Pope Francis has said that he would be willing to engage in dialogue with the Islamic State. This is despite the fact that he himself may be a target of the notorious salafist al-Qaeda offshoot. He has spoken out forcefully in the past against the massacres of christians by the Islamic State and tentatively backed the US led coalition against the group, drawing the ire of jihadis.
He made the remarks to journalists while returning from Strasbourg, where he had just addresed the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. On being asked if it was possible to negotiate with Islamist terrorists he responded 'I never say 'all is lost', never. Maybe there can't be a dialogue but you can never shut a door."
This is even though ISIS have repeatedly threatened to conquer Rome and plant the black flag of their self-proclaimed Caliphate on top of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. That striking image even adorned issue four of the Islamic State magazine, Dabiq.
The Pontiff has swiftly gained a reputation for personal humility and relatability, eschewing the traditional pomp of the Vatican for a more down-to-earth papal style. This comment, coming from a religious leader of his stature could be taken as an expression of grace and virtue, displaying an openness that the Cathoic Church has not expressed for decades.
It is symptomatic, however, of a broader misconception pervading much of western society. The idea is that if the right negotiator came along, the right moment, a negotiation would be possible which would satiate the demands of jihadis and end the conflict.
The idea is dangerous.
It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of their worldview, namely that there can be no other system than Caliphate and the brutally enforced rule of sharia over the entire world. Denial of that simple truth is what enables Islamism to flourish. It enables misguided human rights activists and analysts alike to hang on to a sliver of hope that somehow this can all be resolved, thus enabling them to dodge the question entirely.
On this score arab countries are leagues ahead of the West. The United Arab Emirates has just declared a bevy of Islamist groups worldwide as terrorist organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS). When asked why the UAE had listed these groups, the foreign relations minister said "We cannot accept incitment or [terror] funding when we look at some of these organizations. For many countries, the definition of terror is that you have to carry a weapon and terrorize people. For us, its far beyond that. We cannot tolerate even the smallest and tiniest amount of terrorism."
Egypt has just released the findings of a commission launched to investigate the crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood – concluding that Egypt must ban all parties that subscribe to political Islam. The report stated "the lesson we must learn from this experience is that political Islam forces must not be allowed to exercise politics in this country."
These countries have their own problems and like many countries, questionable human rights records. Yet they are able to have clarity on this issue since they are directly dealing with it on a daily basis. For them, leaving open the door to dialogue in defence of some vague idea of the sanctity of diplomacy would be foolish and potentially lethal.
Pope Francis has the luxury of encouraging peace and dialogue wherever he goes. He is, after all, the Pope. Yet when the idea that any problem can be talked over becomes mainstream, it brings with it the notion that there are no real differences in worldview, only different perspectives which can be worked through given enough time. Islamists do not think this way. They have a goal that they will relentlessly pursue and regard anyone outside of the group as an enemy to be defeated, a potential convert, or a tool to be used.
Because of these misguided ideas about possibilities that do not exist, individuals and organizations who should know better allow Islamists to grow more powerful.