We strike a man’s face when we can no longer strike his heart. We put bullets in the minds we cannot change. Violence begins where argument fails, and the fact that liberal governments can only meet ISIS’s terrorist attacks with bombing campaigns indicates that the two entities stand across an absolute impasse over which no dialogue, discourse, or insult can reach.
ISIS and liberal democracies hold radically opposed theologies. They believe incompatible doctrines of the Divine. Only by understanding this theological rift will we understand why ISIS hates us, why we hate them, and why groups like them will rise up and terrorize liberal democracy until the Last Days.
A Theological War
It may seem like a paradox to claim that our secular democracies hold theologies. Isn’t secularism precisely the absence of theology, the “hands-off” approach to matters of faith, the country that allows men to choose in freedom what they will believe? In the vein of theologians like David Schindler and Joseph Ratzinger: No. An ideology that chooses to abstain from addressing the question of God says something quite definite about God. A worldview that relegates the “religious question” to the sphere of the individual and his private choice says something quite definite about religion.
Our task is not to trace the hidden dogmas of liberalism. Suffice to say that the theology of liberalism, insofar as it claims that the State can abstain from the question of God, implicitly claims that God is not an absolute value to whom all things (including the State) are ordered. If one happens to choose to believe in God, fine, but this God cannot become “all-in-all.” However radically He shakes the individual, He has no place in the public sphere, in public debate, in public education, and in public discourse. The State achieves its own ends apart from Him.
Now whether or not this is a good model for the State may be debated, but this much is obvious: This is a theology, with a private God and a set of implicit claims about His relationship to humanity. Furthermore, this is an exclusive theology, for it excludes, by nature, any religious belief that does not accept these basic doctrines. It excludes, for example, ISIS.
ISIS operates under a theology. It is a theology that does not fit the parameters of liberalism, insofar as it includes the spread of Islam by divine command over and against any free choice of the individual, and holds the Divine Will as an absolute value to which all others are subordinated — including the State. ISIS are intensely aware of this theological divide. The rejection of a secularist, non-absolute vision of divinity characterizes a good portion of their propaganda. From their magazine, Dabiq:
Many secularists, who called for a new tāghūt based in democracy, would repeat “Allāhu akbar” due to the background and culture they were raised in, not because they believed Allah was greater and accordingly alone had the right to legislate…”I advise you [a Syrian rebel] to repent from secularism before the funeral. Otherwise, if you die, you will be in Hellfire.” Rather than taking my advice, he shouted and argued that Syrian nationalism and separation of religion and state were not secularism! This was because the ignoramus thought that secularism was synonymous with atheism.
Saying that this particular theology is un-Islamic is a daydream. ISIS interpret the sacred texts of Islam. Islam, devoid of any final interpretation of Scripture equivalent to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, only is insofar as it is this or that interpretation. We may argue that ISIS have a particularly crooked, idiotic, and perverse interpretation of the texts, but we have no right to say that they are not performing the same acts of receiving, believing, and interpreting as other Muslims. The Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which everyone should read, argues precisely this:
“[T]he religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam…Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
But Mr. Obama’s claims that ISIS is “not Islamic” is more than a generosity to the majority of Muslims, and the general decision to refer to the thing as an “ideology” rather than a “theology” has a definite motive beyond a banal political correctness. It’s embarrassing for liberals to admit that liberalism offers religious freedom only to those religions that adhere to its central tenants. It’s awkward to admit that liberalism limits in advance the form any given religion may take (pray, but not here, believe, but don’t preach, hold ethical principles, but pay for others to violate them, interpret your Scriptures, but not radically, etc.). The liberal society wants to maintain that it accepts all religious beliefs with equal validity, and is thus forced, when a particular religious belief radically rejects the central doctrines of liberalism, to conclude that it is not really a religion after all, only a “group of thugs.” Liberalism, in short, does not want to admit that it is an exclusive theology, and thus does not want admit that it is rejecting a definite “other theology” — a rival set of beliefs about God and man.
(That being said, the awareness that this is a theological war slips out of our theologically-repressed consciousnesses every now and then. It is somewhat routine to speak of our goal in Biblical terms, “to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth,” and politicians like Joe Biden can be rather uncharacteristically medieval in their theological claims: “We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”)
But ISIS have a theology, and liberal democracies have a theology, and never the twain shall meet. Between “absolute belief” and “optional belief” there is no dialogue. Between “divine command” and “the state-sanctioned hands-off space in which some may hear and respond to divine commands insofar as they do not conflict with the freedom and comfort of others” there is no wiggle room. Between the “apocalypse now” of ISIS and the West’s “apocalypse if you believe in it as a matter of private opinion” there is no accord — only violence.
Now, on the one hand, this is hardly a problem. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, and we certainly don’t need to hold a reasonable debate with them. Who cares if the secular West is theologically neutered, without the capacity to speak with and argue against an idiotic belief system? Who would want to sink to the level of religious extremism? We, after all, have bombs, and bombs speak louder than words. That our baseline presuppositions don’t match hardly changes the fact that they will kill us, and that we will kill them.
But while this sort of bravado filled our hearts well enough after 9/11, it’s starting to ring stale. The problem was best stated by Mr. Obama, when he said that our enemy is anyone who believes this poisonous ideology. Beliefs cannot be bombed. Beliefs are not bound by geo-political situation, geographical location, ethnicity, or culture — even as they rise from them. Thus, and this much is admitted by the Obama administration, there is no political action and no military engagement that can guarantee the safety of the West, insofar as you and I, reading this now, are absolutely capable of believing the ideological theology of ISIS.
Beliefs as Bombs
The acts of ISIS follow from beliefs — the belief that we are living in the Last Days, the belief in a divine sanction for suicide, the belief in the New Caliphate, the belief in the Prophet’s laws concerning infidels, and so forth. A human being may be disgruntled by American foreign policy. He may suffer the consequences of Western decisions in the Middle East. He may resent the influence of secular culture on traditional religious communities. But these finite, temporal reasons do not justify blowing oneself to pieces in a crowded marketplace. Only the higher values of theology — of “eternal significance,” “divine will” and “blessedness” — suffice as justification for the destruction of the relatively lower values of bodily life. Geo-political situations are not sufficient grounds for acts of suicide bombing. Theological beliefs are. To deny the theological and to insist upon fighting a war with ISIS as a group with political motivations, this refuses to fight them upon the very ground which inspires suicide-vests. When words and the subsequent belief in those words are the very tools turning people into bombs, it is foolish to insist that our capacity to “bomb the hell” out of ISIS makes up for our liberal democracies’ incapacity to win the “war of words.”
To win a fight against ISIS, one must wage a theological counter-offensive. One must counter their propaganda, question their assumptions, roundly mock their interpretations of Scripture, sow doubt in their minds over the validity of their doctrines, and sow seeds — not of secularism, nor even of tolerance — but of good theology. The article “What ISIS Really Wants” ends in precisely this suggestion: Not military strategy, but the active promotion of a better theology in the form of the Quietist Salafis. Obama has an inkling of the importance of this theological counter-offensive when he calls for moderate imams to prevent radicalism in their communities. I would take their suggestions one step further, and argue that Catholics have a role to play in this war, a role that no liberal government can achieve — to counter the theological claims of ISIS with the Gospel.
Trite? Cliched? Naive? I’ll take those insults from the secular-minded, but rather as one takes the boorish interruptions of someone who has no idea what they are talking about. We have already established that secular, liberal values have nothing to say to a theology that is their antithesis. When people blow themselves up for theological reasons, it’s time for the secular to sit down and let those with a stake in the questions of theology get to work.
Similarities Between Catholics and ISIS Members
The Catholic is in an odd position in relation to ISIS. Reading their magazine — a simultaneously horrendous and boring exercise — I find myself in moments of agreement. Their narrative of “strangeness” resonates with the Catholic living in the post-Christian West: “Strangeness is a condition that the Muslim living in the West cannot escape as long as he remains amongst the crusaders. He is a stranger amongst Christians and liberals. He is a stranger amongst fornicators and sodomites. He is a stranger amongst drunkards and druggies. He is a stranger in his faith and deeds, as his sincerity and submission is towards Allah alone.”
Replace “Muslim” with “Catholic,” and “Allah” with “Christ” and you’ve the rough content of a sermon of a grumpy Jesuit preaching detachment from the world — the choice of Christ’s standard over and against the standard of the Devil. Of course, there is something less of an obsession with human purity, something more of mercy, but nevertheless, the committed Catholic can, like it or not, sympathize with the ISIS-member’s primary spiritual frustrations.
The Catholic, like the ISIS-member, holds The Divine Will as an absolute value, one worth sacrificing the worldly values of peace, security, pleasure, and life over. The Catholic, like the ISIS-member, cannot adhere to the basic tenets of liberalism. He lives as a stranger in the age, believing in a Truth that is not one option among many, a Truth that is not merely “tolerated” by the State, a Truth which orders all things — not simply his private, individual existence. The Catholic, furthermore, is increasingly aware of the incompatibility of Catholicism with a liberalism which (increasingly) limits what the Catholic is allowed to do (or not do) when the teachings of the Church conflict with the more primordial doctrines of “tolerance” and “individualism.”
Thus, where secular government has nothing to say, the Catholic has a lot to say. My disagreement with ISIS is not a mute head-bash between watery liberalism and medieval Islam — it is a disagreement over content. I do not disagree that the divine is an absolute value, I disagree with the nature of that divinity. I do not disagree that the Divine Will demands obedience, only that the content of the Divine Will is radically different. I do not disagree, even, that the Secular Age is bankrupt. I disagree on what to do about it.
The Catholic is in a position to meet, online and otherwise, a false vision of Jesus Christ (a warrior who will save Islam from the anti-Messiah, killing him in Jerusalem and leading the Muslim army to victory) with a true vision of Jesus Christ (the Son of God, whose kingdom is not of this world and whose victory lies not in dealing death, but in dying for the salvation of all). The Catholic, before the process of radicalization has taken hold, can introduce a concept of God who is Love, and not simply Law; Father, and not simply Dictator; a God who desires communion with his creatures in freedom — not in force and fear.
ISIS preaches physical violence in accordance with their Scriptures. The Church preaches a deeper violence according to her own: The violence of the disciples of Christ, who bring “not peace, but a sword.” She demands the “conversion of all nations,” not from without, by bombs and beheadings, but from within — from the harrowing darkness of the free human heart as it yearns for its God.
ISIS preaches the theological validity of suicide. Christianity preaches a far more difficult suicide, death of the self and the rising of the new man in Christ.
ISIS believes it is the Apocalypse. Christians having been believing it since Jesus Christ first proclaimed these days the Last Days.
ISIS believes it is destined to fight “the armies of Rome.” The Catholic is a member of that selfsame Army, fighting “the world, the flesh, and the devil” in and through the unity of the entire Church, a unity sacramentally re-presented in its earthly shepherd, the Pope, successor of the Apostle Peter, whose Seat is at Rome. Quite like ISIS, we believe that we are destined to a Last Battle. But much to the disappointment of the easy, carnal convictions of ISIS theology — that bloodlust which attracts the moronic “gangster” culture to their ranks as much as believers — this Battle is not a temporal one, held on a particular field outside of Jerusalem. It is the daily struggle for holiness, the true jihad which ISIS-style worldliness renders stupid.
ISIS believes that it is destined to destroy Christianity: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” they say, in videos as poorly-edited as they are repetitious. And while the secular West can only take these threats as “symbolic,” deny them as “hyperbolic,” or smother them down with practical discussions of security, the Catholic, watching his brothers and sisters slaughtered for their belief, can not only affirm the desire of ISIS to “conquer Rome” as absolutely proper to any and all antichrists — and he may also issue a response:
“You will not conquer Rome. We will conquer you. We already have. For victory belongs to Jesus Christ alone, who died to take away the sins of the world, who died for every rapist and murderer among you, just as he died for me. This victory cannot be undone, not by all the political kingdoms and earthly powers you gain in your great conflation of worldly victory with eternal victory — not by all your impudent, irreverent and irreligious blurring of the work of God with the bloody work of Man.
You will “break our crosses” — do you understand our Cross? If you break it you honor it, for on it God was broken open for the salvation of every Muslim. If you spit on it you reverence it. God became man, and was flogged, spat upon, and crucified for the salvation of the world. You have misunderstood who God is, and so you worship an idol of power — God is Love, and love longs for a response of freedom, not a kingdom of slaves overwhelmed by power.
You will “conquer Rome.” Do you understand our Rome? Our Rome, our Church, she “conquers overwhelmingly through Him who loved us,” victorious by letting Jesus Christ win the great battle for our hearts, conquerors by being conquered, rich by admitting our poverty. The “gates of hell shall not prevail” against her, even if you kill her Pope: You bind the bride of Jesus Christ closer to her Great Love when you allow her to participate in the suffering of His Cross.
You behead Christians as a “message signed in blood to the nation of the Cross.” But the Cross is the message of God, signed in His own blood and addressed to the nation of the Crescent — it conquers you even and especially as you make martyrs of God’s Holy People. For there is no one who will pray harder and intercede with greater urgency on your behalf before the Judgment Seat of Christ then the man you make a martyr, and there is no stronger witness to the love of Jesus Christ then the man who dies in his Name. How unwittingly you are conquered, how ignorantly you are defeated, how blissfully unaware you are: The blood you shed is the seed of the Church. You have become, in your very evil, the means by which God, who brings light out of darkness, glorifies his Church.
ISIS, we are born of the One God. We are brothers. We are brothers in sin, having offended Him by our pride. We are brothers in redemption, for He, in the condescension of his love and mercy, has become Man, “pitching his tent among us” in order to save us. The victory over sin, death, and darkness is His, and He offers you the freedom to join in his victory — or to remain in the thralls of death. Repent then, defeated ones, and believe.”
A Catholic could say that. He could say that online where, maybe, someone considering the propositions of ISIS’s theology will read it. Whether theological engagement can really pierce the heart is, in the end, up to God, but this much is certain — it’s better than sitting in silence, unable to address an evil for the simple reason that terrorists aren’t liberals.