In The Great Heresies (1938), Hilaire Belloc wrote of the lifting of the Muslim siege of Vienna “on a date that ought to be among the most famous in history—September 11, 1683.” The date of September 11, if not the year of 1683, would become branded on everyone’s memory after the 9/11 attacks. One wonders, indeed, whether this date had been selected by the Islamic terrorists as revenge for the earlier defeat inflicted upon the forces of Islam more than three hundred years earlier. Whether this is so, or whether it was mere coincidence, there is no doubt that the two events happening on the same date conveys great and portentous significance, symbolically connecting the one clash of civilizations with the other. In light of both events, Belloc’s prophecy in the same book about the future return of the threat of Islam echoes today with seismic resonance. “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable,” wrote Belloc, “that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.”
If, however, we can wonder about the significance of the date of September 11 as being symbolic of the struggle between Islam and Christendom, the attack in Nice on Bastille Day seems to signify the struggle between Islam and secularism. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, was the flashpoint of the French Revolution, which can be considered the birth of the secularist ascendancy in modern culture. The attack in Nice, therefore, on the very birthday of modern secularism signifies Islam’s war on secularist values, a clash of civilizations (if secularism can be considered civilized) as seismic as that between Islam and Christendom.
Whereas Christians will have no difficulty choosing sides in the war between Christendom and Islam, where should we stand in the war between secularism and Islam? Clearly, we should have no difficulty in condemning the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Nice. Condemning terrorism is something on which all people, Christian and non-Christian, should be in agreement. The issue is not the condemnation of terrorism but the conundrum that the terrorism presents. How should secularism respond to, or react against, this attack upon it, and how should Christians respond or react to the secularist response?
Take, for instance, the secularist option of forcing Muslims to conform to secularist values. Should Christians feel comfortable with the imposition of secularism on Europe’s Muslims? Should we applaud the banning by France in 2010 of the burqa, the full Islamic face veil? Should we rejoice that this ban was then upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014? It seems to me that we should think twice before doing so. We should feel uncomfortable whenever the power of the secular state is employed to limit the practice of religious freedom. Christians must always insist that we will only render unto Caesar those things that are rightly Caesar’s but that we will resist efforts by Caesar to force us to render unto him those things that rightly belong to God.
Couldn’t it be argued, however, that this only applies to those things that belong to God Himself and that it doesn’t apply to those who believe in false gods? Couldn’t it be argued that Christians should be able to practice religious freedom but that such freedom need not apply to other religions? Thus it would be considered fine to ban Muslims from wearing the veil but not to ban Christian religious orders, such as the Dominicans, from doing so.
The problem with such a line of reasoning, aside from considerations of the right to freedom of conscience, is that Caesar is not likely to discriminate. Since Caesar is himself godless, he is not likely to be impressed by claims that one god is truer than another. Once Caesar claims the right to prohibit religious practice and to curtail religious conscience, he is likely to do so with whomever he wishes. Indeed, he might want to prohibit all religious practice and curtail all religious conscience in order to be seen to be fair and even-handed. In the interests of liberty, equality and fraternity (the battle cry of the French secularist republic) Caesar might choose to limit liberty in the name of equality. If we are to lose certain freedoms, it is only just that we should all lose them equally! If Muslims cannot wear the burqa in public, Christians should not be able to wear their crosses or crucifixes in public either. It’s all about fairness, equality, and the refusal to discriminate between one group and another. If Caesar is going to be allowed to take liberties, he should be allowed to take liberties with everyone and from everyone. To do otherwise, to take the liberties of some, without taking the liberties of others, would be unjust. I am aware, of course, that Caesar’s logic is tyrannical but we should hardly need reminding that secularism and tyranny are very comfortable bedfellows. Indeed, the French Revolution itself, celebrated every year on Bastille Day, heralded a reign of terror which was far more deadly in terms of numbers butchered than the deadly act of terror by the Islamist extremist on this particular Bastille Day.
From a Christian perspective, one can say of the atrocity committed on this Bastille Day that secularism is reaping the harvest it deserves. In choosing to import Islam into its midst it was always courting disaster, as prophets such as Belloc have always warned. Having made its multicultural bed, secularism will have to lie in it. As for Christians, we should respond to the clash between the two fundamentalisms, secular and Islamic, with the actions of Pontius Pilate, washing our hands of the whole affair, accompanying our actions with the words of Shakespeare’s Mercutio that a plague be upon both their houses. Having done so, we should get on with the business of getting to heaven by loving our Lord and our neighbor—and, of course, loving our enemies too.
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