Some of you might find it helpful to listen to this deep call to prayer whilst you are reading this article.
Many countries in the Middle East, as well as in Europe, have taken part in the demonstrations against the atrocities, protesting that this is a “September 11th attack against free speech.” But will it lead to greater unity – or to punitive clampdowns against immigrants and Muslims?
Two forces have been on the increase since the Twin Towers were hit at the start of the century: xenophobia on the one hand and radical Islamisation on the other. Al Qaeda, ISIL and other related terrorist movements are openly urging people to go on shooting sprees in the West, in much the same way they have encouraged or coerced people to become suicide bombers in the Middle East. For years we have been hearing of one atrocity after another in country after country: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, the Yemen, increasingly Kenya – the list goes on. Far from being merely directed against secular Europe or even Western influences (high profile though these are), the terror stems from intolerance and extremist views; from those who are pursuing a form of Islam that the perpetrators of violence don’t agree with. Most of the atrocities are committed by Moslem against Moslem; on this occasion we have witnessed its full impact close to home on the streets of Paris.
Let’s be under no illusions: the perpetrators of the attack on the strongly anti-establishment Charlie Hebdo must have intended to raise the stakes – and to cause as much division as possible in Europe. They were fully aware of the reaction it might provoke against all Islamic institutions in Western Europe – especially in aggressively secular France. As Stratfor put it, “The jihadist objective is to get the states (nations) to crack down harder on Muslim communities in order to further their narrative that the West is waging war on Islam and Muslims.” (8-1-14)
In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, it is important that leading French politicians, in their bid to reassure the French people, are careful about making bold announcements such as, “we were at war, and will never back down or be defeated.”
Precisely who are we/they at war with? Extreme radical Islam is an easy answer, but it raises endless questions in a country like France which, with its substantial and by and large poorly integrated immigrant Muslim population and its decidedly murky colonial history.
A few minutes ago Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister was at pains to stress that they are at war with terrorism and not religion.
Christendom has often been such a poor ‘light to the gentiles’ that Muslim nations have had great difficulty in accepting the gospel because the vast majority of colonial settlers and officials demonstrated such unChrist-like qualities, despite hailing from supposedly Christian nations. How could they differentiate between practising Christians and nominal ones? The West faces a similar challenge now in identifying the extremist Muslims without overreacting against the others. This becomes more pressing in the light of the fact that
“Anti-Islamist attitudes are beginning to move away from the far-Right extreme and more into the mainstream of popular discontent. In Germany since last October weekly marches have been held in a number of towns and cities staged by an organisation called Pegida which campaigns against what it sees as the “Islamisation” of Europe. Nearly 20,000 turned out to one rally in Dresden. The marches have been denounced by political parties and religious leaders across Germany but its supporters do not appear to be drawn from the usual neo-Nazi quarters.” (Daily Telegraph 8.1.14)
May politicians and commentators alike respond to the extremely challenging task of responding with the “right” tonality – especially as two major hostage situations are under way as I am writing this.
An obvious trend is that right wing parties are likely to be the numerical winners as the tension increases; not least in Austria, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Britain (UKIP and EDF between them appear to have mopped up a high percentage of National Front voters, although it remains extremely strong in France). In Germany a new right wing movement is sweeping through the country: Pegida. If you have not come across this before, here is some background information:Link One and Link Two.
Emotions are running cauldron high, as much for Muslims who fear retaliation as for those who are intent on violence . . . There is no way we can pretend that immigration and attitudes towards Islamic groups are not going to play a major part in influencing people’s decisions how to vote in the General Election in May in Britain, and in other elections across Europe.
Western Europe stands more or less united in its defence of free speech (although in this instance there are complicated ethical issues to consider between freedom of speech and licence). When we were fighting so hard a decade or so ago, when the “Racial and Religious Hatred Act” appeared to be sailing through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, Christians ended up standing shoulder to shoulder with some highly unlikely partners, including cartoonists and other powerful lobbies. By the narrowest margin possible, the risk of free speech being seriously twisted against individuals was miraculously averted.
We may be in a post-Christian era, and the voice of the church is not the main one being heard in France at this time, but we must look to the living risen Christ and allowing Him to speak to us about how we are to pray and act. How much better that is than reacting on the rebound, when people post forthright comments on Facebook that merely seal and cement old prejudices. As Brian Mills wrote to me this morning,
I think it is important for us as Christians not to react out of fear, or to increase alarm. We need to know that God is watching over this world. Can God bring terrorists to Himself? Undoubtedly. I personally know several ex-terrorists. So our prayer needs to be targetted and we need as God’s children to be alert. We can also learn from our brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland as to how to respond in the face of increasing terror. The answer is not to bury our head in the hand, nor to batten down the hatches. Has the church reached out to Moslem communities in our nations? There are reputed to be fifty million Moslems resident in Europe. That’s quite a mission field!
To draw us to the heart of God for France and the whole situation we are releasing a track from our album Symphony of Worship, which we recorded in Malvern back in 1998 as a launch pad for Spirit-led intercession.