Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

On tolerance and terrorism


For many of us on getting up on Saturday, hearing the news of the attacks in Paris caused again a note of fear or frustration. Be it in Iraq or London or Bali, or the steps of an office in Parramatta, or a plane blown up mid-air, such violence has too often become part of life. 

The forces of violent intolerance appear to be on the rise in many parts of the world. The Middle East, parts of Africa, and the Ukraine feature almost daily in the news. We struggle too, with the appropriate response to such violence, balancing security with civil rights, taking the fight to its bases, while addressing the causes of such violence.

In many of these conflicts religious difference constitutes an important element in the conflict. Some commentators point to religion as the cause of many of humankind's wars. In a sense they are correct, as they would be also if they ascribed war to humankind's quest for liberty, equality, justice, or even love. It is a paradox of the human condition that that which is noblest in the human often gives way to violence and intolerance.

This of course does not negate the value of justice or liberty, any more than it does of religion. Christians look to the reality of sin and its impact on our humanity as the explanation for this paradox.

Naturally enough our media is full of commentary and reactions to the events in Paris. How are we supposed to react to such an attack? I was struck by a post of a student on Facebook. Cormac wrote:

'Today is a day where we need to refrain from accusing Islam and Muslim people in general for being people of hatred, terror and violence, because they most definitely are not.

'Today is a day where need to show to the disgusting human beings who committed these atrocious acts, and who do not represent the values of Islam and the Muslim community in any way, shape or form, that we will not allow for hatred, terror and violence to breed further hatred, terror and violence.

'Today is a day where need to showcase our solidarity as a society and as a people.

'So please, I beg of you, do not point the finger at Islam, point the finger at the evil people who were truly behind these attacks. The evil people whose only true faith is in the power of terror and violence. We need to show them that there is no power in terror or violence, that their faith is horribly misplaced.

'May all those who tragically perished rest in peace and may their loved ones have comfort in this time of horrible grief.'

Cormac speaks to what is best in us. Islam is a massive, diverse and complex reality in our world. There is much that is noble in the faith, and millions follow its precepts devoutly in their ordinary and peaceful lives. I would argue a little differently than Cormac, and take more seriously the religious foundation of IS in the extreme Islamic beliefs of a small but important section of the Islamic world. Nevertheless, Cormac's point about the nature of fear leading to attacks on all Muslims, or on a religion itself, is valid.

In contrast to Cormac's comments, Pauline Hanson was on the news arguing that Australians need to feel protected, and that we should not take in the 12,000 Syrian refugees committed to by the federal government. Fear is a terrible counsellor. She conveniently ignores the fact that many of these refugees are themselves victims of IS, just as sure as were those killed in Paris.

This is partly an issue for our media that seems to ignore an ongoing record of atrocities by IS that almost weekly matches those witnessed in Paris.

Hanson ignores the fact that many of the 12,000 will be from religious minorities that face genocidal attacks from IS — the Yezidi, Assyrian Christians, Druze and so on. She ignores the fact that each of the 12,000 will be processed by the government with background checks etc. (a position different from that of the tide of desperate people pouring into Europe).

There will be those who seek to exploit our fears to promote racist or isolationist views, which are both ignorant and dangerous. At the same time, the attack in Paris, and community reactions to it, challenge those who argue for essentially an open boarder approach. They ignore the realities of legitimate fears, and risk not only the rise of extremist political movements, but put in danger the very social cohesion of countries which is essential for the ongoing and successful resettlement of those in need.

The reality also is that we ignore to our own peril the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Military, political and diplomatic efforts need to continue for the sake not only of the peoples of Iraq and Syria, but also for all of us.

Some of the issues associated with Paris go beyond the big geo-political level, to speak to our common human condition. Nobel laureate Alice Munroe's insight that 'there are no such things as big and little subjects' resonates with me.

'The major things,' she goes on to say, 'the evils that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.' We can all wear the faces of intolerance: cynicism, apathy and indifference, hostility and prejudice.

Intolerance can be addressed in a number of ways.

Firstly, we need to see and accept difference as a good. What a boring and mundane world we would live in if it were without difference, if we all had the same interests, abilities, personalities. Secondly, we can seek to understand others, be they another culture, another viewpoint, another personality. It is a great gift to be able to see the other side, to understand where someone is coming from.

Thirdly, there is a virtue that St Ignatius was fond of; he used to stress that the Christian should look for the good in the other, rather than to look for the bad. Finally, we need to focus on the virtue of global solidarity, or as author Clifford Longley in the Tablet put it, 'the mental habit of seeing the entire human race as one family, every brother and sister responsible for every other'.

Longley refers to Pope John Paul II's articulation of this principle of solidarity, and how in the Pope's thinking limiting solidarity to one's own kind was a kind of sacrilege, an offence against the deep religious conviction that every human being on the planet is equally loved and valued by God.

In response to this truth John Paul II urged 'a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all'. Such a sentiment remains a bedrock principle of the Christian world view.

Chris Middleton headshotChris Middleton SJ is the Rector at Xavier College, Kew, in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, Paris, Islamic State, Bataclan Theatre



submit a comment

Existing comments

The battle of good and evil has been with us since the emergence of our species. How do you respond to such senseless carnage? In the pages of Eureka Street the Christian values will be paraded for all to see what being charitable in the face of evil is all about. In the minds of the Hansons of this world, its simplistic message is that "evil beget evil". Both have a place in the argument between good and evil. But where both are wrong is in their Judeo-Christian perception of good and evil. The values that these perpetrators hold are totally alien to any we hold. We might as well be talking to the howling wind of despair. The challenge is to understand, the belief behind what we term as barbarous acts not from our Judea-Christian ethos.

Alex Njoo | 16 November 2015  

"In many of these conflicts religious difference constitutes an important element in the conflict."...... The problem facing Islam, Christianity, and all religions can be found in the implications of the question, "What religion do you BELONG TO? " Normally we are conditioned from birth to accept belief in the teachings of whatever religion our parents accept, and assume it is the one and only response to God's Call, and that 'others' are at best mistaken, or even perverse. This can lead to 'deification' of one's religion, especially if it teaches such exclusivity, either explicitly or implicitly, It is the duty of religious leaders to recognise and proclaim the universal Fatherhood of God, and that differences in responses are due to different interpretations of God's universal call, due to the differences in culture and degree of development of the members of other religions. Only then can we hope for peace and harmony among all God's Children.

Robert Liddy | 16 November 2015  

In the aftermath of such a terrible event my first thought was for the people who lost their lives. War is terrible, but, in a way, predictable. Terrorism particularly frightens because of its random nature. For the families and loved ones of those killed it will be a tortuous journey to find some sort of peace. Christianity, Islam and other religions must continue to hold to love, forgiveness and peace in the face of violence and extremism.

Pam | 16 November 2015  

Thanks, Chris. Good points at the end there; to recognise and encourage goodness, seeking a broad solidarity. Then within that experience we work at justice.

Jack | 16 November 2015  

Alex Njoo; "The challenge is to understand, the belief behind what we term as barbarous acts."..... One point is to realise that WHAT we believe is not as important as WHY we - (or 'they) -' believe'. If we had been born and brought up the way 'they' were, we would probably believe the same things they do; namely that 'our religion' expresses God's Will, and must be defended at all costs. A contributing belief we also share is that dying for one's religion gains an eternity of happiness in heaven. This belief is promoted as a useful tool by many religions. But instead of encouraging Love and Service of God, it is really promoting self-interest. We all need to realise that such self-serving rejection of goodness, tolerance and love of others has the opposite effect. Since such barbaric beliefs are cultured in families and communities, we need to find enlightened ways of helping them to see that serving God means becoming attuned to Goodness and Truth, beginning by stripping OUR beliefs of out-dated and distorted traditions that lead us to think that WE ALONE know all the answers and have God-guaranteed solutions to the problems of our times.

Robert Liddy | 16 November 2015  

I think its more than time for Western powers to express sorrow, lament and forgiveness for all the hurt and harm Western powers have inflicted on others BEFORE the next step is taken to participate in any international diplomacy. There seems to be a critical lack of self-reflection in the Western democratic psyche that will just help history repeat itself over and over unless a different approach is taken. The push for retributive justice will do nothing to resolve abuse of geo-political-religious power by any country or group. We teach our children to say 'sorry' if hurt or harm has occurred. Unfortunately many in ISIS are spun out on dope (who wouldn't want to be if so much atrocity and hate constitute daily life) ... we have an imploding civilization and an unprecedented number of extinctions of species at play in the world today (cultures of suicide, gun killing, euthanasia, a mechanistic/commodified view of life, and greed by and for the few). Let's express trust, honesty, gratitude, and respect in our daily living to help remind our children and grand-children that there IS another way of being, of love, of life, as a counter-point to these murderous acts of terrorism.

mary tehan | 16 November 2015  

In my humble opinion … an opinion which does not claim much scholarship since I never delved into this, to describe ISIS as Un-Islamic is false. It is based on Islam … a medieval, literal interpretation of their faith as articulated in their sacred texts. But Islam has grown, evolved … much as the Catholic faith has grown and evolved. But there are those in the margins – in both Islam and Christianity – that still believe in the old, literal interpretations (e.g. the many Protestant sects.) I researched and came across this very lengthy and very well-written article on ISIS and the extremist movements. It explains why people are willing to blow themselves up, killing even innocent people …. and how to fight and defeat these zealots who, any way you view them, are willing to die for their faith (which ultimately, we Christians are supposed to do … die for our faith, but our faith is different.) Sharing …. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

Jojo | 16 November 2015  

Dear Fr. Middleton, You are a spiritualist and this is a great perspective to hold at such times. Thankfully, you are not in power. These are acts of war. The Muslim communities are mute. They will not contest ideological battles with their own and so we must. We are the infidels, we always will be. Love was not the right response for the Nazi's. The gun and the canon was the right course of action. The leaders of the time understood this. Today it is age of the drone and the cruise missile. Thankfully these weapons of freedom are on our side. Luke

Luke | 16 November 2015  

Those who have commented on this thread, who seem to have a more nuanced understanding than some of our more black-and-white brethren, may find this article on The Conversation website relevant and useful. https://theconversation.com/paris-attacks-why-islam-and-christianity-are-twin-religions-of-war-and-peace-50747

Ginger Meggs | 17 November 2015  

An excellent article. St Francis of Assisi took a similar stance to you. He could be fully Christian without denigrating Muslims. There is an epic struggle going on in the Muslim world between traditional, mainstream, usually tolerant Islam as evidenced by the stance taken by the Ulema at a place like Al Azhar University in Cairo and the bigoted Saudi/Wahhabi version which is the basis for the creed of Isis/Daesh and the Taliban. The vast majority of Muslim religious authorities anywhere would condemn the latter. Sadly many Western opinionati don't know the difference between the two. To understand that difference requires considerable intelligence and some real study. The Church talks about the gift of spiritual discrimination. That is very much needed by Christians in attempting to understand Islam.

Edward Fido | 17 November 2015  

Hi I wonder whether tolerance is enough. Jesus teaches unconditional welcome. Are we not called to go beyond just tolerance to truly accept, embrace and celebrate difference. This is exemplified by unconditional welcome

Margaret Waldeck | 17 November 2015  

In a simple, quiet space of music, prayer and reflection on Sunday morning, not in a church but as part of a L`Arche Melbourne community w/e at Casa Pallotti, during our time of prayer one of our number spoke these words: `We believe that what we do here counteracts the troubles of the world.` Simplicity, gentleness, littleness. I heard this as a witness to truth in the face of so much pain and as a prophetic word as to what to do and how to be. When she was asked what ordinary people could do to promote world peace, Mother Teresa replied: `Go home and love your families.`

Fiona Winn | 17 November 2015  

In writing, "The Muslim communities are mute," Luke repeated an extremely common error or piece of disinformation. For a list of world-wide Muslim voices speaking out against Islamic terrorism, refer to: http://media.giphy.com/media/TlK63EwiHqemn41RRHq/giphy.gif

Ian Fraser | 19 November 2015  

The atrocities are a display of faith. The murderers had faith in the righteousness and justice of their acts. If we want to explain the acts of ISIS we can look at the story of the binding of Isaac in the Bible. In any civilised society it is a crime to murder one’s child. However, the willingness of Abraham to murder Isaac is regarded as a test of faith by many believers. With his absolute faith in God Abraham was willing to commit this great crime. One of the recent murderers in Paris was heard to say, “Allahu Akbar” which means “God is great” He worshipped the same kind of God that is in the Bible. His faith, like the faith of Abraham, justified murder. A man without such a faith might have questioned. He might have asked, “Am I doing right?” He might have doubted. One can justify one’s faith by committing what action is necessary to prove one’s faith. I prefer doubt and reason to faith. To me it is a bad thing to obey when an authority figure commands atrocity. Abraham should have said, “No.” All terrorists motivated by God should say, “No.”

David Fisher | 20 November 2015  

Similar Articles

Countering ISIS by going off-script

  • Fatima Measham
  • 20 November 2015

It is tempting to view the aftermath of terrorist attacks such as those in Paris as a well-rehearsed script. There are condemnation of the killings, sympathy for the families of victims, resolve to seek and punish perpetrators, expressions of solidarity across nations. Also, assaults targeting Muslims on the street and in policy. This time a few things have gone off-script. 'Hugs and hashtags' won't stop ISIS, but there is strength in refusing to cede control over our language and behaviour to terrorists.


On blaming Muslims for Paris

  • Justin Glyn
  • 19 November 2015

It is possible to find 'texts of terror' in Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. They need to be responsibly understood and explored with a close understanding of their context. We did not demand all Catholics stand up and denounce every IRA attack, nor that all Christians apologise for Anders Breivik. Similarly, why should we expect all members of a religion with over a billion adherents with multiple ancient variants to actively disown every horror claimed to have been committed in its name?