Islamic terrorism: What can we do?

From: Chairman, Latin Mass Society. (

Fr Mark Withoos celebrates a Low Mass in the church of
the Domus Australia, under a picture of St Peter Chanel, a
a French Marist priest brutally killed in Tonga in 1841. He is
the protomatyr of Oceania.

Reposted from August 2016

I wrote the below shortly after the killing of Fr Jaques Hamel, but for various reasons it’s publication has been delayed until now.

The brutal murder of Fr Jaques Hamel in Normandy is the culmination of an extraordinary period of violence, even allowing for the tendency of the media to get into a rut of similar news stories. Even as an attack on a Catholic priest or a Catholic church, it was not as isolated as one might hope, since minor acts of violence are not usually reported nationally or internationally, but this represents a new low. The movement behind these attacks is not going to dissipate quickly on its own, and it is perfectly possible, indeed probable, that this kind of thing, at some level of intensity, is going to become part of our lives in the West, in the way that it is part of the lives of our Christian brothers in Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia, and many other places.

To say that these events are meaningless, irrational, or incomprehensible, is not a way of understanding them: it is a way of refusing to understand them. In truth, they are none of those things. They are the logical outcome of an ideology which says that a Muslim can redeem a far-from pious life by attacking, abusing, terrorising and killing non-Muslims, or Muslims who fall below the ideology’s standards. The attacker’s own death can even be seen as a bonus, as it is imagined that he or she will immediately attain the promised, supernatural reward. There is no need for any close organisational connection between those bitten by this ideological bug, or training, or special equipment, although some of the recent attackers had some or all of these. In the words of Fr Hamel’s killer, Adel Kermiche: “You take a knife, you go to a church, you make carnage, bam!”

It is a type of terrorism which is significantly different from those we have experienced in the recent past, but it is not entirely without modern European precedent. A parallel is offered by the anarchist assassins of the late 19th century. Like the Islamists, they emerged from a milieu (in their case, of left wing radicalism) in which most people, most of the time, lived fairly normal lives, and certainly weren’t constantly in danger of murdering people. Out of this milieu a few individuals got the super-radical bug, deciding that only assassinations were going to achieve their political goals. All they needed was an easily-obtained pistol or some dynamite; since they were careless of their own survival, they were very difficult to stop. Their ‘propaganda of the deed’ encouraged both admiration and imitation. Just as secular ideology inspired history’s greatest acts of mass-murder, so, in its day, it has inspired suicidal terrorism. It must be admitted, however, that there were only ever relatively tiny numbers of such assassins, and they generally chose only very specific targets.

I don’t have the expertise to offer specific policy suggestions in the face of this challenge, but I’d like to make two general observations about our response, the response of the target, Western societies, to the latest pattern of outrages.

The first thing to note, since it is being (apparently) denied by some, is that violence, and other forms of coercion, is certainly part of the solution. It is sometimes possible to stop unjust violence non-violently, but generally speaking it requires violence. I’m talking about violence and coercion by the forces of law and order, and occasionally private self-defence. Christ chose not to use violence to defend himself against the unjust actions of the public authorities of his own day; it is perverse to interpret this as undermining the right of public authorities to use violence justly. States may not neglect the necessary, violent, means to defend the populations which they are supposed to be governing. The state has the right and duty to employ violence, up to and including the right to kill, in war and in police action, for the sake of public peace. Public officials who refuse to defend the public by just and necessary means are not being noble; whether or not they are motivated by cowardice, they are doing grave wrong. Citizens and voters won’t put up with inaction, and nor should they. As far as the aggressors are concerned, a failure to use violence to oppose them is seen, correctly, as a sign of moral weakness, a sign that this is a society wide open to demolition.

So, within the limits of justice, we should support state action aiming to give effective opposition to terrorism. The danger of injustice here makes it all the more important to support just measures, or at least (if we disagree about their effectiveness), to make it clear that we do not regard them as unjust. If things get really bad, our societies are going to need to hear voices making a distinction between killing unjust aggressors and killing the innocent. If we have opposed every measure taken against terrorism, however mild and common-sensical, up to that point, no one is going to listen to us when they really need to.

A second, related, thing to note is that, while the cultural self-hatred of some on the political left is not a direct cause of terrorism, it is certainly making the situation worse. This goes beyond its manifestations in public policy. Outsiders see in the West a society which does not believe in itself, in its own values. As a society we suffer from the low self-esteem of the classic victim of bullying. In philosophical terms, there has been a move, over a number of centuries, from the substantive values of Christianity and classical culture, towards empty formalism. Instead of saying: ‘this is true’, ‘this way of life has value’, or ‘this work of art is good’, modern Westerners want to say: ‘nothing is true or false’, ‘only the choice between ways of life can be called good’, or ‘any purported work of art is good if they artist says so’. We can maintain for a little while a community of people committed to the notion of choice and the power of the individual to invent himself and set his own goals, but eventually people will ask: ‘If nothing substantive is true or good, why should choice or self-invention be true and good?’ There being no answer to this question, the whole thing turns out to be an empty charade. Even before the final, post-modern implosion of Western culture, there is nothing here for the soul to feed upon, there is nothing of substance to give society common values, there is nothing worth defending or promoting. People who possess nothing they regard as worth defending are not going to be very vigorous in its defence.

Here, there is something which can be contributed by people who still believe in something, something wholesome and historically rooted. Self-doubt and self-flagellation, even when offered by Christians, has nothing to offer the West; these are things already widespread in our societies. What we can offer is something substantive: that life, beauty, and God are real and have value, are worth something, and can give shape, discipline, and meaning to our lives. If Westerners really believed these things, and set themselves in their lives to live accordingly, then the Islamists would not be confronting such an easy and open target.

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5 Responses to Islamic terrorism: What can we do?

  1. David O'Neill says:

    Surely Muslim clerics should be pronouncing on such acts as has happened very recently. But these murderers must be told that Hell not Paradise awaits them following the heinous attacks carried out in the name of Islam.

  2. GC says:

    Fr Withoos, Cardinal Pell’s secretary. I am sure I knew his Dutch-born dad.

    Muslim clerics must ALSO be encouraging all and any in their congregations to alert authorities about any murderous or unhinged individuals they know of in their communities, even in addition to those who may attend their mosques. No “cover-ups”, or is that only a term reserved in the Press for Catholics. Perhaps a Royal Commission into how much these muslim clerics knew of the murderosity of their members is in order?

    Some of us may have heard of the crim on parole in Melbourne, Australia, who last night, after making a plan to lure the anti-terrorist police unit, then shot three of them as well as a staff member at the site in the salubrious suburb of Brighton there, “for IS”. Brightonians might well be concerned about the effect of this on their property values.

    The assassin is a (now ex-) Somali on parole, with several convictions for “home invasion”, drug possession and other crimes. Someone must have known enough about this guy to go the the authorities, without even thinking about how this guy could have got parole in the first place. Oh yes . . . he was a “refugee”.

  3. toadspittle says:

    “…even allowing for the tendency of the media to get into a rut of similar news stories.”
    What utter nonsense is this? What is the Media supposed to do?
    Start ignoring stories like the Borough killings in London, by Islamist lunatics, to avoid “getting in a rut”?
    Then he babbles:
    “What we can offer is something substantive: that life, beauty, and God are real and have value, are worth something, and can give shape, discipline, and meaning to our lives.”
    Doesn’t he realise that that is exactly what the Islamist lunatics think?
    That life – without their particular, crazy, God is not worth living – and that only the afterlife is worth considering?
    That we’d all be better off dead?

    “But these murderers must be told that Hell not Paradise awaits them following the heinous attacks carried out in the name of Islam.”
    But how will we convince them ? It’s written in their holy book – or so we are frequently told on CP&S.
    By telling them that our holy book is better?
    …Why should they believe that?

  4. Declan says:

    The unChristian antireligious hysteria from a minority on here is troubling. In the UK imams refused to bury the terrorists and had previously banned them from worship. Muslims had reported the lunatics to the police several times and nothing was done.Muslims have demonstrated their horror at thekillings on many occasions which is barely reported. Many mosques have condemned terrorism. There is a duty on Islamophobes to find this out..

    MI6 and Teresa May as Home Secretary sheltered the Manchester terrorist because they had used him to cause terror in Gadaffi’s Libya.

    It would be a relief to find that CP&S was not turning into a Daily Mail editorial and did not parrot US bigotry and bile from some contributors.. Decent Catholics will turn away from all that..

  5. toadspittle says:

    “The unChristian antireligious hysteria from a minority on here is troubling. “
    Undoubtedly true, Declan – but just how much of a minority on here is debatable.

    “It would be a relief to find that CP&S was not turning into a Daily Mail editorial and did not parrot US bigotry and bile from some contributors.”
    …It certainly would. But don’t hold your breath overly long. You will soon see why.

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