Pascal Bruckner
The Tyranny of Guilt

Nothing authorizes us to divide humanity into the guilty and the innocent, for innocence is the lot of children, but also that of idiots and slaves. A people that is never held accountable for its acts has lost all the qualities that make it possible to treat it as an equal. Thus we must enlarge the circle of repentance, open it to all continents, and not confine it to Northern Hemisphere countries alone.

Christianity, Islam: two imperialist religions, persuaded that they know the truth and prepared to save people in spite of themselves, by the sword, by fire, by auto-da-fe. But Christianity, worn out by four centuries of violent opposition in Europe, has had to give ground and admit the principle of secularism, which is, moreover, inscribed in the Gospels. Many crimes can be imputed to the Catholic Church: for instance, having ordered the first genocide in the history of Europe with the massacre of the Albigensians launched in 1209 by Pope Innocent III, in the name of the principle 'Kill them all, God will recognize his own'; having invented with the Inquisition institutional torture, and state racism with the Catholic queen Isabella's demand for 'purity of blood' (pureza de sangre); having had all the theological arguments to condemn slavery but having instead justified or at least tolerated it until the beginning of the nineteenth century in order to support the temporal interests of the papacy; having too often spoken in favor of ignorance, madness, and superstition; having killed, eliminated, and persecuted heretics, witches, pagans, and Muslims in the name of love and the true faith. We can also reproach it for the Vatican's indulgent attitude toward the Third Reich when so many German Catholics paid with their lives for their opposition to Hitler's regime. At least Christianity has begun the modernization represented for Catholics by the Vatican II Council 1962-1965). The solemn apologies then made by John Paul II to the Jewish community, the Indians of South America, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and Africans on the island of Goree in Senegal, the recognition of the papacy's error in evaluating the main scientific discoveries since Galileo, the condemnation of the Crusades, and the renunciation of forced proselytizing have all marked the culmination of this unprecedented process. And although there remain many dark areas in its history, Rome, like most of the Protestant and Orthodox churches, has begun a courageous critical inventory to bring itself into conformity with the spirit of the New Testament. There are mosques in Rome, but are there Christian churches in Mecca, Jeddah, or Riyadh? Isn't it better to be a Muslim in Dusseldorf or Paris than a Christian in Cairo or Karachi? One would like the various European Communist parties, little Leninist groups, Trotskyites, alter-globalists, and ecologists to take a look at themselves and engage in introspection with the same intransigence. But it is always from Christianity and from it alone that repentance is expected, because it invented repentance in its modern forms. In other words, the Catholic Church has simultaneously betrayed and transmitted the spirit of the Gospels. Its long and painful story greatly resembles the moral and political story of the West: the interminable adjustment of reality to principles, which are themselves constantly violated and always reaffirmed. The progress made by reason has been slow but incontestable, even if it has sometimes led to horrible regressions. Decency and dignity have advanced side by side with savagery, the best alongside the worst. Freedom is triumphing, but long after its reign was proclaimed and still only in a few places on the globe. Whatever those disillusioned with progress may think, the collective education of the human race, as it was conceived in the eighteenth century by the German dramatist Lessing, is not an empty expression. It has taken, and will continue to take, the patient labor of history, resistances to be overcome, relapses into tyranny, the awakening of consciousnesses.

This process of questioning remains to be carried out by Islam, which is convinced that it is the last revealed religion and hence the only authentic one, with its book directly dictated by God to his Prophet. It considers itself not the heir of earlier faiths but rather a successor that invalidates them forever. The day when its highest authorities recognize the conquering, aggressive nature of their faith, when they ask to be pardoned for the holy wars waged in the name of the Qur'an and for the infamies committed against infidels, apostates, unbelievers, and women, when they apologize for the terrorist attacks that profane the name of God—that will be a day of progress and will help dissipate the suspicion that many people legitimately harbor regarding this sacrificial monotheism. Criticizing Islam, far from being reactionary, constitutes on the contrary the only progressive attitude at a time when millions of Muslims, reformers or liberals, aspire to practice their religion in peace without being subjected to the dictates of bearded doctrinaires. Banning barbarous customs such as lapidation, repudiation, polygamy, and clitoridectomy, subjecting the Qur'an to hermeneutic reason, doing away with objectionable verses about Jews, Christians, and gays and appeals for the murder of apostates and infidels, daring to resume the Enlightenment movement that arose among Muslim elites at the end of the nineteenth century in the Middle East—that is the immense political, philosophical, and theological construction project that is opening up. Intellectuals, professors, and Arab Muslim clerics have begun to undertake this work (in France, notably Fetih Benslam, Malek Chebel, Latifa Ben Mansour, Mohammed Arkoun, Abdelwahab Meddeb, and Fadela Amara), some of them thereby risking their lives, especially when they are women in revolt against their status (to mention only the most emblematic, the Syrian American Wafa Sultan, the Canadian of Pakistani origin Irshad Manji, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, the German Turk lawyer Seyran Ates, the Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali).

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.