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18 November 2001 | Draft

Belief Systems and Terrorism

911+ Questions in Seeking UnCommon Ground (Part 2)

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Part 2 of 911+ Questions in Seeking UnCommon Ground and protecting the Middle Way from Binary Thinking (2001)

Belief-centered exclusivity

Efforts are being made to frame the horrendous attacks as attacks on "freedom" and "democracy" within civilization as a whole. To what extent does this constitute an exclusive appropriation of the values of freedom and democracy by a "western civilization" that is perceived by the attackers as opposing other peoples and cultures in their legitimate aspirations to "freedom" and "democracy" as they understand and prioritize them?

The Mayor of New York, in addressing the UN General Assembly argued (1 October 2001): "This is not a time for further study or vague directives. The United Nations must draw a line. The era of moral relativism between those who practice and condone terrorism and those who stand up against it must end...We are right and they are wrong. It is as simple as that". Does this clarity focus on every area of moral ambiguity or only on "terrorism"? After so many years of investigating corruption in the metropolitan police force -- and neglecting the conclusions -- will effective action finally be taken? When will it finally become possible to say that organized crime has no foothold in New York?

The President of the USA assumes that "God" is necessarily exclusively on the side of the American people (and the right-minded of the world) in their response to the "evil" nature of the attackers. The cultures with some sympathy for the attackers, and especially suicide bombers, assume that "Allah" is on their side in opposing the "evil" impact on their communities that they associate with aspects of American policy and "western civilization" -- they label the USA and Israel as "Big Satan" and "Little Satan" respectively. Are there more fruitful ways to understand such a situation and what resources are devoted to this?

Does "western civilization", or the preferred religion of the current president of the USA, have an absolute monopoly on the definition of "good" and "evil"? How is provision made for perspectives on "good" that are radically different from those he acknowledges?

Arguments against those implying that the attacks have been the inevitable response of American foreign policy stress that this is the vilest effort at moral justification. From this perspective, any deliberate choice to murder thousands of civilians is a crime against humanity by even the narrowest definitions of international law. However the question is both whether the attackers perceive that the Americans have themselves made such choices as a pattern of policy (Cambodia, Hiroshima, Iraq, etc) and how they understand an appropriate response?

What civilized cause is served by labelling the unknown perpetrators of such acts as having "no regard for the sanctity or value of human life" (Tony Blair, 14th September 2001) -- when it may be precisely because of the value they attach to the lives of their compatriots in misery that they have engaged in such acts, as in any war?

There is an extraordinary parallel between the unusual exclusivist perception of America as "God's own country" with a Manifest Destiny, and of Israel as a gift by God to a "chosen people". Why have these perceptions justified encroachment on the lands of others, the displacement and death of indigenous populations, their restriction to "reservations", and the development of a strategic framework for the expansion of "western civilization" into the spaces of other cultures?

What strategic dangers for the future of civilization are likely to result from an alliance between two countries that perceive themselves to be blessed by a unique God-given innocence that justifies their self-righteousness under all foreseeable circumstances?

Renaming the US-led coalition's operation as Operation Enduring Freedom -- whether "infinite justice" or "enduring freedom", would it not be helpful if some clarification was offered on who these were for? Who might they not be for in the light of the past experience of many?

Will President Bush's ultimatum to the people of the world -- "if you're not with us, you're against us" -- be perceived as presumptuous arrogance confirming their discomfort with American hegemony? Is it a choice that people want to, need to, or should have to make?

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said of the 9/11 attacks (in a Parade Magazine article) that they were caused by people "whose faith has been perverted". Whose faith might that be?

The most successful "terrorist" movement recognized in the UK is that of radical animal rights -- whose members engage in extremely violent actions against laboratories and researchers using animals. Many of these "terrorists" are profoundly inspired by the beliefs associated with veganism and avoidance of the consumption of animal products. To what extent is there any meaningful parallel between such a challenge to mainstream society and that of fundamentalist religion? Does this suggest other ways of exploring dialogue between mutually alien value systems?

Is the invocation that "God Bless America" to be understood as a request for a preferential blessing -- or merely a reminder to God not to miss out on any countries during his regular blessing of all countries without distinction?


When does the "other" not appear to some degree as demonic? Where are the mediators to help assist comprehension of those who act in this way? How is it they claim they are acting from the highest principles and it is the west that has acted in a manner that they consider demonic? How is it that the west perceives itself as having the "highest ideals" in civilization and yet sees them as essentially "evil"? Is this not the response of very isolated, primitive tribes?

The US-led coalition is supposedly attacking Afghanistan because of their immoral involvement in the killing of innocent civilians in the USA -- making them "evil". If the coalition causes the deaths of equivalent numbers of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, will it be any less immoral and "evil"?

Can the US-led coalition stop the "evil" without taking on the character of the "evil" and the random violence that it claims to oppose?

In the newly galvanized effort to root out "evil", empowered by faith-based American politics, to what extent will this extend to forms of "evil" to which other cultures are especially sensitive -- alcohol, pornography, gambling, promiscuity, arms sales, and the like? To what extent will it replicate the patterns of the traditional religious effort to root out "evil", as originally exemplified by the Inquisition, and reframed during the McCarthy era approach to un-American activities?

How is it that there is such symmetry between the perception by the western coalition of the "evil" actions and intentions of the "terrorists" (and their sympathizers) and the perception within the Islamic culture that it is the west that is sustaining "evil" through its policies and actions? How is that there is such symmetry between the responses to such "evil" by the "good" guys -- in the form of a "crusade" and a "jihad" respectively?

How should the perceived fundamental threat to American capitalist society by international terrorist networks (operating in 40-plus countries) be compared to the perceived fundamental threat to Chinese communist society by the Falun Gong (operating in 40-plus countries)? How is it that each is explicitly labelled "evil" by the respective government media campaigns -- although each specifically abhors the materialist values of corrupt society? Will the Chinese seek international stigmatization of the Falun Gong under the emerging international definition of "terrorism"?

Are there no social causes of evil, no religious rationale for evil, no reason or arguments for evil? If the enemy of evil is good and our enemy is evil, does that automatically define us as unquestionably good?

Is America defining "good" and "evil" for the world by it's selective interpretation of it's own geopolitical role? (Diana James)

Is performing lesser evils -- curtailing individual liberties, sanctioning political assassination, hiring criminals, overthrowing popular governments, torture, collateral damage -- to be justified in the name of good?

How can the bombing of military targets of a corrupt regime, as well as those of a savage terrorist group, be immoral? (Will O'Malley, Guardian, 29 October 2001)

George W Bush keeps referring to "the evil doers". Islamic extremists often refer to 'Shaitan' in reference to the USA. Where is the enemy if not inside each of us?

How did it come about that a major feature of international community discourse is now the pronouncement by world leaders, such as George Bush or Tony Blair, that some other opinion leader is "evil"? What discipline of the 21st century, called upon to advice such leaders, provides a clear definition of "evil" -- or is no disciplined thinking required? Is this a regression to a past era? How does it correspond to the Islamic declaration of fatwa?

Will people called "evil" by world leaders soon have to provide proof that they are not? Will they have to be "assisted" in this process as during the period of the Roman Catholic Inquisition's efforts to eradicate heresy?

Who created, promoted and financed the Taliban -- now repudiated as "evil-doers" by the Bush administration? As so widely accepted in the USA, is it also true in this case that it is the dysfunctionality of the parent that has engendered dysfunctionality in the child?

How is it that at the beginning of the 21st century a vague theological concept such as "evil", having no definition or meaning in international law or conventional policy-making, has acquired such prominence in the declarations of policy makers and the public -- to the point of determining international strategy? How come recognition of "evil" is not associated with the poverty and injustice exacerbated around the world by so many other policies with international consequences?

George Bush accuses Osama bin Laden of seeking to acquire access to weapons of mass destruction that he calls "evil weapons". So why have the USA, the UK, Russia, France, China, Pakistan, Israel and India developed stockpiles of "evil weapons"? (Richard Byrne, Guardian, 8 November 2001)

Are we sharply enough aware of the presence of good and evil on all sides? Or have we developed a level of complacency which leads us, often unconsciously, into accepting that our way of looking at the world is the only way? (Wendy Tyndale, Guardian, 17 November 2001)

Is it a good time for anyone who believes that the US-UK "war on terrorism" is guided by any sort of moral imperative, rather than by power games, to think again? (Sheila Malone and Bruce kent, Guardian, 28 November 2001)


Confirming George Bush's understanding that the USA is engaged in a "crusade", in his declaration of jihad against the USA in 1996, Osama bin Laden named the Americans as "crusader forces" and stated they had become the main cause of the disastrous condition of the Muslims. George Bush perceives himself as engaging in a just war against "terrorism" by groups such as those of bin Laden. The latter sees himself as engaged in a just war against American "terrorism". How can such perceptions be reconciled?

In marked contrast to many other leaders, both George Bush and Osama bin Laden have a very strong practice of prayer. They are both admired by their supporters for the insights that prayer brings to their policy decisions. How is it that their religious practice brings them into opposition?

America prides itself on being one of the most religious of all nations with some 95 percent believing in God? In making that competitive claim, what percent of Afghans would Americans assume have a belief in God?

What are the sources of the religious fervour motivating Osama bin Laden and George Bush? What are the benefits to society of creating a demonized enemy? What are the attractions of subsuming one's individuality in a system of laws and a collective cause?

Since both Osama bin Laden and George Bush have a practice of prayer, how would those concerned with inter-faith dialogue reconcile their perspectives -- especially when each refers to the other as the "head of the snake"?

How is it that some of the nastiest hate speech, such as death threats, is not directed at believers, but originates with them? Why is their such a direct relationship between religion and hatred?

Given the decision by David Blunkett, the UK Home Secretary, to curtail freedom of speech, why should the objects of religious hatred be privileged over all the other victims of insults and harsh words? (Catherine Bennett, Guardian, 18 October 2001)

Do the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions -- with their common roots -- have any means or motivation to dialogue with each other -- without seeking to proselytize or condemn? Does each need to be able to deny the merits of unique truths valued by the others?

Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied -- in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- is convinced that modern, secular society is trying to wipe out their true faith and religious values. They believe that they are fighting for survival. (Karen Armstrong, Guardian, 13 October 2001). Are they?

With respect to jihad it is said : "And whosoever does any agression against you retaliate against them in the same manner but know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves." (Surah Al-Tauba verse 36). And crusade was first understood (and so remembered by Muslims) as any attempt of European Christians to recover and defend the Holy Lands in and around Palestine from the Muslims; currently understood as any cause pursued energetically -- notably in defense of moral principles or against something considered evil. Do crusades require any form of restraint?

If jihad means "striving" for the pleasure of Allah, and refers principally to striving in daily life with all one's intelligence, faculties and resources for the general promotion of good and righteousness, then what does Crusade mean?

Religious violence is not restricted to Islam but is characteristic of marginal groups within the major religious traditions: Christianity (reconstruction theology and the Christian Identity movement, abortion clinic attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, and Northern Ireland); Judaism (Baruch Goldstein, the assassination of Rabin, and Kahane); Islam (the World Trade Center bombing and Hamas suicide missions); Sikhism (the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Beant Singh); and Buddhism (Aum Shinrikyo and the Tokyo subway gas attack). Is it possible to conclude with Mark Juergensmeyer (Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence) that "the cure for religious violence may ultimately lie in a renewed appreciation for religion itself"?

Former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali visited the ruins of the World Trade Center. When reporters asked how he felt about the terrorist suspects sharing his Islamic faith, Ali responded pleasantly, "How do you feel about Hitler sharing yours?"

Is the crisis confronting moderate Muslims with a challenge? If they do not want bin Laden to speak for them, as he has been doing, will they be able to collectively agree on how to speak for themselves?

George Bush and Tony Blair presume to tell the world, and Muslims, that Osama bin Laden's views are a desecration of the peace-loving Islamic faith. Would it not have been more reassuring if similar verdicts had come from koranic scholars of greater rank than those two political leaders? How is it that there has been no fatwa issued against him?

Is it not ironic that the crisis is based to a high degree on what might be termed "defilement of sacred soil": Israeli concerns for the God-given "Land of Israel"; Islamic concerns for their sacred sites (whether in Jerusalem or in Saudi Arabia); or American concern (from a Christian perspective) that the sanctity of their soil had been violated in "God's own country" ? Must any retribution necessarily ensure that the sanctity of the other's soil be appropriately defiled? How effectively have the respective religions addressed these aspects of spirituality through inter-faith dialogue ?

Why all the talk about US military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not at the heart of the present discontent? (Salman Rushdie, Guardian, 3 November 2001)

Some Muslims recall the German propaganda concerning "Hajji Muhammmed Hitler" as being a true friend of Islam. Is it any wonder that Bush and Blair's repeated assertions of the essential goodness of Islam are recognized as hot air by the Arab masses? (Ahdaf Soueif, Guardian, 6 November 2001)

An Afghan national epigram has it that: "When God wants to punish a nation, he makes them invade Afghanistan". Will openly involving the western coalition in the historical terrain of the Great Game -- and the spirtual burning ground of central Asia -- sound the death knell of western consumerist illusions (and the American Way of Life), just as it sounded the death knell of Soviet communism?

According to the FBI, the definition of terrorism is: "Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." For some, the religion of Islam fulfills each and every criteria of the above-mentioned definition of terrorism -- and is perceived, since its foundation, to have left behind a legacy of violent atrocities and horrible crimes. To what extent might this appear to have been true of Christianity -- especially for those who suffered at the hands of Christians (notably in the massacres of Srebrenica and the Holocaust)?

The ostensible born again Christian who is presently occupying the people's house, which is now closed to the people, told the Christian country that he would be a faith-based president. What is his faith based in? Is his faith based in the difficult words of his savior? Or was having Jesus as his personal savior an expedient posture? What faith is the eerie well-scrubbed indifference to the loss of third world lives at the hands of our military - what faith is that based in? Is that Christ? Is that how Christ saw the path of peace? Did He see peace coming on a wave of blood and unfortunate but justifiable military action? Is that our savior? Is that what the western world stops for? A sort of prince of peace - a savior riddled with codicils and exemptions? Is that the radical architect of the human heart that divides time between before and after Him? (Bill C. Davis, The Choice of Christmas Future, 24 December 2001)

Partisian arrogance and muddled thinking keep on fuelling this world crisis. Should not decent and intelligent people, both religious and irreligious, be fighting less against flesh and blood than against spiritual wickedness grounded in ignorance? Would that not be a "jihad" we could all be proud to join? (Prof Dennis Brown, Guardian, 5 November 2001)

History abounds with examples of elites protecting their vested interests by using unwitting warriors motivated to rush into battle with religious fervor. Was the decision made to resort to terrorism qua war, mobilizing public support for it through playing on emotions based in religious assumptions, because it better served the political and economic agenda of individuals and groups whose objectives could not have been achieved by peaceful alternatives? To what extent are most Americans energized by not too subtle appeals to religious archetypes. (Paul Von Ward)

Is it not time to rethink the problem of the sacred? We eliminated the sacred in what we thought to be an act of freedom, of liberation of the human being. Thus appeared the reign of relativism in the name of which one can assert anything and also the contrary of anything. The terrorist acts "in the name of God (or that of the Good)" and those who fight the terrorists act also "in the name of God (or that of the Good)." Which God? Are there as many Gods as there are religions? Should a new vision of learning integrate the search of the transcultural and of the transreligious attitude? (Basarab Nicolescu, 16 October 2001)

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