Terrorism

When the Almighty Delivers

June 16, 2017

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When the Almighty Delivers

It’s absurd to say that the terrorism sponsored by ISIS and al-Qaeda has nothing to do with Islam. Obviously it has. They tell us this themselves when they speak of their war against the Crusaders (though there hasn’t been a Christian Crusade against Muslim states for centuries), and the terrorists themselves proclaim that they are acting in the name of Allah. On the other hand, it’s equally absurd to pretend that we are at war with Islam and the Muslim world.

Islam, like Christianity, is a broad church, and its sacred books—the Koran and the hadiths—are as capable of diverse interpretation as the Bible. We might understand the Muslim world better if we compared it to Christianity. There are Christians who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, and Christians who don’t. There are Christians who believe the account of the Creation given in the Book of Genesis, and Christians who believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution. There are Christians who believe that adultery, fornication, and homosexual acts are wicked and sinful, and Christians who find these things acceptable. There is a similar diversity in Islam, though Muslims who live in theocratic regimes prudently keep liberal opinions to themselves.

“We might understand the Muslim world better if we compared it to Christianity.”

The immediate question for us in the West is why a small number of young Muslims are attracted to jihadism and inspired to commit atrocious acts of terrorism. There is obviously no single answer—which is one reason it is so difficult for security agencies to identify potential terrorists early and take measures to prevent them from acting. Some certainly are rootless young men and (occasionally) young women whose life seemed to be going nowhere till conversion to extremist Islam gave it new meaning. In one respect this doesn’t differ from the appeal of any cause that seems to offer answers and give purpose to life—whether that be communism, fascism, nationalism, white supremacy, black power, anarchism. All such causes may offer the recruit or convert a satisfying sense of righteousness, and people have killed for them and many others.

It is not enough to say that recruits to violent causes are inadequates, though in certain respects many of them clearly are. Certainly they are often people who lack empathy, who can’t feel anything for their victims and their victims’ families. But anyone who commits himself to a “righteous” cause is likely to believe that the end justifies the means. There were horrors aplenty in the religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants that divided Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; think of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants in Paris in 1572. If you believe you are acting in the name of God or history or an oppressed people, then any act may be justified.

During the religious wars in 17th-century Scotland, the Archbishop of St. Andrews was dragged from his coach and murdered in sight of his daughter by a gang of extreme—and persecuted—Presbyterians known as Covenanters. In Walter Scott’s novel Old Mortality the leader of the gang, Balfour of Burley, offers proof that they were fulfilling the will of God. They weren’t, he says, lying in wait for the Archbishop but for one of his “inferior minions.” But the Almighty delivered the Archbishop to them.


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