The martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel provoked a great outpouring of grief as well as a sense of shock; it also provoked an argument about whether he died in odium fidei. The Pope talked about ‘absurd violence’, which disturbed some, who also found his materialist explanation for the violence lacking in weight and insight. Austen Ivereigh met with criticism for stressing the Pope’s point, and defended his view:
‘Absurd violence? The words seemed almost trite. There was no mention of martyrdom, or even of Father Hamel. The Pope’s attention was neither on the victim nor the perpetrator, but on the nature of the act; and rather than ascribing to it any religious or ideological motive, the Pope reduced it merely to an outpouring of hate. For Francis, it was not an attack, assault or a slaying – or any of the other terms we journalists love to use to dramatise – but a meaningless, pointless act; mere hatred; an absurdity.’
The attackers were he said ‘likely to be vulnerable, depressive losers lured into violence by radicals on the internet; to call them religious … was to buy into the Da’esh narrative, that this was a war of Islam on the West and Christianity.’
Underneath what might seem a somewhat technical (and unedifying) argument is a much wider one about the nature of ISIS. Those who take Dr Ivereigh’s view think that we are now being ‘confronted with a very new kind of war, unknown until now, one that will test our commitment to the Gospel’, and see ISIS as:
‘a wholly modernistic creation, a vehicle of power, the “technocratic paradigm” of domination and exploitation, applied to an ancient faith. ISIS militants are engineers, IT experts, lawyers and literalists; they are utterly Western, utterly modern, utterly unreligious. They treat Islamic history and scripture like a mining corporation treats a forest’
This is to get somethings right, and one very important thing wrong. This seems to me right on the last point and misguided on the first. It is in the nature of literalistic and fundamentalist religious movements (as it is of liberal ones) to mine their own history and culture: liberals do it to align with the culture of their age, fundamentalists do it as a revolt against that culture. The use of modern technology should not blind us to the truth about ISIS. I do not know if Dr Ivereigh remembered Graeme Wood’s brilliant analysis of ISIS in last year’s Atlantic, but it is more persuasive than his offering, which seems far too like a Western projection onto it of what it ought to be, rather than an informed analysis of what it actually is. Wood wrote then:
‘The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (isis), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.’
That is not to say it is mainstream Islam, or that those who claim to act in its name are ‘good Muslims’ – they aren’t – but it is to say that if we insist on taking an Orientalist perspective, we are going to miss an important point:
‘The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.’
It would be interesting to hear from Dr Ivereigh the grounds on which he dissents from such a well-informed analysis?
Charles Moore, as so often, gets it right when he says:
Islamism is a most clear and determined attack on our civilisation, so this must be recognised, not evaded. Its adherents declaredly hate freedom, democracy, women’s rights, Judaism and Christianity. They entirely deny the rights of anyone (not least fellow Muslims) who do not share their views. They recognise no law except sharia.
Our problem is not that there is too much Islamism, it is that there is too little Christianity with which to oppose it. Recent posts here have dwelt on the idea that our society is in the middle of a failing experiment to build a civilisation without agreed ethical and moral norms. One of the things which attracts these ‘depressive losers’ to ISIS is the certainty it offers. Its views, as Moore’s piece makes clear, are rigid and fixed; what are our values? Moore writes:
it is not possible to understand or uphold European or American ideas of law, liberty, government, education, family, morality or culture without tracing their relation to the life and teachings of Jesus.
We might, perhaps, agree that ISIS is not typical of Islam, and should not be taken as representative of it; but to deny it takes its inspiration from its own version of its history is to enter dangerous territory.
But so too, as Dr Ivereigh points out, is taking the route of ‘war against terror’. What has happened since 9/11 hardly suggests that the route Bush and Blair chose has offered a solution to the problem. Dr Ivereigh calls for a more radically Christian response, one which puts us in mind of the comment that it is not that Christianity has been trued and found wanting, but has been tried an found to difficult:
‘We can only prove them wrong if we are capable, in the face of epic temptation, to renounce our violence, to open our doors to refugees, to build bridges with our Muslim neighbours and reject the lure of the “my-people-first” narratives of a Trump or Le Pen’
That is certainly more along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount.
However, the German Government, and many of its people did welcome the refugees, as they welcomed immigrants before this current flow, and that has not, it seems, either stopped the violence or fulfilled the first function of governments, which is to keep their people safe. We can turn the other cheek, only to find it slapped and the head cut off. Do we forget so easily what happened to the Yezidi? Had the Peshmerga taken such a line in Kobane, ISIS would not be on the retreat as it is today.
Nice though it would be to imagine that that who seek refuge from the modern world in the type of millennial death cult operated by ISIS would be open to building bridges with us, if they did so, it would be to throw us off them.
I am not sure what Dr Ivereigh means by our ‘renouncing our violence’. If he is suggesting not destroying ISIS rule over the people it terrorises, that would be a grim message to send to them – “you are on your own, our virtue will not allow us to help you”. That would be to take the modern vogue for virtue-signalling to self-indulgent extremes, and tempting though it is, it should be resisted – for the sake of those suffering from what ISIS are doing in the areas it controls. The Catholic Church developed the ‘Just War’ theory for a reason; this is that reason.