Motorcycle Diaries Part VI

(This article was first published in Jordan’s Living Well magazine)

It’s the apple season in Geneva and the neighboring cantons. Plenty of them, mouthwatering and crisp, proudly showing off their red glow alongside the more predominant acres of grapevines. Switzerland may be better known for its chocolates, watches, cheeses, enviable standards of living, and secret bank accounts.

More than anything, this trilingual confederation is most famous for that unmistakable quality about being, well, you know, Swiss. Just place the word “Swiss” before most products or industries and you’re immediately sold. No need for gimmicks or spins. This magical noun has become a descriptive adjective with a universal marketing appeal of its own, instantly implying dedication, perfection, accuracy, trust, and meticulous craftsmanship. In politics, the name spells peace, neutrality, and impenetrable stability. Rarely does the national identity of any country come pre-loaded with such a reputation for superior quality and refined living. Why is that?

In my experience, it is because the Swiss have earned it. As individuals and as a community, they have worked very hard over centuries to establish such a status among nations and preserve it. Even their troubled national airline, Swissair, when it had to declare bankruptcy in 2001 and change its corporate name, bounced back simply as Swiss. If it’s Swiss, then surely you must be in safe hands, goes the legend. Never mind that Swiss Airlines is today owned by another European populace known for their brutal efficiency (Lufthansa acquired the Swiss national carrier last year), still, the name Swiss says it all – and even ze Germans think so.

Back to the lesser known Swiss marvel, as the temptation to stop in the middle of the groves and take a bite from a juicy apple grew stronger, I felt like Adam, about to be cast down from heaven for a delicious sin. It’s been a while since we first took residence in this Utopian city. Now, nine years and many baskets of forbidden fruits later, my family and I are actually departing this paradise to settle down in Jordan (by the time you read this, we’ll be already home). But not before I conclude the Swiss chapters of these diaries. So, while in motorcycle limbo, recalling biblical tales, I might as well indulge Pope Benedict XVI in his plea for dialogue, made soon after he delivered his controversial lecture last September. Since that event in Germany, His Holiness has made a number of limited retractions and explanations, but never really stated he was sorry for what he had said. Instead, he repeatedly expressed regret about people’s reaction to his quoting of other people’s opinions. To me, this was like someone taking aim and slapping you smack in the face, then saying he was really sorry that you should draw pain from this move of his hand, because none was actually intended. In other words, he is sorry for your reaction, but feels little remorse over his action. In any case, I do agree with His Holiness about the importance of discussing these things in a civilized manner without resorting to vitriol or diatribe. In this vein, the head of the Catholic Church has made a number of factual errors, which if left uncorrected by the Holy See, makes it harder to believe that the Pope was giving his lecture in good faith – no pun intended.

For example, did the Pope really not know that the Quranic verse “Let there be no compulsion in religion” was revealed in Medina towards the later stages, when Muhammad was a powerful head of state, and not in the early period in Mecca when he was weak and persecuted, as the Pope had claimed? If he did know this fact, then we have a problem. But if he did not, then we have a greater problem, for how can such a slip come from the supposedly infallible head of the world’s largest religion when publicly referring to the world’s second largest? Indeed, how did the Pope not know that when Muhammad entered Mecca as a victorious conqueror after long years of forced exile, he did not shed a drop of his tormentors’ blood? On the contrary, the legendary forgiveness bestowed upon those very people who drove Muhammad from his home and were bent on killing him was immortalized when he declared, upon entering the holy city, that those who stayed indoors or took shelter in the house of Abu Sufian, his defeated arch enemy, shall be safe. The prophet then addressed the leaders of the vanquished city and their followers, absolving them “Go, for you are free”. Contrary to what the Pope had implied, forced conversions had never taken place in the history of Islam, during Muhammad’s life or after his death. All the military conquests by Muslims that followed were political in nature, gaining territory and resources from competing super powers. Muslim armies, when compared to other nations, were the most benevolent in victory, and Muslim administration the most enlightened, thus winning the hearts and minds of the people. No one was ever forced to become a Muslim by the sword or by anything else.

So if the Pope wants us to believe that he was merely quoting but not agreeing with the words of the besieged Byzantine Emperor Manuel II who described Islam as “evil and inhuman”, then he should have at least also quoted the other Western historical sources testifying to the metropolis of cultural and religious tolerance that Constantinople had become under the Ottomans when they finally conquered the city. In fact, what would have truly absolved the Pope from the wrath of misinterpretation would have been if he had acknowledged the undeniable fact that the imposition of religion through violence had always been the legacy and monopoly of the Catholic Church throughout its history. In defense of his lecture, the Pope instead had claimed that the aim of his speech had been merely to point out the incompatibility of faith and violence, that’s all. Beautiful words. We cannot agree more. These are principles under which we all bow in unanimity. But all historians are also unanimous that the greatest examples of religious-driven barbarity in history were those acts of indescribable violence perpetrated by the Catholic Church, not by Islam. So why did the Pope conceal this truth and only use an inappropriate and erroneous accusation of Islam to make his point, suppressing the mountains of recorded history, archived but in his own Vatican library? In fact, long before the armies of Mehmet II entered Constantinople in1453, the city was the target of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, commissioned and blessed by none other than the Vatican itself. According to the authoritative book on the subject, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople By Jonathan Philips (Senior Lecturer at the University of London), the Crusaders raped everything that moved, old or infant. Nuns were especially targeted for rape, and despite many covering their faces with mud to avoid recognition, the sisters were not spared. Although both were Christians, the Catholic Crusaders still massacred the population of Constantinople, simply because they were Greek Orthodox and did not speak Latin. Instead of marching to their destination in Jerusalem, they changed course and torched the greatest Christian city after Rome. According to Philips, the landmarks that bore the brunt of Crusader bestiality were the churches of Constantinople.

With all due respect to His Holiness, while heeding his call for civilized dialogue, I ask how a scholar of his stature can intentionally ignore centuries of Crusader massacres of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the name of religion, and be surprised of the reaction to his selective quoting of historical texts? Apart from the latest (and highly dubious) kidnapping and staged conversion of the two Fox journalists in Gaza last August, no one can point to an incident in history where Muslims forced non-Muslims to convert to Islam, although millions of non-Muslims were ruled by Muslims for centuries. However, by contrast, the most horrendous machines ever manufactured to inflict pain and death upon suspected heretics inside torture dungeons were those used by agents of the Catholic Church during the inquisition, when even forced conversion did not save the victims from the horrors of the inquisitors (these hair-raising inventions are still displayed in many European museums today and are neatly catalogued in history books). You will find none of this religious oppression technology in the heritage of Islamic inventions, and that’s an indisputable fact that the Pope knows too well. This enforcement of religion by the sword took place not only in Europe. Ever wondered why the entire population of Latin America, without exceptions, is Catholic – or how it became “Latin” America to begin with? Surely the convincing skills of Catholic missionaries couldn’t have achieved a 100 percent success rate, now could they? Do you think perhaps that one of the greatest genocides in history had something to do with such astounding statistics of Catholic purity? This goes in absolute contrast with the Arab world, where the oldest Christian and Jewish communities in the world are still thriving (the Jews only began to flee after the arrival of European Zionists and the creation of the state of Israel). Take Egypt, the largest Arab country, as an example. After 14 centuries of Muslim rule, the Christian population of Egypt is still around 15 percent out of a population of over 75 million. On the other hand, where did the Muslims of Europe disappear? Why are there no native Muslims left in Spain, Southern Italy, Sicily or Malta? Apart from relatively recent immigrants, there are none whatsoever. Why is that? Now who are the masters of forced religious conversions and genocidal ethnic cleansing, Your Eminence?

It is fitting that I am writing these words from Geneva, the adopted home of John Calvin, one of the leaders of the reformation who reportedly turned Geneva into the “Rome of the Protestants” in the 16th century. Indeed, this city has always had a big heart for those seeking refuge from persecution, and until this day remains a mecca for political refugees, humanitarian groups, and peace-promoting organizations. But with all the wealth that it attracts, Geneva is also a magnet for a myriad of professional crooks and charlatans, from money launderers, jewelry thieves, embezzlers, to a wide host of eccentric characters. From dubious Royalty of thrones that don’t exist anymore, to tax-evading retired porn stars, Geneva’s arms are wide open. Believe me, I’ve seen them all. This town has been one amazing theater of the contrasts of life. It’s a city where Pizza is as addictive as drugs, and where drugs get delivered faster than a pizza. It’s a sleepy village where police visit you if you make noise after 10pm and a bustling capital where clubbers can find continuity after 10am. To me, Geneva will always be special because we’ve made a lot of good friends over the years (with one exception who, as I write, is being dealt with by the Swiss justice system). A number of these friends are still here; some are fixtures of this city as much as the jet d’eau is. Many of them are scattered around the world, but the good times we’ve spent are indelible in my memory. Above all, Geneva will remain special because our two beautiful kids were born here. That’s why our years here will be unforgettable.
Until the diaries return with more scattered thoughts from the roads of Jordan, take care, and if you ride, do it safely.

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