“Why a silence?”: On the West and Islam

Why are so many leaders and commentators afraid to speak out and speak clearly about the evil nature of the Islamic State?

The Mass of the Holy Spirit usually begins the Fall Semester at the Catholic University of America. At this year’s Mass, Donald Cardinal Wuerl gave the homily. After the homily, he wanted to add a few word on a matter that had unsettled him. He wanted the students to carry away with them at least one “serious” thought. “This is a time that is so very different from the ordinary time” when an academic year is opened. Cardinal Wuerl then reflected on the word “solidarity,” a word we recall especially from John Paul II. It means the friendly coming together of differing peoples and positions. The breaking of this solidarity is “something we simply cannot ignore.”

People wonder: How do such atrocities as we see in the Near East occur? Wuerl suggested two reasons for such crimes: 1) Some people commit them. 2) Other people are silent about them. And in these actions in Syria and Iraq, there is “something that we really are not free to ignore and sometimes all we have to raise is our voices.”

What about the specific people who commit these crimes? Who are they? They make no secret of their views and intentions. The Islamic State’s leaders want everyone in the world to know just what it is about. They tell us exactly who they are and what they will do with us. The public beheading of James Foley was intended to be a show for all the world to see—a this-could-happen-to-you warning. The Muslims of the new Caliphate, which many men from Britain and America as well as from the Arab world are joining, claim to be the real Muslims. They intend to bring Muslims who do not agree with them under their strict laws. In their state, no room is left for a non-believer. A non-believer must either convert, pay a perennial fine, be exiled, or be killed.

The leaders of the revitalized Caliphate claim that they are following the Quran. They assure us that the world will not be at peace until all are under the Muslim law. They also affirm that they intend to repay other countries for any crime they see it committing against them. Their means have no limits. Terror is simply the means that Allah allows against the unbelievers. They have judged the Americans and Europeans as effete and lacking in courage. There is no authoritative interpreter of the Quran so this view is certainly able to be read into it, especially if Allah is considered to be pure will that can do evil or good according to his needs. In this theology, the terror inflicted on Christians is just. No one really has any justification for not being Muslim.

Wuerl’s second point is that these crimes occur because people are silent. He adds that he cannot in conscience be silent. Then he asks, with considerable eloquence: “And I ask myself, where are these voices? Where are the voices of parliaments and congresses? Where are the voices of campuses? Where are the voices of community leaders? Where are the voices of talk-show hosts and radio programs? Where are the voices of the late night news? Where are the voices of editorial columns? Where are the voices of op-ed pieces? Why a silence?”

Why, indeed?

This same question of silence was addressed to the Egyptian Jesuit, Father Samir Kalid Samir, perhaps the leading mind in the church on Islam, by Fausta Speranza at Vatican Radio. Samir responded: “We have now reached the most ferocious brutality in the history of Islam. Never before have we witnessed this degree of barbarity. The question is: Is this Islam? Or is it an aberration? Certainly it originated in Islamic tradition.” Samir thought that great Islamic thinkers opposed it. But he went on: “The tragedy is that Muslims do not dare to engage in self-criticism; the people silently go along with it.” So it is not only the West that is silent but also Islam itself.

L’Osservatore Romano, on August 22nd (English edition), carried a report of the very direct statement of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on jihadist violence. Among others, it listed the following atrocities: “The massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation; the despicable practice of beheading, crucifying, and hanging bodes in public squares; the choice imposed on Christian and Yezidis between conversion to Islam, payment of a tax or forced exile; the abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as spoils of war.” The list goes on.

The document recalls the tradition of agreement to live together and the interreligious dialogues that presupposed agreement on human dignity. This situation requires “a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, as well as those engaged in interreligious dialogue and all people of good will. All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these rimes and in denouncing the use of religion to justify them.” In views of their stated views, one wonders whether, if such widespread criticism did arise, anything would be different for the Islamic State. Criticism alone will probably stop nothing.

In his return flight from Korea, the Holy Father was asked about the question that probably most causes this “silence,” namely, “What do we do about it?” Such a question is awkward for a pope who has spoken so much against war and violence. The extensive killing of Christians because they are Christians causes him to look again. Unlike Jews or Muslims themselves, he had no army. “In these cases, where it is an unjust aggression,” the Pope responds recalling earlier settled Catholic doctrine, “I can only say that it is licet to stop an unjust aggressor. I emphasize the word ‘stop.’ I am not saying to drop bombs, or to make war, but to stop the aggressor.”

And later in the same interview, the Pope repeats: “To stop an unjust aggressor is a right of humanity, but it is also a right that the aggressor be stopped in order not to do evil.” Whether the admonition to “stop” an unjust aggressor but not with war or force is feasible or not can be wondered about. The Pope is obviously pointing to those with power to do so to act. And these are the nations with the very least desire to become involved in what seems to be a growing world threat if not “stopped.”

Why a silence?” The answer essentially, I think, goes back to the question raised by Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Lecture, the question the Greek emperor put to the Persian gentleman, “Does God approve violence?” Clearly, the Islamic State, its theoreticians and followers, think that he does. The silence within Islam and in the West, I suspect, arises from fear that this religious violence has again found its vehicle. Politicians, journalists, and clerics now know that the price for condemning, for not being silent about what this new Allah proposes, is that of James Foley and the Christians in the Mid-east. They all are suspect that there is no one who will “stop” them.

In my youth, there was a saying that went “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never harm me.” However, without words, we will not know why we have sticks and stones or what we must do with them. What we do have are the words of those who intend to attack us and the bloody results of what happens when they keep their word.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).