Your Holiness, you’re wrong about terrorism


With the greatest of respect…

“I think it is not right to identify Islam with violence,” the Pope told reporters aboard the plane taking him back to Rome on Sunday after a five-day trip to Poland…

“I think that in nearly all religions there is a always a small fundamentalist group,” he said, adding “We have them,” referring to Catholicism.

“I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence because every day when I look at the papers I see violence here in Italy – someone killing his girlfriend, someone killing his mother-in-law. These are baptised Catholics,” he said.

“If I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent,” he said…

“I know it dangerous to say this but terrorism grows when there is no other option and when money is made a god and it, instead of the person, is put at the centre of the world economy,” he said.

“That is the first form of terrorism. That is a basic terrorism against all humanity. Let’s talk about that,” he said…

“I ask myself how many young people that we Europeans have left devoid of ideals, who do not have work. Then they turn to drugs and alcohol or enlist in ISIS,” he said, referring to the group also known as Islamic State.”

There is so much wrong with the Pope statements that one does not know where to begin.

But let’s start with the old canard about poverty being the cause of terrorism. You can take the Pope out of Latin America, but you can’t get Latin America out of the Pope, permeated as the continent is by the Marxian Liberation Theology, which sees everything through the materialistic prism. Just because South American terrorists tend to communists, who ostensibly fight for the poor, it doesn’t mean that terrorists elsewhere in the world are motivated by economic inequality.

It’s simply not true to say that terrorists are poor or are fighting for the poor. Some foot soldiers might be, but the overwhelming majority of those in charge (and most of the lower ranks) are comfortably middle class and tertiary educated, with over-representation from technical professions. Osama bin Laden the multi-millionaire might have been an outlier in terms of personal wealth, but most of his comrades-in-jihad have also never lacked for opportunities in life.

Furthermore, the Islamist terrorists are not motivated by economic factors in any meaningful way. In fact, they seem to be singularly uninterested in the economy, as opposed to creating a theocratic society. Personally austere (unlike, say, Wahhabi Saudi princes, who have a reputation for being pious at home and debauched abroad), they’re not into the holy war for themselves – or for anyone else. The societies they create – the ISIS “Caliphate” or Afghanistan under the Taliban – reflect their austerity. There is very little concern there about education, economic growth, investment, jobs, business or equality. Instead there is egalitarianism of shared poverty.

Lastly, while it’s true that young Muslim males in Europe (less so in the United States or Australia) tend to be disproportionately under-educated and unemployed, and enjoy fewer opportunities than their native peers, again, most of the actual terrorists who commit acts of violence are far from stereotypical ne’er-do-wells. But even if the Pontiff was correct that those “who do not have work… turn to drugs and alcohol or enlist in ISIS” it does not explain why only Muslim men, and not other migrant or native underprivileged minorities, shoot, stab, run over or blow themselves and others up. You simply cannot understand terrorism without understanding that there is an ideology behind it, which is based on a particular religious interpretation, however twisted you might think it is.

A few reflections now about the question of Islam and violence:

1)To say that terrorism and violence have nothing to do with Islam is as silly as to say that terrorism and violence have everything to do with Islam. Clearly, terrorism and violence have something to do with Islam because a significant minority of the believers interprets their religion thus.

2) People of all religious creeds – as well as those of none – commit violence, but it does not follow that they are committing this violence because of their religion. So it’s true that some baptised Catholics in Italy, in the Pope’s example, are killing their girlfriends or mothers-in-law, but by and large they’re not killing them because they believe it’s God’s will. There is a difference between identity and motivation.

3) There are fundamentalist groups in nearly all religions, it’s true. They are not necessarily small, certainly not in Islam (though fundamentalism does not in itself equate with violence). But again, we are not witnessing at the moment Catholic or Pentecostal fundamentalists engaging in violent crusades to re-establish the Christendom, fight heathens and impose the Canon Law on everyone. There are no Baptist suicide bombers detonating themselves for their Christian brethren persecuted throughout the Islamic world.

4) To say that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism is just as stupid, illogical and ahistorical as to say that Christianity had nothing to do with the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts or burning the heretics. We might now see all these violent and intolerant expressions as an embarrassment and a source of shame, and we might consider them to be wrong expressions and incorrect interpretations of the Christian faith, but it does not change the fact that for large groups of believers, often majorities, these were entirely consistent with their theology and considered actually inspired by the Bible. Unless we apply the same logic to contemporary Islamic extremism we won’t get anywhere in fixing the problem.

Pope Francis is clearly a man of deep humanity and compassion as well as a man of peace, but in the pursuit of his religious agenda he shouldn’t sacrifice truth and logic.