Making sense of the Paris killings?

FRANCE-SHOOTING-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.

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19 thoughts on “Making sense of the Paris killings?”

  1. I think (one of) the things I find most distressing is the complete lack of imagination shown by our political leaders and much of the commentariat. Jeremy Corbyn seems to offer some sort of alternative but he seems also too wedded to his ideology to think differently, and has now descended into the farce of debating whether or not we have a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. As for David Cameron, all he offers is more bombs.

  2. Thanks for a perceptive commentary on this,. Ian – I’m preparing a sermon on the topic for Sunday night and will pinch some of your quotes! On the point about these young militants being not very good Muslims, one of the suicide bombers in the Friday attacks, Ibrahim Abdeslam, ran a bar in Belgium. Now it may be that he was not fully radicalised at that time, but certainly it shows that he was not from a strong Muslim background!

  3. This 2005 article, superbly titled “The Dread Pirate Bin Laden,” makes a compelling case that international terrorists are just a modern species of pirate. It draws lessons from how piracy was crushed by the international community collectively declaring pirates to be enemies of the human race, and uniting to suppress their outlawry.

    This goes especially for ISIS. In behavior, Daesh are nothing but a gang of brigands, who’ve tooled up with looted arms, exploited a power vacuum to murder and rape their way across Iraq and Syria, and are living off plunder. Yes, they follow Wahhabist theology, but so do plenty others who don’t behave like a band of cutthroats.

    Framing Daesh in this way stops discussion getting swamped in a nebulous debate about everything from colonialism to laïcité, and provides a clear roadmap to defeating Daesh. Ideology’s intangible; ISIS aren’t. Yes, fundamentalism must be countered, but that’s separable from countering ISIS, a police action that’ll require the cooperation of all Middle Eastern states.

    Daesh are hostis humani generis, and all states must join in ending them.

  4. Apologies for the length of this. The objectives of Al-Qaeda should not be confused with those of ISIS The reason why Islamic State has attracted comparatively greater commitment is not that its followers are a mere collection of psychopaths. Graeme Wood explained the movement’s rationale in an article that he researched and wrote for The Atlantic:

    While ISIS might win over young generally disgruntled jihadist fanatics who are unfamiliar with the Koran, but there is considerable evidence that the organisation’s beliefs per se are carefully considered from the standpoint of the Koran and Islamic history. The rhetoric is decided medieval, often drawing on ancient imagery of divine retribution, such as crop destruction.

    This is because they believe that they are adopting the Prophetic methodology of Mohammed himself. In particular, Wood relates what he learned from the Princeton scholar, Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology:

    ‘All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war.

    This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

    Perhaps, most critically, as the leader of ISIS since 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is now viewed by followers as fulfilling the criteria for the new caliph (whom all Muslims are meant to owe allegiance) including his heredity (Qureshi), his moral and physical qualities and ‘amr, or authority, I.e. controlling the territory in which he can enforce Islamic law.

    And it is the fulfilment of these criteria that is construed to overcome the counter-arguments of mainstream Muslims, the majority of whom the jihadists consider apostate and to be dealt with according to the Koran:

    ‘The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.’

    ‘Baghdadi spoke at length of the importance of the caliphate in his Mosul sermon. He said that to revive the institution of the caliphate—which had not functioned except in name for about 1,000 years—was a communal obligation. He and his loyalists had “hastened to declare the caliphate and place an imam” at its head, he said. “This is a duty upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries … The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it.’

    We underestimate the appeal of messianic fascism under the guise of heralding a final Day of Reckoning. Wood cited Orwell on the romanticised heady mix of war-mongering and sacrifice that Hitler. Orwell described fascism as: ‘psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.’

    • It’s worth being aware that Graeme Wood’s analysis has come in for a lot of criticism. See, for instance,,,,, and many more

      Wood’s response to some of this is at

      The whole conversation is fascinating but frustrating. Debates about scriptural hermeneutics in Islam are every bit as complex as debates about scriptural hermeneutics in Christianity (and they are also genuinely different from Christian debates, so assumptions about what ‘literal’ interpretation can and can’t mean, and what place and value it has, don’t transfer between the two very easily). Neither Wood’s piece, nor most of the responses, seems to me to be adequate to this complexity.

      • Yes, I would agree. I found Woods less persuasive than John Azumah’s analysis, which I think was written back in January.

        The whole question of hermeneutics is complex—but there are still two fundamental (!) differences between Christian readings of the Bible and any Islamic reading of the Quran:

        1. The hinge-point of the Bible is the (dis)continuity between old and new testaments, which makes a non-literal hermeneutic deeply present in the text itself. The Christ event is itself an act of interpretation.

        2. The centre of the accounts of Jesus life is the turning from violence to victim in the decision to go to the cross. As Kenneth Cragg always pointed out, the corresponding moment in Mohammed’s life is the conquest of Mecca as a military leader. Cragg saw this as a central difference.

      • Mike,

        I recognise that Wood’s position is controversial, but the thrust of the article is not to dispute whether ISIS is genuinely representative of Islam, but to explain how and where it purports to base its theology. Wood even compares ISIS with the misguided fundamentalist Christian sects led by David Koresh and Jim Jones.

        Wood’s thesis is that ISIS would lose support if it demonstrated an inability to achieve its caliphate ambitions. He also warns of the dangerous destabilising consequences of direct military action towards which ISIS is goading the West in an attempt to hasten an apocalyptic confrontation.

        Regarding military action, Wood concludes: ‘Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options.’

        ‘Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.’

        We may disagree on whether ISIS applies a form of Islam that can be derived from a literal interpretation of the Koran, but I really don’t think his explanation of our best option for combating the situation is that far wrong.

  5. I agree completely that “we have a personal and emotional connection to those near us which we don’t have to those far away”. And that’s not simply a matter of geographical closeness, of course. Rather, Paris is the kind of place to which people like me go; its restaurants are the kind of places in which people like me eat; many of the people killed were living the kind of life that I and my friends live. Paris is somewhere very close by, in my imaginative environment.

    And that’s why I want to say “Yes, but…” to this. I can’t deny that attacks on my near neighbours have a stronger emotional impact on me, nor can I bemoan that simple fact. But I also can’t pretend that these “near neighbours” aren’t, predominantly, a very particular, and a very privileged and powerful group. They are, on the whole, affluent, well-educated, Western, white people who live in stable democracies. (And, yes, my circle of friends and sympathy and imagination stretches further than this – but perhaps not as much further as I would like to think.)

    That we all have limited networks of association and imagination is inevitable and proper; we are finite creatures. But to the extent that, in the aggregate, our networks tend to align with, and so help sustain, inequalities in power and other social divisions, they’re tangled in sin. And so I think it’s right at least to ask, not whether I might mourn Paris less, but rather what it might take to help me learn to mourn some of these other tragedies as much.

    • For sure—hence my observation about freedom in relation to Facebook feeds.

      Nevertheless, can I feel all the pain of all the world all the time? I suspect there is only One who can do that…

    • Mike,

      I understand and share your affinity for Paris. Yet, what was is about the 2004 tsunami on the other side of the world that mobilised the unprecedented outpouring of Western charity to the tune of £392 million? Was it motivated by the devastation and human suffering alone, by the fact that Thailand was a frequent and beloved destination for ‘affluent, well-educated, Western, white people’? Probably a bit of both.

      I don’t have answers to those questions, but the greater emotional impact might be a result of unconscious bias. That said, your honest soul-searching is far better than the stock response, which I hear in reaction to raising the issue of biased coverage, that I’m ‘playing the race card’.

      The carnage in Kenya and other atrocities, while horrific, do not curtail the daily freedoms enjoyed by citizens of Western Europe. Despite the sheer brutality inflicted by terrorism elsewhere, many view it as par for the \’uncivilised’ third world, full of warlords and dictators. Life continued as normal here because those attacks were not an immediate threat to our customary and superficially civilised way of life. In contrast, an open attack on civilians in Paris made people here feel directly vulnerable.

      As an affluent, well-educated, Western black man, I’d admit that the extent of April’s atrocity didn’t register until a few days ago. While it’s easy to lay blame on the mass media, atrocities committed outside of the West can hardly arouse the same sense of immediate vulnerability over here that the Paris attack did.

      It has became intensely conceivable that you or I could be the next victims of the current wave of jihadism. Any outpouring of sympathy, even if largely sincere, is always tinged with self-regard.

  6. I wouldn’t make anything of the order of “Islam for Dummies” by someone who went to join ISIS. I’m sure that most PhD Theologians have ordered elementary/introductory books to read, not because we need introducing to a topic, but to see how someone else introduces the topic to laypersons. I have a copy of “A Very Short Introduction to the Bible” despite being a PhD candidate in Theology…

    • And I have ‘Revelation for Dummies’! I am not quite sure this chap was adding to his research library though, and I think it makes a point in context, alongside the other information…

  7. There is the best commentary on the form of Islam followed by ISIS that I have read on which is written by Mark Durie. He makes the point that the western world values are inherently Christian and have a value for life but ISIS is a death cult.He states we need to know our enemy and his thinking to be able to defeat him. We must always remember that this is a spiritual battle between good and evil.

    • Tricia, there is a sad irony in the fact that it was mostly young people who perished at the hands of the Paris jihadists. For young people are generally those most ready to accept Muslims without question, and to have been most happy to support the notion of mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While the more foolish of our politicians have, over the last few decades, attempted to persuade us all that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ it is our young people who have been subject to the most direct inculcation of that idea in our schools. To be generous, unsuspicious and welcoming is a lovely thing – who among us would want our young folk not to be like that(?) – but our world is a dangerous place and there is an unavoidable need to discriminate between benevolent and malign influences.

      Most Christians are probably aware from the testimony of missionaries that the Christian concern to proclaim the Gospel by peaceful means can be met with the fiercest violence by certain groups of Muslims; Muslim conversion to Christianity can indeed result in death. And of course events in the Middle East have given everyone a glimpse of how a violent religious narrative can lead men and women into a mindset of pure evil, and a mindset that can no longer see reason. Yet all the while we have to retain fair and honest judgement and not indulge in ignorant rhetoric; many Muslims are indeed peaceful and have not given their hearts over to the kind of wickedness which grabs the headlines.

      But if we Christians are honest and true to our faith we cannot avoid discerning what is true from what is false. While we put our faith in the one true God and can barely start to understand the grace which has made this possible, we also know that there is every kind of religious or socio-political narrative imaginable that imprisons people’s hearts and minds so that they cannot believe that this grace is for them too. Our politicians talk about ‘hearts and minds’ and yet flounder around annoying probably more people than they convince because they are only equipped to operate at the shallowest of levels. And the kind of narrative which is true Christianity is sadly unwelcome in the post Christian Western world and, in any case, it speaks first to individuals rather than governments.

      So, yes, this is indeed a spiritual battle; and it will go on in every imaginable way until the end of time.

      • I agree with you in general. I was in the hairdressers the other day and all the young staff have no idea of the teachings of Christianity. The conversation began because the previous customer was a Jehovah’s Witness and I pointed out differences in their teachings. We then moved on to the Paris attack and I pointed out that our society was Judeo Christian, which is why we believe in the intrinsic value of every person. That Christ died so that we might be forgiven. I am actually thinking of taking some Why Jesus booklets in for them to read – they are so lost! We have failed to pass on our faith and we need to get down in our knees and pray for our young to come to Christ. As Bishop Nazir Ali has said “only Christianity will save the world”.

      • Dear Don
        I have just seen the Cranmer blog where it is reported that there has been the attempted murder of a man who converted from Islam to Christianity a number of years ago. He makes the point that the Government and the church do not want to acknowledge the threat which he has been living under. He did not want to leave Bradford and took the stand that he lived in a free country – so much for that idea! There is CCTV footage of him being attacked with an pick axe.


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