The BBC and the Pope

by - 26th May 2009

Anyone interested in Pope Benedict XVI and his attitude to Islam was expecting a field day during his recent Middle East visit.   

Would he apologize for his earlier ‘gaffes’, as the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan demanded?  Would he make more statements that would incite volatile Muslim communities?   

After his speech in Jordan, worldwide media summarized the words of the Pope in headlines sent through email and text alerts all round the world, such as the BBC’s: Pope tells of ‘respect’ for Islam.  

That surprised me.   Respect for people is a Christian virtue.  But this Pope doesn’t usually indulge in interfaith banalities about religion – because he’s, well, the Pope.   

So I clicked on the link to read the actual words the great man spoke.  The first paragraph reads: ‘Pope Benedict XVI stressed his “deep respect” for Islam as he arrived in Jordan to begin a Middle East visit.’

And this is what most media around the world copied; BBC Online is the most used and most authoritative news agency in the world.  

But how many journalists bothered to listen to the actual speech?  The pontiff, a scientist and someone who always chooses his words with precision, was of course very careful.

But one has to read the whole article to find out what he really said.  He stated that his visit gave him ‘a welcome opportunity to speak of [his] deep respect for the Muslim community’.

Carefully he chose his words, and with a lack of care our journalists misquoted him: Benedict XVI made a compliment to the people, not to their religion.  A fine distinction, but a crucial one.

Respect for a religion dragoons all its followers into its myriad ambiguities and outcomes, and prevents sincere intellectual engagement where there is clear difference.   Respect for its followers allows them a humanity that the excesses of their texts and their co-religionists may deny them.   

Respect for Muslims implies respect for their right to believe and wrestle with their beliefs – because their freedom to do so as humans made in God’s image is guaranteed, at least in Christian thinking.   But that’s a distinction too fine for someone in the BBC, it seems.