Allah (ta’ala) said, {They thought that their fortresses would protect them from Allah but Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers.  So take warning, O people of vision} [Al-Hashr:2].

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, much of the analysis focused on the possible motives of Islamic radicals, and almost all of it was prefaced with four simple words: “They hate us because . . . ”  What came after those words varied, but invariably it told us more about the speaker than about Mohamed Atta and his allies, or Al Qaeda, or insurgent Muslims around the world generally: “we are rich”; “we are free”; “we are advanced [socially|culturally|politically|economically|morally].”  What none of the analysts ever said, not because they were trying to hide the truth but more likely because it never occurred to them, was that “They hate us because we are Christian.”

Yet that is the reality which lies behind Islamic aggression today.  That we aren’t Christian—no longer, or at least not really—makes no difference; the perception among Muslims so committed to their faith and to the traditional understanding of jihad that they will sacrifice their lives in the hope of bringing portions of the Dar-al-Harb into the Dar-al-Islam is that the peoples of Europe (and their descendants in the United States) remain committed to their traditional faith, all of the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  They know for certain that we are, at least, not Muslim; and the idea that we could be without a religion of any kind is ludicrous.  So Christians we remain, at least in their eyes.

And so when, in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, representatives of the Islamic State claimed full responsibility in language that was remarkably clear and concise compared with every statement ever issued by Al Qaeda (let alone every discussion of Islam by George W. Bush or Barack Obama), they framed the matter in terms of an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of Islam and those of Christianity: “In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe—Paris.”

Do not be distracted by the reference to “prostitution and vice” (as certain traditionalist Catholics have been) and decide that “They hate us because we tolerate immorality.”  For the devout Muslim who engages in aggressive jihad, Paris isn’t “the capital of prostitution and vice” despite being “the lead carrier of the cross in Europe” but because of it. (That Christians are lax morally compared with the followers of Allah is a fundamental Islamic belief that goes all the way back to the Koran.)  Elsewhere in the statement, ISIS refers to the murdered as “pagans” (“The targets included the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice”) and “disbelievers” (“They detonated their explosive belts in the masses of the disbelievers after finishing all their ammunition”), and to all of them as “crusaders”—that is, soldiers for Christ.  There is no contradiction here; from the standpoint of the devout Muslim, anyone who does not believe in Allah and his “Prophet” is by definition a disbeliever, and if he believes in another god, he is by definition a pagan.  We make a mistake when we refuse to take devout Muslims at their word: Unlike us, they understand that Allah and the Christian God cannot be the same deity, because the very idea of imputing a trinitarian nature to Allah is blasphemous.

That we refer to Muslims today almost exclusively as “believers” rather than “pagans” (and certainly not “disbelievers”), and claim that they worship the same God we do despite the protestations of devout Muslims (and not just jihadists) to the contrary, tells us less about them than it does about ourselves and our relationship to Christianity.

As the shock of the Paris attacks died down, many reasonable and well-intentioned Christians followed in the steps of less reasonable and less well-intentioned secularists, declaring that it would be a mistake to lay responsibility for such acts of terrorism at the feet of all Muslims (a self-evidently true statement) or on Islam itself (far from self-evidently true).  An ordained Christian minister whom I have known for years rightly pointed out that those who refuse to believe individual Muslims when they say that they do not support violent jihad are effectively calling them “liars or mere stooges.”  Yet he and others who keep repeating that “ISIS doesn’t represent all of Islam” (a self-evidently true statement) all too often gently slide into implying something more: that ISIS is, in some essential way, not truly Islamic (far from self-evidently true).

The leaders of the Islamic State, needless to say, disagree with these well-meaning Christians.  Here is how the former describe the jihadists of Paris:

This group of believers were youth who divorced the worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah’s sake, doing so in support of His religion, His Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him), and His allies.  They did so in spite of His enemies.  Thus, they were truthful with Allah—we consider them so—and Allah granted victory upon their hands and cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.

Those who do not take representatives of the Islamic State at their word when they claim that they are acting on behalf of Islam and in accordance with Islamic principles are calling them “liars” as well.  At best, they are judging these Muslims’ self-understanding of their religion in the same way that the teenaged atheist does when he says to a Catholic or a Lutheran, “If you were really a Christian, you would . . . ”  The problem becomes even worse when they refuse to believe seemingly nonradical Muslims who, say, express a desire to see sharia imposed in Western countries or are reluctant to condemn acts of terror committed by other Muslims because, as the president of the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford once told Aaron Wolf and me, Islam is a pendulum that can “swing to the extremes and come back to the middle, but you are still within the boundaries” of Islam, and thus “You can believe someone is a terrorist, and I don’t.”  Claiming that a man who freely volunteers such statements “doesn’t really mean it” or “doesn’t understand what he is saying” isn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt; it is calling him either stupid or a liar.

Even more importantly, it amounts to lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem that Islam poses in Europe and America today.  As Niall Ferguson wrote in the Boston Globe on the Sunday after the Paris attacks,

It is conventional to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent, and that is doubtless true.  But it is also true that the majority of Muslims in Europe hold views that are not easily reconciled with the principles of our modern liberal democracies, including those novel notions we have about equality between the sexes and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.  And it is thus remarkably easy for a violent minority to acquire their weapons and prepare their assaults on civilization within these avowedly peace-loving communities.

In order to understand how to proceed in the wake of Paris (and similar attacks that will follow, as night follows day), we need to quit attempting to discern the “motives” of Muslim terrorists (and of those who actively or tacitly support their actions) and focus instead on their intentions or purposes, including how they use to their advantage that which they hold in common with all followers of Islam.  The language of “motives” (as John Lukacs has pointed out) suggests that the person who acts is being forced to do so rather than choosing to do so.  Thus, “poverty” and “economic inequality” and “discrimination” are routinely said to be the “causes” of attacks such as those in Paris, as if the jihadists have no real say in the matter.

This Freudian denial of free will has not infected Islam, as the statement from the Islamic State makes abundantly clear.  In their account, the “martyrs” of Paris chose to honor Allah by killing and being killed—and, in the process, striking terror into the hearts of putative Christians.  The leaders of the Islamic State intend to take the Dar-al-Islam out of the realm of the spirit and to give it flesh by establishing a “Caliphate” and extending its boundaries mile by bloody mile.  These are very real intentions or purposes that we can understand, not amorphous “motives” that dehumanize the attackers and relieve them of individual moral responsibility for their actions.

Once we have begun to think properly about the actions of jihadist Muslims, we can begin to think properly about our response to such actions.  What is our purpose in opposing violent jihad?  The answer seems obvious: self-defense.  But what is the self that we wish to defend?

The Islamic State referred to the sites of their attacks as “precisely chosen targets”: a sports stadium; a nightclub; restaurants and coffeehouses.  Notably absent were Notre-Dame de Paris and Sacré-Coeur.  They went to the places where the “crusaders” of Paris actually gather, the real temples of their modern lives—and ours, too, here in the United States.

When the barbarians descended upon Italy in the early fifth century a.d., it was, in retrospect, almost certainly too late for the Roman Empire as a whole to defend itself successfully.  And the parallels with Europe (and America) today are painfully obvious, for those who have eyes to see.  As Niall Ferguson writes,

Let us be clear about what is happening.  Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble.  As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief.  It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums.  At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.

Yet as the barbarians surged across the Alps in the early fifth century, Christians flocked to their churches.  This is usually presented as a retreat to safety, and there was certainly an element of that.  But as the stories of sieges of churches around Milan make clear, Christians gathered in churches not only to defend themselves but to defend what they held dear: not panem et circenses, but the panis angelicus.  They were willing to die for something beyond this world, because they lived for something beyond this world.

Are we so willing?  Do we so live?

In “On War and Apocalypse,” an essay published in the August 2009 issue of First Things, the late theologian René Girard, whose groundbreaking work focused on the relationship between religion and violence, issued a warning that seems ever more urgent in the wake of the Paris attacks:

On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down.  There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second.  People could feel that something was happening.  Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety.  Western rationalism operates like a myth: We always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe.  We neither can nor want to see violence as it is.  The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think.  Yet, the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it.

Within two days after the Paris attacks, Girard had been proved right once again.  On one side, secularists in Europe and the United States had begun to argue that the solution to Islamic terrorism would be found in structural changes to our economy and our society—that the problem lies in the “motives” that push Muslims to embrace violence, rather than in the purposes that they intend to accomplish through such violence.  On the other, the calls for indiscriminate violence against the Islamic State and against Muslims generally—“Bomb ’em back into the Stone Age!”; “Nuke Mecca and Medina!”—in the name of self-defense allowed us to avoid the most important question once again: What is it that we intend to defend?

Before we decide how we should respond, we need to understand why we should respond.

The core of René Girard’s work concerned how the Christian revelation has replaced “archaic religion”—the use of violent sacrifice to enable humans “to live together or at least not to destroy one another.”  Yet our imperfect understanding of the Christian revelation, and our inability to incarnate it fully in a fallen world, carries its own dangers:

While it is good to get rid of the sacrificial idiocies of the past in order to accelerate progress, eliminating obstacles to humanity’s forward march and facilitating the invention and production of what will make our lives more prosperous and comfortable (at least in the West), it is nonetheless true that sacrificial stupidity was also what prevented us from perfecting ways of killing one another.


Paradoxically, stupid sacrifice is what we are most in need of at present.

But how can we reconcile the tension between “stupid sacrifice” and Christian revelation?  Muhammad took one tactic in the creation of Islam, as Girard succinctly shows:

Even though there are no longer any archaic religions, it is as if a new one had arisen built on the back of the Bible, a slightly transformed Bible.  It would be an archaic religion strengthened by aspects of the Bible and Christianity.  Archaic religion collapsed in the face of Judeo-Christian revelation, but Islam resists.  While Christianity eliminates sacrifice wherever it gains a foothold, Islam seems in many respects to situate itself prior to that rejection.

Christians have faced this problem before—many times, in fact, since the rise of Islam, and even before.  Christian Just War theory, developed by Augustine in the turbulent milieu of the barbarian invasions, became the framework within which later generations of Christians would reconcile the tension between “stupid sacrifice” and Christian revelation, in a way that allowed them to respond to Islamic violence and oppression.  As Girard writes, “The Crusades were an archaic regression without consequences for the essence of Christianity.”  Just War theory provided an avenue for Christians to revert to the violence made obsolete by the Christian revelation, without rejecting that revelation.  It placed limits on when violence could be used, and how it could be used—limits that respected the Christian teaching that the loss of one’s life is a lesser tragedy than the loss of one’s soul.

Aquinas built upon the foundation that Augustine had laid, just in time (within the broad sweep of history) for the next major conflict with Islam, as Muslims pushed toward the heart of Europe.  But the turning of the tide, and the expulsion of Muslims from Europe, came at an important turning point in the history of Christendom.  While, as Girard points out, the Crusades were possible because of the “unity of Christianity in the Middle Ages,” by the 16th century that unity had begun to crumble—not only in the visible divisions in the Church, but in the spiritual hold of Christianity on the minds and souls of European men.  The last great Christian victories over the forces of Islam, from the Siege of Belgrade to the Battle of Vienna, were also, in many ways, the first battles in which European nations began to unshackle themselves from the constraints of Christian Just War theory.  For every Janos Hunyadi and St. John of Capistrano at the Siege of Belgrade, there was a Vlad Tepes in the mountain passes without whose willingness to match or exceed the violence of his Muslim opponents, Christian morality be damned, the battle may not have been won.

Only a century after the Battle of Vienna, the streets of Paris ran red with blood, in an orgy of violence that makes the events of November 13, 2015, pale in comparison.  Yet the French Revolution and the Islamic terrorism of today have more in common than we care to think.  As Girard writes,

What we are witnessing with Islam . . . is nonetheless much more than a return of conquest; it is what has been rising ever since the French Revolution, after the communist period that acted as an intermediary.  Indeed, Leninism had some of these features, but what it lacked was religion.  Our new escalation to extremes is thus able to use all components: culture, fashion, political theory, theology, ideology, and religion.  What drives history is not what seems essential in the eyes of Western rationalists.

Chesterton, of course, saw this a century ago, in his great novel The Flying Inn, in which the most progressive of Englishmen find themselves more intellectually attracted to Islam than they do to Christianity.  The oddity of Islam, to Western eyes, is entirely on the surface; underneath, it is a thoroughly modern and post-Christian religion, one that can embrace the French Revolution’s motto of liberté, egalité, fraternité, so long as each noun is understood in reference to man’s relation with other men in the sight of Allah.  The implicit recognition of that reality by modern secularists is the answer to René Girard’s question: “Why has Christian revelation been subject to the most hostile and ferocious possible criticism for centuries, but not Islam?”

If the reason we believe we must respond to Islamic terrorism is to maintain a Western way of life that has thrown off the shackles of our Christian past, then it hardly matters how we respond; the battle is already lost.  We can unleash violence unprecedented in all of human history against the Islamic State and even against Muslims generally; but all that will do is accelerate the “escalation to the extremes.”  Muslim jihadists will have no trouble finding young men willing to die for Allah and for the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, and they are in no rush: “Terrorists have conveyed the message that they are ready to wait, that their notion of time is not ours.”  But Europe, Girard rightly observes, “is a tired continent that no longer puts up much resistance to terrorism.”  That fatigue is not physical (much less technological), but moral and spiritual.  It is obvious in dramatically declining marriage rates and birthrates throughout Europe and the United States; in rising suicide rates; and in the utter unwillingness even to consider that radical Muslims could believe what they claim to believe.

If, on the other hand, we believe that the reason we must respond to Islamic terrorism is that the Truth has been revealed to us in Christ, and that we are called to shine the light of that Truth into a world held captive to darkness and sin, then “We have to think about time in such a way that the Battle of Poitiers and the Crusades are much closer to us than the French Revolution and the industrialization of the Second Empire in France.”  The errors of the past several centuries have not freed us from the supposed unreality of the Christian past; they have hidden the Truth that sets us free, even in the face of impending apocalypse:

Christ allows us to face this reality without sinking into madness.  The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope.  If we suddenly see reality, we do not experience the absolute despair of an unthinking modernity but rediscover a world where things have meaning.  Hope is possible only if we dare to think about the danger at hand, but this requires opposing both nihilists, for whom everything is only language, and pragmatic realists, who reject the idea that intelligence can attain truth: heads of state, bankers, and soldiers who claim to be saving us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into devastation each day.

Are we ready to face that reality?  Do we dare to acknowledge the true nature of the danger that we face?  Are we willing to renounce our errors and recommit ourselves to the Truth?  Will we once again become the Christians that the jihadists believe us to be?