My Take: Ending Racial Injustice Is Key to Ending Extremist Violence


November 2015 witnessed two horrific terrorist attacks, most recently the attacks in Paris, France and just a day earlier in Beirut, Lebanon, often referred to as “the Paris of the Middle East.” In the Western imaginaries of course, Paris is central. This centrality was widely reflected in the disparate coverage given to the two attacks, with the tricolors of the French flag appearing on Facebook, Google, Amazon and other sites - with the words Solidarite - while those of Lebanon were not.

Yet this is deserving of reflection and attention. Both Paris and Beirut are cosmopolitan cities that illustrate the possibilities of the richness of multiculturalism and diversity within the framework of shared values, such as the dignity of persons, respect and appreciation for difference, while also illustrating the need for a more inclusive compassion.

Pope Francis and Peace

Pope Francis spoke of our current global challenges in his recent address to the US Congress, the first ever by the Holy See, noting, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism…The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. This is something that you, as a people, reject.”

Pope Francis’ words recall the work of Rene Girard, the famous French Catholic scholar, who in Violence and the Sacred, wrote of how humans mimetically imitate the violence of others through scapegoating, in seemingly endless cycles of revenge and victimization. Girard passed away this November 4. On that same day in 1918, the famous British War poet Wilfred Owen died tragically just a week before the armistice that ended World War I – a war which Pope Francis, citing Pope Benedict, has called a “pointless slaughter.” Owen’s poetry, and his friendship with fellow soldier and war poet Siegfried Sassoon, memorialized in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, is a poignant reminder of the horrors of war and violence that the world has seen so much of lately.

Finding Hope in Tragedy

The rise of ISIS, which claimed authorship of the recent terrorist attacks, traces back to the chaos that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the related brutal Syrian Civil War and the opportunity these events provided for the conquest of territory by ISIS. These ongoing cycles of violence, assisted by many bloody hands, have now given way to the Islamic State, replete with brutality within its territorial domains and increasingly bloody terrorist attacks abroad. The narrative of ISIS seeks to mobilize the idealism and energy of disaffected youth around the world, and harness them to malevolent purposes. It is only by recognizing the horrifying appeal of such groups, as the anthropologist Scott Atran argued in a recent address to the UN Security Council, and by mobilizing youth as peacemakers and ambassadors for a better world that we can prevent them from metastasizing.

The pope, during his address to Congress, mentioned four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. All four, in their own ways, sought to address racial hatred and injustice and to work for a world based on peace and justice. To address the challenge of contemporary terrorism today, and to defeat the war of civilizations called for by ISIS and their counterparts in the West, we must create the ecumenical, multicultural contexts of security, peace and justice for all of humanity around the world.

— Tom Reifer

Thomas Ehrlich Reifer, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at USD whose published work ranges from topics of human rights and social change to hip hop and Tupac.