If not a religious war, what is it?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 27, 2016

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. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Ave Maria - Jul. 28, 2016 9:07 PM ET USA

    "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." We are in spiritual warfare no doubt! Sometimes I forget about the power of prayer...I feel we need to invoke St Michael's prayer DAILY & REGULARLY against the traps & snares that are ALWAYS being set for us particularly as Catholics. Let us "PRAY WITHOUT CEASING", a good verse to remember

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 27, 2016 11:00 PM ET USA

    Allow me to distinguish the two sides: (1) Saracens versus (2) those who would not be Crusaders.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 27, 2016 7:40 PM ET USA

    Very unfortunately, all recent Islamic acts of war were motivated by religion only.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jul. 27, 2016 6:41 PM ET USA

    When this comes up, I cite two reasons why the Catholic hierarchy denies the reality of the Islamic terror directed towards Christians. 1. We are stuck with "LG 16 Muslims...along with us...adore the one and merciful God." and cannot contradict it 2. We cannot hand a justification to Muslims to persecute vulnerable Christians in the Muslim world.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jul. 27, 2016 5:40 PM ET USA

    He's signaling to Catholics that we're not going to take up arms AS CATHOLICS against ISIS. Obviously ISIS sees it as a religious war; he's trying to take the steam out of it. Like we tell our kids, "It takes two to fight." Now, should the NATIONS go after them? You betcha. Now where that leaves the Assyrian Christian groups in Iraq who have taken up arms against ISIS to defend themselves and their families, I don't know. I think they're doing the right thing since no one else is doing it.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jul. 27, 2016 12:10 PM ET USA

    Can Pope Francis' remarks be interpreted as defining the beliefs of terrorists as something other than religion? The audience of such an assertion could be (first of all) secularists who tar all religion with the same brush. But religion is the name of a virtue. And terrorists cannot reasonably be said to be exercising that virtue. Another audience is Christians: as the leader of Christians, Pope Francis is clear that we are not to take up arms under banner of the Cross.