Regensburg Revisited: The Roots of Islamic Violence

Sandro Magister recently commented on an article in L’Osservatore Romano regarding the failure of any significant Muslim response about the recent deadly attacks on Christians in Arab lands. But this “public silence of Muslim spiritual guides is not surprising. The same thing happens every time in any part of the world when an act of violence occurs from Muslim origins.” Muslim killing of Christians is evidently not a Muslim problem, or at least, not one that is freely discussed in public.

This silence cannot be explained solely by an “opportunistic calculus or by fear of reprisals.” In Egypt, both Muslim factions vying for power claim the right to use force and conceive political action as “jihad, as a holy war.” Thus, violence is legitimately used as a principle of action with religious sanction.

To understand the causes of this violence, the Vatican paper suggested, we need to return to Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address (2006). The violent reactions in the Muslim world that greeted this address were the “tragic confirmation” of the truth of his thesis. “Violence coming from faith is inevitably a product of the fragile bond between faith and reason in Muslim thought and its understanding of God.”

The violence that continually recurs in Muslim lands against both its own believers and those belonging to the “area of war,” that is, everyone else, has theological roots. “No pope prior to Benedict had the vision and courage to make such a clear judgment on Islam, nor to formulate with such rigor the difference between Islam and Christianity.”

Many, even within the Church, criticized Benedict. Yet when he went to Turkey later that year, he pointed out that Islam had to face the same problems that Christianity had already faced with the Enlightenment, namely, “human rights and a true liberty of faith and its practice.”

What was Benedict’s main point? He made it by recalling a medieval conversation between a Byzantine Emperor and a Persian gentleman. The basic question was whether, as Islam had done against the Christian lands of the Middle East, it was divinely permitted to spread the faith by violence. While some passages in the Koran say no; others say yes. When the affirmative ones are used, how can they be justified? They are justified by philosophy, or perhaps a lack of it. This justification is what is meant by the “intellectual origins” of Muslim violence. It is not that it was a mere aberration. It was conceived as following the will of Allah.

      Young supporters of the Islamic Jihad (Gaza City, 2010)

How so? Christian revelation was addressed to reason, hence its attention to Plato and Aristotle. This direction meant that reason had its own autonomy. Something contrary to reason – like the idea that God approved violence in forcing conversion – could not be something God “revealed” over and above reason.

He, the Logos, was also responsible for everything in the world that was not God. This prohibition did not mean that force could not be used to protect oneself against unjust violence of others. It did mean that the use of raw force to expand one’s religion was not of God.

If this prohibition is so in reason, how was it that Muslim armies and individuals over the centuries, and even today, have found little difficulty in using it? The answer is philosophical. This philosophical justification appears in several forms in history. It is part of our national culture today in the form of relativism and multiculturalism. Basically, it means that nothing objective exists in things. Hence, nothing limits anything. We are “free” to do what we want. This position is generally called “voluntarism,” a dominant species of liberalism

In its Muslim form, it seems to be rooted in al-Ghazali and in Ibn Hazm, to whom Benedict referred. In Islam, the notion that God is limited by anything, even His own decrees or reason, is seen to be an insult to Allah. Allah can do the opposite of what he commands. He can call good evil and evil good. He is under no obligation to reveal truth to man. And if he does, he can change his mind and will the opposite later on. These positions are spelled out carefully in the Regensburg Lecture.

Thus, the philosophic root of violence means that such violence used to convert people is perfectly legitimate if Allah commands it, which he appears to do. To deny this possibility as “irrational” would be itself to blaspheme. We would claim that reason could limit the freedom of Allah to which we are to submit ourselves as the only reality to which we need to pay attention.

If Muslim leaders do not see fit to protest the widespread persecution of Christians and others in Muslim lands, it is because they lack a criterion within their religion by which they can judge something, said to be in revelation, to be in fact irrational. 



James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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