On Tuesday, during the second day of the Democratic Convention, two young Muslim men stormed into a Catholic church in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, interrupting Mass. One of the terrorists forced an 84-year-old priest to his knees before the church’s altar and slit his throat in front of the panicked congregants, while the other filmed the butchery on his cellphone. The two then preached a sermon in Arabic by the altar, before being killed by French police.
While the news coverage of the priest’s gruesome murder was overshadowed in the U.S. by the drama surrounding the Democratic Convention, I expect that this latest attack will have a profound impact on the presidential election this fall. The longer the war on terror rages and the more suicide attacks that are carried out by jihadists, the more clear it becomes that religion — not politics — is fueling the Islamic State movement. The Normandy church attack marks an escalation of a strategy the Islamic State has pursued from the beginning. Its goal is to provoke a final conflict between Christianity and Islam that will hasten the fulfillment of Mohammed’s end-of-days prophecies and lead, they believe, to the ultimate triumph of Islam.
Last September, Martin Chulov described the “apocalyptic motivations” of the Islamic State in an article titled “Why ISIS Fights." In the article, Chulov details the deep-seated religious convictions at the core of the Islamic State’s ideology, including one of the Prophet Muhammed’s earliest statements referencing a last battle between the Christians and Muslims to be fought in the northern Syrian village of Dabiq. Two years ago, Islamic State fighters flooded into Dabiq, turning that small, poor and heretofore unremarkable village into a focal point of their movement. The Islamic State is aggressively fortifying Dabiq, preparing for the last battle it is desperately trying to provoke. The murder of the Catholic priest in Normandy this week was a calculated intensification of the religious war the Islamic State has been fighting from the beginning.
For years, Republicans, like myself, have argued that the fight against terrorism is really a fight against radical Islam, and to not name it as such is to misunderstand both its allure and its objectives. President Obama and Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, have refused to use the term radical Islam, arguing that to publicly acknowledge the religious motivations undergirding the Islamic State would lend it legitimacy and increase its reach.
Throughout this presidential race, Donald Trump has embraced the radical Islam narrative, arguing, “Many of the principles of radical Islam are incompatible with Western values and institutions. Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American. If we want to protect the quality of life for all Americans — women and children, gay and straight, Jews and Christians and all people — then we need to tell the truth about radical Islam.”
Confronting radical Islam was a major theme during the GOP Convention last week. On Monday, during the first day of the Democrat Convention, according to PolitiFact, not one of the 61 speakers mentioned the Islamic State, radical Islam, or the war on terror. The Trump campaign immediately pounced on the omission, seizing the opportunity to further pound Clinton and the Democrats' “weakness” on the issue.
Trump appears to be winning the radical Islam argument. According to a recent CNN poll, proudly tweeted out by Trump, 53 percent of Americans believe Trump would better handle terrorism, compared to 42 percent for Clinton. Should the Islamic State target more churches this fall — and I expect they will try — Trump’s willingness to call out radical Islam just might propel him into the White House.
Dan Liljenquist is a former Republican state senator from Utah and former U.S. Senate candidate. He is nationally recognized for work on entitlement reform.