If not a religious war, what is it?
Secularists routinely ignore—or worse, deny—the influence of religious beliefs on political affairs. So when secular leaders like President Obama deny that terrorists are inspired by Islam, I can almost understand. But when Pope Francis makes essentially the same claim, I am troubled.
One could argue that Muslim terrorists misunderstand the true nature of their faith, that Islam is, properly understood, a religion of peace. One could argue that the terrorists are dupes, being used by cynical men with political ambitions, who have entirely temporal reasons for wanting to establish a caliphate. These are losing arguments, in my opinion, but they are not prima facie absurdities.
To deny that terrorists are motivated by Islam, however, is to show an irrational capacity for denial of the obvious. (To be clear, Pope Francis did not make such a claim—at least not explicitly.) The knife-wielding assailants of Father Hamel had no expectation of economic gain. Suicide bombers do not long for control of the world’s natural resources. Their motivations are tied up with their faith, and if we want to stop similar attacks in the future, we need to understand and address that connection.
In time of war, the failure to understand an adversary's motivations can have fatal consequences. If terrorists see the global conflict as religious, and we persist in saying that it is not, then we will never understand their motivations.
Perhaps Pope Francis is saying that we are involved in a global struggle of good against evil, a struggle with principalities and power, a war against the Prince of this World. That is true, now and always. But if he is saying something more-- that we are engaged in a political struggle on a worldwide scale, not unlike the world wars of the last century-- then at a bare minimum we should know how we can clearly distinguish one side from the other.
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