Recently I saw a series of colored photos of the execution, beheading, crucifixion, or shooting in the head of numerous Christians in Iraq or Syria by members of the Islamic State. I have seldom seen anything so gruesome. It was so revolting that I had to stop looking at them. But that reaction was probably exactly what those photos were designed to accomplish. “These are the things that will happen to you soon enough” was the implied message. The Archbishop of Mosul warned pretty much the same thing of the West after he helplessly watched his people and church destroyed.
We are told that such “incidents” are works of “extremists” and “terrorists”, as if people do these things just for the sake of doing them. Yet, they have a clearly thought-out purpose, based on a known principle seen to be of the highest worth, in this sense, in the name of Allah. For many, the only way to cope with such realities is to deny their immediate possibility or even their fact.
The Wall Street Journal reported the following item: “Speaking to journalists during his return flight (from Turkey), the Pope said that Muslim leaders should issue a global condemnation of violence by Islamist extremists. But, he added, ‘no one can say that all followers of Islam are terrorists, any more than you can say that all Christians are fundamentalists.’”
Needless to say, that passage deserves attention.
First, it would indeed be very encouraging if Muslim leaders could gather to condemn their own “extremists,” if that is what they are. It is striking that the Bishop of Rome is the one to call such leaders to do what seems, to most people, to be their own obvious duty.
The question is, however: Can Muslim leaders (whoever might qualify as a Muslim “leader” in a religion with no central authority) really make this condemnation without endangering both their own lives and the integrity of the Qur’an itself? Many writers have pointed out that the relative silence of Muslim leaders before such scenes of persecution and terror is not primarily because they too are not sometimes horrified. The reason is theological. They know that the Qur’an does not condemn violence in the pursuit of its religion. It sometimes approves it; it sometimes disapproves it.
Further, Muslim leaders may not be much interested in dealing with outside calls for them to do what others see as their duty. “Muslims believe that Islam is the ultimate and definitive revealed religion,” Samir Khalid Samir SJ wrote. “They believe that the Qur’an includes true Judaism and authentic Christianity. Muslims are convinced that Jews and Christians falsified their own Scriptures. For Muslims who believe that they already have the full truth, there is very little to gain or to learn through inter-religious dialogue” (111 Questions on Islam, 213). The very notion of “dialoging with the Qur’an or subjecting it to scientific criticism is itself a form of blasphemy.
The Pope has, in any case, presented the Muslim leaders with a very curious dilemma. If they, as Muslims, condemn the “terrorists”, they risk violating the Qur’an’s specific wording. If they do not, they are held to be complicit in the atrocities. In either case they lose. So they avoid taking a principled stand on the basis of their own tradition. Muslim leaders also know that they are themselves targeted if they seem to criticize the Islamic State which claims to be the authentic understanding of Islam.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Muslim leaders did “condemn” such violence. On what grounds would they do so? This question involves the integrity of the Qur’an, the bedrock of the religion. A Pakistani Christian couple was recently murdered for supposedly burning two of its pages. If the leaders condemned religiously motivated violence on the grounds of reason, however, that itself would imply the existence of some authority higher than the Qur’an. That would undermine all those many passages in the Qur’an that contradict each other and make the book seem incoherent. That concern is why Muslim philosophers devised a system that could maintain that both sides of a contradictory can be true. Generally, when one passage in the Qur’an is contradicted by another, the one later in time takes precedence. But both passages are retained.
The issue of the unity of the Qur’an has been resolved within Islam itself by what is in effect voluntarism, often known as the two-truth theory or Averroism. This position means that Allah is not bound by the principle of contradiction. That principle would presumably undermine his all-powerfulness. Thus, he is free to change the meaning of right and wrong, good and evil by his will. This position means that a condemnation by Muslim leaders of violence would threaten the integrity of the Jihadist tradition that constituted the basis of Muslim expansion in the first place. Basically, it means that the essence of God is not Logos, truth, but Voluntas, will.
The other side of Pope Francis’ comment is also worth reflection. He noted that not all people within a religion necessarily follow the tenets of the religion. Christians sin, too, he keeps telling us. Thus, not all followers of Islam are “terrorists”, but evidently some are with good conscience.
The question here is which group is more in tune with the Qur’an, those who reject violence or those who do not? And who decides? The so-called “terrorists” think they are following the Qur’an. They condemn as heretics those who do not engage in violence, especially at a time when it seems to them possible rapidly to expand Islam into a lethargic West. Again, no authority within Islam itself can resolve this dilemma. Therefore, both positions are valid.
Yet, to relate “terrorists” to Christian fundamentalists seems quite unusual. I suppose one could call the so-called “terrorists” to be “fundamentalists”, though often they are supported by the most sophisticated Islamic philosophers of modern times. But do any Christian fundamentalists advocate terror? Do not most of them believe about 95% of what the Pope himself believes? Are they not ecumenical brothers? Surely the Pope did not intend this implication that Christian fundamentalists were “terrorists” or anything like them. Not all fundamentalists are alike; it depends on what one is fundamental about.
On the other side, however, do not many peaceful Muslims sympathize with the “terrorists” when they succeed? Was there not widespread rejoicing in the Muslim world after 9/11? But the Pope’s point is well-taken. Why are Muslims themselves so reluctant to condemn the atrocities we are beginning to see if we would look at them? In this sense, the Pope might justly ask: “Why is there so little coverage of these atrocities, these persecutions in the rest of the world press and media? Part of it is because certain strands of modern thought have made “fundamentalism” the only public crime, because it is the major force that opposes its agenda on life and family issues. In this sense, fundamentalism, Catholicism, and Islam are all three seen as enemies of modern liberty, the liberty that, like all voluntarism, denies any order, either natural or supernatural, in human things.
This examination of will-based regimes, in fact, is the line of thought that Benedict XVI spelled out in his “Regensburg Lecture.” Islam, fundamentalism, and liberalism all need logos. What they too often have in common is voluntas. What we see being worked out in both the West and in Islam is what happens when voluntas reaches full power. The Western and Islamic versions seem to reach the same ends by different routes. Both Allah and the Leviathan claim the power to make what is wrong right, and what is right wrong. Once the mind is made up on such principles, there will be men who strive to put it into effect. This striving is what we see in both Islam and in the West. The voices that speak for Logos are rare. Implicitly, this silence about Logos is what the Pope was trying to reverse.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.