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Bastille Day attack reignites terrorism and religion debate

Members of the Australian French community stand around candles during a vigil in central Sydney
Members of the Australian French community stand around candles during a vigil in central Sydney on July 15, 2016, to remember the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Religious leaders around the world condemned terrorism and expressed solidarity with France after scores of people were killed when a truck plowed through crowds celebrating Bastille Day.

They included Christian figures such as Pope Francis and prominent Muslims such as Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam.

But the attack on Thursday (July 14), France’s national day, reignited an international debate about what part Islamic teaching plays in terrorist attacks by young Muslims whose violence is rejected by many mainstream clerics.

While world leaders condemned the attack, President Barack Obama and others received criticism from political conservatives for not being as explicit as French President Francois Hollande was when he said: “All of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorism.”

In the U.S., where controversy still rages over Donald Trump’s proposal to ban immigration by Muslims, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in response to the attack only “modern Muslims who have given up Shariah,” or Islamic law, should be allowed to be U.S. citizens.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed revulsion over the attack.

“We condemn in the strongest way every demonstration of senseless violence, of hatred, terrorism and any attack against peace,” said a statement issued by the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman. “On behalf of Pope Francis, we join in solidarity with the suffering of the victims and of the entire French people this day that should have been a great holiday.”

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, took to social media to comment on the killings: “As the French rejoice in their liberty, human evil kills the innocent cruelly. Let us weep with them, let us stand with them #PrayForNice.”

Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a Saudi cleric, said the attacker would be cursed by “God, his angels and all human beings,” according to The Guardian.

Allam, the Egyptian grand mufti, who is the country’s official interpreter of Islamic law, said people who commit such ugly crimes “are corrupt of the earth and follow in the footsteps of the devil … and are cursed in life and in the hereafter,” according to Egypt’s Ahram Online newspaper.

And Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, issued a statement saying such “vile terrorist attacks contradict Islamic teachings,” Ahram reported.

In the United States, the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the massacre and issued a plea:

“As we mourn the victims and determine how best to protect people of all faiths and backgrounds from such brutal attacks, let us not help the recruiting efforts of ISIS and other terror groups by blaming all Muslims for the murders in France,” said a statement by its leader, Nihad Awad.

He rejected Gingrich’s proposal about Muslims and Shariah.

“When Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggests that American Muslims be subjected to an Inquisition-style religious test and then expelled from their homes and nation, he plays into the hands of terror recruiters and betrays the American values he purports to uphold,” Awad said.

According to CNN, Gingrich had said in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be. Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Shariah, they should be deported.”

“Shariah is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Shariah, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door,” he added.

However, on his Twitter account Gingrich said his words had gone through “amazing distortions” in the media.

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  • There is nothing to distort. Even the most secular Muslim, who looks no different than any other American but goes to mosque occasionally and refrains from drinking and pork, is following sharia to a degree. If there’s been any “misunderstanding,” and Newtie just meant the “bad kind” of shariah, then he’s responsible for his own stupidity.

  • This isn’t really a “terrorism and religion debate”: it’s a terrorism and Islam debate. There is arguably such a thing as “Christian terrorism”, but that hasn’t been an issue in decades at least (if you count the troubles in Northern Ireland). Part of the problem is that there isn’t any such thing as “religion” in the generic, only particular religions, and what particular religions believe actually matters. The idea that we can treat religions as just different flavors of the same thing (in contrast to “secularism”) doesn’t stand up well outside of pluralistic religious-studies departments. I don’t think Islam leads necessarily to violence, but I think it’s safe to admit that some of it does, and this is where the debate actually lies: what do you do about (trigger warning: I’m going to say it) “radicalized Islam”?

  • Would Gingrich support banning all Christians from America who reject the separation of church and state or is religious nationalism acceptable only when it’s his own religion that does it?

  • I don’t know how you can claim Christian terrorism is no longer an issue when we just had a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood earlier this year that was waged by a right wing radical Christian terrorist.

  • I suppose it depends on your definitions. If by “terrorism” you mean “terrible things”, then you’d be right. I was using it more in the geopolitical sense of “actions by a loosely organized subversive organization which foments unrest by use of unconventional means such as attacks on civilians.” ISIS undoubtedly qualifies, whereas the PP shooter doesn’t (and, by the same definition, the Nice attack isn’t probably a terror attack either, but that depends a bit on interpretation; ISIS seemed to be as surprised as anyone by it all).

  • Hi Thomas. What you do about “radicalised Islam” is, in the ‘generic’ sense, what you do about the followers of any ideology/belief system who have been radicalised. You de-radicalise them back to the point from which their radicalisation began. If you accept that as a logical response, then the question is simply one of who and what should be involved in such de-radicalisation.
    If, however, you are working from the premise that the core doctrines of a religion are intrinsically radical, then the (simple) division of its followers is logically between those who act out their radicalness (the core doctrine), and those who don’t through ignorance or deliberate avoidance. This premise concedes pluralism within the religion ‘despite’ the radicalness of the shared core beliefs, not pluralism of those core beliefs themselves.
    Trump’s current position appears to be that it is impossible to know the motivations of Muslim immigrants, so his solution is a catch-all ban on anyone Muslim entering the US. But his solution (if accepted as a valid one) has at least one rather obvious flaw in that it ignores Muslims who have already entered, are born within, or those in the US who convert/revert. So Gingrich goes a step further by addressing resident Muslims, and applying a values test of sorts to determine who can stay and who can’t. Gingrich’s proposal is also a catch-all ban, since ‘any’ meaningful act of being Muslim would necessarily fall under one of the five branches of sharia, e.g. the behaviour or beliefs branches. In effect, Gingrich’s proposal would only allow those Muslims to remain who, whilst self identifying as Muslim, exhibit no behaviour or belief identifiable as being a part of the religion of Islam.
    Meanwhile, it won’t be the radicals of the ‘any means necessary’ variety – the variety who make no distinctions when targeting other Muslims, and who are not bound to truthful, personal public declarations in the course of conducting their activities – who will be dissuaded by such measures.

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