The Shepherd’s Dilemma: Speaking Out Against Islamic Terror

 “Say too little and people will be killed; say too much and people will be killed.”

I don’t remember the source of the quotation, but it succinctly captures the dilemma that world leaders face in deciding how to respond to Islamic violence.

Catholic leaders face the same dilemma. When Muslims murder in the name of Allah, what should bishops say? Or should they say anything? Church leaders, especially the pope, are expected to speak out against glaring evils, but what if, by speaking out, they provoke more violence?

Pope Benedict’s reference at Regensburg to a medieval emperor’s remarks about Muhammad’s violent commands was followed by rioting and murder. When he spoke out several years later about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (which were being used to justify persecution of Christians), Muslims in Pakistan staged huge rallies to condemn the pope. Six weeks later, Shabaz Bhatti, a prominent Catholic critic of the blasphemy laws, was shot down by gunmen. When, following the bombing of a church in Alexandria, Pope Benedict urged the Egyptian government to do more to protect Christians, he was told to stop interfering in the affairs of Egypt. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar—Islam’s most important university—broke off relations with the Vatican as punishment.

These examples might give the impression that Benedict took an aggressive stand toward Islam, but this is not the case. His many statements about his respect for Muslims and Islam and his affirmations about the common ground shared by Christians and Muslims far outweigh any negative criticisms he made.

For the most part, Benedict, along with other recent popes, has refrained from criticizing Islam. Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the attitude of the Vatican toward Islam has been one of friendly outreach. For example, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis went so far as to say that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”

This restraint is extraordinary when looked at in the light of the widespread and relentless persecution of Christians by Muslims in recent years—persecution that has been variously described as “genocide,” “extermination,” and a “war against Christians.” Contrary to popular opinion, this persecution predates 9/11. For instance, between 1983 and 1995 (when John Paul II was pope), Muslims in Sudan killed an estimated two million Christians and displaced another four million.

It seems fair to say that if the Vatican has erred on the “say too much-say too little” continuum, it has erred on the side of “say too little.” The dilemma faced by recent popes is similar to that faced by Pope Pius XII during the Nazi occupation of Europe. In recent years, Pius has been severely criticized for not speaking out about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Yet when the pope and other Catholic bishops did not speak out, it was often at the request of Jewish leaders who feared Nazi retaliation—a justified fear, seeing that strong protests by the Dutch bishops against the deportation of Jews in 1942 provoked savage Nazi reprisals against the Jews.

According to historian David Dalin, Pius XII did speak out strongly against the Nazis not only while he was pope but also in the years while he was papal nuncio to Germany. His efforts as pope were not limited to formal protests, but also included initiatives to protect and shelter Jews throughout Europe. For example, it is estimated that the pope’s interventions rescued 80 percent of Roman Jews from Nazi deportation.

Could more lives have been saved if Pius had spoken out more strongly and more frequently? Perhaps. Or perhaps such statements would have incited further atrocities. It is difficult to say. Nevertheless, contemporary opinion-makers have shown no hesitation in condemning Pius for his silence. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is now an article of faith among many journalists that Pius turned a blind eye toward the fate of the Jews.

The question then arises: Why don’t these critics of Pius go after contemporary popes for their reluctance to criticize Islam’s anti-Semitic and pro-jihadist theology? A strong case can be made that, in comparison to Pius XII’s response to Nazi crimes, recent popes have been relatively silent about Muslim atrocities committed against non-Muslims in the name of Islam.

The reason we don’t hear such criticism is that the opinion elites, along with government elites, have also elected to remain silent about Muslim aggression. By “silence” I don’t mean that Muslim atrocities are never reported or remarked on.  The most spectacular attacks are reported, but the overall scale of Muslim aggression is grossly underreported.  Moreover, when aggression is discussed it is always within a framework of moral equivalence.  Thus, Muslim attacks on Christians are described by the media as “sectarian strife” or as “clashes” between Christians and Muslims.  Above all, every attempt is made to absolve Islam itself from any responsibility for the crimes. World leaders do the same. Every time violence is committed in the name of Islam, presidents and prime ministers assure us that “This has nothing to do with Islam.”

And what of the critics of Pius XII? John Cornwell, the author of Hitler’s Pope, criticized Pope Benedict for not remaining silent about Islamic violence on the occasion of his speech at Regensburg. And as Dalin points out in The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, none of the main critics of Pius—John Cornwell, Daniel Goldhagen, Gary Wills, or James Carroll—have spoken out against Islamic anti-Semitism. Confronted with the major manifestation of anti-Semitism in their own time, the critics of Pius seem to have adopted the rule that silence is golden.

Rather than focus on the hypocrisy of Pius’ contemporary critics, however, let’s ask just how Catholic leaders should respond to widespread and ongoing Muslim violence. There are roughly four ways to respond and each is attendant with difficulties.

One: Remain silent out of concern that speaking out will provoke more violence. This position can be justified on the grounds that the situation of Christians in Muslims lands is roughly similar to that of hostages in a hostage-taking situation. In order to protect the lives of the hostages, the negotiators should say nothing that might upset the hostage-takers. The problem with this approach is that remaining silent does not necessarily guarantee less violence. Church leaders and world leaders alike have been very careful not to upset Muslims, but there has been no let-up in violence. If no one speaks up, there is no need to worry about world opinion.  Silence may be taken as a sign that there will be no consequences for crimes against non-Muslims, and it may even embolden the victimizers to further violence.

Two: Criticize extremist violence in general terms while exonerating Islam itself of any responsibility. This seems now to be the most common response both among secular leaders and Christian leaders. At this point, it’s impossible to ignore the systematic persecution of non-Muslims, particularly of Christians, so almost everyone realizes that a response is called for, but the criticism is almost always of a generic variety. It is directed at “extremism” or “terrorism,” but the critics refrain from asking whether or not the violence has roots in Islamic theology. On the contrary, we are assured that the Islamic perpetrators have misunderstood their own religion.

Three: Say only positive things about Islam in the hopes that a self-fulfilling prophecy will be set in motion (or in the genuine belief that Islam actually is a religion of peace). When Catholic prelates do speak about Islam, it is almost always in a positive way. Islam is praised as a “great religion” or as an “Abrahamic faith” which shares much in common with Catholicism. All of the recent popes have expressed their deep respect and esteem for Muslims and for Islam and even for its “holy book.” There’s an old Johnny Mercer song that tells us to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative,” and that advice seems to sum up Church policy toward Islam. In a sense, this approach is a variation on the old educational principle that expectations determine behavior: if we set high expectations for students, they will rise to meet those expectations. Likewise, if we keep saying over and over that Islam is a religion of peace and justice, even Islamists will eventually believe it and act accordingly.  The drawback of this approach is that it seems to be rooted more in wishful thinking than in fact, and policies that are divorced from reality usually have unfortunate consequences. One unfortunate result of this one-sided narrative about Islam is that it leaves Catholics largely unprepared to meet the challenge of a world in which militant Islam is once again a potent force.

Four: A fourth alternative would be to speak out against the violence and point out those aspects of Islamic theology/ideology that endanger others. This could be coupled with a plea to Islamic leaders and clerics to more strongly address the violence and to repeal the blasphemy and apostasy laws that are used to intimidate Christians and non-Christians alike.  At first glance this approach appears untenable. It might provoke more violence and might lead Muslim leaders and clerics to turn against the Church rather than examine their own problems. In addition, it would provide Western leaders and opinion-makers with an opportunity to attack the Church for insensitivity, bigotry, and Islamophobia.  There is no guarantee that world opinion would rally behind a pope who singled out specific aspects of Islam for criticism.

On the other hand, it is for the supposed failure of Pope Pius XII to specifically condemn Nazi ideology and laws that he is criticized today. And it is precisely because Western leaders failed to speak out early enough about Nazism that it was able to gain so much power. There is an ideology behind the violence in the Muslim world, and if that ideology is never identified or addressed, the violence will continue and most probably increase. Is this supremacist ideology an aberration that has nothing to do with Islam?  If, so, how does one explain the fact that it is written into Islamic law and scripture?

Another point to consider is that by remaining silent, the Church does an injustice to potential future victims of Islamic violence. If there are aspects of Islamic ideology that pose a danger to Christians, then Christians have a right to know the full truth about Islam as opposed to the prettified picture of it favored by many Catholic leaders. A rough analogy might be made to the Church’s teaching on abortion. Suppose committed abortionists all over the world were to riot and kill every time a pope or bishop spoke up against abortion. Should Church leaders keep silent about abortion to avoid bloodshed? Would we say that the bishops bore responsibility for the violence because they had unnecessarily provoked the abortionists? And if Church leaders did decide to remain silent, would their silence result in fewer or more abortions?

The analogy to rampaging abortionists is not exact and neither is the analogy to Pius and the Nazis. In many respects, the threats posed by Islam are sui generis. There is nothing unique, however, about the dilemma faced by the shepherds of the Church: do nothing and people will be hurt; do something and people will be hurt. This is not to say that there are no other alternatives to the four I’ve listed. For instance, it is possible that much can be accomplished through quiet diplomatic pressure and through a tougher, more realistic dialogue with Muslim leaders. But it is unlikely that Church leaders can develop an adequate response to Islamic militancy unless they first develop a realistic assessment of the difficult situation they now face. This is not a time for wishful thinking.

Editor’s note: The image above is a protest in Lahore on January 12, 2011 in response to comments made by Pope Benedict against blasphemy laws in Muslim countries, Pakistan in particular. (Photo credit: AFP Photo / Arif Ali.)

William Kilpatrick


William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website,

  • Vinnie

    The most challenging aspect of being Christian – coming face to face with faith – the real deal. To quote the lyrics of a country song – “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to go now.” I’m blessed, at least for the moment, that I don’t have to put my life on the line for my faith but it’s a reality that the persecution and martyrdom which we read about from a distance in the Bible, and now the news, is real. Are you in a state of sanctifying grace?

  • poetcomic1

    The Church of Nice meets the Freddy Kreuger of Heresies.

  • Florian

    No matter what is said or done, radical Islamists will continue to persecute Christians and even other Muslims who do not agree with them. We can ponder over and over and over which response we should take – just tell the truth, plain and simple. Radical Muslims are offended because they want to be offended, they want an excuse to kill and maim. Everyone is afraid to offend them…speak out, speak the truth and let God take care of the consequences.

  • Richard H Mazyck

    I suspect, at the very least, we must continue to send missionaries to share the gospel with them, and offer pastoral and diplomatic support as much as possible. The only thing that will end most of the conflict, I suspect, is our perpetual individual and social conversion to the Way, to God in Christ himself.

  • uncle max

    To me the plain fact that Islamic ‘leaders’ do not speak out at every possible opportunity against radical Islamists and their grisly acts says basically all that need be said about Islam.

  • Patrick Tiernan

    The very wording “Islamic terror” in the title subjugates any further discourse to assuming this is an acceptable new normal for religious studies. Underlying this interpretation is the lack of any real deconstruction of greater and lesser jihad which itself had been hijacked by many media outlets.

  • Arriero

    France has intervened in the Central African Republic to, among other things, defend the Christian majority (30% Catholic) from the attacks – sometimes exterminations – perpetrated by the muslim minority (15%). France is, despite some gloomy historical events, a millenarian Catholic nation. An ally.

    Catholicism must be defended all around the world, especially in Africa and the Middle-East, but also in his cradle: Europe and the sons of the Faith’s Empire. If the enemy uses hateful irrational violence, the Church has always known that the sword is only won with a stronger sword. Like Theodosius and Hernán Cortés did: build Churches upon pagan temples. Without Truth there is no possible Freedom. We don’t despise the Church’s Middle Age history. Don’t you think new XXIst century crusades are needed?

    We, authentic Catholics, already know that with harmful anti-rational animal behaviours there is nothing productive to do, but sheer expiatory violence. You cannot argue with the devil, whoever he is.

    In his wonderful – as usual – Regensburg lecture, Pope Benedict cited the views of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, one of the last Christian rulers before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire: «Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.»

    (Battle of Lepanto: The Spanish fleet guided by Nuestra Señora del Rosario fighting the Ottoman enemy.)

    PD- The history of the Saint Christ of Lepanto (Santo Cristo de Lepanto) is wonderful. It’s said that when an ottoman ship bombed one from the Spanish feel which was carrying a Christ, this same crucified Christ dodged the bullet moving his body and thus not allowing the ottoman projectile to hit him (The Christ of Lepanto is in Barcelona’s Cathedral, )

  • cestusdei

    We should be more outspoken. Also it should effect our immigration policies. No one who is unwilling to repudiate such acts should be allowed within our borders.

  • Jerome

    This piece considers the options for the Church in regard to Islam better than previous ones in this series, but I think it still has some problems. Firstly, all politics, as they say is local, and Christian-Muslim relations are no exception. Although there are some universal movements in Islam today, some dangerous to Christians, some not at all dangerous, the need to either engage, or criticize, or simply avoid provoking Muslims will depend quite a bit on a given country or situation. Islam, largely lacking the kind of central religious authority we have in the Pope, tends to be less organized than our
    faith and more inchoate in some ways.

    Egypt, Central African Republic, and Bosnia, for instance, all pose rather different Christian-Muslim relations problems for the Church, despite some common elements. It is important for the pope and high-level Church authorities to be cautious therefore because they will be heard in many different arenas. You can’t unscramble eggs (as they say), and as cooperation with Muslims is at least sometimes called for civic purposes, they have a special need therefore to be diplomatic than local Christians. Furthermore, because our faith has higher and more noble moral standards with regard to forgiveness of enemies, and the like, we also all need to show a greater magnanimity than they in these areas, whenever possible. This often means not
    responding in kind to the provocations of the more militant Muslims.

  • Howard Kainz

    Your 4th alternative sounds reasonable, except that in asking Muslims to renounce conversion by the sword and grant freedom to other religions, you are asking them to renounce elements which are essential to their own religion.

  • uncle max

    “There is an ideology behind the violence in the Muslim world.”


    It is also true that when people speak out in public against Islam they tend to get killed. I refer to the world-wide Muhammad cartoon riots in 2005-2006. There was not one publication that had the guts to publish them for this very reason, and the only publication that to my knowledge had the courage to admit why was the Boston Phoenix.

    Islam is a violent faith, NOT a peaceful one. The Sunnis and the Shiites have been killing each other for about 13 centuries.

    Don’t take my word – go to www,

  • John Albertson

    Unfortunately, Pope Francis has tried to be “politically correct” in distancing classical Islam, from modern terrorism (although Mohammed himself was the ultimate terrorist.) And then we had the scandal of Pope John Paul II actually and inexplicably kissing the Qu’ran. The true prophet, Pope Benedict XVI told the truth about Islamic epistemology, and was pilloried for it. In chilling ways, we are now vis a vis Islam as the Western sophisticates were in the 1930’s with National Socialism.

    • Marcelus

      You are forgetting Benedict ended up with apologies to Islan for his words, So all 3 popes took the same road

      “Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that he was “deeply sorry” about the angry reaction to his recent remarks about Islam, which he said came from a text that didn’t reflect his personal opinion.

      “These (words) were in fact a quotation from a Medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought,” Benedict told pilgrims at his summer palace outside Rome.

      The pope sparked the controversy when, in a speech Tuesday to university professors during a pilgrimage to his native Germany, he cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as “evil and inhuman.”

      “At this time I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims,” the pope said Sunday.

      Muslim leaders in the Mideast gave mixed reactions to the pontiff’s apology.

      Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sunni Arab world’s most powerful institution, told Al-Arabiya TV immediately after the pope’s speech that, “It is not enough. He should apologize because he insulted the beliefs of Islam. He must apologize in a frank way and say he made a mistake.”

      Mohammed al-Nujeimi, a professor at the Institute of Judicial and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, also criticized the pope’s statement.

    • cpsho

      The same John Paul 2 who inexplicably kissed the blasphemous and heretical Qu’ran is now about to be inexplicably canonized on april 27th, 2014. The RCC hierarchy has certainly changed; for the worse.
      Lord Jesus help us!

    • kcthomas

      The pope and all people of goodwill are ready to go forward one step further,just for peace and love. Only with this view you can look at John Paul II,s gesture. When fundamentalism is based on hatred and violence,we cannot expect any change. If even some level headed muslims talk peace and tolerance, these fundamentalists will hasten to eliminate them. No remedy when virtues are not listened to and refused.

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  • Bemkapeace

    The truth, and well presented.

    I live in a supposedly “secular” state but Muslims have been killing Nigerians on every possible pretext. Right now, my entire villages has been sack and all houses burnt by Muslim – not one word is reported by the Press. If we regroup and make an attempt at retaliating? It will be big news.

    Your question captures it best for me: “Why don’t these critics of Pius go after contemporary popes for their reluctance to criticize Islam’s anti-Semitic and pro-jihadist theology?”

    And yes, I am for the fourth option! I actually wrote out in protest over what the Pope said in Evagelii gaudium as you quoted above!

  • bethannbee

    A fifth alternative is to speak the Truth and take the consequences. That is really the only one of two policies that will ultimately make Moslems retreat. The other is the Rosary. Recall that the battle of Lepanto was won by the power of the Rosary!!!

  • kcthomas

    On our back only wall and in front Islamic guns,knives and hateful tongues. We are helpless, no government so called democratic and secular ones fight for truth and justice when christians are persecuted. There is no remedy. I fear that within forty ..fifty years Europe and even America will be under their feet. Pray to our Lord, lord of justice and truth.

  • michaeljaffrayk

    Islam denies the cross of Christ.. How can there be anything more diabolical than that?? I meet Muslims every day and this is what I tell them.. One of us is terribly wrong…no cross means no forgiveness no CHRISTIANITY. We CHRISTIANS must be total fools if there is no cross. We must be extremely stupid… Dumb…idiots….madmen….BUT IF THE CROSS IS TRUE, THEN WHAT ARE YOU??? THEN I SAY…I REST MY CASE…..

  • sparrowhawk58

    I was very discouraged on Holy Thursday last year when Pope Francis washed the feet of a Muslim. I understand his (misguided) impulse to do so, but his actions underscored the Muslim attitude toward non-Muslims: we are second-class citizens and must serve our Muslim overlords. That is the interpretation millions of Muslims took from the event.

  • Sid

    There really is no dilemma. Catholics should hold fast to the truth, and act in a responsible manner. That includes Mr. Kilpatrick, who seems to think that acting responsibly and meticulously seeking to understand the truth somehow does not apply to him.

    • Augustus

      For someone who claims to value truth seeking, you seem to value far more insulting others who have arrived at a different conclusion. Care to make an argument? Or are we expected to believe you hold the “truth”–whatever that is–based merely on your unsubstantiated assertion?

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  • spike

    Interfaith dialogue will only invite the wolves into the flock. Being silent in the face of evil makes you complicit. You must dare to speak against the evil name of Islam.

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