World at war with itself over issues of meaning

The Pope says the world is at war, and that this is not a war of religions but of interests, money, and resources. That said, a religious element cannot be denied, writes TP O’Mahony 
World at war with itself over issues of meaning
Pope Francis delivers his message during the Via Crucis with youths participating in World Youth Days, in Poland. Picture: Gregorio Borgia/AP

IS Pope Francis right? Is the world “at war”?

The Pope made his declaration in the immediate aftermath of the murder of an elderly Catholic priest in a church in northern France. In clarifying his remarks, the Pope said he was speaking of wars over interests, money, resources — not religion.

Clearly, the Pope was not speaking of war in the conventional sense, though of course reports of the awful consequences of such a war are brought daily to us from Syria by newspapers, radio, and television. So what kind of war was Francis referring to, and can it be claimed that religion has no involvement in this war?

The appalling murder of an elderly priest, Father Jacques Hamel, in his church in the Normandy town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray has given rise to fears that it is now the Catholic Church in France that is under attack. The brutality of the assault caused shock, horror and anger far beyond the shores of France.

In attacking a priest celebrating Mass in his church, Islamic State signalled that it has again changed the rules of the game. Now it is at war not only with ideas such as ‘the West’, ‘democracy’, or ‘secularism’ — it is at war with a faith. And faith, as we know very well here in Ireland, is something that can shape and sustain a nation over many centuries. That’s why the old hymn ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ (celebrating a faith that withstood “dungeon, fire, and sword”) still resonate today.

Church leaders in France, and in other European countries, said that churches would remain open despite the murder. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, told journalists: “We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged into the politics of Daesh [Islamic State], which wants to set the children of the same family against each other.”

The chairman of France’s conference of religious faiths, the Protestant community leader Francois Clavairoly, said it is impossible to protect every place of worship in the country. “Everyone has to take responsibility, use best practice and keep an eye open,” he said.

A spokesman for the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference said that it would not be possible to protect 24,500 buildings belonging to the Catholic Church in Germany.

“What is therefore required is an increased vigilance in daily life,” said the spokesman.

After the Normandy murder, French president Francois Hollande met Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders at the Elysée palace in Paris. But there was no mistaking the heightened atmosphere of insecurity and fear, particularly in France itself.

When the 85-year-old priest was murdered, the newspaper Le Parisien carried a black border on its front page, and described Fr Hamel as a martyr. At the time, Pope Francis was on a plane on his way to Krakow, for the start of a visit to Poland.

Pope Francis delivers his message during the Via Crucis with youths participating in World Youth Days, in Poland. Picture: Gregorio Borgia/AP
Pope Francis delivers his message during the Via Crucis with youths participating in World Youth Days, in Poland. Picture: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Speaking to reporters on board the papal plane, Pope Francis said: “It’s war, we don’t have to be afraid to say this. The world is at war because it has lost peace. When I speak of war, I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace; it’s the others who want war.”

It may be true that all religions want peace, but it is also true that factions within some religions want war. This is especially true, as is all too bloodily evident since 9/11, of factions within Islam, but it is also true of factions within Buddhism and Sikhism.

Some commentators would contend that the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland had a religious dimension, and that this was evident on both sides. This dimension provided the background to an insightful book from BBC journalist Martin Dillon, entitled God and the Gun: The Church and Irish Terrorism.

In the post-9/11 world, religion and religious faith have been under the spotlight like never before in modern times. Inevitably, after al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, one religion — Islam — became the main focus of interest, exploration, and speculation.

Ever since Islamic State declared a caliphate in Syria, the focus of their attacks on ‘the West’ has switched from the US to Europe.

A new phase could be said to have begun with the killing of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January 2015. This was followed later that year with shootings and bombings at restaurants and bars across Paris, and inside the Bataclan concert hall, leaving 130 dead and 300 injured. Then, last month a truck drove into a busy promenade in Nice on Bastille Day, killing 84 people, including 10 children.

As a result of these atrocities, the use of the word ‘war’ has become commonplace in France, as has (as I witnessed myself during a recent visit to the French capital) the sight of heavily armed troops in city centres, at airports and railway stations, and on beaches.

But is this the sort of ‘war’ Pope Francis was talking about? Or was he referring to something more abstract? Perhaps a global war of ideas? In 1996, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington of Harvard University published a book entitled The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order. It argued that the key sources of post-Cold War conflicts would not be national but cultural, and attracted enormous attention.

It was Huntington’s response to those (especially Francis Fukayama, author of The End of History) who claimed that the fall of Communism meant the universal triumph of Western values. Huntington, who died in December 2008, was deeply concerned that the West’s arrogance about the universality of its own culture would blind it to the ascent of “challenger civilisations”, particularly challenges from Islam and China.

In this, Huntington was acutely prescient. Were he alive today, he would probably highlight not just rival ‘cultures’ but also rival ‘ideologies’, including religious ideologies. Within and outside of Islam in the 21st century, we are witnessing a struggle over dogma and belief. Within Islam, there is a bitter battle between its Sunni and Shia branches. Then, on a global front, there is an ideological battle between Islam and the West.

In saying the world is at war, but not over religion, the Pope is correct in stating we are not witnessing a war of religions. But the wider clash of ideologies undoubtedly has a religious and spiritual dimension as well.

If we take religion in the broad sense that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger meant it — the quest for answers to ultimate questions about the meaning of life — then the global ideological struggle that has intensified ever since 9/11 has a crucially important religious dimension. To ignore or deny this would be very short-sighted.

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