In the nearly 10 years since Sept. 11, the preoccupying question has remained: Was the jihadist violence of that day representative of Islam, or a perversion of it?
From Sept. 12 onwards, everyone from President George W. Bush to the Prince of Wales has assured us that Islam is a religion of peace. The vast majority of commentators in general, and Christian thinkers in particular, have accepted that. After all, there have been long periods in history of peaceful Islamic rule, and across the Islamic world today, jihadist extremism is fought against by Muslim leaders themselves.
Daniel Pipes, one of the strongest critics of radicalized Islam, makes the point clearly: “It’s a mistake to blame Islam, a religion 14 centuries old, for the evil that should be ascribed to militant Islam, a totalitarian ideology less than a century old. Militant Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution.”
Islamic problems can only be solved by Muslims. So Christians this past decade — and even farther back for those who were paying attention — have watched with keen interest the struggle between militant Islam and moderate Islam.
CNS PHOTO | ASMAA WAGUIH, REUTERS
Coptic Orthodox priests pray in Alexandria Egypt, in the house of a victim of the Jan. 1 bomb attack outside an Orthodox church.
January 2011 may well mark the month when it became clear that militant Islam will have the upper hand for the next generation. Muslims themselves will bear the brunt of that in terms of violent deaths, loss of liberty and cultural backwardness. But Christians too will pay a fearsome price. Their blood is already running from their churches into the streets. It will continue.
In Pakistan last year, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death under the country’s blasphemy law, which makes it a capital offence to insult the prophet Muhammad. It does not take much imagination to see how such a law can be used arbitrarily against Christians.
When the prominent governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer, spoke out against the blasphemy law and in support of Bibi, he was brutally murdered by his own bodyguard on Jan. 4. The bodyguard surrendered to police, making it clear that Taseer had to die for protesting the blasphemy law.
Some 500 influential Sunni clerics – often described in the Western press as “moderate” — then forbade mourning for Taseer, bestowing a posthumous benediction on the killing. As for the assassin himself, after making a court appearance, he was decorated with garlands and paraded through the streets by the police to receive the homage of the people. Moderate Islam as a shaper of culture and politics in Pakistan was buried for at least a generation with Taseer.
In Egypt, January began with the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 people. Coptic Christians cried out after the bombing that they are subject to systematic campaigns of discrimination, intimidation and persecution. In his address to the diplomatic corps days later, Pope Benedict addressed the issue.
“In Egypt too, in Alexandria, terrorism brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church,” the pope said. “This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”
In response, the Egyptian government recalled its ambassador to the Holy See for consultations, accusing the pope of “interfering” in Egypt’s “internal affairs.”
Then, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious academic institution in the Islamic world — sometimes called the “Muslim Vatican” — suspended its long-standing dialogue with the actual Vatican in protest. That annual dialogue has been going on since 1998, and is always held up as a model of good Catholic-Muslim relations.
Yet now, Al-Azhar, a state institution close to the Egyptian government, has succumbed to pressure from a government itself worried about pressure from the militant front of Islam.
To sum up: Violent jihadis massacre Christians at prayer in a church. The universal pastor of the Church expresses solidarity with the fresh martyrs, and calls upon Egypt’s government to protect its own citizens at prayer — a position surely shared by the Egyptian government. The response is that both mosque and state suspend relations with the Holy See, as if the Church was the aggressor.
It is a madness only made comprehensible by fear. The moderates, such as they are in Egypt, are deathly afraid of the militants. And well they should, for the militants are on the rise.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org