The killing of four Marines and a sailor at a recruiting station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by a lone, unattached gunman but one with clear Muslim cultural and ideological connections again brings up the question, perplexing to so many, about the ”why” of such lethal actions.

Attacks of this kind are not in fact all that unusual either in the United States or elsewhere. Neither are they purposeless. Indeed, they indicate a well-thought out systematic approach whereby a Muslim army, with a base in the near East, can mastermind such attacks anywhere in the world with the help of normal technology and young men willing to give up their lives in the cause.

I want to approach this question of “terrorism” initially by way of a remark I heard on Fox News in discussing the Tennessee shootings. A commentator stated, quite bluntly, that “if Mohammed were to return to the world today to indicate which Muslim group was best representing his authentic heritage and teaching, he would vigorously affirm that it was ISIS and al Qaeda.”

This is, of course, the one view that cannot be mentioned in polite discourse even in Islam itself. Indeed, it is against the law in many countries, not just Muslim ones, to thus criticize Islam. It violates the liberal and ecumenical minds in their theoretic views about equality and respect. But the nagging question remains: Is it true?

Let me approach this issue in a round-about way. The headlines of the July 3 edition of L’Osservatore Romano concerned “The Holy See’s Statement to the United Nations”. They read: “The Answer to Terrorism Cannot Be a Military Response.” The same page silhouetted three black-clad ISIS men. They stand defiantly against the sky with tommy guns raised on high. One wonders what these three men would think of this “no military response” view. No doubt they would be quite amused. They would interpret it as another example of the effeteness of their opponents.

Like most military men, ISIS fighters understand that their base of operation on the ground is the immediate, but not ultimate, foundation of their ability to carry out their mission in the wider world. Air strikes will not stop their effectiveness. They have found a way to bypass armies by striking at the civilians who support them. If one reads Archbishop Tomasi’s text carefully, however, he did not exactly say what the headline said. He was more nuanced: “The response to terrorism cannot be merely by way of military action.” The notion that we can deal with ISIS without effective military action at some level is simply naïve, utopian, or both.

Archbishop Tomasi, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, had given an address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The full page text follows the above-cited headline. The photo of the ISIS fighters stands in the middle of the text. The Archbishop noted the “terrorist” attacks in the “Middle East and different parts of Africa.” Since 2000, a “staggering 500%” increase in such destruction has occurred. The only mention in the text of the names of the attackers referred to the “innocent victims at the hands of ISIS and Boko Haram groups.” Over 80% of the killings were in five states: “Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria.” But we need to concern ourselves with the “negative effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of our rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The fact that almost all “terrorism” is Muslim related is delicately not mentioned. Instead something called “terrorism” is the “cause”.

Terrorism cannot cause itself

What then are the “causes” of terrorism? These causes are what we need to know, not just the effects. If these “causes” are not squarely addressed both the states involved and the international community will suffer. The Holy See is especially concerned by attacks on “religion”. Whether some “religion” can be a cause of “terrorism” is not mentioned, though it is implied that it cannot be. Next follows in the text a definition: “Terrorism is a political means to influence behavior and to reach objectives through fear.”

But this definition does not tell us why anyone would want to use these means. It tells us its effects, not its cause. “Terrorism” cannot cause itself. It is not something for its own sake, as if no end of “terrorism” is envisioned by those who carry it out. What they envision in fact is peace, the “peace of Islam”. The only way we can know these objectives is to ask those who use terror. We cannot just say that the cause of “terrorisms” is “terrorism”.

“Terrorism” has become globalized. “Terrorism is the antithesis of the shared values and commitments which serve as the basis for peaceful coexistence domestically and internationally,” the text reads.

This view assumes that ISIS and al Qaeda leaders think that what they see in the West is a peaceful, contented life. Rather, what they see is drugs, violence, prejudice, abortion, perversion, infidelity, and the whole range of moral disorders that the our governments seek tolerate or impose on others.

The ISIS members do not see themselves as “terrorists”. They are just avengers of Allah. It is ideological blindness not to see a well-thought out, voluntarist-based, and religious origin behind the actual “terrorism” that we confront.

Tomasi notes that the “terrorists” are often supported by certain governments in supplying arms and other necessities. He does not speculate on why supposedly peaceful Muslims might quietly support ISIS. He does not mention the enormous number of mosques built in Europe and America. The Archbishop notes that “the greatest violation is complete contempt for innocent human life, the basic right on which all other human rights are founded.” It needs to be stated here, however, that the term “innocent human life” is one that grows out of Western thought.

The Muslim fighter does not see the non-Muslim as “innocent”, which is why agreement on even this issue is almost impossible. The man who shot the Marines expected to reach heaven because of his deed. Being killed while killing an infidel is often conceived as itself a “martyrdom”. “Terrorism does not respect the dignity of its victims.” This is because the idea of “dignity” is a foreign idea. Again what exactly is this “terrorism”? If all those outside the “Peace of Islam” are considered to be guilty and objects of war, the cause is not some abstraction called “terrorism”.

Tomasi turns to the refugees that this “terrorism” causes. We have a “humanitarian” crisis. There is the destruction of cultural objects, churches, buildings, and art. Again, the theological reason for this destruction explains its rationale. It is not just wonton, random destruction, but destruction of specific objects held to be idols or unworthy of Allah. To maintain that the Muslim should not destroy the idols in alien cultures is asking him to violate his religious beliefs. Dialogue about humanitarianism will not prevent this destruction. Humanism is not the basis of the Muslim’s thinking about these things seen as blasphemous.

“By destroying the infrastructure of cities and regions, especially by attacking government buildings, schools and religious institutions, terrorism literally brings a society to its knees.” This statement, while true, assumes that “terrorism” is undertaken for its own sake. The reason why a society is brought to its knees is that it might be replaced by the Caliphate, by Muslim rule and faith. We are often shocked by “the annihilation of history of cultures and civilizations.” Yet, it is not shocking if one thinks that these things are themselves signs of alien gods and ought not to exist in the first place.

“It can hardly be doubted that terrorism has political effects and influences the political process, at least in a democratic and particularly democratic state. Archbishop Tomasi warns of counter-terrorism efforts that themselves violate rights. It can cause a counter-tyranny. This point is valid but often also prevents efforts to prevent ISIS’s efforts to cause chaos in Western cities.

“The most obvious way in which terrorism can influence the political process is by bringing about changes in public opinion…. It can be very hard for Governments to resist the pressure from public opinion for a strong reaction in the wake of a terrorist attack.” We do not have any “uniform” response to terrorist attacks.” The Holy See agrees that “terrorism” needs to be confronted at all levels, not just military.

The ultimate cause of contemporary global terrorism

When the “cause” of the violence and turmoil is named “terrorism”, it leaves us with a vague, amorphous something that has no organized membership, geography, or purpose. The common approach to “terrorism” is in line with that depicted by Archbishop Tomasi. But is it possible to conceive another way to think about these issues?

The first step, it strikes me, is to face the fact that the ISIS and other movements are, as they claim to be, directly related to the Qur’an, its interpretation, and the expansionist history of earlier Muslim armies that conquered northern Africa, the Near East and many of the lands to the East of Persia. ISIS is nor making up out of the clouds its understanding of the teaching of the Qur’an. It is carrying on, and claims to be carrying on, a tradition and enterprise that has been present for some 12 centuries. The most surprising thing about this fact is to be surprised by it.

The proof of Islam, moreover, is the success of Islam in ever expanding itself. The Islam we see today is energized, not hindered, by the successes of the violent endeavors, beginning with 9/11 and the world-wide Muslim reaction to is. This same idea is behind the present realization of Islam that it can, by these violent means, make enormous gains in places that once defeated Muslim armies in France and in Vienna.

They do not need sophisticated land armies. Among the “immigrants” are also numerous men and women bent on changing the nations of Europe and in America from within either by population growth, election, or force and terror. No “peaceful” Muslim body or nation will oppose this success in any real sense. This is why we cannot simply talk of the “immigrant crisis” as if it has nothing to do with Muslim ambitions to expand. It is also an invasion problem.

We must stop thinking of the “terrorists” as “terrorists.” They are self-confessed followers of Islam as it is set down in its books and as it has consistently manifested itself in history. We have to stop insisting that this has nothing to do with Islam but is due simply to a group of “fundamentalists” who are fanatics and can make no coherent case for themselves within Muslim scholarship itself.

Whatever they are, they are clear-eyed thinkers both as to the nature and weakness of their immediate enemy and about the spiritual goal they seek to put in place, nothing less than the world in submission to Allah. This is what their jihad is all about. I see nothing wrong with giving the Muslim leaders, who follow this path, credit for following their religious purpose, something we cannot admit possible because of our theories about dialogue, religion, and human nature. These ISIS type leaders should not be dismissed as mad, insane, fanatic, or fundamentalist, but as men logically carrying out their religious beliefs as found in their sources.

The Catholic Church and militant Islam

The Catholic Church and Christianity in general have never really faced the implications of what the Qur’an says of it. A direct and open denial of the truth of Christianity is found. It does not hesitate to state its critique of Christianity as a false understanding of God. Part of the reluctance to evaluate the truth of Islam is that any “criticism” of Islam could be and often is lethal. The number of Christian martyrs in Islam grows exponentially today (See George Marlin, Christian Persecutions in the Middle East, 2015; Michael Coren, Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity, 2014). If someone is killed because a Muslim thought it blasphemous to criticize its tenets, the blame rested not on the Muslim but on the one who criticized. 

Yet, it seems strange that the Church has not been more forthright in confronting what the Qur’an says of Christianity itself. In a way, the Church has taken no official notice of Islam’s teachings about it. The Crusades were a not wholly successful effort, after much provocation and loss, to save what was left of West. Though there was St John Damascene and Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, we have no brief, succinct authoritative statement about the truth of specific Muslim claims about Christian belief itself.

What Islam holds about Christianity’s own beliefs is no secret. We are told what Islam holds Christianity to be. If its analysis is right, there is no reason to be a Christian. So it seems, sooner or later, these beliefs must be stated and one by one rejected.

Christianity has often clearly formulated positions affirmed against itself. The Church has affirmed its own positions about itself. Much of what Islam rejects about Christianity—that there are “three gods”, for instance—are simply errors. It requires much reasoning to establish and clarify how there can be one God, but three Persons.

Let us look at some basic Muslim views on the truth of which the strength of the ISIS arms depends. ISIS would not be fighting if it thought these positions were not valid.

(1) The original divine revelation was the Qur’an directly from Allah. The Old and New Testaments are later corruptions distorting the original text. Therefore, neither are the will of Allah.

(2) Originally everyone is born Muslim. Baptism is not necessary. If someone is not Muslim, it is because he has been corrupted by parents or society.

(3) Allah is one. The Trinity is false, a belief in the three gods.

(4) Christ was not divine, nor was He crucified. He is but a prophet. He is not the son of God.

(5) Mary is not the Mother of God, but she is a nice lady.

(6) The world is divided into two parts, the world of peace and the world of war. The world of peace is Islam at odds with all other nations who are guilty for not accepting Allah. Therefore, war against them is always just.

(7) The mission of Islam is to subject all the world to Allah. World history is carrying out this purpose. This endeavor can sometimes be accomplished without war (eg, Indonesia) but war is usually a necessary means.

(8) A holy war against those who are not Muslim is always justified, though sometimes it may be prudent not to pursue it.

(9) If Christians or Jews are found within Islam, they must either convert, die, or pay a tax for tolerance. They can never be full citizens.

(10) The Sharia should be the civil law in every nation.

(11) There is no separation between Church and State. The state exists to serve the religion.

(12) Allah is not ruled by reason (Logos). His absolute will can only be known in the Qur’an.

(13) The Qur’an justifies war and violence in achieving the peace of Islam.

(14) Readings in the Qur’an that contradict each other simply mean that Allah is not bound by his own decrees or any distinction between right and wrong.

(15) Allah can will one day, say peace and violence the next. The latest entries in the Qur’an are the normative ones.

(16) Salvation is given to those who submit to Allah whatever he wills.

Christianity needs to make it clear that these doctrines, customs, or understandings are untenable both in reason and as revelation. It is not enough to talk of “respect” for another religion when the other religion both denies the very possibility of yours and persecutes you for holding it.

Confronting Islam

The first step needed then is the affirmation, from the Christian side, that these views are as such false. They cannot be divine revelations. They contradict reason. Both Muslim and Christian benefit from knowing exactly what the other holds. Most of the confusion related to using the word “terrorism” is due to a hesitation to examine carefully what Islam holds about violence and about Christianity as such. The Muslim too needs to be constrained to know exactly Christianity says of itself, not these fanciful doctrines about no divine Christ or no Trinity of persons as found in the Qur’an. If these views are false, then the Muslim, by assuming the truth of his revelation, is justified in rejecting those who hold them.

The next step is the recognition that ISIS and other what we insist on calling “terrorist” organizations are not wrong to maintain that they find justification for their violent view in the Qur’an itself. They are not making it up. Sufficient justifications are there in the text. Almost all Muslim scholars know this. Some Muslims relocated the West, and even the Egyptian President, talk of “reforming” Islam, of the absurdity of one billion Muslims eliminating six billion unbelievers.

They are in a dilemma, however. As long as these teachings are in fact found in the Qur’an, which is revealed as such directly by Allah, there will always be found readers in Islam who will take it for what it says. They will accuse other Muslims of disloyalty to Mohammed.

This is why, since Islam was founded in the 7th Century, we witness wave after wave of Holy War It shows a religious zeal bent on fulfilling the will of Allah. Thus, I think it both intellectually wrong to call ISIS type movements “terrorists” and not what they profess to be, followers of the example of Mohammed and the teachings legitimately found in the  Qur’an.

The only way to confront this recurring phenomenon of continuing expansion throughout history is not with some “reformation within Islam”. Something closer to “conversion” by an intelligent rejection of its teachings about God, Christ, and world conquest. Military defeats of Muslim armies at Tours, Vienna, and other places, even up to today, have put a temporary stop to this expansion. But the cry always rises again from the text and men who believe it with their lives. Even Western youth increasingly listen to this call.

But is “conversion” possible, or even desirable? We have records of whole nations of Christians being immediately or gradually converted to Islam when there was no way out. The few within Muslim lands not so converted are the main objects of persecution today. But there is practically no record of Muslims in any numbers being converted to Christianity. The cost of conversion to Christianity is usually too high. Social ostracism and often death follow every conversion. In many Muslim areas any conversion effort is simply against the law or custom. The “cause of terrorism”, in short, is belief in what the Qur’an says is true and mandatory.

The Qur’an says many nice things, to be sure, worthy things. But it does justify this mission to subject the world to Allah. To call the ISIS and other groups “fundamentalists” or “terrorists” implies that they are not interpreting their own revelation for what it stands for.

Is a reformed Islam possible?

The effort to transform Islam into modern liberal skepticism is laughed at. Looking back at Mohammed’s own record of violent, successful conquest, I suspect that if Mohammed were to return, that the man on television war right. He would be pleased with ISIS and the present day expansion of Islam in the West and in Russia. The least we can do in honor is to stop denigrating this purpose as if it has to be something else but what it say it is.

And what about the rejecting of this jihadist view altogether? Although there are bloody struggles within Islam between Sunni and Shiite versions for leadership, Islam seems singularly immune to any conversion either to Christianity or to the modern world ethos.

Can we expect any, as it were, a John Paul II effect that saw a seemingly unbreakable Communism suddenly collapse because its ideas were finally recognized as incoherent and evil? Islam has lasted far longer than communism ever thought of, if we overlook certain ideas already found in Plato. Islam’s main rival today is probably not what remains of the West but a much longer lasting China.

There are, it strikes me, two paths open to reorient Islam. Neither is violent. Both are, in some sense, already in use.

The first concerns the critical edition of the Qur’an that has been under way for too long in Berlin. Several Muslim attempts to close it down have been made. The purpose of this project is to apply methods of textual analysis and integrity to the most ancient texts of the Qur’an. Researchers want to ascertain whether the Qur’an could be, in any sense, what it claims to be. It asserts itself to be a direct transfer of its words of Allah through Mohammed in pure Arabic without any intermediaries. As most of the texts before the final redaction of the Qur’an were deliberately destroyed in the hundred or so years after Mohammed, piecing together the origins of the present text is more difficult, but not impossible.

If the text is not what it claims to be, the whole ethos of the Qur’an is undermined.

A second approach, associated with Fathers Zackaria Botros and Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, has to do with the inner integrity of the text of the Qur’an itself. What is its relation to the Old and New Testament as well as to reason and logic?

When this exercise is calmly presented in Arabic, when ordinary Muslims can listen to it, it creates the lasting impression that the Qur’an is not really what it claims to be. The efforts made to suppress or obstruct these two approaches testify to their potential effectiveness. This approach requires no guns, only patience and thorough knowledge Arabic and the Islamic tradition. It testifies on both the Muslim and Christian sides to the possibility of a truth which everyone can accept.

In retrospect, the causes and alternatives to “terrorism” are ultimately spiritual and intellectual. Pope Benedict proposed a tactical approach based on prudence and caution: no public theological talks, for few are capable of listening.

But at some point, the issue of the truth that ISIS followers claim must be met on solid grounds. The real “causes of terrorism” makes us wonder whether ISIS itself is not the best teacher of the direction we must go. They are not fighting just to be fighting. They are fighting for what they believe to be true. If they cannot be met at this level, they deserve to win.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University (in Washington DC) for many years. He is the author of numerous books.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.