Copycat Catholics

COMMENTARY: Rethinking Establishment Narratives About Islam

Armed police officers stand outside the Grand Mosque on Jan. 9 in Paris.
Armed police officers stand outside the Grand Mosque on Jan. 9 in Paris. (photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A widely read Catholic news outlet recently carried a piece about the causes of Islamic terrorism. The conclusion? We don’t know what causes it, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with Islam.

That has become a familiar refrain. When bad things are done in the name of Islam, we are told it has nothing to do with Islam. To be fair to the author, Susan Wills, she relies heavily on two books by academics who have studied terrorism.

One would think they should know the score, but they are hesitant to come to any conclusions, except to rule out the one that would jump to most people’s minds when an Allahu akbar-shouting individual starts shooting in their direction.

One of the authorities cites seven reasons why individuals might turn to terrorism, but none of them has anything to do with religion. For example, reason No. 1 is the aggressors “feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised” — a descriptor that would fit about one-third of the planet’s young-adult males.

Although the terrorists themselves may cite religion as a motivator, the researchers dismiss this as a red herring made up after the fact to justify their behavior. Consequently, for counterterrorism agents’ purposes of profiling, “infiltrating mosques and hanging out in hookah bars is a waste of time.”

The White House seems to be consulting the same researchers. President Barack Obama and his representatives refuse to connect Muslim terrorist attacks with Islam — not even with “radical Islam.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has been pushing the nothing-to-do-with-Islam meme — well, in earnest.

After the Paris massacre last month, he wouldn’t address the terrorists’ loudly shouted explanation: “Allahu akbar! We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” According to Earnest, this was an obvious red herring: “They later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.” In another briefing, he said, “We’re still trying to figure out exactly … what their motivations are.”

And so, it seems, are some Catholic journalists. One of the academics Wills cites answers the question, “Why would anyone commit such acts?” with “We don’t know why. Even the terrorists don’t really know what their motivations are.”

The terrorists don’t know why? Then what’s the point of terrorizing?

Almost by definition, acts of terrorism are committed out of ideological motivations. The idea of terrorism is to spread an ideology by intimidating others either to accept it or else to cease resisting it. Drive-by shootings may have the effect of terrorizing a neighborhood, but since they are not motivated by an ideology, we don’t refer to gangs as terrorist outfits.

On the other hand, a suicide bomber who blows himself up in a crowded market is a terrorist. He does what he does out of an ideological or religious motive — not, as some terrorism experts would have us believe, for no particular reason at all.

Catholicism is supposed to be the religion of faith and reason, but some Catholics seem to be accepting what the experts say on faith alone. It requires a certain leap of faith to believe that when a terrorist increases his rate of praying from one to five times a day in the year before his attack (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) or when another terrorist carries a business card identifying himself as a “soldier of Allah” (Nidal Hasan), it “signifies nothing” (to paraphrase Shakespeare, whose plays, according to literary experts, can be interpreted to mean anything you like).

One specialist Wills quoted says that the field of terrorism and radicalization is “still quite haphazard,” and he suggests that the motivations of the terrorists are equally haphazard. But researchers have a tool for eliminating the possibility that an event occurs haphazardly.  It’s called probability theory.  Approximately 90% of all terrorist acts worldwide are committed by Muslims. The statistical probability that their acts have little to do with Islam is close to nil.

If you’re not familiar with the laws of probability, you can always consult the laws of common sense. When Islamist terrorists began killing shoppers at a Nairobi mall, they first took care to separate the Muslims from the Christians. Why? Experts are stumped. The White House is still trying to figure out a motivation.

“Jihad Jane,” who tried to kill a Swedish cartoonist a year ago, said she did it out of “love for my prophet.” If the researchers are to be believed, she just doesn’t know her own mind. Neither, apparently, did Terry Lee Lowen, who plotted to bomb the Wichita airport, because, as he told an undercover agent:

“Brothers like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki are a great inspiration to me, but I must be willing to give up everything (like they did) to truly feel like an obedient slave of Allah.”

You may think it has something to do with his religion, but the professors aren’t buying such simplistic explanations. According to one expert quoted in the aforementioned article, homegrown terrorists often have a “wafer-thin” knowledge of Islamic theology. That is also the opinion of John Esposito, the head of Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and one of the most prominent Catholic exponents of the nothing-to-do-with-Islam school of thought.

As proof, he gives the example of two would-be terrorists, who, before departing for Syria, ordered a copy of Islam for Dummies. Therefore, concludes Esposito, “their primary drivers were not religious.” Supposedly, their thinking ran along these lines: “Say, Ahmed, before we risk getting blown up for the Islamic State, maybe we should find out what this Islamic thing is all about.”

It’s likely that many 11th-century Crusaders could have profited from Catholicism for Dummies, but we don’t discount the religious motivation of the Crusaders. More to the point, many Islamic terrorists do have a thorough knowledge of Islam.

Take Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood, Texas, shooter. He once presented a well-informed PowerPoint lecture on Islam to his medical colleagues.

Or consider the case of Umar Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” who was president of the Islamic Society of University College, London. In high school, he was known as “the scholar” for his extensive knowledge of Islam.

Then there is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group. He holds a Ph.D. in Islamic studies.

Or take Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden, two of the most influential exponents of global terrorism. Both were steeped in Islamic doctrine.

It’s beginning to look as though those with the wafer-thin knowledge of Islam are academics with an agenda and press secretaries without a clue. Catholics would do well to think twice before lending credence to their highly politicized points of view.

It’s not just the established narrative on terrorism that’s at issue. Influential Catholics continue to push a variety of ideas about Islam that, although widely accepted by politicians and pundits, don’t hold up to examination.  

Thus, we have otherwise reliable Catholic thinkers who maintain, contrary to mounting evidence, that Islam is a religion of peace, that Muslims are our natural allies and that Islamophobia poses a greater threat than Islamists. Catholics need to undertake an agonizing reappraisal of their thinking on Islam.  

The nothing-to-do-with-Islam narrative is fast becoming untenable — and that’s because it has nothing to do with reality.

William Kilpatrick is the author of Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West.