We continue to ruminate on the French President’s description of the killings last Friday in Paris as an “act of war”. This “act” was not declared ahead of time according to the rules of war.
The French President deals with a movement that does not follow international law. It follows its own rules. Nor is ISIS yet a formally recognized civil state. It has power to make war outside its borders which are themselves held by right of conquest. Until defeated, it is a de facto state that has to be reckoned with. The country against which this war was launched was France. Everyone knows that the reach of ISIS extends into Germany, England, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Australia, and the United States.
Whether it can penetrate Russia or China remains to be seen, though Russia is clearly concerned about its own Muslim population.
We recall further 9/11, the bombing of a hotel in India, a resort in Bali, and the wars and slaughters in Africa. We also know that Sunni and Shiite Muslims fight each other in the Middle East. Shootings similar to Paris have not taken place in Saudi Arabia or in Iran, though the “spirit of ISIS”, as the only genuine Islam, haunts every Muslim government bureaucracy.
Turkey and Egypt have the largest military forces near ISIS, surely enough, if they wanted to, to destroy it along with Al-Qaeda and other related organizations. But, except in rare cases, they do not move. Over a million men under arms are found in the Muslim states in the Near East with equipment often supplied by or purchased from the United States, France, Russia, or elsewhere. Still, they do not act on any significant scale.
This non-involvement tells us much that we need to know about the Muslim world. Muslim governments prefer to step aside to let someone else do it. They cannot evidently afford to be seen as hostile to Islam itself.
The American President initially called it an attack on “humanity”, an abstraction that allowed him not to name the problem. “Humanity” is an abstraction. It bears no arms, makes no declarations of war. It is much easier to fight than actual men with actual weapons and full intention to use them. Abstractions like “terrorists” are all the President can bring himself to mention.
The “terrorists” do not call themselves “terrorists”. Not accurately naming the problem enables one not to do too much about it. Indeed, no such thing as a “terrorist” organization exists except in the ideological minds of the West. ISIS is engaged in Islamic Jihad, nothing more, nothing less. What we insist on calling “terror”, they call war.
Pope Francis, who had urged all parishes in Europe to take a refugee family, saw it as a “piecemeal World War III”. This may be right, as we survey the whole scope of turmoil caused by Muslim-related arms over the past 30 years. Yet, it is not World War III but a continuation and revival of a 1300 year war against the rest of the world.
Few will believe that such historic memory and action can keep recurring. But again, who are the participants in this Jihadist-World War III? Islam vs. everyone else, including “peaceful” Muslims? Is this what the Pope meant?
The Egyptian president warned his fellow religionists against thinking that one billion of them could not kill six billion others. Historically, in the 7th Century, Mohammed’s armies began with nothing only to conquer a good part of the world in the next 200 years, ground they still mostly hold. They see themselves as seeking to expand.
ISIS military convoys of cars and trucks seem militarily laughable. Yet they are in power, even when the American President tells us they are “contained”. ISIS cells and sympathizers are in many world centers.
Where do these fighters come from? Who supplies their arms, support, and, more importantly, inspiration? Some of the French killers or their supporters have French, German, Syrian, and other passports that get them into places they want to attack. If this attack were the beginning of World War III, who are the enemies? Who are the defenders? Or is everyone guilty? Is it caused by earth warming? By poverty? By mal-distribution of goods? Or by none of the above? Is it a war of civilization, indeed a war of a particular religion seeking to complete its assigned mission among men, including recalcitrant Muslims? If it is this all-out war, why cannot we admit it?
Who are the “peaceful” Muslims? Why do we not hear much from them? The American President thinks 99 percent of Muslims are “peaceful”. Robert Cardinal Sarah, speaking of his own country, Guinea, wrote: “The religions have always lived peacefully with one another. The Muslims area majority but they respect each other” (God or Nothing, 139). This calm relation cannot be said to exist in Nigeria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or most places in the Near East. Historically settled relations within Muslim states are subject to rapid change when they come under ISIS type influence.
With whom do the peaceful Muslims sympathize, the Parisians slaughtered or their killers? It is difficult to tell. They seem more concerned with “retaliation” against themselves than containing or finding the attacks. Some Muslim clerics and leaders do condemn ISIS, especially in areas whose leaders ISIS seeks to overthrow or when related to the Sunni/Shiite divisions within Islam. If the peaceful Muslims are a majority, they are often a silent majority. The same methods used on the French can be used on them. Often the overthrow of admittedly autocratic rulers in the name of democracy has resulted in growth of ISIS-type power and less protection for minorities.
A different narrative
But just how do we describe what the Parisian slaughter was? We talk of gaining control of the “narrative” so that it can be put in proper place, so that we do not become too agitated. We want to be sure so that this “violence”, as it is called, does not get out of hand and challenge too many assumptions about our own world, rights, and assumptions. But ISIS does not think in these Western terms. Indeed, it has contempt for them as signs of weakness. ISIS, moreover, is adept at using Western laws and institutions to achieve their own ends.
And we should remember that “numbers” are not necessarily a good way to think about organizations like ISIS whose power is not primarily in numbers but in will and resolve. The source of most radical change comes in the beginning in the minds of single-minded elites.
Where to begin? Eight young men carried out the Paris killings with skill and precision. Some were brothers; some came from Belgium. So far we speak of eight of them. Probably, there were more either those who escaped or helped plan and carry out the well-conceived operation. Seven of these men killed themselves and one was shot before he could kill himself. They clearly intended to kill themselves after the killing others if they could not get away without detection. Their deaths were included in their own plans and training. We have seen similar young men behead and slit throats of those they capture in their own controlled areas. We have become almost used to these shocking acts.
In the West, we hear questions like: “This was insane! Irrational! How could anyone kill ‘innocent’ people whom he did not know?” Questions like these reveal minds so conditioned that they hardly deserve to be given answers. The theologians who support these actions have no problem in explaining them. We just will not hear what they tell us. There was nothing unexpected about this attack, only the time and place. When Mosul in Iraq fell to ISIS in 2014, the Bishop of Mosul warned that the same blood would come to the cities of the west as came to his city. It did. (See Schall, MercatorNet, December 2, 2015).
Europe and the Near East are filled with thousands of young men willing to carry out similar actions in many parts of the world. Through refugee entrance points and immigration, they are already in place. Their leaders tell us that this planned slaughter in Paris was just what they will do. It is not all boasting, though some of it is. We are slow to listen to them because we have little in our minds that is realistic enough to believe them. Our schools and universities cannot examine such motivations without violating some bias. So we call them “terrorists”, as if that is in any sense the name of what these men think they are doing.
They do not call themselves “terrorists”. They call themselves true believers in what Islam formally teaches. They can point to chapter and verse, midst conflicting chapters and verses. They laugh at us and are delighted that we do not take them seriously. They know the advantage that our ignorance and inability to say what they are gives them.
Young men persuaded by this faith only blow themselves up if they think they are accomplishing something noble and good. It is not an act of arbitrariness. Without a “cause”, they would not inflict it upon themselves. They would be shocked to think that they are killing “innocent people”. They reject any notion that they are killing just for the sake of killing. No, they are carrying out a “mission” assigned by Allah to all of Islam, backed, in their minds, by Qur’anic passages and an historical tradition of conquest. Some Muslims, no doubt, are too cowardly or weak to join in the true vocation to convert the world to Islam.
No “innocent” people were found in Paris or any other country in the West (or East) except other devout Muslims who follow Allah as they do. The Parisians killed are those who are decadent with personal moral disorders prohibited by even their own laws and sacred books. They belong to the “crusader” class that has for centuries “opposed” the destined growth of Islam in the world. The only people killed are the guilty, whether man, woman, or child.
“Why did these men,” someone asked me, “choose such places as sports arenas or concert halls or bars or restaurants?” It takes little reflection to answer this question. Such places are where the brutal act would garner the most world-wide publicity for their cause. Also in such places, they would cause the most amount of fear and chaos in the civilian population who would be more afraid in the future to make any move for fear of attack in what are supposed to be peaceful places.
The only wonder was that Notre Dame or some such church or national monument was not also a scene of killing. There is always a “next time”, as the backers of these young men clearly tell us. Today, almost any target works—trains, planes, oil tanks, buses, apartment buildings, museum, barracks, police headquarters, or schools. It does not have to be Twin Towers or the Washington Monument or Big Ben.
Why were these young men not afraid to die? Their theology tells them that they, not the ones killed, are the true martyrs. They were engaged in spreading Islam, doing good, revitalizing an historic mission. Their “noble” example will cause many other young men to join their movement, including men from France, Germany, and America.
To oppose these men, one has to be able to identify and counteract what causes them to sacrifice themselves. We do not easily make this identification. Our theories of free speech, ecumenism, and civil liberty do not allow us to study or act on the fact that such men exist. They are made into caricatures. Our ignorance is one of these men’s best tools for expansion. After the French killings, many try to blame it all on “religion” or “Christianity” or retaliation of wrongs; hence they are said to act justly. What the young men who blew themselves up wanted us to know was that they died for the noble cause of submitting the world to Allah, nothing less.
In conclusion, let me state what I think we are seeing when world attention is on Paris. From its very beginning, even before there was a written Qur’an, Mohammedan armies rapidly expanded in the Near East, Africa, and Asia. They were ruthless and successful. Byzantium, Persia, Spain, and even parts of India could not resist them. The articulation of these actions came to be located in the Qur’an, but also in the record of this successful conquest of a fifth of the world by means of force.
Islam was and still is charged with submitting the whole war to Allah. This was Allah’s will. After the eleventh century, this will replaced any tenuous notion that will was modified or related to logos, to reason. The basic tenets of Christianity were specifically denied--Trinity, Incarnation, Church. Jews and Christians could only be second class citizens, still mostly the rule. The Qur’an was what it said it was, a late revelation directly from the mind of Allah that “corrected” or replaced all earlier ones.
Everything was or should be subject to Muslim law--politics, economics, family, science, and soul. Even if, say, every member of ISIS were killed, the movement would remain, only to reappear later in history to continue the same goal by the same methods when reread by zealous man. For its “mission” and what opposes it are found in the Book. So long as that book is carefully and faithfully read, believers will appear and follow its admonition to subject the world to Islam, to Allah. The ISIS movement of today is not new. It is the recurrence of similar movements in the past that were only stopped temporarily by superior force. Islam understands power, both power of spirit and power of arms.. Islam is patient, but dogged.
Is it true, or not?
What has never really been faced, even by the Church, is the truth-content, or lack of it, in the Muslim worldview with regard to the claimed truth of its understanding of God, cosmos, and man. Islam will and must always seek to expand, to submit everyone to its law. This is what will means. Not to do this is to deny what it is. This is why those young men will always appear who presently join and work to expand Islam by any means—killings, beheadings, diplomacy, war. Were it not so lethal and so intellectually incoherent, one might admire this zeal, this grandeur, yes, this “submission”.
But what we witness today is not the zeal of “religion” in general, but the inspiration of one particular religion from Mecca that sees its opportunity to expand in Europe and elsewhere by methods it has always, if we read our history, found “useful”. It continues the mission that was stymied in earlier centuries, especially at Tours and Vienna in battles that saved Europe.
Islam is patient, but it suddenly knows how to act when occasion arises. If we again slow it or defeat it for a time, it will rise again so long as we do not face head on the falsity and contradictions of the content of this faith’s self-understanding.
But if we think Islam to be just another “religion” with no appeal to glory, it will eventually win. If we cannot give a coherent reason for this falsity, its advocates will come back again and again, because what they do is found in their faith, in their sacred book, nowhere else. Many, including Muslims, do not see this mission there. But those who do, and they are not deluded, will always be the ones who rise again, as they showed us that they could do in Paris on a Friday the 13th.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. His article orginally appeared at MercatorNet, and appears here with permission.