The world has again been stunned by a jihadist attack, after two knife-wielding men burst into a church in a suburb of Rouen, France, killed an elderly priest — Fr. Jacques Hamel — during morning mass, and took hostages.
Sr. Danielle, one of the nuns who attended the mass said that the men, armed with knives, forced the priest to his knees before cutting his throat. “They recorded it; it was like they were performing a sermon in Arabic around the altar. It was horrific.”
Two nuns and one parishioner exited the church, followed by the attackers, one of whom was carrying a gun, who charged police shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is great). The attackers were shot dead by police.
The perpetrators have been named as Adel Kermiche and Abdel-Malik Petitjean, both 19. Both attackers were known to the French security services, having tried to reach Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) and been turned back. IS said two of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack.
During the press conference on the flight back to Rome after World Youth Day, a journalist, Antoine Marie Izoarde, asked the Holy Father: “Why do you, when you speak of these violent events, always speak of terrorists, but never of Islam; never use the word Islam?”
Pope Francis responded: “I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence, because every day, when I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy … this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law … and these are baptized Catholics!
There are violent Catholics! If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence … and no, not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad; there’s everything. There are violent persons of this religion … this is true: I believe that in pretty much every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists. We have them. When fundamentalism comes to kill, it can kill with the language — the Apostle James says this, not me — and even with a knife, no? I do not believe it is right to identify Islam with violence. This is not right or true.
I had a long conversation with the imam, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar University, and I know how they think … They seek peace, encounter … The nuncio to an African country told me that the capital where he is there is a trail of people, always full, at the Jubilee Holy Door
And some approach the confessionals — Catholics — others to the benches to pray, but the majority go forward, to pray at the altar of Our Lady … these are Muslims, who want to make the Jubilee. They are brothers, they live …
When I was in Central Africa, I went to them, and even the imam came up on the Popemobile … We can coexist well … But there are fundamentalist groups, and even I ask … there is a question … How many young people, how many young people of our Europe, whom we have left empty of ideals, who do not have work… they take drugs, alcohol, or go there to enlist in fundamentalist groups?
One can say that the so-called ISIS, but it is an Islamic State which presents itself as violent … because when they show us their identity cards, they show us how on the Libyan coast how they slit the Egyptians’ throats or other things … But this is a fundamentalist group which is called ISIS … but you cannot say, I do not believe, that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist.”
I certainly don’t know how I would answer the question asked on the spur of the moment. I can understand the meandering of Pope Francis in trying to avoid identifying Islam with terrorism. After all, we all know so many tolerant and peace loving Muslims. With our Western eyes, we tend to see social alienation, unemployment, lack of adequate housing or education, feelings of hopelessness and the absence of ideals as the underlying causes of terrorism.
We have to see things with jihadist eyes. Those who slit throats or carry out suicide bombings clearly believe that their actions do owe much to their religious faith.
It is not politically correct to say so, but violence was definitely part of the rise and expansion of Islam. At the time, no one found anything blameworthy in Muhammad’s military action since wars were part of the Arab Bedouin culture. Today, the problem is that the fiercest Muslim groups continue to adopt that model.
In the Qur’an, there are verses in favour of religious tolerance, and other verses that are aggressive and openly opposed to tolerance. Therefore, the doctors of the Islamic law are obliged to say that they do not agree with those who choose to adopt the verse of the sword as normative, even if they cannot condemn them. There are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is a need for an authority, unanimously acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: from now on, only this verse is valid. But this has not happened and helps to explain some of the silence of Imams and other Islamic leaders
This means that when some fanatic slits the throat of an old man or bombs women and children in the market place in the name of pure and authentic Islam or in the name of the Muslim tradition, nobody can tell them: “You are not true and authentic Muslims.” As Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. puts it, “All they can say is: ‘Your reading of Islam is not ours.’ And this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to the present day; violence is a part of it, although it is also possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, but it is also possible to choose violence.”
We also need new eyes to revisit one of the themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s address given at the University of Regensburg in 2006, as how we understand God’s nature has implications for whether we judge particular human choices and actions to be unreasonable. This is not just an issue for academia but where the rubber hits the road.
☩ Frederick Henry