It has been just over a week since a suicide bomber entered the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo, killing himself and making martyrs of 27 Egyptian Christians. They were mostly women and children attending the Sunday morning service. Two months before, the Anglican Archbishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt, addressing a conference in Cairo, had called for Christians to be “ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Christ.” This has certainly been the experience of Coptic Orthodox Christians, who experienced the loss of 21 lives in 2011 in another Church bombing, and 21 Egyptian Orthodox migrant workers beheaded in Libya in 2015. The leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, preaching at the funeral of those recently killed, said, “It is the destiny of our church to offer martyrs, and that is why we call it the ‘Church of the Martyrs.’”
There is sorrow and anger that such incidents take place, but the Church in Egypt has not turned to violence in response to the violence meted out on her members. Rather than threatening anyone else, crowds of mourning demonstrators offered their own lives as martyrs in defence of the Christian community, chanting, “With our soul, and with our blood, we will defend the Cross.” Such a witness to the desire for peace in the face of almost unbearable provocation has gained respect around the world. But the principled willingness to face martyrdom – and the suicide bomber in Cairo was no martyr – does not justify such indiscriminate violence, either in Cairo or elsewhere in the world where extremists view political or religious violence as a means of furthering a particular worldview.
Europe has not been able to isolate itself from such terrorism in the past, nor in the present. In the decades after the Second World War most violence was in the service of an extreme political agenda, such as in the case of the Baader Meinhof gang in Germany, and the Ordine Nuovo in Italy, or was an expression of violent political separatism such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (P.I.R.A) in the British Isles, and the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (E.T.A.) in Spain and southwestern France.
But over the most recent decades Europe has faced the same Islamist violence which has devastated the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa – the same extremism behind the attack on the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Cairo last week. Events unfolding even as this is written bear that out. Europe, however, faces a rather different dilemma than the much more authoritarian Islamic states. In the West the challenge is not narrowly to resist Islam, as if it were always a threat, since it is clear that Islamist violence is perpetrated and supported by only a minority. In the same way, not all political activists on the Left and Right posed a threat to wider society in the past.
Since the Cairo bombing, the Islamic State claimed responsibility after a man drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin; a Turkish police officer shouted fundamentalist Islamic and political slogans as he murdered a Russian diplomat in Ankara; and six arrests took place of a group of Islamists associated with the Islamic State, who were thought to be organising a significant terrorist offence in the UK. But at the same time three arrests took place in the Republic of Ireland of men thought to be engaged in republican paramilitary activity. The source of such political and religious violence may change over the course of time. But the enduring question remains for Europe and the West. How is it possible to preserve and protect the democratic nature of our society with the experience of tolerance, liberty and free speech, when there are those who wish to use those same freedoms to undermine and destroy such a society?
If we wish to be able to resist the threat to our shared society, one in which people from all backgrounds and cultures are able to be and become participants, then we must have a definite idea of what this society means and stands for. At present we surely do not.
A first step would require that those who come to live in the West share its historic values: its religious heritage, respect for the rule of law, the use of reason and exercise of conscience, tolerance and religious pluralism, the importance of democratic institutions, economic initiative, and political liberty.
That liberty which we value so highly is surely a positive and fruitful attribute of any society, while mere license is an expression of atomisation and the practical dissolution of any society. Liberty describes the activity of each member of a society as a freedom to pursue virtue, which builds up society and sustains it. License describes the activity of each person in some space as pursuing selfishness without any limitations for the well-being of society, without even the recognition of such a society.
Europe and the West face an existential challenge, because they have become a community of licence rather than preserving the society of liberty. In such a context we no longer seem to know what should be valued and preserved as necessary for the well-being of our society. A free society requires each member to moderate their own behaviour temperately, according to the traditional moral precepts that have influenced the West for millennia. In a community of licence, where there is no inner restraint, competing groups and individuals turn to the exercise of power to dominate the community and form it in their own image.
A healthy society cannot tolerate the intolerable, nor can it allow licentiousness or indifference to subvert the foundation of liberty.
An atomized collection of individuals in the same space has no basis to preserve itself against any use of force, nor any great inclination to do so. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But the clearly defined and described character of a society, of our society, including a mutual responsibility and a shared commitment to living together whatever our backgrounds, this at least provides a common ideal to defend together. Margaret Thatcher once endured a media firestorm for a misinterpretation of her phrase, “There is no such thing as society.” It is surely necessary for us now, more than ever, to make sure that a renewed vision of society as a positive good for all is established, otherwise we have nothing to answer those who wish to destroy what remains in hatred and violence.