For over two years, Isil have waged war on the religious mosaic of the Middle East. They have slaughtered all those they consider apostates in increasingly lurid fashion, targeting Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and countless Sunnis too. As their war extended into Europe, they chose methods – such as the vehicular butchery of Nice – that even Osama bin Laden had rejected as indiscriminate. But if Isil’s target list is broad, it is not without priorities.
In his speeches, Isil’s so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has repeatedly picked out Christians and Jews as enemies of particular note. Isil adherents have already deliberately killed Jews on European soil, beginning with the attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium back in May 2014. The only surprise is that churches have escaped violence for so long.
A war on Christians has for decades been an explicit part of the cocktail of fascist, fanatical, and fundamentalist ideas that make up Islamist extremism. In 1998, an infamous fatwa by Osama bin Laden declared jihad against Jews and ‘crusaders’. In the 2000s, as Iraq fell apart and violence then spread, the historic presence of Christianity in the Middle East came under virtually existential threat.
Jacques Hamel celebrating a mass on June 11, 2016
Christians made up 14 per cent of the region’s population in 1910; they comprise just 4 per cent today. Thousands of churches have been attacked, and over 100,000 Christians fled from Iraq alone. The killing of Father Jacques Hamel in Normandy yesterday, kneeling in his church, was foreshadowed in the countless such acts outside of Europe, such as the 16 Ethiopian Christians beheaded on a Libyan beach last year. Apart from the incalculable human cost of this wave of persecution, it represents an attack upon a millennia-old culture.
Isil’s so-called “soldiers” in Europe appear to share some characteristics. They frequently have criminal backgrounds, while many have experienced mental difficulties. Most have a poor grasp of religious ideas, and are rarely pious. Isil’s war in Europe will evolve in unpredictable and erratic ways, because the generals do not command the troops.
There is remarkably little evidence that Isil has control, let alone forewarning, of some of the most significant recent attacks. Yet it reaps the rewards – publicity, prestige, and the illusion of success – nonetheless.
How French newspaper La République covered the murder
It is a strategy that has evolved, bottom-up, from the individual choices of unconnected jihadists: sweeping attacks, like Nice, complement selective assassinations, like that witnessed in St. Etienne du Rouvray yesterday.
The sheer scale of terrorist attacks in Europe, notably in France and Germany over the past few weeks, is psychologically dislocating. No society can go from relative peace to repeated violence without experiencing acute social and political pressure. There will be redoubled pressure on the beleaguered government of President Francois Hollande to curb civil liberties – something a large majority of the French population favours – and get a grip on a situation that seems to be spiralling out of control.
France may choose to further escalate its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Border controls will ratchet upwards, accelerating the erosion of the Schengen system across Europe. These measures will have only limited effect on a problem that lies largely within rather than across borders, and that lies in the realm of ideology and inspiration rather than elaborate plots. This is not a clash of civilisations or a war between religions, but it is evidently an assault upon both.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)