The shocking violence that we in the Western world are usually safely shielded from and that many of our Christian brethren in the Levant face down daily has struck from its coil, killing twelve and injuring eight others in the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly. Initial reports from witnesses say the gunmen claimed to be affiliated with al-Qaida in Yemen. As of this writing, the assailants are still at large. The left-wing newspaper is notorious for its lampooning—goading even—of Islam, and the Catholic Church (and Christianity in general) has also not been immune to their vitriol. The January 7 attack is the latest directed toward the paper. In November 2011 the paper’s website was hacked and their office was firebombed following the publication of an issue that mocked Muhammed.
Why do we continue to be surprised? Islamic terror groups like ISIL and al-Qaida have always have promised they would attack the West where and when they could. In the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, French officials even admitted that several other planned attacks had been thwarted in the recent weeks.
We’ll hear from some about how “violence in the name of religion” is never justified and from others perhaps about how religion causes violence. Both notions are silly. First of all, some religions do in fact claim that their worldview not only supports but inspires violence. Second, there is no such thing as “religion”. There are different religions that profess and teach a variety of world views, some of them radically at odds with one another. Some profess the material world has always existed, others that it was created at some point in the finite past, others still that the external world is an illusion. Islam professes belief in one God who is absolutely one, while Christianity believes the One God to be a Trinity of Persons. Elsewhere we find multiple gods, an infinite number of gods, or even the irrelevance of deity as in some forms of Buddhism. To hear some people speak about what is or is not part of “religion” as if all religions were the same and as if they of necessity subscribed to the creed of peace, love and granola, simply makes no sense at all.
Predictably, media always seems to rush to explain these attacks away and to put as much distance between them and what they call real Islam. Talking heads suddenly become experts in Islam, foreign policy, and religion in general. Immediately following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Howard Dean was on Morning Joe claiming that “They’re [the January 7 attackers] about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else’s life, that’s not what the Koran says.”
But it does say it, in chapter and verse, and Islamic terrorists claim simply to be observing its dictates. Following the horrific beheading of photojournalist James Foley, President Obama even claimed to speak for ISIL by stating: “So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Statements like these are odd, because they’re so obviously false. Of course ISIL claims to speak for Islam. The fact that they also kill other Muslims doesn’t negate this. They do so because they believe other Muslims to be bad Muslims, that they are the moral equivalent of unbelievers. They would say they do not kill innocents. And yes, they claim that what they do is just and that Allah not only stands for it, but commands it. The question is, is their claim grounded? Is it consistent with the foundations of Islam? This is the essential question.
Anyone can claim they are behaving consistent with a particular worldview, but are they? To be sure, there are Christians who behave terribly, but scour the Gospels to find express commands to carry out said bad behavior and you’ll come up empty. A Christian who abuses his spouse or kills those who slander the name of Jesus will be extremely hard pressed to find proof-texts to show he is acting consistently with the teaching of Jesus. Critics may point to some of the less merciful aspects of the Levitical law to try to show that Christian and Jewish scripture is just as guilty of condoning violence as the Koran. But Christian scriptural exegetes at least (I can’t presume to speak for Jewish scholarship) can tell you why this is not the case. They might say the old law is superseded by Christ or that some parts of Levitical law are relevant to a particular time and place, etc. But Western pundits are over-reaching when they try to say as much about the Islamic approach to the Koran. The fact is that the verses Islamic extremists point to as motivation and justification stand out boldly and there is no “new” covenant within Islam to supersede them. The historical context of the initial spread of Islam does not help there, either.
Christians and Muslims (and Jews) profess belief in One God. But Christianity and the predominant schools of Islamic philosophy and theology differ concerning some of God’s attributes—and ideas have consequences. Christian theology posits that God cannot act contrary to His nature and that God is the Eternal Logos. Reason, rationality, these are aspects of God’s very nature. This is why the universe is intelligible and why there can be no compulsion in Christianity. Man, being made in God’s Image, is rational. Further, because God is a communion of Persons, we can say that God is Love. Again, man, being made in God’s Image, is made to love. Classical Christian philosophy would even take reason as far as to say that something of God can be known with certainty by reason alone and even something of His Will can be known through reason alone by way of the natural moral law. But these two attributes—logos and communion—are entirely absent from the Islamic concept of God. Allah is absolutely ONE (in fact, in many ways, Islam seems to be more a reaction to the Christian concept of the Trinity than an individually revealed religion, but this is another matter).
You’ll recall the uproar over Father Benedict XVI (I love calling him that, by the way) at Regensburg in 2006, wherein he warned of the danger of separating God from rationality. The predominant schools of Islamic philosophy and law do just this. In Islam, God is so wholly other than anything, that nothing can be know of him or his will save for that which he has expressly revealed, meaning in the Koran. In this view, God is not bound by anything at all, including rationality. Even man’s free will is negated, since it would seem to imply a power at work in the world other than God. Islamic philosophy tends therefore, to be rather fatalistic, which is why military might and compulsion can be seen as a sign of God’s will. Because nothing about God can be known by reason, there is no sense in carrying on rational discourse about God or about his will. In this view the sword—or the Kalashnakov—become perfectly acceptable means of carrying out God’s will. Ideas have consequences.
It’s not enough to say that most Muslims are good people who would condemn an attack like the one that killed twelve people in Paris—though I believe this to be undoubtedly true. Let’s make that clear. It’s not a question of Muslims but of Islam. The question is, in claiming to speak and act in accord with the foundations of Islam, are the extremists, in fact doing so? They at least, believe they are and we should take that claim seriously, especially when they point to explicit Koranic verses and when supported by the Islamic philosophical notion of the absoluteness of God. To ignore all of this is extreme hubris and commits the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
The gunmen reportedly spoke “flawless French”, indicating that they have been in France for some time. The ideology that led to today’s bloodshed lives among us. It is no use trying to tell it, “you don’t really believe this”, because yes, they do. This should remind us once again that our enemy is not flesh and blood, but the darkness (Ephesians 6:12), and that ideas have consequences.