It is futile to deny that ISIS can legitimately claim to be Islamic - even if it is out of sync with mainstream Islam
Set in French Algiers, the novel L’Étranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus starts with the central character learning of his mother’s death and ends with him accepting the “gentle indifference of the world”.
There was more indifference than warfare behind the recent violent slaughter of Fr Jacques Hamel in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. Yet Pope Francis chose to say, in response to the murder, that “the world is at war”. He also said it was wrong and untrue to identify Islam with terrorism, and Islam should not be singled out, since the problem is common to religious fundamentalism. He suggested that the violence is the outcome of social injustice and money idolatry. The problem is not saying all this; the problem is, it is wrong.
Taking his last point first, “any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak”, as the authors of a significant 2002 report argued.
Second, the Pope should have emphasised that ISIS is not a state actor and has no legitimate claim to authority over a populace or a whole religion. War takes place between state actors with the populace behind it, granted with varying degrees of acquiescence.
Simply denying that the perpetrators are Islamic doesn’t work. Their version of Islam may be out of sync with the tradition, our secular world and the many manifestations of Islam around the world, but whether we like it or not ISIS can legitimately claim to be Islamic. It has a theology. In its fundamentalism it can go back to the Koran – a difficulty that requires interpretation rather than literalism. Yes, Christians have historically used violence, but if they are fundamentalist or literalist about it they can never go back to Jesus and see justification for that violence.
Pope Francis should have said that the people who killed Fr Hamel were murderers and criminals, plain and simple. This was an act by people with their own complex of motivations and skewed views of reality, inspired by a central idea. ISIS is that central idea: it instrumentalises Islam for an ethereal global media and secular age. It is something individuals in search of meaning can point at, use to claim authority and motivation for their own acts, and give them a feeling of importance.
Lastly, the Pope could have gone to the source that has been the cause of violence down the ages: the sinful nature of humanity. The Church needs to educate its own and Western society better, and offer theological substance and a vision of faith to confront the godless secularism that makes these individuals feel they are outsiders who are driven in part by the “gentle indifference of the world”.
Dr David Cowan is a Visiting Scholar at Boston College