WASHINGTON, Nov. 14, 2015 – Daesh, the self-styled “Islamic State” or ISIS, claims responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday. In a statement released in English, Arabic and French, the organization refers to Paris as a “capital of prostitution and obscenity” and concludes,
Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State, and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign, and dare to curse our Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes, which did not help them at all in the streets of Paris and its rotten alleys. This attack is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn.
The Paris attacks, which killed at least 120, including eight terrorists, come on top of reports of widespread lawlessness at the refugee camp at Calais, which houses about 6,000 refugees, mostly young men from Syria and North Africa. That camp was reported last night to be in flames, with over 40 shelters destroyed.
There have been numerous stories in the European press about conflicts between refugees and the local residents of towns where those refugees have been settled. There are now still-unconfirmed reports that at least one of the terrorists in Paris was a Syrian refugee.
Some European leaders – especially in Central European nations like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland – have dug in their heels against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her drive to make Europe more welcoming to refugees. The recent success of anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe underscores anxiety over the immigration issue. The Danish People’s Party came in second in Danish elections in June, and the far-right Sweden Democrats are now the most popular party in Sweden. Austria’s far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party came in second in September elections, and the Swiss Free Democratic Party won big in October elections; with another anti-immigrant party, it holds 99 out of 200 seats in the Swiss National Council.
The slaughter in Paris gives ammunition to anti-immigrant forces. It won’t hurt those forces in the U.S., either. President Obama has been pushing to bring Syrian refugees to the U.S. In the crass political game, a big American winner last night was probably Donald Trump.
The Syrian refugee crisis is not a game. Nor was the slaughter in Paris. The people of the Middle East and North Africa share responsibility for the political and humanitarian catastrophes of the region, but Western interference – Obama’s pointless war in Libya and feckless behavior in Syria, for instance, and the disaster that was the war in Iraq – has helped transform a quagmire into a hellhole.
Muslim leaders have been quick to condemn the terrorism in Paris. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called the attacks a “crime against humanity; Qatar’s foreign minister Khaled al-Attiyah said, “these acts, which target stability and security in France are against all human and moral values.” Some Muslim nations are themselves fighting Daesh; Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would all happily see Daesh destroyed.
Yet some governments that condemn the terrorism in Paris have supported other terrorist organizations, from Hezbollah to Fatah; they aren’t so much horrified by terrorism as they are opposed to Daesh.
Many Muslims are horrified by the barbarism of Daesh, the terrorists of al Qaeda and the stabbings of Jews by Muslims in Israel. Presidents Bush and Obama have both emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace, as have other leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties. It is as unfair to characterize 1.6 billion Muslims by Islamic terrorists as it is to characterize Christianity by the Westboro Baptist church.
But is Islam really a religion of peace?
No great religion of any world civilization has ever been a religion of peace. Violence is an inevitable byproduct of civilization. Humans have probably always fought and killed each other, but only with the rise of civilization have we marshaled the resources to engage in war, and organized violence is as much a hallmark of civilization as are government, art and religion.
Religion doesn’t exist to help us eradicate violence. Far from it. Religion is about channeling violence and sanctifying it. The God of the Old Testament did not make his people peaceful; He directed their violence against a non-Jewish enemy. Christians think of Christ as the Prince of Peace, but he himself said, “I come with a sword.” The individual Christian should be meek with his fellows, but militant assertiveness has been integral to Christian civilization.
Hinduism is no different. The Bhagavad Gita is largely a discussion between Arjuna and Krishna on a field of battle, Arjuna horrified at the thought of fighting and killing men he has loved and admired, Krishna explaining his duty to do just that. The principle of ahimsa, literally “non-harm,” that Westerners so often see as central to peaceful Hinduism is truly central, seeing all life as an interconnected web, but it is put in the service of the aggressive, warrior civilization that exploded from Central Asia to establish the new civilizations of India, Myceneae and ultimately the Western world.
Violence is sanctioned in the Vedas, the Quran and the Bible, but we call it non-violence because it is sanctioned by the law. It isn’t murder when God commands you to cut off a man’s head. To kill your uncles and teachers isn’t wrong when the demands of duty compel it. It is no abomination to slaughter women and children when they are an idolatrous people occupying the Promised Land.
There are no great religions of peace. There are spiritual movements and minor denominations of peace, cocooned within violent civilizations that tolerate them without embracing them. A great religion doesn’t tell you not to kill, but only whom you’re allowed to kill.
None of this exculpates Daesh and its terrorists in Paris. As modern civilization has begun to see itself in gentler terms, so has it begun to see its religions. Some have been more successful at tamping down the violence than have others. Christianity still has its militants, but in the last thousand years, it has been challenged from within Western civilization by internal threats from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Its encompassing civilization has grown less tolerant of religious violence within, and Christianity has become relatively tame.
Islamic civilization has yet to face its own reformation or enlightenment. The violence, often directed outside rather than within, is less easily tamed.
Neither Christianity nor Islam is a religion of peace, nor are the Western and Islamic worlds civilizations of peace. Western governments, though, have insisted on a monopoly of violence for themselves without the intrusion of Christianity. Islam and the nations it dominates aren’t so easily split; the violence is shared.
Daesh is to blame for the terrorism in Paris, not the whole of Islam. Islam, however, can’t be as neatly disentangled from that violence as can Christianity from America’s war in Iraq. But Muslims and Christians can still unite in sorrow for what happened in Paris, and they can hold hands in true fellowship.
Understanding and fighting terrorism, however, are not served by platitudes like “Islam is a religion of peace.” It is not. To recognize that fact is not to demonize Muslims or contemplate a crusade against Islam. It is a recognition of reality. We will never triumph against extremism until we recognize the world as it is.