September 11 Digital Archive Article: This Is a Religious War

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This Is a Religious War

October 7, 2001


Perhaps the most admirable part of the response to the
conflict that began on Sept. 11 has been a general
reluctance to call it a religious war. Officials and
commentators have rightly stressed that this is not a
battle between the Muslim world and the West, that the
murderers are not representative of Islam. President Bush
went to the Islamic Center in Washington to reinforce the
point. At prayer meetings across the United States and
throughout the world, Muslim leaders have been included
alongside Christians, Jews and Buddhists.

The only problem with this otherwise laudable effort is
that it doesn't hold up under inspection. The religious
dimension of this conflict is central to its meaning. The
words of Osama bin Laden are saturated with religious
argument and theological language. Whatever else the
Taliban regime is in Afghanistan, it is fanatically
religious. Although some Muslim leaders have criticized the
terrorists, and even Saudi Arabia's rulers have distanced
themselves from the militants, other Muslims in the Middle
East and elsewhere have not denounced these acts, have been
conspicuously silent or have indeed celebrated them. The
terrorists' strain of Islam is clearly not shared by most
Muslims and is deeply unrepresentative of Islam's glorious,
civilized and peaceful past. But it surely represents a
part of Islam -- a radical, fundamentalist part -- that
simply cannot be ignored or denied.

In that sense, this surely is a religious war -- but not of
Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war
of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at
peace with freedom and modernity. This war even has far
gentler echoes in America's own religious conflicts --
between newer, more virulent strands of Christian
fundamentalism and mainstream Protestantism and
Catholicism. These conflicts have ancient roots, but they
seem to be gaining new force as modernity spreads and
deepens. They are our new wars of religion -- and their
victims are in all likelihood going to mount with each
passing year.

Osama bin Laden himself couldn't be clearer about the
religious underpinnings of his campaign of terror. In 1998,
he told his followers, ''The call to wage war against
America was made because America has spearheaded the
crusade against the Islamic nation, sending tens of
thousands of its troops to the land of the two holy mosques
over and above its meddling in its affairs and its politics
and its support of the oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical
regime that is in control.'' Notice the use of the word
''crusade,'' an explicitly religious term, and one that
simply ignores the fact that the last few major American
interventions abroad -- in Kuwait, Somalia and the Balkans
-- were all conducted in defense of Muslims.

Notice also that as bin Laden understands it, the
''crusade'' America is alleged to be leading is not against
Arabs but against the Islamic nation, which spans many
ethnicities. This nation knows no nation-states as they
actually exist in the region -- which is why this form of
Islamic fundamentalism is also so worrying to the rulers of
many Middle Eastern states. Notice also that bin Laden's
beef is with American troops defiling the land of Saudi
Arabia -- the land of the two holy mosques,'' in Mecca and
Medina. In 1998, he also told followers that his terrorism
was ''of the commendable kind, for it is directed at the
tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah.'' He
has a litany of grievances against Israel as well, but his
concerns are not primarily territorial or procedural. ''Our
religion is under attack,'' he said baldly. The attackers
are Christians and Jews. When asked to sum up his message
to the people of the West, bin Laden couldn't have been
clearer: ''Our call is the call of Islam that was revealed
to Muhammad. It is a call to all mankind. We have been
entrusted with good cause to follow in the footsteps of the
messenger and to communicate his message to all nations.''

This is a religious war against ''unbelief and
unbelievers,'' in bin Laden's words. Are these cynical
words designed merely to use Islam for nefarious ends? We
cannot know the precise motives of bin Laden, but we can
know that he would not use these words if he did not think
they had salience among the people he wishes to inspire and
provoke. This form of Islam is not restricted to bin Laden

Its roots lie in an extreme and violent strain in Islam
that emerged in the 18th century in opposition to what was
seen by some Muslims as Ottoman decadence but has gained
greater strength in the 20th. For the past two decades,
this form of Islamic fundamentalism has racked the Middle
East. It has targeted almost every regime in the region
and, as it failed to make progress, has extended its
hostility into the West. From the assassination of Anwar
Sadat to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie to the decadelong
campaign of bin Laden to the destruction of ancient
Buddhist statues and the hideous persecution of women and
homosexuals by the Taliban to the World Trade Center
massacre, there is a single line. That line is a
fundamentalist, religious one. And it is an Islamic one.

Most interpreters of the Koran find no arguments in it for
the murder of innocents. But it would be naive to ignore in
Islam a deep thread of intolerance toward unbelievers,
especially if those unbelievers are believed to be a threat
to the Islamic world. There are many passages in the Koran
urging mercy toward others, tolerance, respect for life and
so on. But there are also passages as violent as this:
''And when the sacred months are passed, kill those who
join other gods with God wherever ye shall find them; and
seize them, besiege them, and lay wait for them with every
kind of ambush.'' And this: ''Believers! Wage war against
such of the infidels as are your neighbors, and let them
find you rigorous.'' Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of
Islam, writes of the dissonance within Islam: ''There is
something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired,
in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a
courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in
other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and
disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this
dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an
explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the
government of an ancient and civilized country -- even the
spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion -- to
espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in
the life of their prophet, approval and indeed precedent
for such actions.'' Since Muhammad was, unlike many other
religious leaders, not simply a sage or a prophet but a
ruler in his own right, this exploitation of his politics
is not as great a stretch as some would argue.

This use of religion for extreme repression, and even
terror, is not of course restricted to Islam. For most of
its history, Christianity has had a worse record. From the
Crusades to the Inquisition to the bloody religious wars of
the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe saw far more blood
spilled for religion's sake than the Muslim world did. And
given how expressly nonviolent the teachings of the Gospels
are, the perversion of Christianity in this respect was
arguably greater than bin Laden's selective use of Islam.
But it is there nonetheless. It seems almost as if there is
something inherent in religious monotheism that lends
itself to this kind of terrorist temptation. And our bland
attempts to ignore this -- to speak of this violence as if
it did not have religious roots -- is some kind of denial.
We don't want to denigrate religion as such, and so we deny
that religion is at the heart of this. But we would
understand this conflict better, perhaps, if we first
acknowledged that religion is responsible in some way, and
then figured out how and why.

The first mistake is surely to condescend to
fundamentalism. We may disagree with it, but it has
attracted millions of adherents for centuries, and for a
good reason. It elevates and comforts. It provides a sense
of meaning and direction to those lost in a disorienting
world. The blind recourse to texts embraced as literal
truth, the injunction to follow the commandments of God
before anything else, the subjugation of reason and
judgment and even conscience to the dictates of dogma:
these can be exhilarating and transformative. They have led
human beings to perform extraordinary acts of both good and
evil. And they have an internal logic to them. If you
believe that there is an eternal afterlife and that endless
indescribable torture awaits those who disobey God's law,
then it requires no huge stretch of imagination to make
sure that you not only conform to each diktat but that you
also encourage and, if necessary, coerce others to do the
same. The logic behind this is impeccable. Sin begets sin.
The sin of others can corrupt you as well. The only
solution is to construct a world in which such sin is
outlawed and punished and constantly purged -- by force if
necessary. It is not crazy to act this way if you believe
these things strongly enough. In some ways, it's crazier to
believe these things and not act this way.

In a world of absolute truth, in matters graver than life
and death, there is no room for dissent and no room for
theological doubt. Hence the reliance on literal
interpretations of texts -- because interpretation can lead
to error, and error can lead to damnation. Hence also the
ancient Catholic insistence on absolute church authority.
Without infallibility, there can be no guarantee of truth.
Without such a guarantee, confusion can lead to hell.

Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor makes the case perhaps as
well as anyone. In the story told by Ivan Karamazov in
''The Brothers Karamazov,'' Jesus returns to earth during
the Spanish Inquisition. On a day when hundreds have been
burned at the stake for heresy, Jesus performs miracles.
Alarmed, the Inquisitor arrests Jesus and imprisons him
with the intent of burning him at the stake as well. What
follows is a conversation between the Inquisitor and Jesus.
Except it isn't a conversation because Jesus says nothing.
It is really a dialogue between two modes of religion, an
exploration of the tension between the extraordinary,
transcendent claims of religion and human beings' inability
to live up to them, or even fully believe them.

According to the Inquisitor, Jesus' crime was revealing
that salvation was possible but still allowing humans the
freedom to refuse it. And this, to the Inquisitor, was a
form of cruelty. When the truth involves the most important
things imaginable -- the meaning of life, the fate of one's
eternal soul, the difference between good and evil -- it is
not enough to premise it on the capacity of human choice.
That is too great a burden. Choice leads to unbelief or
distraction or negligence or despair. What human beings
really need is the certainty of truth, and they need to see
it reflected in everything around them -- in the cultures
in which they live, enveloping them in a seamless fabric of
faith that helps them resist the terror of choice and the
abyss of unbelief. This need is what the Inquisitor calls
the ''fundamental secret of human nature.'' He explains:
''These pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find
what one or the other can worship, but to find something
that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is
that all may be together in it. This craving for community
of worship is the chief misery of every man individually
and of all humanity since the beginning of time.''

This is the voice of fundamentalism. Faith cannot exist
alone in a single person. Indeed, faith needs others for it
to survive -- and the more complete the culture of faith,
the wider it is, and the more total its infiltration of the
world, the better. It is hard for us to wrap our minds
around this today, but it is quite clear from the accounts
of the Inquisition and, indeed, of the religious wars that
continued to rage in Europe for nearly three centuries,
that many of the fanatics who burned human beings at the
stake were acting out of what they genuinely thought were
the best interests of the victims. With the power of the
state, they used fire, as opposed to simple execution,
because it was thought to be spiritually cleansing. A few
minutes of hideous torture on earth were deemed a small
price to pay for helping such souls avoid eternal torture
in the afterlife. Moreover, the example of such
government-sponsored executions helped create a culture in
which certain truths were reinforced and in which it was
easier for more weak people to find faith. The burden of
this duty to uphold the faith lay on the men required to
torture, persecute and murder the unfaithful. And many of
them believed, as no doubt some Islamic fundamentalists
believe, that they were acting out of mercy and godliness.

This is the authentic voice of the Taliban. It also finds
itself replicated in secular form. What, after all, were
the totalitarian societies of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia
if not an exact replica of this kind of fusion of politics
and ultimate meaning? Under Lenin's and Stalin's rules, the
imminence of salvation through revolutionary consciousness
was in perpetual danger of being undermined by those too
weak to have faith -- the bourgeois or the kulaks or the
intellectuals. So they had to be liquidated or purged.
Similarly, it is easy for us to dismiss the Nazis as evil,
as they surely were. It is harder for us to understand that
in some twisted fashion, they truly believed that they were
creating a new dawn for humanity, a place where all the
doubts that freedom brings could be dispelled in a rapture
of racial purity and destiny. Hence the destruction of all
dissidents and the Jews -- carried out by fire as the
Inquisitors had before, an act of purification different
merely in its scale, efficiency and Godlessness.

Perhaps the most important thing for us to realize today is
that the defeat of each of these fundamentalisms required a
long and arduous effort. The conflict with Islamic
fundamentalism is likely to take as long. For unlike
Europe's religious wars, which taught Christians the
futility of fighting to the death over something beyond
human understanding and so immune to any definitive
resolution, there has been no such educative conflict in
the Muslim world. Only Iran and Afghanistan have
experienced the full horror of revolutionary
fundamentalism, and only Iran has so far seen reason to
moderate to some extent. From everything we see, the
lessons Europe learned in its bloody history have yet to be
absorbed within the Muslim world. There, as in 16th-century
Europe, the promise of purity and salvation seems far more
enticing than the mundane allure of mere peace. That means
that we are not at the end of this conflict but in its very
early stages.

America is not a neophyte in this struggle. the United
States has seen several waves of religious fervor since its
founding. But American evangelicalism has always kept its
distance from governmental power. The Christian separation
between what is God's and what is Caesar's -- drawn from
the Gospels -- helped restrain the fundamentalist
temptation. The last few decades have proved an exception,
however. As modernity advanced, and the certitudes of
fundamentalist faith seemed mocked by an increasingly
liberal society, evangelicals mobilized and entered
politics. Their faith sharpened, their zeal intensified,
the temptation to fuse political and religious authority
beckoned more insistently.

Mercifully, violence has not been a significant feature of
this trend -- but it has not been absent. The murders of
abortion providers show what such zeal can lead to. And
indeed, if people truly believe that abortion is the same
as mass murder, then you can see the awful logic of the
terrorism it has spawned. This is the same logic as bin
Laden's. If faith is that strong, and it dictates a choice
between action or eternal damnation, then violence can
easily be justified. In retrospect, we should be amazed not
that violence has occurred -- but that it hasn't occurred
more often.

The critical link between Western and Middle Eastern
fundamentalism is surely the pace of social change. If you
take your beliefs from books written more than a thousand
years ago, and you believe in these texts literally, then
the appearance of the modern world must truly terrify. If
you believe that women should be consigned to polygamous,
concealed servitude, then Manhattan must appear like
Gomorrah. If you believe that homosexuality is a crime
punishable by death, as both fundamentalist Islam and the
Bible dictate, then a world of same-sex marriage is surely
Sodom. It is not a big step to argue that such centers of
evil should be destroyed or undermined, as bin Laden does,
or to believe that their destruction is somehow a
consequence of their sin, as Jerry Falwell argued. Look
again at Falwell's now infamous words in the wake of Sept.
11: ''I really believe that the pagans, and the
abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians
who are actively trying to make that an alternative
lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way -- all
of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the
finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'''

And why wouldn't he believe that? He has subsequently
apologized for the insensitivity of the remark but not for
its theological underpinning. He cannot repudiate the
theology -- because it is the essence of what he believes
in and must believe in for his faith to remain alive.

The other critical aspect of this kind of faith is
insecurity. American fundamentalists know they are losing
the culture war. They are terrified of failure and of the
Godless world they believe is about to engulf or crush
them. They speak and think defensively. They talk about
renewal, but in their private discourse they expect
damnation for an America that has lost sight of the
fundamentalist notion of God.

Similarly, Muslims know that the era of Islam's imperial
triumph has long since gone. For many centuries, the
civilization of Islam was the center of the world. It
eclipsed Europe in the Dark Ages, fostered great learning
and expanded territorially well into Europe and Asia. But
it has all been downhill from there. From the collapse of
the Ottoman Empire onward, it has been on the losing side
of history. The response to this has been an intermittent
flirtation with Westernization but far more emphatically a
reaffirmation of the most irredentist and extreme forms of
the culture under threat. Hence the odd phenomenon of
Islamic extremism beginning in earnest only in the last 200

With Islam, this has worse implications than for other
cultures that have had rises and falls. For Islam's
religious tolerance has always been premised on its own
power. It was tolerant when it controlled the territory and
called the shots. When it lost territory and saw itself
eclipsed by the West in power and civilization, tolerance
evaporated. To cite Lewis again on Islam: ''What is truly
evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over
true believers. For true believers to rule misbelievers is
proper and natural, since this provides for the maintenance
of the holy law and gives the misbelievers both the
opportunity and the incentive to embrace the true faith.
But for misbelievers to rule over true believers is
blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption
of religion and morality in society and to the flouting or
even the abrogation of God's law.''

Thus the horror at the establishment of the State of
Israel, an infidel country in Muslim lands, a bitter
reminder of the eclipse of Islam in the modern world. Thus
also the revulsion at American bases in Saudi Arabia. While
colonialism of different degrees is merely political
oppression for some cultures, for Islam it was far worse.
It was blasphemy that had to be avenged and countered.

I cannot help thinking of this defensiveness when I read
stories of the suicide bombers sitting poolside in Florida
or racking up a $48 vodka tab in an American restaurant. We
tend to think that this assimilation into the West might
bring Islamic fundamentalists around somewhat, temper their
zeal. But in fact, the opposite is the case. The temptation
of American and Western culture -- indeed, the very allure
of such culture -- may well require a repression all the
more brutal if it is to be overcome. The transmission of
American culture into the heart of what bin Laden calls the
Islamic nation requires only two responses -- capitulation
to unbelief or a radical strike against it. There is little
room in the fundamentalist psyche for a moderate
accommodation. The very psychological dynamics that lead
repressed homosexuals to be viciously homophobic or that
entice sexually tempted preachers to inveigh against
immorality are the very dynamics that lead vodka-drinking
fundamentalists to steer planes into buildings. It is not
designed to achieve anything, construct anything, argue
anything. It is a violent acting out of internal conflict.

And America is the perfect arena for such acting out. For
the question of religious fundamentalism was not only
familiar to the founding fathers. In many ways, it was the
central question that led to America's existence. The first
American immigrants, after all, were refugees from the
religious wars that engulfed England and that intensified
under England's Taliban, Oliver Cromwell. One central
influence on the founders' political thought was John
Locke, the English liberal who wrote the now famous
''Letter on Toleration.'' In it, Locke argued that true
salvation could not be a result of coercion, that faith had
to be freely chosen to be genuine and that any other
interpretation was counter to the Gospels. Following Locke,
the founders established as a central element of the new
American order a stark separation of church and state,
ensuring that no single religion could use political means
to enforce its own orthodoxies.

We cite this as a platitude today without absorbing or even
realizing its radical nature in human history -- and the
deep human predicament it was designed to solve. It was an
attempt to answer the eternal human question of how to
pursue the goal of religious salvation for ourselves and
others and yet also maintain civil peace. What the founders
and Locke were saying was that the ultimate claims of
religion should simply not be allowed to interfere with
political and religious freedom. They did this to preserve
peace above all -- but also to preserve true religion

The security against an American Taliban is therefore
relatively simple: it's the Constitution. And the
surprising consequence of this separation is not that it
led to a collapse of religious faith in America -- as weak
human beings found themselves unable to believe without
social and political reinforcement -- but that it led to
one of the most vibrantly religious civil societies on
earth. No other country has achieved this. And it is this
achievement that the Taliban and bin Laden have now decided
to challenge. It is a living, tangible rebuke to everything
they believe in.

That is why this coming conflict is indeed as momentous and
as grave as the last major conflicts, against Nazism and
Communism, and why it is not hyperbole to see it in these
epic terms. What is at stake is yet another battle against
a religion that is succumbing to the temptation Jesus
refused in the desert -- to rule by force. The difference
is that this conflict is against a more formidable enemy
than Nazism or Communism. The secular totalitarianisms of
the 20th century were, in President Bush's memorable words,
''discarded lies.'' They were fundamentalisms built on the
very weak intellectual conceits of a master race and a
Communist revolution.

But Islamic fundamentalism is based on a glorious
civilization and a great faith. It can harness and co-opt
and corrupt true and good believers if it has a propitious
and toxic enough environment. It has a more powerful logic
than either Stalin's or Hitler's Godless ideology, and it
can serve as a focal point for all the other societies in
the world, whose resentment of Western success and
civilization comes more easily than the arduous task of
accommodation to modernity. We have to somehow defeat this
without defeating or even opposing a great religion that is
nonetheless extremely inexperienced in the toleration of
other ascendant and more powerful faiths. It is hard to
underestimate the extreme delicacy and difficulty of this

In this sense, the symbol of this conflict should not be
Old Glory, however stirring it is. What is really at issue
here is the simple but immensely difficult principle of the
separation of politics and religion. We are fighting not
for our country as such or for our flag. We are fighting
for the universal principles of our Constitution -- and the
possibility of free religious faith it guarantees. We are
fighting for religion against one of the deepest strains in
religion there is. And not only our lives but our souls are
at stake.

Andrew Sullivan is a contributing writer for the

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September 11 Email: Subject Article: This Is a Religious War


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