Muslims pray in a tent set up by the Church of Gallarate, near Milan /   

It was not difficult to anticipate that the usual suspects would criticize the Pope after he stated, during his flight from Rome to Poland after the assassination of a priest in Rouen, France, that “we are not afraid to tell the truth, the world is at war,” but the war is not religious. Pope Francis insisted that

when I speak of war, I mean real war, not religious war. I speak of a war of interests, over money, nature’s resources and the domination of peoples. I do no speak of a religious war. Religions, all religions, seek peace. It’s others who want war.

Four comments are in order.

First, obviously the Pope realizes that the assassins of Rouen and Nice believed, although in a convoluted way, to have religious justifications. Pope Francis mentioned this before in several meetings with Islamic religious authorities. It is not enough to say that they are mentally unstable. Once, those mentally unstable killed themselves – or their wives and children. If today they kill priests or passers-by, it is because they found on the internet or elsewhere reasons to do this expressed in an ideological and often ostensibly religious language.

The image of the lone wolf is also somewhat old-fashioned. Today communities may exist exclusively online, where terrorists feel they are part of a “group” and have “brothers” as fanatical as they are, although they may never have personally met one. Those who study the Web messages of the most radical jihadists – and it is mostly on the Web that the “real war” the Pope mentions is fought today – immediately found theological justifications, quite polished in their own crazy way, about why in this case it was permissible to kill a Christian priest, although most Islamic schools say otherwise, and why it was not illicit in Nice to kill innocent bystanders who happened to be Muslim.

When he met Muslim religious authorities in Rome and in Turkey, Pope Francis insisted that they should regard as their duty to defuse these ideological bombs, expose the crazy theologies for what they are, and denounce the terrorists without reservation.

Hence the second comment. While realizing that the terrorists justify themselves by appealing to religion, the Pope insists that their war is ultimately not religious but about power and domination.

We should understand these comments within the framework of a great cultural strategy of Pope Francis, aimed at preserving a higher core or essence of religions by separating it from the mere use of religion as a pretext, which results in the construction of self-styled religions that are among the most paradoxical fruits of modern relativism.

Sociologists may disagree, claiming that in this way a large part of what social science studies as “religion” is excluded from the field. For the Pope, this also includes a number of attitudes by Christians and Catholics, which he denounces as governed by power, egoism, or moralism, and as a consequence falsely religious. Obviously, the word “religion” does not have only one unequivocal meaning. Scholars themselves disagree on definitions.

Pope Francis believes that it is appropriate to reserve the label “religion” to the higher sphere where spirituality remains free from the hubris of power and domination, which always end up in violence.

The Pope’s choice – this is my third comment – is not academic but political and strategical. The Pope is not speaking here as a scholar. He understands that definitions are tools used for practical purposes. And his purpose is to deny terrorists the possibility of labelling their activities as “religious.” This, the Pope believes, would help unmasking the intrinsically criminal nature of their endeavours, and at the same time dissipating the mythical aura that is attractive to their young recruits, again mostly attracted through the Internet.

Fourth comment: critics contend that the Pope is timid when he does not name Islam, and when he insists that “all religions,” including Islam, “want peace.” But this is an obvious consequence of the previous points. Yes, there are Muslims who do not want peace.

But if we use the word “religion” as the Pope uses it, their attitude should be excluded from the area of religion. It is important to note that equally excluded from religion, according to the Pope, are those Christians, whom he would rather call pseudo-Christians, who use terrorism and assassination as an argument in order to attack Islam in general, or claim that in order to prevent terrorism we should close our doors to refugees. We know that in the next few days the Pope will have to discuss all this in Poland, where the government and even some Catholic bishops are very reluctant to welcome their quota of European refugees.

Are this just word games dictated by fear?

I do not think so. Those who protest because the Pope recommends compassion rather than promoting a crusade against Islam often do not consider an interesting aspect of the question: why in Italy there have been no jihadist terrorist attacks? I often answer this question in interviews with international media. My answer is threefold.

First, for different reasons, Italy has almost no ethnically and religiously homogenous banlieues where Islam more or less rules. Muslim immigrants live together in the same streets, and often in the same condos, with Chinese, Romanian, or Peruvians. We have no Londonistans.

Second, our police (and, particularly, military police) are more effective than Italians themselves believe. They still have an old-fashioned, but effective, control of the territory through careful patrolling and personal relationships, and do not rely on technology only.

But there is also a third reason. We do have of our share of belligerent politicians, but the average Italian Muslim feels less hated and discriminated than in other European countries. Nobody stops veiled girls in the name of secularity, Italian common sense solves a certain number of problems every day, and when Muslim immigrants turn to television they both understand how important the Pope and the Catholic bishops still are in the country and hear them proposing every day a distinction between Islam and terrorism. Most Muslims perceive the Pope as a friend, somebody defending them against stereotypes.

Will the Italian system always work? We don’t know, and we can have a terrorist attack tomorrow. There is a question of numbers. If numbers of new refugees and immigrants continue to escalate everyday, at one stage the system can collapse. Perhaps the Catholic Church should meditate on this issue of numbers. But those who criticize the Pope should seriously consider whether his attitude towards the Muslim immigrants has not powerfully contributed to make Italy a country with one and a half million Muslims where terrorist attacks in the name of radical Islam are almost unknown.

Massimo Introvigne is a professor of sociology of religions at Pontifical Salesian University in Torino, Italy, and the author of some sixty books on the contemporary religious landscape. This is a translation of an article in Il Mattino (Naples) and has been republished with permission. 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...