benedict's remarks in Jerusalem
Mahfouz Abu Turk  /  Reuters
Palestinian Muslims hold up portraits during a demonstration against Pope Benedict's remarks about Islam, after prayers at Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday. The flyer in front reads "What you said is not for sure." 
By Keith Miller Senior foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/26/2006 3:14:05 PM ET 2006-09-26T19:14:05

CAIRO, Egypt — From the West Bank and Gaza to Pakistan and Malaysia, thousands of Muslims demonstrated against Pope Benedict on Friday, calling him, among other things, a “coward” and an “agent of the Americans.”

The protests came as the pope invited ambassadors of Muslim nations to a meeting at his summer residence on Monday to discuss inter-faith relations. 

NBC News’ Keith Miller reports from Cairo on the continued anger on the Arab street over the pope’s remarks last week citing a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”

Muslim leaders across the Arab world had called for a “day of rage” on Friday. What was the scene like in Cairo today?
There was still a lot of anger at the mosque that we visited in Cairo — a lot of people are still upset. We are not seeing the violent reaction that we were immediately after the remarks made their way around the world, but the Islamic street is still angry. We saw it at the mosque in Cairo and there were demonstrations in Pakistan, the West Bank, Gaza, and Turkey. So, the issue has not died down, although the violence that has been associated with it has certainly dropped off significantly. 

The grand sheik at the mosque we visited went so far as to say that they will boycott any conversations with the pope until they get a retraction of his remarks. The pope said he was sorry on Saturday and he offered his regrets on Wednesday, but a lot of Islamic leaders — especially on the more radical side — are not accepting this at all.

What they were asking for from here on Friday was that the pope retract the specific statement that he made quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said that Muhammad had spread the faith through the sword. 

The pope has invited representatives of Muslim countries to meet with him next week. How was that conciliatory move received? Does it seem that it will help at all?
It will certainly be well-attended — there are a lot of Islamic nations that are not radical and understand that dialogue and diplomacy have a major part to play in controversy. So, it is likely that he’ll have good attendance at the meeting. We see afterwards whether these ambassadors to the Vatican representing Muslim countries are satisfied with the pope’s position.

But it should be borne in mind that Benedict was known to be very conservative before he was elected pope. He spent the last 20 some-odd years of his life as the principle defender of the Catholic faith under Pope John Paul II and he is clearly still embracing that role.

There is no doubt that he sees radical Islam as a threat to Christianity. I don’t see him backing down much. He may be willing to say that particular quote was inappropriate, but I think his core concerns are very serious to him, and the Catholic Church, and that he’ll continue to raise them  

Given the fact that the Muslim leaders are asking for something like a retraction, which it is very difficult to imagine happening, is it possible that the two sides will ever be able to see eye to eye?
We seem to be reaching a stalemate in terms of diplomacy. The pope has expressed three times now his regret for the remarks. He certainly feels that there has been a misunderstanding here.

Retracting that particular graph, how do you do that? The grand sheik here in Cairo was asking that it be withdrawn from the document so that future generations do not see this.

But, it’s highly unlikely that anybody would have ever seen it anyway since it was sort of an obscure lecture that wasn’t even particularly well covered.  It was a lecture on “faith and reason,” which is sort of inside baseball for religious scholars.

The pope can only go so far. What he has done already has to be called unprecedented.

Popes don’t apologize for things. It seems almost that on the radical fringes of Islam, you have people basically asking the pope to ask for forgiveness, and popes don’t do that and Benedict is certainly not going to do that.

He said he was misunderstood and he was sorry that the comments caused pain to the faithful. And I think there was perhaps to some degree a misunderstanding within the Vatican itself over just how volatile the reaction to his comments was going to be.

You were just in Rome, at the Vatican. Does there seem to be a disconnect with how seriously the pope’s comments are being taken on the streets of Cairo and how seriously the comments are being taken in Rome?
Even I’m surprised at how deeply wounded many people are — including people that would be considered moderate Muslims. They are highly, highly offended by the pope’s remarks.

But the offense is not restricted to the pope’s remarks. There is a big connection between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah, the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis and the current outrage. All of these events together combine to make the Muslim world feel as if it is under attack by the West. And even though the pope certainly didn’t throw any missiles at them, they felt that this was also another attack — albeit a verbal one — from a man who carries a lot of weight in the world.

That's partly because Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, was an international celebrity and held a very prominent position on the world stage. This pope, then carries the mantle of John Paul’s incredible popularity and then seems to be involved, if you will, in what many in the Muslim world consider this assault from the West on many different fronts.

I doubt that was Benedict’s intention, but nonetheless it’s being perceived that way in the Islamic world.

So does this all come down to just that — a difference of perception?
There is a huge gulf of understanding. From the Vatican’s perspective, the pope was talking about the need to distance religion from violence — even though perhaps in an undiplomatic way. Yet the response has been more violence, which seems to reaffirm the point the pope was making.

It is similar to thecartoon controversy, in which dozens of people died in the violence that resulted from that dispute. There is a very low tolerance level to perceived outside attacks on Islam.

Unfortunately the war on terror has taken on, at least in the Islamic world, a veneer of being an attack on the Islamic religion and way of life. Many people in the Muslim world feel that they are personally under attack, even if they reject the ideology of fanaticism, jihadism and terrorism.

Add to that the fact that in a lot of Islamic countries, the ability to speak freely on a multitude of subjects is highly restricted. In the West we are very familiar with free speech and have developed over the years an ability to take criticism that may actually be hurtful to us because we understand people’s right to express themselves. 

That doesn’t work in this part of the world because the ability to speak freely often is very, very restricted. So, it is very unusual to hear criticism of governments, political leaders, religious leaders. You don’t see a lot of critical debate in these societies. Subsequently when an offending remark surfaces, you get what appears to us in the West as an overreaction.

We talk about how the world has changed since 9/11 and certainly relations between Islam and Christianity have changed.

John Paul II was engaged in a battle between the West and communism. There is a belief that this pope is engaged in a battle between the West and fundamentalist Islam, and that the peaceful outcome is perhaps no less important than it was during the Cold War.

Keith Miller is an NBC News senior foreign correspondent. Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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