Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

War-Time Clarifications: Who Is Our Enemy?

by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.


A realistic assessment by Fr. James Schall on the nature of Islam and the war against "terrorism".

Publisher & Date

Traditional Catholic Reflections, 2001


When Christ was asked "who, then, is my neighbor?" He responded with the Good Samaritan story. Christ was never specifically asked, "who, then, is my enemy?" Perhaps He figured it would be obvious in any generation. He did ask us to "forgive" our enemies, whoever they might be. Presumably, this admonition means that He expected us always to be in a world in which there were enemies to what He had asked us to do and believe. He told us in fact, for this very reason, to expect persecution. When He Himself was being executed in Jerusalem by the Roman state, in conjunction with local accusers, He whispered, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." But they killed Him anyway. His forgiveness did not stop His own killing. In other words, it is quite possible to have real enemies who seek our lives, to forgive them in our hearts, and find ourselves still having to deal with them, to prevent them from further attacking, killing us or those for whom we are responsible..

Thus far, the most remarkable passage explaining this war was written by Hilaire Belloc in 1938, in his essay, "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed" ( The Great Heresies [New York: Dodd, Mead, MCMXXXIII]). I had seen a reference to this passage on a Chesterton web site. So I went to the library and found the book itself. The abiding questions Belloc asked himself sixty-three years ago were, a) what makes Islam attractive? b) why does it have no converts to anything else? and 3) will it rise again? Islam is the one militant religion that came out of the desert and invariably conquered much of the world with arms, not with words. Several times, Islam was on the verge of conquering all of Europe. Belloc thought it would rise again. Its simple faith remained intact in spite of its modern setbacks. What Belloc did not foresee, almost the only thing he did not foresee, was Islam's relative, but rapid demographic increases over against our "culture of death" decreases which latter have already killed more of our own that Islam ever will. We adamantly insist that our country's attack has no "divine" implications about the way we live. But the way we have been living, ruining our families, not begetting, has, like all moral disorder, its own consequences in this world. This is what we are also seeing.

Yet, Christians still die in the Islamic world, often unheralded, a partial chronicle of which is found in Robert Royal's Christian Martyrs in the Twentieth Century. We have paid little attention to this on-ongoing persecution. Islam has millions and millions of young militants, zealous, ready to sacrifice their lives, with what they somehow consider to be a noble cause. By insisting on calling them by psychological terms – "fanatics"or "madmen" – we utterly blind ourselves to what is going on. These are soldiers longing for a great war, to recall the title of Mark Halprin's book. We are relatively few, we are oldish, we are, in fact, selfish, self-centered by comparison. We won't be left alone. We have thought that our technology would save us, but clever men figured out how to use or bypass our security devices. They caused the greatest single day's slaughter ever to happen on our soil at the price, as a friend said, of an airline ticket.

"Today we are accustomed to think of the Mohammedan world as something backward and stagnant, in all material affairs at least," Belloc wrote in 1938.

We cannot imagine a great Mohammedan fleet made up of modern ironclads and submarines, or a great modern Mohammedan army fully equipped with modern artillery, flying power and the rest. But not so very long ago, less than a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, the Mohammedan Government centred at Constantinople had better artillery and better army equipment of every kind than had we Christians in the West. The last effort they made to destroy Christendom was contemporary with the end of the reign of Charles II in England and of his brother James and of the usurper William III. It failed during the last years of the seventeenth century, only just over two hundred years ago. Vienna ... was almost taken and only saved by the Christian army under the command of the Kind of Poland on a date that ought to be among the most famous in history – September 11, 1683 (122-23).

A date that ought to be among the most famous in history is September 11. Needless to say, no one remembered this date, September 11, 1683, and what happened on it until what happened on September 11, 2001. Surely a bin Laden's memory is not so sophisticated? We Catholics have long recalled that the Declaration of War, in 1941, was on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Belloc saw that Islam has been, at bottom, a war power from the beginning. He had no trouble in seeing abiding will over time, over centuries. He wondered if Islam could rise again. He noted how individuals like Saladin suddenly arose within Islam to set it afire.

"The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam". (127)

What is somewhat eerie about these remarks of Belloc is the comparatively little attention we paid to Islam as such during and at the end of the war against Communism. When we did pay attention to it, it was almost always a concern with oil or with Israel. We could not imagine a civilizational plot.


The Muslim states, it turns out, may well have had another agenda all along, however haphazard. Afghanistan is almost a symbol of this alternate plan, a state that but a few short years ago was a heroic ally attacking the Soviets. Now it is, as we think, attacking us from the world's most unlikely and inaccessible bastion. It listens to our President's demands. It replies, "it will be a test of power." Its view of its own good apparently does not include the surrender of anything to the non-Muslim..

This again brings up the propriety of calling this a war against "terrorism," that abstraction that prevents us from asking more clearly, what terrorists? This is not a war against terrorism, as I saw it called not too long ago in a headline in The Washington Post. It is a war against specific forces with a specific agenda, a specific organization. It uses terror, but it uses it very designedly, to destroy our centers of culture, economy, and government. And it is not called terror by its users, however much it is objectively. It is called war by any means. President Bush's frank delineation of whom he considered the enemies – the organized Muslim groups scattered throughout the world in dozens of countries, including the most "advanced" – delicately exempted from its scope the "peaceful" Muslims, perhaps even the ones that cheer when they see us attacked. We as yet cannot comprehend that we have an enemy that has been, in some form, attacking us since the seventh century. Almost all the lands conquered by arms were once Christian lands. It is ironic that the last three wars we have fought, in Bosnia, in Serbia, and in Iraq, were to liberate Islamic peoples from other Islamic or Christian forces. Is our failure to know this history a cause of our being on the wrong side of history?

In 1985, the great historian of science, Fr. Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., wrote an essay entitled "On Whose Side Is History?" In the course of his reflections on Marxism and modern science, he wrote:

What is happening in the Muslim world is not so much an outburst of fanaticism as a frantic last-ditch effort to ward off the specter of – well, not of capitalism, not of Communism, not of hedonism – but of science. What is occurring in the Muslim world today is a confrontation, not between God and the devil, identified with capitalism or Communism, but between a very specific God and science which is a very specific antagonist of that god, the Allah of the Koran, in whom the will wholly dominates the intellect. A thousand years ago the great Muslim mystics al-Ashari and al-Ghazzali denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah. Today the impossibility of making ends meet without science forces the Muslim world to reconsider its notion of Allah. It is an agonizing process, which, in spite of the bloodshed, may, in the long run, being a more rational mentality to troubled parts of the world (Chance or Reality, p. 242).

These too, like Belloc's, are remarkable words. Can the meaning and method of these bombings, what we call "terrorism," have something to do with the Muslim world's notion of Allah as pure will? Is that hopelessly "intellectual"? But if there is no natural law, no divine order, no secondary causality, then the command to kill in the Allah's name might well be "reasonable" in some minds. There would be nothing "illogical" about it if there is no order on which to ground logic. Behind wars of the world, it is often said, much to our incomprehension, lie theological disputes about the truth of things, even including the truth of scientific things.

Belloc himself remarked that Islam in theory is composed of a series of classical Christian propositions but themselves abstracted from any notion of a Trinity in the Godhead and of the possibility of Incarnation in the world. If Allah is indeed pure will, then contradictories can be true. This would include in a way the famous "double truth" controversy, made famous by St. Thomas' opposition to it, about whether we could have a truth of reason and a truth of faith, each of which contradicted each other. Someone who could hold this position, as Belloc intimated, could be a scientist and a believer even if the positions were contradictory. This might explain our evident surprise that many of the recent attackers were trained in science and engineering. It can be true that killing 6,000 people can logically be a command of God because the command not to murder is itself something that can be otherwise. (That is, on the hypothesis that Allah or God is pure will, therefore no "natural law" or order exists even in Allah or God. It follows that any command of God can be followed by its opposite. The will of Allah or God is to follow what Allah or God says whatever it is. There is no need to compare it with some standard of Divine Intellect that would imply Allah or God is bound by His own internal order).

So perhaps it is more correct to see these recent events in a longer and more historical and theological context, the context of the very validity or grounding of Islam's conception of itself. It may be God's way of getting Islam to examine its Allah, as it were. In our liberal society, we are loathe, even incompetent, to consider these things. What we think of first is "tolerance," not truth. We think, to refer to the opposite of the title of Richard Weaver's famous book, that "ideas do not have consequences." These men are simply "madmen." We impose psychological philosophy on reality and think we have said something about reality. Tolerance is itself an idea that has allowed the present attackers to use our system to destroy us. I recall a quotation of, I think, bin Laden someplace in which he said that he would use our freedom of religion and speech to destroy us. Our opponents understand us, it seems, better sometimes than we understand ourselves. If they be "madmen," they are madmen who understand perfectly well our own system and modes of thinking and living.


We see, of course, a growing concern that our democratic categories, the ones that will not look to the truth or reason for a position, are inadequate. "Islam, the religion of more than a billion believers, has been hijacked," Martin Kramer, Editor of Middle East Quarterly has written.

"If the first week's suspicions are confirmed, the suicide attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are the capstones of nearly twenty years of terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. As layer upon layer of violence has accumulated, Islam itself has come to a tragic turn – and one for which the vast majority of moderate Muslims bears some responsibility" (National Review-on-Line, S. 19, ‘01).

Can a systematic plan be conceived and carried out over twenty years, over ten centuries?

I cite also, Charles Krauthammer's recent and very blunt comment about our unwillingness to see what goes on here as nothing but the aberrant actions of a few hundred "madmen."

Moral obtuseness is not restricted to intellectuals. I witnessed a High Holiday sermon by a guest rabbi warning the congregation, exactly seven days after our generation's Pear Harbor, against "oversimplifying" by speaking in terms of "good guys and bad guys." Oversimplifying? Has there ever been a time when the distinction between good and evil was more clear? And where are the Muslim clerics – in the United States, Europe and the Middle East – who should be joining together to make that distinction (between good and evil) with loud unanimity? Where are their fatwas against suicide murder? Where are the authoritative communal declarations that these crimes are contrary to Islam? (Washington Post, S. 21, ‘01).

The major Islamic response -- there are exceptions – has been to hide under our own legal rules, rules nowhere in force in Islamic lands, not to persecute them as they had nothing to do with it.

We are asked to believe that the thousands of cells and men willing and able to carry these atrocities out, while living among large Muslim groups now in the West, were not noticed by any living Muslim or were not reported. Can we believe this unknowingness in the light of the popularity of this attack on our land among so many particularly young Muslims throughout the world, the ones we see on TV cheering our losses? We would like to believe it, if only to exempt our own system from partial complicity in the whole matter. We certainly need much more assurance than we have so far been given.

Norman Podhoretz, writing in the Wall Street Journal (S. 20.01), cites a number of Arab and Egyptian sources that identify the real enemy as America and not Israel, which is conceived to be a lesser fish. It is tempting to think that America is in this only or largely because of Israel. America, however, in a recurrent phrase, is considered to be "the Great Satan."

"The point is," Podhoretz wrote, "that if Israel had never come into existence, or if it were magically to disappear, the U.S. would still stand as an embodiment of everything that most of these Arabs consider evil. Indeed, the hatred of Israel is in large part a surrogate for anti-Americanism."

This position, however much the existence and conduct of Israel have or have not focused and exacerbated the matter, is the one implicit in Belloc, Jaki, and in the general conduct of the ones carrying out the bombing and destruction.

At present, we seem to be in a time of immediate expectancy. Any written word may be obsolete or put into a different context tomorrow by new events. There are voices that caution us to do nothing. We even have on our campus walls a sudden display of the old and tired Vietnam peacenik signs. Despicable signs. Zenit reports an Editorial in L'Osservatore Romano (S. 21, ‘01) that cautions prudence in use of force. It also uses the expression "madness of terror" to describe these events, an expression that I still think misses the mark. Then the Editorial recalls what the Pope said in the 1993 Day of Peace message: Military operations ... "never serve the common good of humanity, violence destroys; it does not build; the wounds it causes can bleed for a long time." The condition of the poor will only be worse as a result.

We might say that, looking from the outside, these admonitions might be valid, a pox on both your houses. But surely the common good of humanity is served by stopping those who would destroy its very physical and political structure. A world that capitulates to such force will have to be content to live under it. It is quite possible and even likely that seeking to stop these men who seek to impose their religion on us by whatever means they see fit will incite a larger war. We can legitimately wonder if that would be worse than doing nothing, suffering the present damage and whatever else can be caused, on the grounds that civilization is not worth saving by any military means. The Crusaders, I think, were closer to the truth. Thus far, the attempts to deal with these attacks by way of prevention and seeking out those who caused them have been very specific and directed. There is no intention to starve anyone, no intention to kill masses of people in retaliation. Ironically, we are Afghanistan's primary source of humanitarian relief. But those who attacked us certainly expect us to retaliate against them, though they hold our courage and will to do so in some contempt.

A recent letter in the Washington Times (S. 19, ‘01) suggested that the worst thing that could happen to us would be for bin Laden himself or the Talaban voluntarily to turn him over to us. That would immediately give him a world wide audience and an opportunity to claim he was totally innocent. Our judicial system itself has no place for this sort of thing; it might not even be able to convict him. Surely this approach is what is behind the Muslim clerics' insistence that we turn over to them what evidence we have of his guilt. It is wrong for a non-Muslim to judge a Muslim. Since it is quite certain that bin Laden could not have been alone in this affair, we still are not secure until whoever did cause these bombings and the network that carried them out is destroyed or until it changes its mind. No doubt this won't happen, but nothing bin Laden could do would cause more confusion in the West than his voluntarily giving himself up on the declaration of his own innocence. Indeed, he did say that he was innocent but "admired those who did" carry out the plots in New York and Washington.


So to return back to the initial question, "who is our enemy?" The enemy is very unlikely to be only several thousand "terrorists." We must think in much broader terms. The enemy is one that has been recurrently attacking us for centuries. It is an enemy that has grown strong as we have grown complacent and introspective. We are but dimly aware that we have or have had such an enemy, even though, as Jack Kemp recently reported, this enemy officially declared war on us a couple of years ago.

The Holy Father himself has done everything he could to engage the widely-diffused leaders of Islam in dialogue. He has insisted on our looking at the points within its system that we can agree with. On questions of family and population he has found them to be allies before the secularist movements of our time. He too, as we must, distinguishes between "peaceful" and "militant" Muslims. He could have no objection to having proof about which is which. He would not think it a frivolous question. He knows the civil, legal, and cultural pressure within Islamic states either to remove Christians or to restrict them from any growth. He knows that there is a mosque in Rome though Mass is not allowed in Saudi Arabia, among other places.

A friend of mine told me recently of talking to the Holy Father several years ago in which he told her that we could expect something worse than Marxism on the immediate horizon. In all likelihood, he had in mind not Islam but our own culture growing more and more intolerant of our own essential Christian positions on a variety of basic human issues. And it may well be that the rise of Islam is itself made possible by our own moral weakness and spiritual disorder, however loathe we are even to consider this possibility. At times we seem more afraid of being told that God judges our personal sins than in being threatened by a vibrant Islam.

But these bombings and the efforts to counter them can have one good effect. The President has bravely said that other nations are either "for us or against us." We need some binding authorities within Islam itself to tell us that Islam is indeed bent on a mission to conquer the world, step by step throughout history. Or, equally solemnly, they need to renounce any understanding of Islam that would justify in any way, with the theological presuppositions that might support it, such actions that seem to come out of its center. What Islam lacks, we realize, is, oddly enough, a pope, someone with the power to define once and for all what it is.

"It is very commendable and very American that we want to guard against harm coming to innocent Arabs and Muslims, especially when most of us have a good idea about the bloodbath, were the tables turned," Balint Vazsonyi has written.

But I believe we might have the entire question upside down. Americans may have reason to believe it is Islam that has declared war on the rest of us. Many have given passionate assurances on television that the events of September 11 represent an aberration of Islam. The trouble is that the people I have heard were neither Arab nor Muslims. Americans need to hear such expressions of "regret about the loss of life" which have come our way, but a word from the Imam at Friday's national prayer meeting, asking Allah to forgive the crimes committed in his name, would have lent much more substance. Instead, he pleaded that we protect his brethren from harm (Washington Times, S. 18, ‘01) From what we can tell, many Muslims, not just a few hapless "terrorists," do think that the West, "the Great Satan," must be destroyed.

Fortunately, such new leaders are not in charge of the army in control of many Islamic states. The militant leaders, however, do threaten organized Islamic states. In one sense, actions to stop such wrathful new leaders, even military ones, are not enough. We need to hear now both why Islam is attacking us, as it is, and whether this attack stems directly from its faith. Knowing this, we know what we deal with. And if this renewed warfare is in fact at the essence of Islam, does that mean that every Muslim actually holds this? Certainly not. Many Muslims have escaped to Western lands precisely to escape this system. But as events now show, there is no longer any real escape from the central issue of what Islam officially teaches and expects of its followers.

Paul Craig Roberts has also insisted on one last point. The fact is that we have been grossly, if not criminally, negligent in the sort of equipment allowed to be sold to Syria under the Clinton regime and before.

"The Clinton regime permitted the delivery of top-end military communications equipment to Syria, a country officially listed as a threat to U. S. Security... The corporations that sold Syria communications equipment capable of evading detection by National Security Agency should publically identified and pilloried. They are prime defendants for class-action suits brought by relatives of the thousands of Americans killed by the transferred American technology that protected the terrorists from detection" (Washington Times, S. 17, ‘01).

One suspects that there is a long and thoroughly unpleasant story here.

So, in some sense, our enemies are ourselves, or at least some of us. We have not known Islam's heart, not known why they hate us. We are slow to recognize that things hateful do exist within us and among us, things that we sometimes perversely call "rights" or virtues. What is even more difficult for us to grasp is that we might well be hated if we had, mirabile dictu, no faults or sins. G. K. Chesterton was a man who also had much to say about Islam. He wrote,

"A thing like the catholic system is a system; that is, one idea balances and connects another. A man like Mohammed or Marx, or in his own way, Calvin, finds that system too complex, and simplifies everything to a single idea, but it is a definite idea. He naturally builds a rather unbalanced system with his one definite idea" (Come to Think of It , [1931]108).

This is, in other words, a fight for the legitimacy of other ideas of God, more basically for the balanced Trinitarian idea with its Incarnational addendum.

Especially among the clergy, we find many pleas for turning the other cheek, for not resisting, as if that is an obvious solution or itself one without dire consequences. In this particular case, with the long record of Christianity before Islam, the question might be asked, "what do we call those Christians who do turn the other cheek in this context, especially those with the power and obligation to defend us?" What we call them, eventually, are Muslims. The net result of a simplistic view of this virtue of non-resistence, something historically resisted in the central Christian tradition, is ironically to eliminate Christianity as it has been systematically eliminated in lands lost to Islam over the centuries.

These reflections are, of course, opinions. It is useful at times to spell out what we think, yet with the realization we could be quite wrong. Suddenly, after several centuries of relative quiet, Islam is on the rise. What do we make of this? do about it? Belloc was uncanny in 1938 in expecting the rise of Islam as one of the constituent elements of the public life of men. I have argued here that the methods being used by Islam call its own very principles into question, though only if we have a standard that can confront its own first principle of the "primacy of will" in Allah. But behind this question, and intimately related to it, is the relation of Christianity and Islam to historic and modern Judaism. If what is being called to our attention is the validity of Islam, what is no less being brought to the fore is the truth of the completion and development of the original Hebrew revelation in Christianity. Islam, in this sense, is a judgment on both of them, or perhaps, a judgment on their failure to see their intimate relationship. And the secular society that tries to explain the world without Islam, Judaism, or Christianity is quite unsatisfactory and empty.

Is this reading too much world-historical significance into current events? Perhaps, but I think not. Islam, at least a significant part of it -- and I think it not really just a bunch of psychotic madmen – is indeed at war with us, with that civilization that includes Israel, Christianity, and its secular degenerations. Nothing else that could have happened to us, I think, could have made us look so clearly into the souls of Jews, Christians, secularists, and Muslims. What Islam must ask itself is whether the brutal destruction of these lives is what its faith is about? We must protect ourselves, in the meantime, so that we remain free to live our lives. But we are naive if we think that these deeper questions are not what is really at stake, the truth of Islam, the truth of secularism, the truth of Judaism, the truth of Christianity. We must keep ourselves free to say of what is not true, that it is not true.

After September 11, 2001, the date that ought to be the "most famous in history" is September 11, 1683. These dates portend the unexpected decline and equally unexpected rise of Islam, a decline and rise that now force us to inquire more carefully what Islam is and, a pari, what Israel, Christianity, and modern secularism really are. The recent external events of war and destruction do not allow us to ignore these deeper questions. Until such questions are confronted more carefully, no theory or practice of "tolerance" will save us. It will only provide the cover for further efforts to eliminate us.

(c) James V. Schall S.J. 2001. All Rights Reserved.

For more articles by Fr. Schall please see his website at

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