Photo: Lebanon Daily Star
Not to minimize their importance, but atrocities on the scale of the Paris attacks of 1/7 have been occurring for years in various places in the world, as Michael Coren (Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity) and others have recorded in gory detail. In two weeks or months, we will have other killings staged in a similar dramatic manner for the same given reason–blasphemy for insulting the Prophet or the Qur’an. It matters little where they happen.
But Paris, New York, London, Rome, Munich, Sydney, and Bombay are more attention-grabbing than slaughters in the backwaters and deserts of Nigeria, Iraq, Sudan, or the Philippines. The central issue, for the moment, is this: “Are these murders to be attributed to Islam itself or are they the ‘aberrations’ of fanatic splinter sects?”
The Pope has called for an international conference. Muslim organizations alter between enthusiastic approval and cautious denial of responsibility. Liberals talk of absolute free speech, not just Muslims. Ideologues find a non-religious reason like poverty, exploitation or envy. Christians want the killings and second-class citizenship stopped everywhere. Historians examine the validity of Qur’anic claims to have a coherent origin and development. Philosophers cite the voluntarism that Muslim thinkers have taken, a step that justifies the jihadist position. Theologians seem loathe to analyze the Qur’an’s claim to be a genuine “revelation” that specifically denies basic Christian doctrines. German scholars work on a “critical edition” of the Qur’an to demonstrate its original sources.
Even the President of Egypt is concerned. At Al-Azhar University, President al-Sisi said that the Islamic religion needs to “revolutionize” itself. It is not an “ideology”. Muslims cannot hope to kill all the other people on the planet in the name of their religion just so Allah can rule the remainder. Some hold a kind of “two-Islam” theory, a peaceful one that denies violent methods though holding on to the rest and a radical one that justifies them in Muslim history and in the Qur’an. The four legal schools of Muslim tradition are brought in. Some want to have Islam “modernize” or “secularize” itself. Others see it as moral force in the world reacting to the decadence of the West. All admit that some justification for jihad is found in the Qur’an and Muslim history. Some say Islam is obsolete; others maintain that the real Islam now finally is regaining its power.
The question of what is the Islamic religion can no longer be avoided. Even universities may seriously examine this issue and not side-step it with diversity or multicultural evasions. My own initial reactions to the Paris killings were these:
1) This is the French 9/11.
2) It is not mainly about “free speech”.
3) Many such attacks are stopped every day by police and other forces in the US, Canada, France itself, even Russia, China, India, Australia, or other European countries. Such attacks are not all merely “accidentally related”. They cannot be attributed to something called “terrorists” with no relation to Islam itself.
4) The question Pope Benedict posed was “…whether Allah approved vengeance or killing in the name of religion?” This remains the right question. Twelve French citizens were gunned down in the name of Allah. This act was according to the letter of Islamic Law. The French President insisted that these attacks had “nothing to do with religion”. This view is incoherent. His position was a “noble lie”, probably made in his mind to prevent civil war.
5) The main reason many Muslims are in France and other countries is demographic — the lack of indigenous children, the multiplicity of Muslim children. This is another story, but one bound up with the intellectual understanding of our era.
6) Islamic immigrants generally do not assimilate into a new culture but quickly form their own enclaves from which “foreigners”, that is, local police and populace, are excluded. Many Muslim thinkers have plotted out this process of how “democratically” to take over a country step-by-step. The new novel, Submission, describes how it might happen in France itself.
7) Political and economic theories that have embraced large scale immigration have not understood the religious presuppositions of those welcomed or allowed into their midst. 9/11 and 1/7 require a new political realism that is nether totalitarian, nationalist, nor naïve. It must be one capable of understanding what the young men who killed the twelve Frenchmen and those who praised their bloody deeds were shouting as they killed them. Many Christians have been killed to the same shout during the past months in the Middle-East, Africa, and elsewhere. Why have we paid little attention?
8) Not a few Muslims, thank God, abhor such killings. We all would like to see this abhorrence expressed not just in terms of “it was not I”, but of effective action by Muslims themselves based on sources in their own law and philosophy, not ours. We know that the effort can be lethal for them also. The question many ask is: “Can it be done at all?”
The recovery of reason
What are we to make of Islam’s being recognized, even by many of its own members, as a problem in itself, if not the world problem?
First, we must understand that the Islamic State conceives itself to be the true Islam. Its apologists maintain that they represent the authentic understanding of Islam’s Scripture and tradition. The Islamic people who disagree with them are both cowards and heretics. They too will be dealt with. The aim of the new Caliphate is nothing less than world conquest, so that Islamic law is accepted by all people as Allah’s will.
The use of violence to accomplish this end is justified in the Qur’an and in philosophic voluntarism that explains how Allah can at one time talk of peace and next talk of war, without any problem. Reason has no place in this system. The world itself and all events in it are directly caused by Allah’s will. There are no secondary causes. This view explains the lack of much serious science in the Islamic world once voluntarism came to rule its mind. If something can always be otherwise, no basis exists to examine anything.
Some Muslims deny that the Islamic State’s claims have anything to do with Islam. But how is it possible to explain its expansion and its atrocities as unrelated to Islam? One way maintains that it is all a just reaction to turmoil and war imposed by others on Islam. Another way is to rely on legal interpreters who emphasize milder parts of the Qur’an. It is a matter of interpretation.
What seems to be lacking is a standard, be it of reason or natural law, whereby the text and tradition of violence that are found in Muslim practice can be judged as objectively wrong. As long as the Qur’an is regarded as a divine revelation, however, someone will always arise to imitate the Islamic State’s interpretation of the duties of Muslims to make everyone subject to Allah.
When one comes right down to it, it seems that, on its own grounds, the “legitimate” interpretation of Islam is the interpretation of the victor. If the Caliphate manages to take over increasing areas, including direct control of existing Muslim states, parts of Europe, and more, it will be held to be Allah’s will and justified on the grounds of success. This rationale justified original Muslim conquests of Byzantine, Persian, Hindu, and African lands.
Christians often do not realize that many lands that were once Christian are now Muslim by conquest with no hope of return. Many unknown and unrecognized Christian martyrs almost daily witness to suffering that does not seem to convert. The Qur’an is said to be mildly sympathetic to people of the book; it states that Jesus is a prophet, it venerates Mary, and it offers them second-class citizenship rather than death. Islam is eager to convert Christians and is and often successful, while a Muslim who becomes a Christian risks his life. These positions are hardly encouraging.
The real intellectual question is the validity of the Islamic claim that the content of its revelation originates in God. But there are many reasons to be sceptical, in addition to the apparent sanctioning of practices which other cultures regard as deeply inhumane, like slavery, mutilation, violent jihad, subordination of women and so on. There are scriptural reasons, too: Islam accepts the “Gospel of Jesus”, but rejects key doctrines taught by Jesus, like the Incarnation and the Trinity. The claim that the Qur’an “predates” the Old and New Testaments is preposterous.
Can a religion that contains all these problematic issues claim to be a true revelation? Can a revelation be true if God left no authority to determine authentic interpretation of its scriptures? These fundamental issues have been opened up by the series of atrocities which have culminated in 7/1 in Paris. It is a crisis for Islam as President al-Sisi implied. But Muslims should not let this crisis go to waste. This is their chance to synchronize reason and faith, their chance to show that being human and being deeply religious are compatible, their chance to repudiate the barbarity of unforgiving men and to let the mercy of their God shine forth.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.