Francis trivializes the problem of radical Islam by ignoring the need to develop a concerted response to terrorist acts
Pope Francis, never one to shy away from giving the media soundbites, has doubled down on a history of controversial comments on hot-button issues.
But unlike the “Who am I to judge?” fallout, the pope’s latest comments, this time about the nature of the current wave of religious terrorism, leave much less room for interpretation and contextual misunderstanding.
Unfortunately for Europeans and Americans looking to the Holy See for guidance, the comments only serve to trivialize one of the West’s most persistent threats, and give increased veracity to the claims of secularists and evangelical atheists who would argue that all religions are equally violent.
Pretending Won’t Work
“I do not think it is right to identify Islam with violence. This is not right and it is not true,” the pope told reporters on July 31st.
Fair enough; identifying an entire religion with violence and painting exceptionally broad brushstrokes about the nature of the violence within Islam (ahem, Milo Yiannopoulos) exaggerates the root causes of why some people to kill in the name of Allah. Yet at the same time, Francis’ comments are disturbingly naïve and passé, a by-product of a post 9/11 mentality that would relegate Islamic terrorism to a few hundred guys running around the mountains of Afghanistan.
It’s a sentiment we’ve heard before—everyday, actually. And like President Obama, the American left, and Hollywood liberals, Francis seems intent to deny others the ability to make generalizations about Islam while making generalizations of his own.
“I know how they think. They look for peace, encounter,” Francis said. “One thing is true. I believe that in almost all religions, there is always a small fundamentalist group. We have them, too…When fundamentalism goes to the point of killing — you can even kill with the tongue. This is what St. James says, but (you can kill) also with a knife.”
I don’t doubt that some Muslims, even an overwhelming majority in many countries, do look for peace and chances to engage those outside their faith. I have Muslim friends who are among them. Yet polling reveals disparities within Muslims populations by country, further revealing that millions don’t look for peace and engagement with the Western world.
For instance, a majority of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for apostasy. I wonder what Francis would say of these Muslims should one of them decide that the Catholic Church is his permanent home? At least 60 million Muslims (worldwide) view the Islamic State (ISIS) favorably; Seven percent of U.S Muslims (approximately 126,000 people) believe suicide bombings are “sometimes justified”; and 4,500 men and women from Western countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight on behalf of ISIS.
These numbers might be small when taken in light of a global Muslim population, but they are not insignificant. Are there 60 million Catholics who would have a favorable opinion of crucifying children who do not fast during Ramadan? Are there thousands of Christians who would give up their lives to join an organization that drowns and burns people in cages?
No, there aren’t.
And while polls tell part of the story, they will never be a complete substitute for a different kind of statistic: the statistic of blood. In a two-year span, attackers claiming to represent ISIS have killed 443 people in Europe—most recently, an elderly French priest who had previously worked for dialogue and understanding between religions.
Islam does not equate to violence—few people actually believe that. But viewing Islam and violence as some kind of linear equation oversimplifies the variable that Islamic theology does play in the formation of terrorist ideology and action. One recalls the seminal Atlantic article from March 2015:
“[T]he religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam…Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
The United States is not the only state to do so.
A False Comparison
Francis further showed his misunderstanding and naivety in attempting to draw a comparison to a traditionally “Catholic” country.
“I look through the papers, I see violence here in Italy,” Francis said. “And they are baptized Catholics. There are violent Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, I also have to speak of Catholic violence.”
The entire statement rests on generalizations and assumptions, none of which hold up to scrutiny. For starters, he was referencing everyday (domestic) violence, not politically-motivated or ideologically-based acts. Not only has Italy not recently witnessed a mass terror attack under the banner of Catholicism or even a disgustingly altered representation of Christianity, but selected post-World War II examples yield equal incidents split between perpetrators expressing neo-fascists, Mafia, and anti-Israeli motives.
The point, however, is that none of the attacks have been part of the recent pattern of incidents in Europe. More importantly, by attempting to co-opt everyday Italian violence as a means of showing how Christian populations can succumb to violence, Pope Francis belittles the facts. Only half of Italians are Catholics (a fifth are atheists) and only 30 percent of those Catholics attend mass.
Of course, if I’m an atheist who finds vestiges of Christian morality burdensome, I’m a lot less likely to rationalize these differences, especially if the leader of the Catholic Church just said, in effect, that religion is part of the problem. For some (not all) agnostic minds, unwilling to dialogue on the differences between the Ten Commandments and Sharia Law, the entire notion of religion becomes tyranny.
It is as Archbishop Sheen once wrote: “Today those who do not have faith do not even know what they disbelieve. Having abandoned all certitudes, they have no standards by which to judge even their own agnosticism.”
In such a society, under which subjective interpretation becomes everything, the standards that differentiate a violent Islam and conservative, yet tolerant, Christianity erode. And a false comparison, unfortunately, becomes an oft-cited reason for political activism against the latter group.
A Needed Dialogue
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Francis’ comments are where he lays the majority of the blame for terrorist attacks.
“As long as the god of money is at the center of the global economy and not the human person, man and woman, this is the first terrorism,” he said.
Francis added that the attraction to ISIS that a non-insignificant amount of European youth feel is caused by a society that leaves people “with no ideals, no work, that end in the hands of drugs and alcohol, and then go over there [didn’t specify] and enlist.”
Once again, there are roots of truth in identifying the similarities between radical, violent manifestations of Islam and aggressive secularism. Both mindsets are heavily influenced by materialism, evolving representations of technology and violence, as well as the absence of a definitive moral code. Yet the comments, seen through a secular lens, reflect a Marxist understanding of the world. In reducing thoughts and ideas to causes that are largely material, Francis undermines the arguments of those who would do battle against extremist theological interpretations.
To understand and respond to radical Islam, the world, and Catholics across the West, must consider all the factors which feed the terrorist mind. A more complete understanding than the materialism exposed by the Obama administration is necessary to implement a thoughtful solution.
The Catholic Church has always been at the forefront of confronting global shifts and challenges. In 1891 Rerum novarum addressed the industrial revolution, as well as the injustices of unrestricted capitalism and socialism. Likewise, in Pope Francis’ own Laudato si’, Christians are called to join the world in caring for an environment that is experiencing upheaval and neglect. While an encyclical on terrorism may not be necessary, it’s time for Francis to guide his flock with a more thorough dialogue on the subject than the soundbites we receive from our politicians.