Islam and the London killings

In the end, Islam is not just another religion. It is an account of the way the world ought to be and a program to make it pursue that goal.

Armed police respond outside Parliament during an attack on Westminster Bridge in London March 22. (CNS photo/Stefan Wermuth, Reuters)

I. 

In London this past week, on March 22nd, a British-born Muslim, Kalid Masood, drove a truck into pedestrians crossing the Westminster Bridge, near the historic Parliament building. Masood next jumped out of the truck, drew some knives and killed an unarmed police officer with them. He then headed for the building itself before some officers who did have guns shot him, but not before he killed five persons and wounded scores of others, many of whom were foreign visitors. Masood evidently “converted” to Wahabbi Islam in prison, a frequent occurrence as prisons today are often major recruitment centers for Islam. Masood had also spent some years in Saudi Arabia. His connections led investigating police to Birmingham, now said to be the most Islamic city in Europe with nearly 22% of the population identifying as Muslim in the 2011 census.

ISIS quickly took responsibility for its “soldier’s” noble action; others called it a dastardly, inhumane, and uncivilized act.  These two contradictory evaluations of Masood’s killings emphasize the difference, when minds judge the same event differently. Both will be able to give reasons for their position. Muslim strategists generally understand how England works and thinks, and on this basis they are able to anticipate what will gain maximum attention throughout the world. England chooses not to understand how Islam works or what it stands for. It is judged by its—England’s, that is—not by the Muslims’ own criteria. Muslim thinkers will often claim that a killer like Masood was a “martyr”. He gave his life for the expansion of Islam and the praise of Allah. Such a claim seems sickening to any sensible Englishman. But it is what many Muslims, peaceable ones and otherwise, who know their own book and traditions actually think. They perceive no difficulty with this interpretation. In a world that presupposes the radical voluntarism of Allah as the final source of what is to be known or done, this killing can be justified. If Allah were bound by anything but his own will, he would be imperfect. The “martyr”, when shot, was carrying out a mission against those who oppose Islam. Masood did what was right. He is a martyr.

As these atrocities continue to recur with some regularity the perennial question keeps arising: “What is Islam?” The first answer is that it is a “religion” just like any other religion. But it really is not just like any other religion. It is a way of life, a unity of religion, politics, and every other aspect of man’s life into its inner order. The second answer is that it does, in its account of itself, condone—indeed, promote—violence against known enemies of Islam. In its own logic, the enemy is everyone who is not Muslim. The world is thus divided into a world of peace (Islam) and a world of war (the rest). The murderer who is killed in an act designed to praise Allah and expand Islam is, in this view, perfectly “reasonable” and justified within its own theology. Islam has often manifested the same aggressive attitude to the outside world ever since its beginning in the seventh century. It cannot be properly judged apart from this remarkably continuous history. Progress to world dominion was only slowed down or interrupted when superior force resisted it or inner-Islamic controversies (Sunni/Shiite) divided it. But it did not fundamentally change its goal, since to do so would be incompatible with what Islam is.

My first impression, of course, on hearing this recent in a never-ending series of incidents was a sober one. Seeing this as part of a long sequence of calculated acts of civic terror in non-Muslim polities again caused me to marvel. How little it takes today, in mostly unarmed societies used to the freedom of their own streets, to shut everything down! Atrocities in London, Brussels, Berlin, Fort Hood, San Bernardino, or Paris are immediately communicated via the media to and throughout an uncomprehending world. The enemies, if one dare name them—something often against a certain kind of civil laws—only need commercial aircraft, rented trucks, knives, or small explosives to carry out their purpose. We talk of Iran and nuclear weapons; but, in the long run, urban chaos caused by such seemingly small incidents probably makes the Iranian nuclear effort unnecessary, if not counter-productive. It can be dealt with by general deterrence theory in a way that small scale aggression cannot.

Some contemporary assailants use guns, but they are not really necessary anymore.  Indeed, guns have become less dramatic than the current use of trucks. Airplanes, though producing graphic results, are more difficult to take over, but almost anyone can drive a truck. The mantra “abolish the guns”, as a cure for terrorism, seems almost laughable in the light of truck-driven terror. We have not yet seen the poisoning of water supplies or blowing up monuments with hand-manufactured explosives, but we probably will.

II.

In the aftermath of the killings, the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, insisted that everything return immediately to normal to show national solidarity and determination. In her address to Parliament, she lamented that these, to her, irrational acts occur. To imply this position is to affirm that an objective standard exists by which all such acts, including political and religious ones, can be judged. She understood the killings to be efforts by fanatics to undermine liberal democracy. Whether modern liberal society itself holds to any standard above its own decrees is itself highly doubtful. Mrs. May did not give modern Muslim attackers the dignity of their own claim to be practicing their own religion even unto death.

Mrs. May’s speech the day after the killings was almost “Churchillian” in tone. The British people believe in law and freedom. They will never yield in the face of this terror. When Churchill gave his stirring exhortations to stand firm on the beaches and in the skies, however, we could accurately name the enemy in public. We could largely understand him. He had armies, sophisticated weapons, aircraft, and, above all, ideas. We could trace where these ideas came from. We could call them by their proper names, though it is true, in the case of communism, we often found a difference between noble statement and brutal practice.

We choose today not to name precisely the enemy appearing everywhere among us. We call them “terrorists” or “radical Muslim terrorists” as if they had nothing to do with a “real” Islam and what it does and teaches within its own established spheres. But no fair reading of Muslim texts or history can justify this view. It is made not on the basis of what the killers say of themselves but on the basis of universal liberal theory that cannot imagine anyone not adhering to its presumably obvious principles. But it is highly doubtful that liberal theory is stronger than Muslim belief in its own divine destiny, especially now that it seems, with some justification, to be itself on the ascendancy almost everywhere.

The present rise of attacks in England and Europe seems, at first sight, to be merely small incidents, hardly worthy of any more notice than the ordinary killings in Chicago on an average weekend that have no internationalist overtones. These latter frequent homicides in many cities do not close down the world or a country. They are thought to be “normal” but tragic manifestations of human follies. We look with different eyes at the results of any attack such those as in Paris or London. We are anxious to find as a cause a “loner” who can be explained by psychological or economic pathologies. We do not want to find one following a religious mandate with connections all over the world. We argue: “All religions are peaceful. But Islam is a religion. Therefore, Islam is peaceful.” But if the major premise is untrue or ambiguous, so is our conclusion.

We cannot or will not imagine a multi-centuries long endeavor to carry out an essentially religious mission, one bearing its own intellectual rationale, that of subjecting the world to the law and will of Allah. We are reluctant to see any concerted endeavor to undermine and take over our civilization. It’s too preposterous. Yet, more and more, we hear frank analyses, based on demography and fear, that this conquest at least of Europe, or parts of Europe, is not too far off, some say in a decade or two. And when it happens, the cause of this conquest will not be because of any initial lack of police or military power. It will be the result of a failure to understand the historic mission of Islam in this world, a failure caused largely by projecting our own ideas on a world, rather than understanding what this world is saying of itself.

If anyone talks frankly of these issues, he is usually accused by both Muslim and liberal sources of holding and harboring “Islamophobia”. This accusation, like the charge of anti-Semitism, takes the issue out of the realm of trying to understand what is actually going on. It becomes a grave concern that anyone so designated must be deranged or, worse, a fundamentalist. Laws against “hate speech” or “hate language” are passed to prohibit frank discussion of these matters in public. They have their origins not in Islam, where any criticism of the Qur’an or Mohammed is considered legally blasphemy, but in the rigors of a liberalism that cannot conceive that anyone could actually believe and act according to what is plainly justified in the Qur’an and Muslim history. This assumption means that some other reason must always be found to explain what is obvious and what is testified by the most believing and devout Muslims themselves. We use the word “terrorist” as if he acts for no known purpose, even when he tells us clearly what his purpose is.

It is quite true that we find many “peaceful” Muslims who, while retaining certain Muslim practices, do not follow the literal meaning of the call to jihad to conquer the world for Allah by force if necessary. Even here, however, most peaceful Muslims attempt to achieve this same end by peaceful means. Democracy easily becomes a path to first local then more national power. The Muslims who think this way are largely those who find it necessary to adapt themselves to customs not their own at least for a time. The tendency of Islamic immigrants, wherever they gather, is to reinstitute in the new setting, and as soon as possible, the Sharia. They insist that they must be free to live under it no matter what the local laws maintain. The great liberal hope was that of gradually weaning away or secularizing Islam, to “purify” it of these supposed religious aberrations. In practice, the opposite has usually been the case. It is the Western societies that are yielding more and more ground to a determined Islam now firmly settled within their confines

III.

Again, I wish to emphasize that my views about Islam are, at bottom, stated in grudging admiration of the Islam out to conquer the world for Allah. As I see it, the Muslim thinkers, politicians, and faithful who insist on the rightfulness of jihad and violence, whose own societies when in control allow little or no freedom to others, are the ones that are most faithful to the Qur’an and Muslim history. Wherever the Qur’an is present, believed, and studied, these same aggressive sentiments and movements will reoccur if believers are faithful to their books. The ones who try to bring Islam into the modern world, as they say, whether within or without Islam, are the “heretics” of Muslim theology and are usually recognized by it as such. The hope of the “heretics” is that Islam will, while retaining the outward veneer, become something other than what it is.

What we witness in our time, perhaps as a result of Muslim consciousness of its failure to accommodate itself to the modern world, is an effort to return to a proper reading and practice of its own texts and the mission imposed through them on it. Modern Muslim states have mostly been in fact run by military leaders or royal houses with military support. They were generally able to keep down this religious enthusiasm, while at the same time allowing and enforcing the strict practice of Islamic customs. It is interesting that the present currents of Islamic restoration see such leaders, secularizers, or monarchies as enemies. They seek to change them as well as change the societies in the West.

  At first sight, this vision of world conquest, in the light of modern prosperity and weapons, seemed absurd. But we did not reckon with the effects of a loss of faith in Christianity. Nor did we at first see an absolutist trend in liberalism itself that also rejected Christianity to embrace a voluntarism not in many ways unlike that of Islam. But even as we see the last stages of ISIS military presence in its remaining outposts in Iraq and Syria, we witness the rise of a more subtle and effective alternative. This newer approach combines bringing terrorism to every major world city with using an alternate democratic means to achieve gradually this goal of submitting the world to Allah.

The Qur’an frankly and directly denies the basic truths of Christianity; this denial is not a mere side issue. The Trinity is considered to be a form of polytheism. Christ never died on any Cross. God cannot suffer; therefore Christ was not God. He was just a sort of prophet. Mary was not the Mother of God. When begrudgingly allowing Christians or Jews to have a presence within Muslim controlled lands, they invariably have to pay the price of second class citizenship. Often they have to convert or pay a fine or be killed. Within its confines, no “conversion” out of Islam is permitted. Islam does not basically “dialogue” except as a means of furthering its cause. From its point of view, this is logical and makes sense.

In the end, Islam is not just another religion. It is an account of the way the world ought to be and a program to make it pursue that goal. Religion, politics, culture, and family all belong together in an interlocking web. Its chances of succeeding are better than they have been for centuries. Its equipment to do so seems to many to be wholly inadequate. But it has learned that inflexible determination is a power few have the courage or desire to cope with. The London killings are but one more step to convince the many that pure Islam, with the Qur’an as its guide, is on the right track. These same killings convince others who do not take Islam at its word that we deal only with some unnamed terrorist fanatics. With a little exposure to secular civilization, the wishful thinking goes, they will eventually calm down and go away by themselves. The bridges in London have many surprising things to teach us, but only if we want to be taught.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 154 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

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