Argument

How to Start a Clash of Civilizations

If the Islamic State wants to renew the Crusades by attacking churches and killing priests, Catholic France won’t run from the fight.

Armed French Naval Fusiliers, part of Operation Sentinelle, patrol near the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on July 20, 2016. / AFP / ALAIN JOCARD        (Photo credit should read )
Armed French Naval Fusiliers, part of Operation Sentinelle, patrol near the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on July 20, 2016. / AFP / ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read )

With Tuesday’s mid-Mass beheading of an elderly French priest in Rouen, a short distance from Paris, the Islamic State’s malignant devotees have dealt a vicious blow against the West’s all but emotionally neutral campaign to contain the quasi-caliphate. Though the internecine conflicts wracking the Arab world ensure the war against the Islamic State is hardly a war on Islam, the jihadis are bent on a clash of civilizations. And by martyring French Catholics who are Old Christendom’s flesh and blood, they’re one step closer to getting one.

Whatever the extent of Western reluctance or prudence, the truth is there’s no better way to shake Europe out of what many now see as its guilt-ridden paralysis than to assault French Catholicism — the oldest, most ingrained force that transcends nationalism in Europe’s most powerful proud nation.

History has long prepared this seemingly revolutionary moment. If in one sense, postwar French Catholics like Robert Schuman — one of the European Union’s founding fathers and the architect of the European integration plan — were innovators, in another, they simply recapitulated a vision of Continental unity as old as Charlemagne. However vital the force and thrust of political rationalism, mere secularism could never make European civilization as whole as Christian Rome had once made it. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, despite his tyrannical embrace of ancient cruelty and modern statism, recognized the centrality of the Church to France’s unique claim on European leadership by having the pope coronate him as France’s emperor in 1804. Having subsequently snuffed the Holy Roman Empire (long lampooned as neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) in 1806, he cemented Europe’s new Catholic imperium by marrying his defeated adversary’s daughter, Marie Louise. His wife’s parents, Emperor Francis and his wife Maria Theresa, continued to rule the Austrian Empire after the Holy Roman Empire’s dissolution.

Today, no historically Catholic country maintains the strength and significance of France, even at its relatively low ebb, and none can look forward to mustering anything comparable. In Europe, both politicians and the pope all but deliberately mischaracterize Islamist violence as senselessly absurd. As Pope Francis has focused attention on the weakest and most vulnerable to arrive on Europe’s shores — or perish in their attempt — his plea that refugees “are not dangerous but in danger” has run up against the hard truth that among the hundreds of thousands of newcomers are enough killers to keep horrific bloodshed in the news and in public nightmares. While the willful pontiff labors to prove that charity and solidarity are two sides of the same coin, France’s increasingly devout Catholic insurgents see, and paint, a darker picture.

Consider the reaction of France’s youngest and most alluring reactionary, the sensational young National Front figure Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. At first, in horror and frustration, came the obvious: “They’re killing our children, assassinating our police officers, and slitting our priests’ throats,” she tweeted. “Wake up!” You’d expect nothing less from a scion of the Le Pen dynasty, one primed by the grisly, unprecedented truck attack in Nice, which is just a two-hour drive from her political headquarters.

But Marion Le Pen wasn’t finished. Hours after her first appeal, she urged Christians worldwide to unite against Islamism. And then the coup de grâce: “Faced with the threat weighing on France, I’ve decided to join the military reserve. I invite all young patriots to do the same.” The logic may be unnerving, but it is crystal clear. For Le Pen and Europeans starved for leadership consistent with patterns adhered to for centuries on end, it is Islam’s would-be holy warriors who have invited a defensive Crusade, and the time has come to give it to them.

Such a message would fare poorly in the presence of stronger medicine drawing on secular values. But Westerners hoping for a muscular alternative to the Catholic spirit connecting Charlemagne, Bonaparte, Schuman, and Le Pen — to say nothing of Joan of Arc — have already had their try. Culturally and theologically disarmed, interventionist secular internationalism has proven itself a shattering disappointment, from Iraq to Libya to Syria and beyond. Despite Nicolas Sarkozy’s dramatic bid to mount a comeback for militant moderates, his regurgitations of failed secular dreams, both neoconservative and neoliberal, are all but certain to dash the hopes of the French public, and those of the wider Western world.

The decisive question now is whether reactionary French Catholicism can scale up quickly enough to present more than a parochially nationalistic image of the new Crusader esprit. They face a fairly daunting dilemma: The more Le Pen’s constituency casts its mission as a defense of pan-European Christendom, the more readily its mainstream opponents can claim it’s embarked on a war of aggression. At the same time, however, the far-right faces a different publicity crisis in courting the nationalists seen by its traditionalist base as part of the Continent’s decadence problem, like Matthieu Chartraire, the National Front supporter recently voted France’s top gay model, or the party’s own chief, Marine Le Pen, Marion’s fiercely secular aunt.

With French worries of civil conflict growing — in the grip of a state of emergency repeatedly extended since November’s Paris attacks — the country’s crusading Catholics are likely to find their best weapon against Islamism in a spirit of unity for France no less than for Christendom. But it’s here that their jihadi foes, too, could find their greatest advantage. As the West is still learning the hard way, there’s nothing like terrorism to sow division and disorder among those desperate to make it stop.

Photo credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

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