The carnage in Nice came about by the simple expedient of hiring a refrigerated lorry and driving it into a festival crowd, killing 84. What made it effective in its devastation was its diabolical cruelty, its stony-heartedness. It is that pitilessness that renders us helpless, as it was intended to.
With powerlessness comes temptation. A frightened people reach out for simple answers and solutions.
One is to scapegoat Islam, to declare — as populists in the US and Europe are now doing — that our politically correct, liberal societies cannot bring themselves to do the only thing necessary: to expel Muslims. (It will begin with the ‘extremists,’ but soon all Muslims will be seen as extremists.)
It will be argued that unlike Christianity, which if properly lived produces justice and peace, a literal living out of Islam — which was born in conflict and conquest — leads to the mass bombing of innocents.
This narrative contains a truth. It is a mistake to describe Islamic State as un-Islamic, when it is the fruit of a bizarrely precise attempt to recreate exactly a seventh-century caliphate.
Although IS may horrify ordinary Muslims — who are far more likely than westerners to be its victims — it is wrong to claim that this extremism has nothing to do with Islam, or with mosques.
When, following Nice, the vice-president of the Conference of Imams of France resigned out of exasperation at the denial of French mosques about extremism in their ranks, Hocine Drouiche nailed a failure among Muslim leaders that is repeated across Europe.
But to blame Islam is to evade our own religious susceptibility to violence — and the nature of violence itself.
As Pope Francis has frequently pointed out, Islam is, on the whole and most of the time, a religion of values and of peace. That is not wishful thinking, but a fact.
Nor is the use of Scripture for violent ends alien to Christians. It is not just the Old Testament’s violent passages — even the Psalms rejoice in dashing heads against rocks — that have been used (as Francis has also pointed out) as a mandate for violent coercion and sacrifice.
The great command in Matthew 28—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19-20a)— assuaged the consciences of Spanish colonialists in the sixteenth century, while the master in Luke 14:23 who orders his servants to “compel” whomever they find to come to the wedding was taken in previous eras as a justification for enforced conversion
Equally evasive is to suggest – like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – that the problem is religion itself, when the iconic horrors of the twentieth century were carried out by committed atheists who first expunged religion. On all evidence, religion is the greatest force for peace available to humanity.
But it can go wrong; it can be perverted. Religious people are not immune to violence, and faith can be deployed in the service of destruction.
Understanding why, now, Islam is being corroded from within, is to realize that both the virus and its antidote lies within the West.
In one of Pope Francis’ (and his predecessor’s) favorite books, Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic The Lord of the World, it is Catholics, not Muslims, who are the suicide bombers. Francis reads that dystopian 1907 novel to show the grim consequences of “ideological colonization,” when a materialistic, secularist, technological paradigm seduces even religious people.
And that is the point about the young western-educated Muslims who turn themselves into weapons of mass destruction. They tell us very little about Islam, but a lot about Muslims’ particular vulnerability to what Francis in Laudato Si’ calls the “technocratic paradigm.”
The term is used by Romano Guardini in his 1950 text, The End of the Modern World, to describe the mindset wrought by the erosion of the religious by rapid technological development. The technocratic paradigm sees other people (and nature itself) as instruments and objects, rather than deserving of our veneration and respect.
Guardini observed this mindset behind the great developments of his time, including totalitarianism. Unchained from Christianity, the cult of power could be seen in the arrogance, contempt and violence of Nazism and Stalinism.
It a mindset visible, nowadays, in the sink-or-swim social Darwinism of our contemporary economy, driven by frenetic consumption and the ‘throwaway culture’; in gender theory and biogenetic manipulation and euthanasia, in which the sovereign individual, deploying logic and rational procedures, gains mastery over reality; in the myth of enlightenment progress, in which man moves seamlessly to a place of mastery; and in all forms of literalism, juridicism, and nominalism, in which man seeks to make reality conform to the abstractions he worships.
It is the precise opposite of the religious paradigm in which God, not we, are sovereign; in which reality is received as a gift, rather than manipulated for our own ends; and in which we achieve greatness not through dominion over others but by service of their needs, in emulation of God’s mercy.
Islamism is the technocratic paradigm applied to Islam.
Despite its medieval ideology, IS is a product of western technocracy; it is run by engineers and jurists. It is wholly at home with social media and contemporary technology, and its adherents are frustrated lower middle-class young people college-educated in technical subjects.
Maybe the most important thing about Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was not that the Bastille Day killer was a Tunisian or a Muslim, but that he studied engineering. The scientists, technicians, and computer programmers attracted to IS are not ‘backward’ religious people.
They may be ‘losers,’ or unemployed, angry and adrift; but they are educated Muslim westerners who have mostly abandoned the faith of their forebears before being seduced by the ‘Rambo appeal’ of Salafi websites surfed in solitary bedrooms.
For a Muslim in a Western country who feels like a loser, IS offers a path to winning that fits perfectly with the technocratic paradigm. The stonier the heart and the greater the effort, the larger will be the reward. The more recklessly heroic the act, the bigger will be the result.
Thus, in Nice, a wife-beating, hard-drinking, indebted, divorced jobless guy with no interest whatsoever in religion became a jihadist suicide attacker almost overnight. It may turn out that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel has some or no connection at all with IS. It doesn’t really matter; he was inspired by it. He was a powerless, despairing Muslim, and IS represented an Islam of power.
“People will talk about me,” he boasted beforehand, as such suicide attackers almost always do.
Why are Muslims so vulnerable, right now, to this ideological colonization? Islamic experts point to the identity traumas within the Arab and Muslim world and the simple Salafist diagnosis: that Islam has become impure and must be restored by means of a restored caliphate.
IS has made that finally happen. It has made bowed-down Muslims in the west feel strong, just as Nazism made subjugated lower middle-class Germans feel strong.
It is also because, like Protestant Christianity, Islam has made scripture accessible to all, unmediated. For centuries, the Qu’ran was an impenetrable noise mediated by scholars and jurists; now it is on the web, for any Salafist to tell anyone what it means, what it commands — and (in a perfect example of the technocratic paradigm) how to carry out its precepts.
Imagine a Christian televangelist giving instructions on YouTube, based on Leviticus 20:13, on precisely how to kill gay people caught in the sexual act, and we have some idea of what is going on.
IS worships technology and power. It hungers for genocide, for a final showdown. It considers itself an instrument of the end of the world, triggering apocalyptic violence that will purify the world through the killing of vast numbers of people (including, incidentally, roughly 200m Shia Muslims and almost all Sunnis).
This is not religion but ideology, one that reduces God to a vengeful lawyer.
So far, tragically, the response of the Western world – from the Iraq war in response to 9/11 that created space for IS, to Donald Trump’s call for the expulsion of Muslims and President Hollande’s vow to respond ‘mercilessly’ to the atrocities in France – has perfectly fitted its narrative of struggle and death.
“We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil,” says Hollande. Yet that is precisely what IS wants — to provoke a military reaction that will bring forward the final battle.
IS will continue to test us for many years to come. We need intelligence, sound security measures, good defenses. But the IS-inspired violence of lonely losers cannot be defeated or eradicated through the same technological mastery that put us here.
No politician, no state, can deliver us from IS, and its heresy; it can only die of its own internal contradictions, and only then if we stand firm, and do not surrender to our own scapegoating violence.
Only true religion can drive out bad. Only forgiving victims can defeat the persecutors. Only by abandoning our illusion of power can we defeat the power-hungry IS.
That doesn’t mean helplessness; but it does mean understanding the temptations that come with refusing to be helpless.
There is, finally, only one way out — the path indicated by Pope Francis in this Year of Mercy, the path that is true to the Christian inheritance of the west. In the face of the murderous, ruthless provocation of IS, the only ultimate response is to mourn the dead, forgive the perpetrators, and to dissolve the divisions in humanity through concrete acts of mercy.
There is no technocratic strategy that can defeat God’s mercy. And only God’s mercy offers a chance to start again.
That is our test. The apocalypse is now.
[This reflection is indebted to a talk to Catholic Voices earlier this year by Damian Howard SJ]