Pope Benedict XVI has just been laid to rest, but when it comes to the Left, the old adage about never speaking ill of the dead doesn’t apply even during the period of mourning. Wrongthinkers must be denounced and excoriated, no matter what. And so Wendy Mallette, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma whose “research brings critical theories of gender, sexuality, race, and animality” — animality? — “to bear on questions of doctrine and method within religious studies and Christian theology,” took to Religion Dispatches on Thursday. There, she claimed that Benedict’s theological legacy will be forever tainted by “Islamophobia,” which is simultaneously a fictional propaganda concept and one of the foremost sins of today’s academic world.
Mallette is enraged at the late pope because of “his infamous 2006 lecture in which he quoted a 15th-century Byzantine emperor who described the words of Muhammad as ‘evil and inhuman.’” That emperor was Manuel II Palaiologos, who reigned from 1391 to 1425, when the empire was in its death throes and mortally threatened by the Ottoman Turks, who had already conquered and occupied much of its former territory. In September 1390, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid demanded that Manuel’s father John V Palaiologos send Manuel to the Ottoman court as a permanent hostage. John V had no choice but to comply, but he also ordered that the walls of Constantinople be rebuilt, repaired, and strengthened given a coming Ottoman siege. Bayezid summarily ordered John V to stop repairing the walls immediately, or Manuel would be blinded. John complied. He had no choice.
When John V died, Manuel escaped from the sultan’s palace and claimed the imperial throne. But Bayezid forced him to agree to a treaty in which the Byzantines agreed to pay the Ottomans thirty thousand crowns of gold each year. The sultan also imperiously ordered Manuel to accompany him on a military expedition into the wilds of Anatolia, which had once been the Byzantine heartland, to subdue a rival Muslim group.
While on this journey, Manuel wrote of the desolation that the Ottoman conquest had brought about in what once had been Roman land, as well as in his own individual soul. “There are many cities here,” he wrote from Asia Minor, “but they lack what constitutes the true splendor of a city…that is, human beings. Most now lie in ruins…not even the names have survived.…I cannot tell you exactly where we are.” The emperor wrote forthrightly of his own despondency: “It is hard to bear all this…the scarcity of supplies, the severity of winter and the sickness which has struck down many of our men…[have] greatly depressed me.… It is unbearable…The blame lies with the present state of affairs, not to mention the individual [that is, Bayezid] whose fault they are.” In 1394, Bayezid summoned Manuel to his court, intending to kill him, but Manuel escaped once again.
Manuel II thus had extensive firsthand experience of Islam and Muslims. What Benedict quoted was the emperor’s acid assessment of the religion of Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad 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…. God is 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’s quotation touched off an international firestorm, as the words of the long-forgotten emperor were furiously denounced worldwide as “Islamophobic,” a concept that Manuel undoubtedly never heard of or contemplated, and would have regarded, as he beheld the ruins of his empire in Asia Minor and suffered daily humiliations at the hands of Muhammad’s followers, with bitter irony. Manuel had lived in the Ottoman court and suffered grievously at their hands. His assessment was not born of prejudice but of his own knowledge and experience.
But now Wendy Mallette, sitting comfortably in her office at the University of Oklahoma, far from armies bent on destroying her society and way of life, judges Manuel II to have been an “Islamophobe,” and Benedict XVI likewise “Islamophobic” for daring to quote him. It is highly doubtful that Wendy Mallette has the slightest idea of the grim realities of Manuel’s life, or what led him to his assessment of Islam. She just knows that he has committed wrongthink, according to twenty-first-century standards of wokeness, and that is all she knows and all she needs to know.