Much has been written about the recent events in Iraq, under the auspices of ISIS, the radical Islamic, well, what shall we call them, a group, a religion, a state, a nation, a gang? Their barbarities need not be recounted here; the recent beheading of an American journalist, by what seems to be a British Muslim, is a vivid icon of their violence. Suffice it to say that merciful they are not. By fire and by sword they will make converts to the message of the Prophet…
Where have I heard those words before? Ah, yes, the famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view, speech given by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg in 2006.
Is this the true face of Islam? Was the Holy Father being prophetic? The question is a complex one, perhaps unaswerable, for how does one determine what true Islam really is? The same problem that applies to Islam also applies to Protestantism and, indeed, any religion outside the true one: Without a divine magisterial authority, there is no infallible source of the truth. Hence, Islam, and Protestantism, and Mormonism, and so on, are inherently fissiparous. Like a many-headed hydra, they divide without end. Before one can say ‘salaam’, there is another interpretation of Muhammad’s message.
Can one point to the Qu’uran? The holy book of Islam is a collection of purported ‘suras’ or sayings of Muhammad, compiled after his death in 632 and open to various interpretations. (At least Protestantism has the benefit of the Bible, itself divinely inspired and infallible, but, as history shows, can be, and has been, interpreted fallibly).
Soon after Muhammad’s death, Islam divided into two strains, Shia and Sunni, the latter predominating by about 80% in terms of adherents. (This bifurcation in Islam, with different sets of beliefs and practices, is itself dependent upon two complex genealogical descents from Muhammad himself). Within each of these strains of Islam, there are countless different types. During certain historical contexts, such as Andalusian Spain, Islam has lived more or less peacefully with Christians and Jews (although always fraught with some degree of tension, as those outside the ‘house of Islam’ are, by definition, infidels). Other strains of Islam, as we see in the Middle East today, leave a trail of rapacity and blood. The calls for ‘putting an end to ISIS’ are perhaps themselves a historical reminder of why some saw and still see the mediaeval Crusades as a just and necessary conflict, at least in their initial aim.
Of course, the same ‘many strains’ argument could be said of Christianity, with this difference, however: There is an official Christianity, against which the actions or beliefs of individual followers can be measured. We call this the true Church which, as Vatican II declares, ‘subsists in the Catholic Church’.
The problem here is that in any religious movement without such a truly divine authority, how one applies one’s religious principles will depend very much upon a charismatic or a violent figure or group, who will either convince us with their rhetoric, or force us with their power.
We are seeing the latter at play in Syria and Iraq. The lure of power dominates those who are defenseless, and attracts those who thirst for it. As one commentator put it, ISIS has become the ‘coolest gang on the planet’.
Can a religion ultimately be spread by violence? I would recommend a close read of Benedict’s Regensburg address, unmatched in its clarity (and brevity!) as a response to this question. The even shorter answer is, No, for religion in its essence is an act of faith, which itself is an act of reason, and, by definition, faith and reason cannot be coerced. If it is, it is no longer reason, but un-reason, not an act of faith, but rather an act of pure will or might. All true religion is consistent with reason; once we deny reason, that divine image that makes us human, the basis for dialogue and conversion towards the truth is lost. God convinces us of the truth through our hearts and minds, and never coerces or constrains our will. We must do the same.
Such ‘conversions’ as ISIS and its ilk produce will not last, and, eventually, it will be a house divided against itself. Perhaps in time a more peaceful face of Islam will prevail. In the mystery of God’s providence, a lot of harm will be done in the struggle, but God will bring good out of the evil, and mercy from the misconstrued ‘justice’ played out in His name.
August 21, 2014
Pope Saint Pius X