The Shepherd’s Dilemma: Speaking Out Against Islamic Terror

 “Say too little and people will be killed; say too much and people will be killed.”

I don’t remember the source of the quotation, but it succinctly captures the dilemma that world leaders face in deciding how to respond to Islamic violence.

Catholic leaders face the same dilemma. When Muslims murder in the name of Allah, what should bishops say? Or should they say anything? Church leaders, especially the pope, are expected to speak out against glaring evils, but what if, by speaking out, they provoke more violence?

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Pope Benedict’s reference at Regensburg to a medieval emperor’s remarks about Muhammad’s violent commands was followed by rioting and murder. When he spoke out several years later about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (which were being used to justify persecution of Christians), Muslims in Pakistan staged huge rallies to condemn the pope. Six weeks later, Shabaz Bhatti, a prominent Catholic critic of the blasphemy laws, was shot down by gunmen. When, following the bombing of a church in Alexandria, Pope Benedict urged the Egyptian government to do more to protect Christians, he was told to stop interfering in the affairs of Egypt. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar—Islam’s most important university—broke off relations with the Vatican as punishment.

These examples might give the impression that Benedict took an aggressive stand toward Islam, but this is not the case. His many statements about his respect for Muslims and Islam and his affirmations about the common ground shared by Christians and Muslims far outweigh any negative criticisms he made.

For the most part, Benedict, along with other recent popes, has refrained from criticizing Islam. Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the attitude of the Vatican toward Islam has been one of friendly outreach. For example, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis went so far as to say that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”

This restraint is extraordinary when looked at in the light of the widespread and relentless persecution of Christians by Muslims in recent years—persecution that has been variously described as “genocide,” “extermination,” and a “war against Christians.” Contrary to popular opinion, this persecution predates 9/11. For instance, between 1983 and 1995 (when John Paul II was pope), Muslims in Sudan killed an estimated two million Christians and displaced another four million.

It seems fair to say that if the Vatican has erred on the “say too much-say too little” continuum, it has erred on the side of “say too little.” The dilemma faced by recent popes is similar to that faced by Pope Pius XII during the Nazi occupation of Europe. In recent years, Pius has been severely criticized for not speaking out about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Yet when the pope and other Catholic bishops did not speak out, it was often at the request of Jewish leaders who feared Nazi retaliation—a justified fear, seeing that strong protests by the Dutch bishops against the deportation of Jews in 1942 provoked savage Nazi reprisals against the Jews.

According to historian David Dalin, Pius XII did speak out strongly against the Nazis not only while he was pope but also in the years while he was papal nuncio to Germany. His efforts as pope were not limited to formal protests, but also included initiatives to protect and shelter Jews throughout Europe. For example, it is estimated that the pope’s interventions rescued 80 percent of Roman Jews from Nazi deportation.

Could more lives have been saved if Pius had spoken out more strongly and more frequently? Perhaps. Or perhaps such statements would have incited further atrocities. It is difficult to say. Nevertheless, contemporary opinion-makers have shown no hesitation in condemning Pius for his silence. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is now an article of faith among many journalists that Pius turned a blind eye toward the fate of the Jews.

The question then arises: Why don’t these critics of Pius go after contemporary popes for their reluctance to criticize Islam’s anti-Semitic and pro-jihadist theology? A strong case can be made that, in comparison to Pius XII’s response to Nazi crimes, recent popes have been relatively silent about Muslim atrocities committed against non-Muslims in the name of Islam.

The reason we don’t hear such criticism is that the opinion elites, along with government elites, have also elected to remain silent about Muslim aggression. By “silence” I don’t mean that Muslim atrocities are never reported or remarked on.  The most spectacular attacks are reported, but the overall scale of Muslim aggression is grossly underreported.  Moreover, when aggression is discussed it is always within a framework of moral equivalence.  Thus, Muslim attacks on Christians are described by the media as “sectarian strife” or as “clashes” between Christians and Muslims.  Above all, every attempt is made to absolve Islam itself from any responsibility for the crimes. World leaders do the same. Every time violence is committed in the name of Islam, presidents and prime ministers assure us that “This has nothing to do with Islam.”

And what of the critics of Pius XII? John Cornwell, the author of Hitler’s Pope, criticized Pope Benedict for not remaining silent about Islamic violence on the occasion of his speech at Regensburg. And as Dalin points out in The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, none of the main critics of Pius—John Cornwell, Daniel Goldhagen, Gary Wills, or James Carroll—have spoken out against Islamic anti-Semitism. Confronted with the major manifestation of anti-Semitism in their own time, the critics of Pius seem to have adopted the rule that silence is golden.

Rather than focus on the hypocrisy of Pius’ contemporary critics, however, let’s ask just how Catholic leaders should respond to widespread and ongoing Muslim violence. There are roughly four ways to respond and each is attendant with difficulties.

One: Remain silent out of concern that speaking out will provoke more violence. This position can be justified on the grounds that the situation of Christians in Muslims lands is roughly similar to that of hostages in a hostage-taking situation. In order to protect the lives of the hostages, the negotiators should say nothing that might upset the hostage-takers. The problem with this approach is that remaining silent does not necessarily guarantee less violence. Church leaders and world leaders alike have been very careful not to upset Muslims, but there has been no let-up in violence. If no one speaks up, there is no need to worry about world opinion.  Silence may be taken as a sign that there will be no consequences for crimes against non-Muslims, and it may even embolden the victimizers to further violence.

Two: Criticize extremist violence in general terms while exonerating Islam itself of any responsibility. This seems now to be the most common response both among secular leaders and Christian leaders. At this point, it’s impossible to ignore the systematic persecution of non-Muslims, particularly of Christians, so almost everyone realizes that a response is called for, but the criticism is almost always of a generic variety. It is directed at “extremism” or “terrorism,” but the critics refrain from asking whether or not the violence has roots in Islamic theology. On the contrary, we are assured that the Islamic perpetrators have misunderstood their own religion.

Three: Say only positive things about Islam in the hopes that a self-fulfilling prophecy will be set in motion (or in the genuine belief that Islam actually is a religion of peace). When Catholic prelates do speak about Islam, it is almost always in a positive way. Islam is praised as a “great religion” or as an “Abrahamic faith” which shares much in common with Catholicism. All of the recent popes have expressed their deep respect and esteem for Muslims and for Islam and even for its “holy book.” There’s an old Johnny Mercer song that tells us to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative,” and that advice seems to sum up Church policy toward Islam. In a sense, this approach is a variation on the old educational principle that expectations determine behavior: if we set high expectations for students, they will rise to meet those expectations. Likewise, if we keep saying over and over that Islam is a religion of peace and justice, even Islamists will eventually believe it and act accordingly.  The drawback of this approach is that it seems to be rooted more in wishful thinking than in fact, and policies that are divorced from reality usually have unfortunate consequences. One unfortunate result of this one-sided narrative about Islam is that it leaves Catholics largely unprepared to meet the challenge of a world in which militant Islam is once again a potent force.

Four: A fourth alternative would be to speak out against the violence and point out those aspects of Islamic theology/ideology that endanger others. This could be coupled with a plea to Islamic leaders and clerics to more strongly address the violence and to repeal the blasphemy and apostasy laws that are used to intimidate Christians and non-Christians alike.  At first glance this approach appears untenable. It might provoke more violence and might lead Muslim leaders and clerics to turn against the Church rather than examine their own problems. In addition, it would provide Western leaders and opinion-makers with an opportunity to attack the Church for insensitivity, bigotry, and Islamophobia.  There is no guarantee that world opinion would rally behind a pope who singled out specific aspects of Islam for criticism.

On the other hand, it is for the supposed failure of Pope Pius XII to specifically condemn Nazi ideology and laws that he is criticized today. And it is precisely because Western leaders failed to speak out early enough about Nazism that it was able to gain so much power. There is an ideology behind the violence in the Muslim world, and if that ideology is never identified or addressed, the violence will continue and most probably increase. Is this supremacist ideology an aberration that has nothing to do with Islam?  If, so, how does one explain the fact that it is written into Islamic law and scripture?

Another point to consider is that by remaining silent, the Church does an injustice to potential future victims of Islamic violence. If there are aspects of Islamic ideology that pose a danger to Christians, then Christians have a right to know the full truth about Islam as opposed to the prettified picture of it favored by many Catholic leaders. A rough analogy might be made to the Church’s teaching on abortion. Suppose committed abortionists all over the world were to riot and kill every time a pope or bishop spoke up against abortion. Should Church leaders keep silent about abortion to avoid bloodshed? Would we say that the bishops bore responsibility for the violence because they had unnecessarily provoked the abortionists? And if Church leaders did decide to remain silent, would their silence result in fewer or more abortions?

The analogy to rampaging abortionists is not exact and neither is the analogy to Pius and the Nazis. In many respects, the threats posed by Islam are sui generis. There is nothing unique, however, about the dilemma faced by the shepherds of the Church: do nothing and people will be hurt; do something and people will be hurt. This is not to say that there are no other alternatives to the four I’ve listed. For instance, it is possible that much can be accomplished through quiet diplomatic pressure and through a tougher, more realistic dialogue with Muslim leaders. But it is unlikely that Church leaders can develop an adequate response to Islamic militancy unless they first develop a realistic assessment of the difficult situation they now face. This is not a time for wishful thinking.

Editor’s note: The image above is a protest in Lahore on January 12, 2011 in response to comments made by Pope Benedict against blasphemy laws in Muslim countries, Pakistan in particular. (Photo credit: AFP Photo / Arif Ali.)


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