I am still trying to work out what it was the Pope meant to say when he spoke on the plane to Poland, saying that “It’s war, we don’t have to be afraid to say this … a war of interests, for money, resources. I am not speaking of a war of religions. Religions don’t want war. The others want war.”
This is presumably a literal translation of what he said in Italian, but even in Italian it seems rather vague. What are these “interests”, or vested interests as we would put it in English? And who are the “others” who want war?
It is war, one supposes, because there is fighting, but even this is misleading: there is not fighting in the usual sense of the term. Rather, there is naked aggression against harmless and defenceless people. That is rather different. The term that best sums this up is of course terrorism, or perhaps “asymmetrical war”.
It is really important that we remember that people like Fr Jacques Hamel, or the Christians celebrating Easter in Pakistan, or the nun shot dead in Somalia, or the many Christians murdered in churches in Kenya, are not posing any danger to anyone. They are not provoking anyone either. If this is war, it is a war being fought be one side only. And indeed, even in words, the war is one sided. The threats uttered by Muslims towards Christians are blood curdling; there is no Christian equivalent to ISIS and its propaganda machine. Christianity is not at war with anyone: it is the victim of warmongers.
One obvious interpretation of the gnomic utterance of Pope Francis is to see the aggression of some Muslims are having merely the cloak of religion, but underneath being motivated by something else entirely, such as economic motives.
In fact, this interpretation of terrorism is very common, and predates the current situation. In Northern Ireland, in the 1970s, it was commonly averred that the Troubles were only coincidentally a religious conflict, but were in fact a conflict that sprang from entrenched social inequalities. This was up to a point true, but to see it as a complete explanation is to ignore the roles played by culture, history, community structures and beliefs.
Can we say that contemporary Islamist terrorism is rooted in social and economic inequalities? It must be true that social and economic inequalities do not help, and that in a country like France the Muslim community feels itself to be somehow excluded from national life. This seems to be beyond question. The sort of young men who are drawn to terrorism are clearly not integrated into society; if they were, they might have found better things to do with themselves.
But this raises the major question: are they not integrated because their religion prevents them from integrating into the French mainstream? This is the question that needs to be confronted: is the link between terrorism and Islam merely extrinsic or is it intrinsic?
At present, in Europe, one undoubted truth is evident, and that is that almost all our terrorists are Muslim young men. The majority seem to be born Muslim, but a significant number are converts. The only non-Muslim terrorist I can think of is Anders Breivik. (In America, it is different; there very few mass murders have been Muslims.) But are these disaffected Muslim young men somehow being used by “interests”, as the Pope suggests?
This seems unlikely, simply because the sort of actions that these terrorists carry out are not coherent, and do not seem to have any intelligible aim in view. Like the founder of modern terrorism, Osama Bin Laden, but unlike previous movements, such as the IRA, they have no set of demands, no negotiating position, and cannot be brought into a peace process, as peace is not their aim.
The Pope’s words on the plane seem to indicate that there is something “behind” ISIS, and seem to be at one with the usual Italian idea of dietrologia or “the facts behind the facts”: in other words, someone or something is “behind” ISIS, and ISIS is a front for some other movement. But there is no evidence that this is the case.
Perhaps we should face up to the alternative, namely, that ISIS is serious about its stated aims, and it is what it says it is: the caliphate in arms, an attempt to resurrect the supposed state of affairs that existed in the 7th century. In other words, its inspiration comes from inside Islam (albeit a rather recondite current in Islam) and not from outside it.
But this brings into question the other thing the Pope asserts: “This is not a war of religions.” It is, albeit only on one side.
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