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Press: Confusion abounds about Islamist threat

13 November 2020


PERHAPS the most Christian reaction to the latest wave of apparently Islamist murders in France (News, 6 November) was that of the Orthodox priest in Lyon who was shot twice outside his church and left for dead, in what seemed at first to be another terrorist attack. But, when he woke from his coma in hospital, he wasted no time in telling the police that he was, in fact, the victim of a jealous husband.

The Spectator had two pieces that fell short of that standard. One was simply alarmist waffle: “Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin admits there will be further attacks, and is thin on the details of how they will be countered. Michel Houellebecq, in his 2015 novel Submission, predicted that the French establishment is ultimately more likely to collaborate with Islamists than seriously confront them. A French friend reminds me: ‘We’re not very good at winning wars.’”

The second, by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, was quite horribly confused. “It has become normal”, he says, “to think of the Islamist attacks on Europe as attacks on a secular way of life.” But, he goes on to say, Western secular ideals are derived from Christianity. This is quite true, of course. But that doesn’t mean that it is Christianity that is being attacked in Europe. In fact, a lot of his schtick has always been that Western secular values are distinct from and opposed to those of Christianity, an argument still implicit in this piece.

And, when he goes on to say that “Equality, as a value, arises from the Judaeo-Christian teaching that all human beings have a common origin and equal dignity because they have been made in the divine image,” this is true, but, at the same time, completely ahistorical. It suggests that Christians and Jews have lived up to these values more than Muslims, and that Muslims do not believe that humans are made in the divine image. But all Abrahamic religions believe it, and none acts consistently as if it were true.

This all matters because Islamism is a real threat, and we need to understand it. But, as the distinguished French sociologist Olivier Roy argued in the Financial Times, “those responsible for previous terrorist attacks on French soil . . . were not radicalised by a ‘Salafi incubation’ in the mosques and religious schools of France’s deprived suburbs. Rather, most were radicalised among small groups of friends and relatives, often in a milieu characterised by petty crime and delinquency. They used the internet to find texts and inspiration, and made little or no reference to the tenets of sharia law. They came from the margins of Muslim life in France, not the centre.”


LIKE everyone else, I was riveted by the American presidential election (News, 6 November), but, although it was an important and gripping story, it was not an interesting one. This sense that your life is being captured by something that does not, in fact, deeply interest you may be the defining condition of life in an information economy. Of course, the result will have important consequences, but, at the moment, we have no idea what these will be, and, after a while, its gets tiring to be told this over and over again.

But, if the story of “Islamism” in France is not really religious, and certainly not theological, I think that the American election is much less secular than the media here allow. This is true among the most motivated electors on both sides. “Wokeness”, as an attitude of constant self-scrutiny and self-reproach, which is meant to lead to the establishment of a New Jerusalem, is quite incomprehensible without a Puritan background: as someone said, it combines the worst of Augustine with the worst of Pelagius. The hardcore Trumpists, similarly, make no sense at all without an understanding of the prosperity gospel and all that led into it.

In pursuit of that understanding, I have been wandering round a Facebook group, “Prophets for Trump”, which has been going for some years now. The obvious message of these places is that the election was “stolen”, which means that votes against Trump were invalid. But underneath that lies a theory that goes back to the roots of Seventh-day Adventism and the Great Disappointment. This is the claim that Trump really won the election in heaven, as well as the election that would have resulted if only the right votes were counted on earth.

The position has a certain logic. The prophets have been saying that Trump was certain of victory for the past four years. The prophets cannot be wrong. Therefore, Trump has actually won, and the task of the faithful is to believe this until it is true. What this might mean in practice is shown in an extraordinary performance by Paula White, one of Trump’s court preachers. On YouTube, with her head jerking to a fierce rhythm, she chants about victory, and armies of angels coming from South America and Africa. “This is shamanism,” Bishop John Inge remarked on Twitter — and he’s right. It’s powerful, though.

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