Even a few days on, it is hard to take in the horror of the Paris killings, and experience of those affected and their families. There are still those who do not know whether their relatives are alive and wounded or dead. But it hasn’t taken long for a whole series of questions to be asked—despite the personal and emotional impact, we do want to make some sense of what has happened, to find causes and explanations.
One reaction to the events has been to highlight that this kind of horror is happening all over the world—why are we so shocked by this, when something similar happened only the day before in Beirut, yet this created hardly a flicker in our news coverage? Are we racists in our news coverage? The reality is that even if all people matter equally, not everyone matters in the same way to us; we have a personal and emotional connection to those near us which we don’t have to those far away. In fact, these other events were reported very fully; but in the echo-chamber that is social media, they didn’t get passed on. Sometimes globally connected news confronts us with too much reality, and it is too painful. Statistically, the killings make very little actual difference as to how safe we are; the effect is to create a climate of fear, and immersing ourselves in the story simply exaggerates that.
There was a moving moment of solidarity at the start of the England-France friendly football match at Wembley. Perhaps football can answer the universal questions of human existence? If only it were that simple. (Rather less moving was David Cameron’s utterance in a faux Old Etonian French accent ‘Nous sommes tous ensembles’.) Although there are clearly shared cultural values between Britain and France, there are also important differences, and they are highly significant in thinking about the Paris attacks. In a moment of synchronicity, Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on Monday was a ‘France Special’, recorded in Paris on the morning of the attacks, though of course not commenting on them. Apart from France’s commitment to freedom (liberté) which is not matched in Britain, the programme highlighted the, at times ruthless, opposition to the influence of religion in public life, particularly during the 1960s under Georges Pompidou.
This raises the two key issues which need both cultural awareness and theological reflection. One (freedom) has to do with the context of the attacks; the other (religion) has to do with causes.
Modern belief in the virtue of human autonomy and freedom finds it hard to come to terms with men and women as fallen as well as creative. Every freedom we are given creates opportunities for human innovation, but at the same moment offers a chance for sin to flourish. The freedom to create efficient factories where goods can be made more cheaply and greater value added is the freedom for capital to accumulate in the hands of a few and for inequality to grow unchecked. The freedom to connect with people and sustain relationships across the world is also the freedom for the global spread of pornography and the sinister dealings of the dark web. Freedom of movement across Europe has helped the economy grow, but it has also allowed criminals to extend their networks unchecked and for terrorist to travel from Belgium to France unhindered.
As Alan Storkey continues to highlight, the world is awash with armaments, and it is this which provides the opportunity for conflict even if it is not directly the cause. France has strict firearms sales regulations, but this is meaningless when there are several million small arms floating around Europe, left over from conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere.
The free movement of people in Europe was already put under intolerable pressure by the rapid influx of migrants and refugees from Syria and elsewhere. But when one of these turned out to be part of the Paris attacks, freedom of movement has reached breaking point.
Freedom to read about the things that interest me and my friends on social media creates a blinkered outlook which ignores import things I might choose not to look at but which still matter.
“Why didn’t the media cover *insert country here*?” appears to actually be shorthand for “Why wasn’t this story shared extensively on my Facebook feed?”
The attacks might have been easier to prevent and the perpetrators easier to track if Paris the level of CCTV that London has—but this has raised serious questions here about civil liberties.
We cannot make sense of the context of the attacks unless we think carefully—and theologically—about what human freedom means, for good and for ill.
But understanding the context doesn’t help us understand the cause. Many of the young men drawn to the influence of ISIS are not motivated by religion.
They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. But a detailed, or even superficial, knowledge of Islam isn’t necessarily relevant to the ideal of fighting for an Islamic State, as we have seen from the Amazon order of Islam for Dummies by one British fighter bound for ISIS.
They are interested in a sense of purpose and excitement, wanting to escape from the restrictions and tedium of their current situation. But this cannot be separated from the ghettoisation of the banlieues in Paris, or the effect of Western policy in Arab countries.
They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.
We might not want to read this, but past policy has, if anything, created, rather than solved this problem.
We gave up many of our freedoms in America to defeat the terrorists. It did not work. We gave the lives of over 4,000 American men and women in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, to defeat the terrorists, and refuse to ask what they died for. We killed tens of thousands or more in those countries. It did not work. We went to war again in Iraq, and now in Syria, before in Libya, and only created more failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide havens for terrorists and spilled terror like dropped paint across borders. We harass and discriminate against our own Muslim populations and then stand slack-jawed as they become radicalized, and all we do then is blame ISIS for Tweeting.
If so, then in declaring ‘war on terror’, France could be making the same mistake that the US made after 9/11.
It might be tempting, then, to suggest that ‘this has nothing to do with religion.’ The problem here is that this is not much more than the attempt of secularisation to confine religion to the private and the personal—and it makes no sense of the action of the religious, either for good or for ill.
Most people want a society built on justice and compassion, which is hallmarked by reconciliation, forgiveness, love and generosity. But these virtues will not be generated simply by our own goodwill or our innate qualities, as optimistic humanists believe. Faith and religion will always have a major role to play in public and community life because of the need for a deeper basis to these values than what is offered by contemporary moralism.
In particular, those perpetrating these attacks do make connections with religion, and explicitly connect them with key beliefs within a particular understanding of Islam.
In France, Britain, Germany, America and nearly every other country in the world it remains government policy to say that any and all attacks carried out in the name of Mohammed have ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It was said by George W. Bush after 9/11, Tony Blair after 7/7 and Tony Abbott after the Sydney attack last month. It is what David Cameron said after two British extremists cut off the head of Drummer Lee Rigby in London, when ‘Jihadi John’ cut off the head of aid worker Alan Henning in the ‘Islamic State’ and when Islamic extremists attacked a Kenyan mall, separated the Muslims from the Christians and shot the latter in the head. It was what President François Hollande said after the massacre of journalists and Jews in Paris in January. And it is all that most politicians will be able to come out with again after the latest atrocities in Paris.
All these leaders are wrong.
Graeme Wood offers a very detailed and interesting account of what ISIS are interested in and what their aims are. But perhaps the best theological account of the situation comes from John Azumah. He highlights Christian concern with Islam and its apparent commitment to violence.
In other words, for most Evangelicals, Islam is the problem because it warrants the violence of jihadi groups. The claim is not without grounds. Contrary to repeated Muslim denials, key aspects of the ideology of radical violent Muslim groups are indeed rooted in Islamic texts and history. Al-Qaeda, IS, and Boko Haram have their origins mainly in Wahhabi and Salafi thought. These are traditions of fundamentalist Islamic interpretation that have widespread influence across the Muslim world. Founding leaders of jihadi groups have either been students of leading Wahhabi-Salafi scholars or were inspired by their works.
But he goes on to highlight the complexities of Islam’s traditions (which match the complexities of Christian tradition) and the critique that exists within Islam of jihadism.
Nevertheless, it is equally misleading to argue that the jihadi groups represent the true face of Islam. While the legal and doctrinal edicts that the jihadists cite are integral parts of Islamic law, the jihadists without question violate that law by taking it into their own hands. Their failure to consider the conditions necessary for the declaration of jihad, as well as for its proper conduct, provides an obvious example. Questions of which groups can be targeted, and of how and toward what end, are enormously complicated and sharply qualified in the authoritative legal texts.
This raises sharp questions for Muslim leaders:
As a Christian scholar of Islam, I offer a short list of questions that require frank discussion with Muslims…is it not time for Islamic scholars and leaders to reexamine the doctrines that are so easily abused by extremists? Isn’t the orgy of blood we are witnessing today a clear sign of the need for important and thoroughgoing reforms?
But it also raises key questions for us. The jihadists mostly come from Wahhabi traditions, and are funded by Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia. Where does this money come from? Primarily from Western countries who buy their oil. The complexities of the Paris attacks is worth reflecting on the next time you fill up your car with petrol.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?