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A religious response to terror


Fifteen years after 9/11, the response to Islamist terror is becoming more and more confused. 

benedict321Consider the murder of Father Jacques Hamel at the altar of his Normandy parish in July.  The president of France, a proudly secular state, acknowledged that this was a uniquely horrific event, and so he flew to the Vatican to offer condolences.  Yet Pope Francis went in the opposite direction, seeing nothing unique or remarkable at all in the martyrdom of one of his priests and likening jihadist terror to domestic violence in Italy.  The world sometimes appears to be so destabilized that it is upside down.

There have been rare moments of clarity since 9/11.  One of them took place 10 years ago, when, on Sept. 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a magisterial address at the University of Regensburg.  It was there that, as professor Joseph Ratzinger, he had begun a lifetime of examining the relationship of faith and reason: reason purifies faith of superstition and fanaticism, and faith broadens the horizons of reason to address the most fundamental questions of life.  In the course of that lecture, which was mostly occupied with the loss of confidence in reason in Western thought, Benedict addressed the combustible issue of Islamic violence.  Combustible issues are, well, combustible, and in response, the streets of various Muslim cities were inflamed.

Yet Benedict's address brought more light than heat.  He acknowledged that jihadi terrorists were making a theological claim: that somehow the violence they visited on their targets — Muslims first, but also Christians, Jews and often victims chosen indiscriminately — was pleasing to God and in accord with the divine will.  Jihadist violence, Benedict recognized, was not an exclusively religious phenomenon, or even a principally religious phenomenon.  But it was, at least in part, a religious phenomenon and therefore it required, in part, a religious response.

Benedict asked whether religious violence had its origin in our understanding of God.  If God is pure power, a sovereign will to which we must submit, then it is possible that he could command anything, even violence in the name of faith.  Contrariwise, if God is not only will, but also truth, then what he commands must be in accord with reason.  Therefore, it would be contrary to God's will to spread the faith by violence, as faith must always be a free act.  In his Regensburg address, Benedict traced how this had been worked out over centuries in Christianity, with both successes and setbacks, and suggested that the Muslim world had a similar task before it.

Jihadist violence, Benedict recognized, was not an exclusively religious phenomenon, or even a principally religious phenomenon.  But it was, at least in part, a religious phenomenon and therefore it required, in part, a religious response.

After the easily inflamed had moved on to other supposed provocations, the response to Regensburg was gratifying from many leading Muslim scholars, more than 100 of whom took up the conversation with Benedict by means of an open letter.  Even more remarkable was the fact that king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made an unprecedented visit to Benedict at the Vatican the following year and, in 2008, hosted an interreligious meeting that included Christians and Jews.  Given that such a remarkable meeting would be illegal in Saudi Arabia, the king arranged for it to be hosted by the Spanish crown at the royal palace in Madrid.

That approach — to treat theology seriously and to provide good theological responses to corrupt theological arguments — has made some progress, with kings and presidents calling for reforms.  Former U. S. president Bill Clinton wrote in 2006 of the necessity of "preaching a more complete Islam, not a distorted, jagged shard."  Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, gave a notable speech in January 2015, where he called for a rethinking of Islamic discourse to root out the justifications of extremism and violence.  Last month, Mohammed VI, king of Morocco, directly addressed the theological meaning of jihad, condemning the jihadists who have used it to justify terror and the killing of innocents.

However, some key voices reject the premise that there is a theological dimension to jihadist violence at all.  U. S. President Barack Obama has refused to concede that Islamist violence — even the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant — has anything to do with Islam, even in part.  It's an odd line of argument — that the causes of Islamist violence are to be found in radical politics, nationalism, economic stagnation, foreign domination, in everything but the most deeply held convictions rooted in religion.

Pope Francis is closer to the Obama line than that of Benedict, also arguing that there is no distinctively Islamic dimension to jihadism.  Fifteen years after 9/11, the scourge of jihadist terror has encircled the globe.  But 10 years after his speech at Regensburg, Benedict's arguments still need a wider hearing, even in Rome.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A religious response to terror." National Post, (Canada) September 13, 2016.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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