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Assessing What is at Issue in This War
James V. Schall, S.J.
As the ongoing, escalating war shows, the meaning of the contemporary rise of Islam is, ultimately, that we have reached the end of a theory of "tolerance" that refuses to understand the nature and consequences of ideas, religious, scientific, and political.
Every liberal instinct in the West is against seeing the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as anything but products of "extremists." The enemies are called "terrorists," a most unfortunate abstraction. If we have a secular Western mind-set, we cannot easily comprehend a vaster geopolitical or religious project that does not stem primarily from weakness or resentment or a feeling of injustice caused either by Israel or by random use of Western power. Supply food and help the poor, limit retaliation to a bare minimum. The problem will go away.
At the recent Synod in Rome (October 2, 2001), the Cardinal Archbishop of New York warned against feelings of "revenge," even in his own city, the one most violently attacked. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that "to passion and anger are due all acts of revenge. Revenge and punishment are different things. Punishment is inflicted for the sake of the person punished; revenge for that of the punisher" (1369b12-14). Thus, it is possible to think of punishment without necessarily indulging in revenge. What seems less comprehensible is to think of acts of such "terrorism" without also thinking of justice, of due punishment. The "do-nothing-to-retaliate," either on religious (turn the other cheek) or prudential (will cause something worse) grounds, makes such attacks appear to be both more successful than they are and worth trying again.
The purpose of just punishment, which was implied by the Holy Father in his comments on the New York attack as well by President Bush in his various statements, is prevention of immediate or long-planned attacks by those still capable of and willing to carry them out. Even though no one so far has had the courage to claim responsibility, such hostile forces cannot any longer claim "innocence" or "ignorance" to describe their moral status before the world. In the current case, punishment, however realized, could not be intended for the "reform" of those who carried attacks out, or even vengeance against them, as they are already dead.
The planners are being hunted down because they threaten, with evident seriousness of purpose and plausible means of delivery, to multiply the attacks almost anywhere in the non-Muslim world. They will not be stopped even by the fear of their own deaths, which are conceived as a kind of perverted religious glory. In this background, none of the commonly applied deterrent tools seems to work. We are puzzled.
Let me cite two very strong, perhaps controversial statements from young men, the first in an American East Coast state, the other resident in a very explosive Muslim country:
These frank comments are, as I say, opinions of two different young men both concerned that something more than merely an action of "justice" or defense is going on. Are such views radical? uninformed? naive? on the mark?
The question is the following: if we accept what seems to be the dominant American view that this attack is an identifiable and isolated manifestation of a relatively few "terrorists," so that the rest of Islam is not considered to be a serious problem, are we doing anything more than indulging in wishful thinking? Ought our understanding of what is at issue here to include the actual record of Islam, take some account of the nature of any Islamic government, the social, religious, and political condition of anyone within such a world of other views or positions. Do we simply accept that what goes on in terms of de facto and often de jure "union of mosque and state," of intransigent refusal to allow any inner or outer freedom on the grounds that our concern is merely with a few "terrorists" and not with large segments of this world itself? This cautious policy is what the elder President Bush, in the Gulf War, followed. He complied with, but did not challenge, Muslim religion laws about alien religions even when they deprived our own forces of guaranteed rights. An historic opportunity to challenge the central Islamic state to justify its unreasonable positions was lost.
I would certainly hope, though I do not think it to be true, that the current war involves only a few organized "terrorists," though it may be politically indelicate to acknowledge otherwise. For prudential reasons, moreover, I can accept the constant reiteration of the very limited scope of our thinking on who is the enemy in this war. We might even hope, granted that most Muslims may well be sympathetic with the attackers, to lead them back in a position more in line with our own interests. Yet, one can wonder if this limited view is not, in the long run, a dangerous position, one blinded by our own philosophy from seeing the possibility of any determined and long-range purpose that would not be simply described by the aberrations of a few heretical fanatics?
In the Second Special Assembly for Europe, Archbishop Giuseppe Germano Bernardini, O.F.M.Cap., Archbishop of Izmir, in Turkey, spoke on "the problem of Islam in Europe today" (L'Osservatore Romano, November 17, 1999).
"I will make mention three cases that, due to their provenance, I believe to be true," he said.
Are these words anything more than naive or even "extremist" Christian reactions? The Archbishop added: "We are all aware that we must distinguish between the fanatic and violent minority from the tranquil and honest majority, but the latter, at an order given in the name of Allah or the Koran, will always march in unity and without hesitation."
Thus, there are not a few, when free to speak frankly, who are concerned that we have here something more than mere limited action against a few "terrorists." "History teaches us that determined minorities always manage to impose themselves on reluctant and silent majorities," was Archbishop Bernardini's final observation on the topic. These words were spoken some two years before September 11, 2001. Since then, again mostly in the West, even in Rome itself, but not, I think, in Mecca, there are suddenly many conferences and inter-religious meetings to discuss just how peaceful Islam is in its own theoretical books and in its own historical record. "Koranic teaching that the faith or 'submission' can be, and in suitable circumstances must be, imposed by force, have never been ignored," the English historian Paul Johnson has written. (National Review, 15 October '01).
On the contrary, the history of Islam has essentially been a history of conquest and reconquest. The 7th Century "breakout" of Islam from Arabia was followed by the rapid conquest of North Africa, the invasion and virtual conquest of Spain, and a thrust into France that carried the crescent to the gates of Paris. It took half a millennium of reconquest to expel the Moslems from Western Europe. The Crusades, far from being an outrageous prototype of Western imperialism, as is taught in most of our schools, were a mere episode in a struggle that has lasted 1,400 years, and were one of the few occasions when Christians took the offensive to regain the "occupied territories" of the Holy Land (20). This record and the spiritual force that caused such expansion simply cannot be ignored either as if it did not happen or as if it is not still present.
When the bombing began in Afghainstan (October 7, 2001), we had been at war for some time. The real "cost" of this initial attack, in terms of loss of normal national and international business activity and income throughout the globe, is many, many times the cost of the buildings and businesses destroyed. The overall cost, even assuming nothing further happens, will turn out to be enough to pay for any number of "Marshall Plans." Moreover, the whole world at the air-travel level is on wartime readiness. Few want to fly, even when necessary.
We were surprised, even impressed, that the American response so far has been mostly in intelligence gathering or fiscal and homelands defensive measures. The Taliban called the Americans "cowards." The fleeing people of the Afghan cities certainly expected an attack. Many in Islam, recalling Archbishop Bernardini's warning, moreover, seemed to be anxious for American retaliation to take place as an occasion for further wide-spread attacks of the same variety, even for a massive uprising. Bin Laden himself is quoted as desiring such a thing.
We have had, indeed, analyses after analyses about the "causes" of this attack. It is instructive to line them up in some order, for thinking is the first line of defense, indeed of offense. First, the "minimalist" thesis, as I call it, maintains that what we have here the actions, led by bin Laden and as yet unidentified others, of a few hundred or thousand "terrorists" with their support groups that we can identify by name. These "terrorists," it is hinted, are mostly psychotic types, outside the pale of normal human discourse. In spite of their own persistent and evidently popular claims to the contrary, they are said to be related to Islam in only the vaguest sense that the Waco cult or the Jonestown mass suicides were related to Christianity.
The existence of such "terrorists," it is maintained, implies no further relationship of the attackers to their respective countries of origin or even to their religion. There is an army of sorts, made up of young men from all over the Islamic world who constituted the backbone of this threatening group. Actually, they were brought together initially to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan several years ago. The exigencies of diplomacy and limiting the war, however, seem to demand that no one should imply anything further. This is why the remarks of the Italian Prime Minister suggesting that there really was a sign of superiority in the West in comparison with Islam are taken not as an accurate description of what is at stake but as an aberration of a single right-wing politician.
Islam is thus said to be "peaceful," however much such peace is not the actual history of classic Islamic expansion against formerly Christian and Hindu nations and peoples. The word Islam means not "peace" but "submission," though even that can have a benign meaning. Once we "bring these few insane men to justice," it is said, the problem will be solved as the causes go no deeper than their fervid minds. The policy this dictates is predicated on not opening a larger struggle and on the premise that Islam does not "naturally" and with frequency produce such "terrorists." The vast majority of Islamic states and people are said not to associate themselves with these small groups who can be isolated and identified and, hopefully, eliminated. Though the proof of this thesis is at best sketchy, it is politically incorrect to imply anything else. This is the counsel of slow prudence that does not see any long-term or world-historical movement at work here. Among the Americans, this view is probably most associated with Colin Powell, the Secretary of State.
We have, secondly, the "Jewish" explanation. None of this warfare would have happened except for the existence and extremist conduct of Israel over the past half-century. Islam will not rest until Israel is eliminated. It is embarrassed at its impotence and blames the Americans for their interference. Without Israeli presence in the Middle East, no problem would exist. The very existence of Israel constitutes an hostile presence in Muslim lands. Israel is from the beginning an unjust and expansionist aggressor. It too has used "terrorist" methods and taken lands unjustly. Israel has caused deep resentment throughout the Arab world. Bin Laden himself says that the American support of Israel is the cause.
Leading Jewish thinkers, however, see Israel as merely a symbol of some greater Islamic concern. They do not claim that Islam is so much against "Christendom," as that would present a problem in Jewish theology itself, but against "the West." Israel is a surrogate, the symbol of the hated West. The hatred is not for Israel as such. The secular, modern, democratic society is despised by Islam, some think as a sign of its own inferiority, others as a symbol of an alien religion that stands in the way of its own world conquest, now seen as something within sight after the manifestation of America's vulnerability before a few Muslim brave attackers.
A third explanation has, perhaps, more "Catholic" or Christian overtones. There is indeed real, fundamental debasement or moral corruption in western society. An American president evidently bombed Islamic lands to get out of the consequences of his personal moral problems. Thus, by his own conduct a few years ago, he broadcast this typical moral corruption to the world. We found little horror in his lies and his deeds because they reflected much of what we actually do ourselves, much of what we call "democracy."
Even the more sensible Muslims can see the rottenness of our culture, our abortion, our promotion of every sort of moral decadence. They see our movies, Internet, hear our music. They react in self-defense to this spreading "culture of death" and its consequent evil. Because of our attention to ourselves and our own declining society, we have not noticed the rise of a virile, dynamic Islam that rejects these cultural values.
Islam has bodies, millions upon millions of them. They are rapidly moving into western countries because of the killing of our own kind by our lethal policies. They use our political freedom to establish bases within the very heart of our civilization. European decline of population is drastic, as is ours. From this angle, the war against us is a war against a corrupt civilization too introspective to keep up its own defenses or its own morals or its own population. We are the cause of our own problems. Islam 's fear and hatred of such a sick society that refuses to look at itself for what it is are justified. The problem is not with Islam, but with us.
A fourth view is that Islam has always been a war religion. It has conquered by the sword and only been stopped by the sword; diplomacy and kindness have never worked with Islam. Without an effective military defense, Europe would have been Muslim today. The efforts to dialogue or turn the other cheek are hopeless in the face of Islam intransigence and self-righteousness. No one leaves Islam once under its thumb. There are few, if any, "converts" from Islam to anything else. They simply do not survive if they try. Once Islam regains the power, it will do exactly as it has always done. Islam is in a sense, as Belloc said, a Christian heresy. It has taken the admonition to "go forth and teach all nations" literally, but it has added the sword as a means of growth. It is implacable.
There may or may not be passages in the Koran that advocate peace and tolerance. Some clearly advocate the opposite. But within Islamic states, there is in fact no such thing as freedom of religion except in the most minimal sense. There has been an active persecution of Christian peoples within many Islamic states. This persecution almost never gets mentioned, let alone confronted. Mass is not allowed to be celebrated. Schools are tolerated only under the strictest regulations. There is always the threat of the establishment of the Koran as the only law of the land. Christians in Muslim lands seek to leave. Most of the "Arabs" in the United States are Christian, people who have fled while they could from their ancient homes from increasingly threatening Islamic states. There is, on the contrary, almost no emigration from western lands into any Islamic country, except in the case of refugees.
A fifth and final view is that we have a serious, long-term war on our hands and we best face the fact. Many Muslims are peaceful but they are themselves caught in between the fundamentalists or terrorists and their own government, which is usually military. Meanwhile, almost every Islamic government sees itself as sitting on a hotbed of trouble arising from these same "terrorists." By supporting these Islamic military governments, we hope that the civilizational war can be avoided. Besides we need the oil, even though we have not taken nearly enough steps to make ourselves independent of this need by rapidly developing hydrogen-fuel cell cars and busses and by devising our own sources of oil or its substitutes. Such oil independence is something that would undermine the whole basis of Muslim financial power.
The issue is now, in this view, to estimate properly the scope of the danger. Mark Helprin has warned that "the pre-eminent imperative of the war on terrorism must be to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction that may find their way from the fever swamps of the Middle East to the air above American cities" (Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2001). The rooting out and killing of terrorists and their camps will not secure us if the larger and much more dangerous potential threat is ignored. But this view assumes that this war is not limited to a few thousand "terrorists."
During this period, the Catholic and Christian press has been filled with discussions of "just wars," discussions which seem strangely out of date. After decades of wrangling over "just war" doctrine, five thousand people were killed by an ordinary airplane. No episcopal conference, nor the government itself, had even come close to thinking about this new, but ancient use of force. It involves none of the sophisticated nomenclature of the nuclear war debates. The only real weapons were evidently knives and brains. One looks in vain, moreover, for any concerted geopolitical effort to understand Islam and its apparent potential to incite such destruction. War theory is not enough.
Several Islamic leaders have, in recent years, written, with some irony, that they could peacefully take over Europe simply by continuing their high birth rate and immigration ratios. France is five percent Muslim. Thousands of mosques are now found in Germany and the United States. The largest Mosque in Europe is evidently being built in Belgium. However, this patient route to conquest seems to have been superceded by a more militant mind-set that is now willing to use the numerical superiority of young Islamic men. These same young men themselves have, as far as we can tell, shown great enthusiasm for the more radical path. They do not, if we can judge by their enthusiasm, see bin Laden as an evil man who kills innocents but as a hero who kills "enemies." Western policy thus far has shown great prudence in not doing anything that might contribute to this holy war mentality, which, as Gerald Seib has written in the Wall Street Journal (October 3), is exactly what bin Laden has been shrewdly planning all along.
Meanwhile, it seems true to say that Christian peoples are very confused in deciding what might be the proper reaction to this attack and how to stop further ones. Muslims, after all, are not atheists. It would be most useful if the Holy Father would write an Encyclical "On Islam," one which faced, accounted for, and described the theology, philosophy, and history of Islam and how it relates to salvation history. It is one thing to maintain that Islam and Christianity pray to the same God, but is not the Islamic conception of God as pure will, without any Trinitarian or Incarnational overtones, a problem? Does it not produce radically different understandings of man and the world, not to say of God?
Such an encyclical would also have to call our specific attention to the fact that Christian peoples have been and are still being persecuted in Islamic lands. The section of the Martyrology that simply lists those killed in Islamic lands needs to be widely known. It should not be a secret document. It seems almost eerie to speak of ecumenical relations with Islam without directly confronting the darker side of its record, past and present. Ironically, the recent practical alliance of the Papacy and Islamic governments on population issues suggests to many critics that, at bottom, Catholicism bears the same fanaticism that Islam is now showing. The answer, it is said, is to "secularize" Islam, to separate it from its own religious sources in such a way that it accepts all the modern aberrations. This same approach also serves to justify a complete "secularization" of Catholicism. Catholicism, thus far, unlike the secularist view, is reluctant to argue that an irreligious Islam would be an improvement over a believing Islam.
On the other hand, meaningful "dialogue" with Islam still seems most unproductive. Those Muslims who do "dialogue" seem to have little relation to those who are causing the current "terrorist" problems. The results are always one-sided. Without the backing of force, nothing will happen. And yet, many Christians persist in seeing this reliance on force as an admission of failure of their own principle of suffering evil. Rarely, however, are there examples of Christian martyrs in Islamic states whose example ever changes anything there. Conversions are almost impossible. Christians, I think, have never really faced this fact as itself an intellectual and religious problem to be analyzed and not simply ignored. If you will, this utterly closed world of Islam is as much a problem in Christian theology as of Islamic theology.
The Holy Father, in several of his addresses in Kazakhstan, has stressed the need for religious freedom in all lands.
(L'Osservatore Romano, September 26, 2001). Pope Wojtyla has no illusions about the cultural condition of Western nations (World Day of Peace Address, January 1, 2001). He knows much is aberrant. "I wish to reaffirm," the Pope remarked on September 24, 2001, in Astana, Kazakhstan, "the Catholic Church's respect for Islam, for authentic Islam, the Islam that prays, that is concerned for those in need. Recalling the errors of the past, including the most recent past, all believers ought to unite their efforts to ensure that God is never made the hostage of human ambitions. Hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of god and disfigure the true image of man" (L'Osservatore Romano, September 26. 2001, p. 5, #5).
Reading between the lines, we can see that the Holy Father too implies a distinction between good or authentic and bad Islam. He seeks to make an alliance with what is good Islam. One of the ironic things about Islam, for all its apparent unity, it has no single authority with whom a pope can speak of these things. And just how we can identify "authentic" Islam from that Islam that is, presumably, "unauthentic," seems difficult in the extreme.
We are, however, in all these considerations, left with the impression that the normal exhortations to dialogue, tolerance, and compassion are not enough. Rightly, the Pope continues to urge a peaceful path. But behind this conciliatory path looms the fear that by following it, we may well make things worse. It would be ironic if the influence of religion resulted in obvious and greater evil, more bombings. Because of our perceived weakness or unwillingness or scruples, we might see the use of the ever more lethal retaliatory instruments that Mark Helprin worried about. Ironically, Islam, the religion that most blesses the use of force to spread its faith, seems the one religion least open to dialogue that is anything more than a tactic to get its own way. Again without denying the distinction between what the Pope called "authentic" and presumably "inauthentic" Islam, this situation is itself the single most plausible argument for the careful and deliberate use of force.
One final point, in conclusion, that needs to be considered. Stanley Jaki has been writing for a number of years about the relation of the development of modern science in the light of the theological presuppositions in the great religions that would foster or make possible this development. He notes that what we know as theoretical science did not arise in Islam, even though it was always a great trading power that was able to use many modern instruments. Many writers have suggested that part of the rage found in Islamic societies today is due to their own sense of incapacity before this scientific development, which also has a political side to it.
David Pryce-Jones has stated the political structures that in fact exist in contemporary Muslim States in graphic terms:
If we use the relativist model of "multi-culturalism" to judge this scene, we will have nothing to say about this situation, except to praise it — to each his own. If we use a classic Western criterion, we can distinguish between regimes and rank them by some objective criterion. We may be perplexed about how this situation might be changed, but, at some level, the first step must recognize its existence and its relation to its own beliefs and history. Why indeed does this pattern exist and recur?
Jaki has speculated on the historical consequences of what might have happened had Islam been able, at a theoretical level, to arrive at a knowledge of science and technology as happened in the West. "It is easy to guess the course of world history if at the time of the battle of Lepanto the Turkish navy had been propelled by steam engines," Jaki observed in 1988 ("The Physics of Impetus and the Impetus of the Koran," The Absolute beneath the Relative and Other Essays, ISI Books, 146). Behind this failure to develop technology was a problem of theology, of the conception of God and of the world as created.
Jaki would evidently agree with those who see these current attacks on the West as expressions of a deeper theological problem.
What this passage implies is that the failure to confront theological, scientific, and philosophical problems at the level of theoretical intellect results in war and strife at the level of politics.
And it is at this theoretical level, that the pope is surely right to dialogue with the Muslim world, if it will indeed dialogue with him. This pope has probably met more Muslim religious and political leaders than any other man in the Western world. He has not hesitated to insist, on the surface level, on genuine religious freedom, including the freedom of voluntary conversion, in any society, including a Muslim one. And he has probably understood, since he knows of the many, many Catholics and Christians who have been persecuted and killed in Muslim lands, the lethal nature of many unfortunate Islamic practices.
But John Paul II has not seen war or violence as a way to resolve these problems. He is aware of what happens when an eye for an eye system is employed. On the other hand, he cannot ignore the demands for justice and security that result when cities and nations are directly and violently attacked. He cannot or does not excuse such an action. The end of war or self-defense remains peace. That is, peace in the minimal sense of cease-fire can provide a world in which some resolution of controversies can be resolved by other means than force.
Yet, perhaps, as the ongoing, escalating war shows, the meaning of the contemporary rise of Islam is, ultimately, that we have reached the end of a theory of "tolerance" that refuses to understand the nature and consequences of ideas, religious, scientific, and political. If there can be any ultimate this-worldly "good" that can come out of these unfortunate events, including the efforts to eradicate the army ranged against us, it is that at some level religion, science, philosophy, and economics do have to confront their own "truth" in the light of what is, in fact, true.
James V. Schall, S.J. "Assessing What is at Issue in This War." Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports.
Reprinted with permission of Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports and James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Copyright © 2001 Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports