By Fr. James Schall, SJ
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

In the three short years since the destruction of the World Trade Centers in New York by a deliberate, calculated, vicious act of war, so declared by operatives around al-Qaeda and similar organizations, we have seen a world loathe to come to terms with the causes of this war. These causes go against everything we have been taught about what we should be doing and how people operate. Suddenly, we find masses of shrewd and ruthless men who do not operate as if they were ready to dialogue with us or be tolerant of our faults or even our virtues. Quite the opposite, they think we are weak, corrupt, and even in the hands of the Devil. Indeed, they may be the only people in the modern world who dare mention the word "Satan." Dialogue is out. Tolerance is out. Both, in their view, are signs of weakness and unmanliness.

In half a millennium, Western philosophy has gone through everything from nominalism, to reformation to liberalism to idealism to Marxism to deconstructionism to institutionalized secularism. But all the while, few paid much attention to Islam, which was busy reading the Koran and trying to figure out why it did not rule as their conquering ancestors did. In the past fifty years, however, Islam just happened to have, no thanks to itself but to western legal concepts and inventions, lots of oil money and lots of young men and women, not a few true believers, many very smart. Many of these men think that the world is unjust because they themselves do not rule it in the name of Allah. They intend to do something about it. What is new is that suddenly for the first time since the Ottomans, someone in Islam began to think that it can rule the world again. Hence 9/11 and what follows.

Perhaps the most perplexing figure in the whole war, especially for the Islam that caused it, has been President Bush himself who has, much to the surprise of everyone, particularly al-Qaeda, said exactly the same thing three years running from his speech after 9/11 to his speech at the Republican Convention. The president understood from the beginning that it was in fact a war, that it was caused by Muslim "terrorists," as he persisted in calling them, and that his first duty was to protect the American, and by extension, other people from this attack which he thought, rightly, would continue if not stopped. He said that he would seek to identify those who planned and caused this slaughter, that he would hold accountable those nations who harbored them, and that he would be relentless in their pursuit. We have not seen resolution like this in some time.

I myself have always thought that al-Qaeda made a serious tactical mistake in the very beginning by successfully using such flamboyant violence. Blowing up New York buildings, unannounced, even if cold and cowardly, must have seemed to its perpetrators to be a wildly imaginative and successful act of defiance to their enemy, variously identified as Christendom, America, or the West. We may see the latter three as distinct entities; the "terrorists" do not. On the much quieter population front, however, Islam was winning all over the world, particularly in a Europe that had forgotten or positively rejected what babies were about. It would take another generation or two, but Islam had the youth, the money, and the resolve to win by "peaceable" means through replacing dying European populations by themselves. 9/11 changed all that. By playing the violent card, Islam begot attention to itself and retaliation.

What is becoming ever more noticeable, ever more upsetting, in the meantime, is the failure of Christians, particularly Catholics, to come to terms with the meaning and dimensions of the threat of radical Islam. The Italian journalist, Sandro Magistro, has bluntly recounted (www.chiesa) the weak response of the leading Catholic journals, L'Avvenire and L'Osservatore Romano, to the Muslim terrorist slaughter of Russian children in Ossetia, one of the few Orthodox Christian cities in the area, and evidently chosen by the attackers for precisely that reason. Many are calling this Russia's 9/11. Russia itself, too long allied with the compromising French and German lines, has realized that it too must pursue terrorists wherever they threaten. Others will surely follow. One Italian cardinal, long associated with anti-American efforts in Iraq, suddenly has begun to talk about World War IV begun by the terrorists, something Norman Podhoretz has already spelled out. The short-term success of Al-Qaeda in subverting the Spanish electorate to opt for weakness is being rapidly undermined by the horrors of the Beslan school slaughter. Europe begins to realize it is not immune whatever its own political compromises or weaknesses.

The initial blame in the Italian Catholic papers was placed, not on the terrorists or their theology or motivation, but on the Russian commanders and politicians. This attribution is an all too familiar tale. The cause of modern terror lies with those who try to prevent it or confine it. The terrorists have all sorts of "just" causes that "allow" them to kill women and children because of their world view. We read, "Omar Bakri Mohammed, the spiritual leader of the extremist sect al-Muhajirroun, said that holding women and children hostage would be a reasonable course of action for a Muslim who has suffered under British rule." (UK Telegraph). Moralists have spent the modern era maintaining that this kind of killing is not legitimate; Islam is no exception. Cultural relativism seems to have replaced natural law thinking whereby a crime wherever and by whomever can be condemned on its own basis. One thing is clear, the Muslim radicals, if they are radicals, are not relativists. They do not lie about what they do or intend to do. They seem to know that few will believe them, which leaves them with a freer hand.

As Magistro indicates, some Roman officials are finally beginning to realize that their picture of events since 9/11 has been greatly skewered by their own theories. Magistro recounts several Vatican and Muslim meetings that purport to "dialogue" with each other, but which in fact are instances of the deaf talking to the deaf. No dialogue to speak of takes place. Part of the reason for this incomprehension is that, in fact, no one really speaks for Islam. No Muslim pope exists and nothing can be binding no matter what a conference concludes. Though the head of the Mosque in Rome has condemned the Beslan attack, few Muslim sources, as Ralph Peters has noted, have risen up to condemn such acts. The utterly immoral suicide bombings remain a weapon of choice.

Since this is the anniversary of 9/11, let it be said yet one more time that this attack had little or nothing to do with the usual reasonings that we hear in the West about poverty, oppression, or any such motivation. To insist on proposing such reasons is simply to pay no attention to what those who declared the war say they are doing. This war arose out of a religious movement that has been with us for fourteen hundred years and still seeks universal conquest. We should grudgingly acknowledge its persistence and even grandeur in its own eyes.

We have failed all along to come to terms with its meaning, inner workings, or its ambitions. As Belloc said half a century ago, these ends and purposes remain the same in Islam; they keep recurring. The reason for this failure to comprehend is that we insist on seeing Islam in terms of either ecumenism or liberalism, in terms of our theories, not Islam's. This modern view would be well and good if Muslim thought itself was motivated by either of these two presuppositions. But if it is not, both positions become incapable of restraining someone who does not operate by these premises.

Radical Islam is not interested in ecumenical dialogue except as a tactic to achieve its own ends. It is not interested in introducing the principles of a liberal state into its own realm and has not done so. It does not hesitate to use the state for its own religious purposes and ends. The Muslim state seems to be, in large part, ruled by men who themselves recognize that its fiery ambitions may bring more danger than good, so there is almost always a tension between the military and the religious leaders in Islamic states. But it is never a question of principle or end, only of tactics. Secular Muslim leaders have frankly to protect themselves.

Much is made, and should be, of the fact that the thousandth American soldier has died in Iraq. The implication is that this figure implies an absolute number, say five thousand, that will finally "prove," that we should not have been at war in the first place. What is never quite seen or known is that we have in fact been successful in preventing attacks on our country for three years. Why is this? Is it because no one has tried to set off bombs or poisons? I suspect rather that the reason why is, as President Bush said in his speech at the convention, that many Al-Qaeda leaders have been killed. We have quietly, persistently worked to eliminate people who carry out these terrorist operations. The word about in Al-Qaeda circles is by now that this is dangerous business for them. These preventative efforts, of their very nature, do not make headlines. Failure to prevent something would make headlines.

But the fact is that we have had relative peace and will have it only because we are at war and are taking the war to those who would, in their religious motivations, carry out their threats against us. It is a very naive people who cannot understand this. It is the essence of preventing a big war by actually fighting a small one. The thousand soldiers who have died have not died in vain. We walk our streets because of them. Many of us are living because of their and those of others' sacrifices to root out those who would cause the terror on our own streets. It is awful that this effort has to be made, but it has to be undergone because of what the enemy, not ourselves, claim he is free to do.

Yet, as Robert Reilly has pointed out, this is primarily a war of ideas, of the truth or falsity of a religious vision. It is not, ultimately, a war with "fanatics," or "terrorists." It is a war with a theology that has its own vision and explication of how things ought to be. I, for one, can respect this position, provided I am free to criticize it on its own grounds without fear of life or death hanging in the balance. Our liberalism and ecumenism, however, make it almost impossible to take seriously the drama of this vision of world power and conquest in the name of its own religious purpose. With the exception books like Daniel Ali and Robert Spencer's Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics, Roger Scruton's The West and the Rest, or Stanley Jaki's Jesus, Islam, Science, it is difficult to find a frank discussion of the precise theological and practical differences between Islam and Christianity. I have long held that we need an encyclical on this very topic, "what is Islam," but it has to tell the whole truth.

We are so used to saying that we all "believe the same God," that we rarely inquire into the exact dimensions of this presumed similarity. It does seem unnerving, after all, to find that Islam considers the two basic Christian positions, the Trinity and the Incarnation, to be a kind of blasphemy against Allah, as well as the "two bible" theory that seeks to maintain that a primitive Christian bible existed without these two doctrines so that the present bible is a fraud. Such outlandish ideas need to be confronted at every level.

What we can thank the "terrorists" for, I think, three years after 9/11 is their forcing us to take their own theology and how they intend to implement it seriously. Even more, they force us to take our own theology or ideology more frankly as precisely a question of truth. Islam, to give it credit, is a claim to truth. This claim has to be met on its own grounds before any long-range peace is possible. If there is any major problem it is the failure of western religious and intellectual leaders to understand this. 9/11 in this sense is also a blessing if we can finally face a real issue at its deepest levels.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., teaches political science at Georgetown University.

Originally published Sep 13, 2004 at http://www.tcrnews2.com/SchallFournier.html

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