Historical materialism, a theory popularized by Karl Marx and further developed and refined by others, holds that humanity progresses through stages to a class-free society. For Marxists, the course of history is best appreciated through a scientific lens, with class struggle inevitably leading to a communist future. Marx famously captured the predestined nature of history in the 1859 preface to his tome “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”
The Catholic Church has rejected Marxism for any number of reasons. Its inherent godlessness, the idea that man can find his liberation in the absence of God (indeed, in outright rebellion against God), is one such reason. No less significant is the Marxist insistence that man is, in a very real sense, the plaything of forces beyond his control, so often robbed of free (moral) choice, and best understood, to quote Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, “Centesimus Annus,” “simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.”
Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ understanding of Islamic terrorism suffers from a dalliance with Marxism that sets him at odds with church teaching. He seems unable to explain violence committed in the name of Islam other than through a materialist worldview.
For example, on a flight back to Rome this summer after celebrating World Youth Day in Poland, he argued that the absence of jobs and ideals is what propels the violence of Islamic terrorism. It was as if free choice had been set aside, with man’s actions being inevitable and predictable, based upon social conditions alone. Man’s social existence determines his consciousness, as Marx wrote, and as Pope Francis seemed to suggest.
Furthermore, despite empirical evidence to the contrary (such as the considerable wealth of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden), Pope Francis contended that terrorism “increases whenever there is no other option, when the global economy is centered on the god of money and not the human person, men and women.” On his flight to Poland a few days earlier, he had denied religious undertones to Islamic violence, recognizing only “war for interests, there is war for money, there is war for the resources of nature, there is war for the domination of peoples: This is war.”
By setting aside human agency in understanding Islamic terrorism, Pope Francis seems to engage in what, by definition, is a dehumanizing maneuver. Free choice is but a myth, and religious motivation but a banality.
Reacting to the butchering of Father Jacques Hamel by two Islamic State loyalists in Rouen, France, this summer, Pope Francis seemed blind to the political nature of the crime. He equated the terrorist attack by Muslims with Catholics who kill their girlfriends and mothers-in-law, as if the latter individuals ever justify their actions on the basis of Catholic theology (as if they ever could).
In his response to Father Hamel’s martyrdom, Pope Francis went on to demolish a strawman argument that no one had raised — “Not all Muslims are violent; not all Catholics are violent” — and then equated religion to a “fruitcake, there’s a little bit of everything, there are violent people in these religions.” One would do well to guard against the view that “half a loaf is the same as no bread,” a fallacy that George Orwell identified when criticizing those who would argue that since democracy is imperfect, it cannot therefore be any better than totalitarianism.
Of course, no one would deny that there are violent individuals in Islam and Catholicism, just as there are violent individuals in all religions (and secular ideologies). But one would do well not to flippantly dismiss the religious motivations of terrorists who kill in the name of their faith or to deny the “authenticity” of their convictions.
Can anyone who has read Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan” (proclaimed when the Islamic State announced the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014), perused issues of the Islamic State’s sophisticated online magazine, Dabiq, or studied the statements of al Qaeda, in particular bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America,” seriously doubt the “rootedness” of radical Islamic ideology in the jurisprudence and traditions of Islam? To be sure, other interpretations of Islam are possible. But it would be irresponsible to deny any connection between radical Islam and these sources.
Initiatives such as the United Nations-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations, the Jordanian-backed Amman Message (2004), and the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities earlier this year may insist that Islam is somehow inherently peace-loving. But they do nothing to persuade those jihadis for whom all of this talk is the fruit of jahiliyyah, or “ignorance.”
Religious views, any more than secular ideologies, are not so obviously interchangeable. Would one equate Nazism and Stalinism simply because both happen to be secular ideologies? If not, then why would one instinctively fail to differentiate between religious ways of thinking simply because they are religious ways of thinking?
To suggest that religious motivations are unimportant — or, perhaps even more troubling, to paint religions as essentially so innocuous as to be interchangeable — is the ultimate conceit toward those Islamic terrorists with well-articulated, closely held religious convictions other than one’s own.
Man should be taken at his word, irrespective of what Marx or the Bishop of Rome might say.
• Robert P. Barnidge Jr. is a professor of international relations at Webster University and at the University of Haifa. He is author of “Self-Determination, Statehood, and the Law of Negotiations: The Case of Palestine” (Hart 2016).