How should Catholics react to the Charlie Hebdo massacre? We have already had a reaction from Cardinal Nichols and one from the Pope. The cardinal urges prayer, and the Pope does the same. Prayer is always going to be the first reaction: a prayer for the dead, a prayer for the survivors, and a prayer for the forces of law and order who now go about their duties to bring the perpetrators to justice, and a prayer for those perpetrators themselves, that God may bring them to repentance.
But while prayer is the necessary first resort, our reaction should not stop there. We also need to analyse what has happened, and we also need to act.
First the analysis. There is a characteristically intelligent piece on the situation of Muslims in France from Tim Stanley in the Telegraph. In it he points to the difficult history of French-Algerian relations, and Charlie Hebdo’s place in the republican and anti-clerical tradition. But I am not sure that this is really a French problem alone. The Charlie Hebdo attack brings to mind one fact for me: since September 11 2001, the world has changed, but many of our perceptions have not kept up with the change.
Two things are to be borne in mind. First, the perpetrators of this attack know virtually no history at all; they have replaced history (an objective study) with wild conspiracy theory: hence their talk of “Crusaders”. There have not been any Crusaders for hundreds of years, but this simple objective fact will cut no ice with them. All that matters to the perpetrators is the sense of grievance.
The second thing to bear in mind is that for the perpetrators, almost everyone on the planet is a potential victim. In the 9/11 attacks it was office workers who had absolutely nothing to do with whatever grievance Osama bin Laden and his gang were nurturing. But in the mind of the Islamist, all are guilty. Yes, there was a particular reason for attacking Charlie Hebdo, but this could have been any other newspaper or magazine, or any other centre of perceived Western decadence, such as the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
The Islamists are not short of targets, because in their mental world, the targets are everywhere. Thus in the land of ISIS there is a never-ending supply of offenders to execute (the vast majority of whom seem to be their fellow Muslims, though, of course, in the crazy world of ISIS, these are not “true” Muslims.)
So, what is to be done? How does one deal with an ideology that is impervious to rationality? How does one deal with a terrorist movement whose targets are everywhere? One cannot put every office building in the world under armed guard. One can’t negotiate with Islamists either, as they have no rational demands.
In the end this is a religious problem, and, as has been said many times before now, the only people who can solve the problem are the Muslims themselves, or, to use a misleading and inaccurate phrase, “moderate Muslims”. There has to be dialogue between Muslims of all types, who need to ask themselves how their religion engages with modernity. This dialogue has got to tackle those who claim that modernity and Islam have no legitimate interface. The truth that the dialogue has to promote is that Islam has to engage with modernity, as do we all. No one can try to stop the planet’s motion, claiming they want to get off. It’s futile.
Here Catholicism can help: the Catholic Church can act as a stimulant to the Muslim world, and an example. We Catholics live with modernity; we have engaged with the values of the Enlightenment, and in the process we did not lose our identity. We have faith, but we explore reason, and both are enriched in the process. This is the way forward for the Muslims as well: they need to start reasoning.
The helpful stimulus to Islam was in fact initiated by Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, it is time, in the wake of this latest massacre, to go back and study the Regensburg speech and ask Muslims to study it as well.