A pair of killers in provincial France slit the throat of an elderly priest while he was celebrating mass. The killing, and hostage taking in a church, was shocking, but should not surprise.
Terrorists inspired by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other radical groups in the Middle East have a long history of killing Christians. In Iraq and Syria, home territory for ISIS and other such groups, priests have been targeted for years. Killing a Christian religious leader warns all members of the community that they are not safe.
The Islamic State, both when it was operating solely in Iraq and now in both Iraq and Syria, killed priests and bishops with wanton gusto. Sometimes they shot them or stabbed and dismembered them. They held clerics for ransom or simply disappeared them into the anarchic fog of the two countries.
Over the years since 2003, when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, insurgents bombed churches, kidnapped Christians and other minorities, emptied Christian neighborhoods of inhabitants, all in the name of creating a pure Islamic holy land emptied of infidels. Two year ago, ISIS expelled the entire population of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
As for the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel, what would be the rationale for such an attack? Islamic State tacticians have concocted a view that jihad ought to include killing civilians anywhere, and in France's case, against a country that is involved in bombing ISIS. A church, unguarded, is the softest of targets. Small group and so-called "lone wolf," individual terror attacks are encouraged, even without orders from Islamic state commanders.
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The killing ought also to be viewed in the context of the holy warriors' long list of civilians they regard as deserving punishment: non-believers generally, women who do not follow strict Islamic social norms, gays, and anyone deemed as having offended Islam in any way. That's what ties together such seemingly disparate killings in Orlando, San Bernardino, the mass killing in Nice and recent assaults in Germany.
Muslims are far from exempt from the jihadists' furious cruelty, especially members of non-Sunni Muslim sects, among them Shiites, Ismailis, Druze and Alawites. Sunni Muslims may also face punishment if they simply are insufficiently pious or show a lack of enthusiasm for holy war.
The jihadists base their judgments on archaic versions of Islam and restrictive texts that demand obeisance to a one-dimensional view of the religion. They reject Islamic restrictions on killing civilians developed through centuries of Muslim history.
The murder in France was done in Islamic State style, as if the priest was a sheep for slaughter. He was forced to his knees before they slashed his throat. Reportedly, the event was video recorded, according to a nun who witnessed the murder. Such recordings, of course, are meant to strike fear widely, as have the scores of other videotape beheadings by ISIS that have taken place in Syria and elsewhere.
The attack, which took place in a working class suburb of Rouen, an out-of-the-way place in northern France, is likely to fuel the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim National Front party of Marine LePen.
France's President Francois Hollande blamed cowardly attackers "linked to the Islamic State" and said the goal of the two killers was to "divide" the French, presumably by setting off an Muslim/non-Muslim civil war. President Obama has yet to comment. If he does, he will probably pronounce the killers as having distorted Islam and send his condolences. He has only reluctantly acknowledged that Christians in the Middle East are specifically targeted by the terrorists.
Both Hollande and Obama, with their vague pronouncements, do a disservice to the vast majority of Muslims who do not subscribe to the tactics and ideology of the Islamic State. ISIS draws its vicious notions from two ultraconservative branches of Sunni Islam: Salafism, which contends that the earliest generation of Muslims set the ideal for present day action; and Wahhabism, a similar sect which features an aggressive promotion of holy war, including the killing of adherents of other religions and even groups within Sunni Islam. Both draw punishments like beheadings and burnings-alive from ancient practices.
Muslim leaders in the Middle East (if there are any who themselves are not tormenting their Muslim citizens) are also reluctant to speak plainly about the sources of ISIS doctrine. They fear accusations of fomenting Islamic disunity. But the sectarian toll on Muslims in places as far afield as Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria ought to be enough to persuade them to speak up and denounce ISIS ideology (by the way, Sunnis are not the only guilty practitioners of wanton killing of the innocent: in the case of Iraq, Shiite militias sponsored by Iran are violently tormenting Sunni refugees; in Syria, Alawite security forces persecute Sunnis with indiscriminate bombing, torture and disappearances).
It does not seem to me to be an insult to Islam or Muslims to point all this out. Muslims by and large are aware of the venom heaped on Christians, Shiites, other Muslims and non-monotheistic worshippers on satellite TV and the Internet. They would not be offended by plain speaking about the dangers of extreme sects that pretend to represent their religion.
Such openness would not end attacks. But it would at least clarify for Muslims and non-Muslims the source of ideas that need to be fought (and illuminate who it is that sponsors such ideas and activities, chief among them Saudi Arabia). The death of Fr. Jacques was simply a crime against humanity and should be denounced as such by all.