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The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | July 8, 2005

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The London subway and bus bombings of July 7 killed some forty people and injured seven hundred others. Such acts are yet another wake-up call to people in every country who evidently need constant graphic reminders that a real war is being fought against them on a world-scale.

Public life will not go on "as usual" so long as militant, aggressive Islam, however statistically and comparatively small in numbers, is active throughout the world. Its analysis of the moral decadence in the West encourages it to think it can undermine the will of particularly its most effective military and principled opponents. They are not yet proved wrong. They think, with such methods, that they have a winning formula.

Just at a moment when many liberal western media and political sources insisted that this war was "caused" by overreaction on the part of President Bush to 9/11, the Islamic militants oblige us with another graphic incident. They will not go away until actually defeated. They do not negotiate or give advanced warnings. They kill the innocent, in cold blood, precisely because they are innocent and unprepared to defend themselves. They see and justify this arbitrary killing as a legitimate means to their religious and political end, the conquest of the world for Islam.

If there is widespread, active opposition to these forces within the Islamic world today – and there is some – it is either too afraid or too silent to be particularly effective. Western Muslim spokesmen, whose position is rarely echoed within Islamic countries, generally deny any responsibility and seem to worry mostly about reaction, not about causes. On prudential grounds, we cannot expect Islam to cure itself by itself. The President’s program of setting up a "democratic" government in Muslim states when possible has an outside chance of succeeding, but probably no more than that.

Religious public opinion in Muslim states needs to be much more condemnatory against such attacks. Certainly some not insignificant percentage of Muslim opinion throughout the world approves these terrorist methods and their goals, especially when they seem "effective." This conquest mentality is not something new but has a long and recurrent history that needs to be more clearly recognized.

The purpose of such sporadic attacks, from Bali to Moscow to London to Madrid to New York and elsewhere, is to undermine any effective will to use force in the West. It seeks to stop military opposition to terrorism in their political foundations. Till now, the forces defining "what Islam really is" are not the so-called "non-terrorist" Muslims. These latter themselves become targets when they manifest coherent and effective opposition.to these same Islamic radicals. We see this in Iraq almost every day.

There are not "two" wars – one in Iraq and one against the terrorists. There is but one war, wherever it is fought, including in London or Baghdad. The terrorists are fully capable of being everywhere. They are invariably Muslim radicals intent on a world mission at least claiming a religious duty. They are not primarily "caused" by poverty or any of the usual ideological reasons given to justify terror.

In fact, such Islamic apologists for this terrorist system see nothing wrong with what we habitually call terror. It is a legitimate means to their end to be deliberately and efficiently used. I have long considered suicide and other terrorist bombing initiatives to be cumulatively far more dangerous to world population than any threat once associated with nuclear war or other kinds of war. But I do not doubt that some of these terrorists would use nuclear weapons if they had them and were capable of delivering them. So this eventually must also be taken into consideration. In the long run, the terrorists will kill more people and cause more economic destruction and chaos than war, but it will be piecemeal, a little at a time, not easily noticed or calculated.

The London bombings, unlike 9/11, were apparently not suicide bombings. But it is probably just a question of time before we, as in Israel, see them in our streets. They are just too effective a propaganda and terrorist means. Suicide bombers are not needed against easy targets. I am, in fact, struck by how relatively little moral attention is paid to suicide and terrorist bombings as expressions of a religious purpose and what this view does to any truth claim. Pope John Paul II several times remarked on this incompatibility.

The main battlefield of the war is not Iraq or even London tubes. It is in the media and public opinion in the United States and Europe about whether the will to do what is necessary to prevent these attacks is firm enough over a long period of time. Civilian and suicide bombings have a political purpose and a religious purpose.

The political purpose is a calculated risk that continued bombings would show that Western powers cannot defend their own populations. Consequently, they should cease trying. They should rather, in return for "peace," submit to Islamic neutralization of their territories, a kind of compromised second-class citizenship. Likewise, they should withdraw from any effort to prevent such attacks in Muslim lands themselves

The religious purpose of this war, in the minds of its advocates, is to succeed in subjecting the world to Allah. This purpose, no doubt, sounds preposterous. But I think that we misunderstand the problem if we do not disassociate what these terrorists themselves say from our theories of "terrorism." The problem is not caused by fanaticism or some political, sociological, or psychological derangement.

The fact that not all Muslims in practice agree with this end is, in a sense, irrelevant. The more terrorism succeeds, the more it will seem that the Islamic radicals were right. Even in its own terms, however, a failure to conquer on a world scale causes widespread doubt within Islam because it seems that its world mission is defeated.

British leaders naturally see this bombing in the light of the attacks of World War II and the IRA of the more recent past. They know that within the bosom of every Western nation today are sufficient numbers of organized Islamic militants ready to carry out serious disruptions and killings of the citizenry.

We forget, however, that many, many bombings of various kinds have been prevented since 9/11. A prevented bombing makes no headlines. But we are wrong to think that effective security and military forces have not been in place. The terrorists themselves know that they are more and more under surveillance and pressure.

Al-Qaeda forces may have seen their reputation so questioned by the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq phases of the war that they felt it absolutely necessary to show some flashy sign of strength. If so, this too is in effect a sign of their weakness. They revealed themselves for what they are once more. It has been taken as a truism that it is better to fight these forces on their own grounds and not in London or New York or Madrid. The war overseas does not prove that it is not effective, but that it is. But the latter three cities, however orchestrated, are part of the same war.

In this sense, we can be grateful that the Islamic terrorists in London again called our flagging attention to the real war, the one against those who first declared war against us in the name of their religious and political mission. The first effort has been and still is to undermine any effective opposition. Whether this purpose can be achieved by terrorism and its effect on public opinion remains to be seen.

I suspect that the Islamic radicals still think they are on target. In the end, they will see the London bombings as a stunning "success." But if it finally makes us see the real scope and nature of the one war, they will have miscalculated both our understanding of what they are about and our will to do something about it.

Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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