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Afghanistan Today, Terrorism Tomorrow?
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of … Wherefore let thy voice rise like a fountain! - Lord Tennyson

21 September   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)


We have now entered the second week of an asymmetric warfare between the forces of the coalition led by the United States of America and Afghanistan. This war is not being waged solely by the use of sophisticated military arsenal against an underdeveloped country. It is a war being driven also by fear and anxiety about the future.

‘Striking Terrorism’ - Sky News emblazons its screens with this caption - is a military campaign that kicked off initially as a punitive hunt against Usama Bin Laden. Since those first days, though, it has developed into a much more ambitious and far-reaching campaign. But despite the repeated expostulations of President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, there is still a lingering perception in the minds of many peoples that this war is as much political as it is religious. Indeed, a large number of ordinary Muslims the world over would say that this war is indeed aimed at Islam. Conversely, many ordinary Westerners would subscribe to the view that Islam - a ‘problematic’ religion that supports violence and fosters the likes of Bin Laden and his acolytes - is to blame for the radicalism that has taken hold of this world and therefore needs to be dealt with.

What is Islam?

Samuel Huntington, an American theorist, predicted that the great conflict of the21 st century would in fact be played out along the fault line of the tectonic plates on which Islamic and Western civilisation co-existed uneasily. In the search for a new enemy after the collapse of Communism, the alien dispensation of Mohammedanism - to use a term Muslims hate - appeared as promising a candidate as any. Just read the newspapers or listen to the television. Whenever the media talks about extremists, terrorists or fanatics - the descriptions vary - the constant remains always the adjective ‘Islamic’ that precedes such nouns. So is there - non-Muslims wonder - something fundamental about Islam, which makes it incompatible with Western values of democracy and freedom? Are Muslims inevitably more likely to be, in the vocabulary of cosmic good and evil so beloved of President Bush, the ‘bad guys’?

What is Islam? Let me start off by highlighting four basics about Islam that could relate to the current conflict.

An Aggressive and Intolerant Islam

The sword has always figured prominently in Islamic history. The seventh-century Arab prophet Muhammad who founded Islam was a man who vanquished his enemies on the battlefield. In the centuries, which followed, military conquest was the means by which Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula and China. The traditions and law of Islam were thus formed during an era of success. Programmed for victory, Islam has not developed a theology for failure - or for being a minority.

This take on reality undoubtedly heightens the sense of mortification Muslims feel in an era of globalisation when Western power - cultural, economic and military - goes increasingly unchallenged. Having said that, for almost a millennium, the tone of Islam was one of civilised consolidation. It was also far more tolerant, of both Jews and Christians than Christian Europe ever was of its minorities. In the11 th and12 th centuries, Muslim philosophy was the most sophisticated in the world. In Moorish Spain, the governing mood was one of co-operation. Centuries later, the attitude of Muslim conquerors to Hindus in India - moderated by the growth of Sufism - was far less narrow-minded than is often claimed. It is only with the growth of fundamentalism that the tone of intolerance has heightened, and many modern Muslims insist that the new practices of death-sentence fatwas and book burning that have captured the headlines of the tabloid newspapers are not Islamic.

An Inflexible Islam

Muslims believe that the Holy Koran is the actual words of God, as dictated to the prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. As such, not only is its Arabic language thought to be unsurpassed in purity and beauty, but it is also the infallible word of God. (It is sacrilegious to imitate the style of the Koran). This means that there is no room for the kind of interpretation common in Christianity and Judaism, which see the Holy Bible as the revelation of God’s purpose through the experiences, minds and pens of men. The Koran cannot have been influenced by the circumstances under which it was revealed. It can contain no mistake. And it cannot be mitigated by any new discovery. What God has revealed is fixed and immutable.

In the three centuries, which followed the prophet’s death, attempts were made to interpret the Koran in the light of a changing world. This jurisprudential practice was known as ijtihad. By the end of the ninth century, however, Islam had been codified in legal manuals of the Shari’ah (The Way) - a comprehensive code of behaviour that embraces both private and public activities. The ‘gates of ijtihad’ were then closed [despite attempts by Sunni scholars such as Ibn Taymiah and Jalal al-Din Sayuti] and have not been re-opened since that time.

Pillars of Islam

There are five ‘Pillars of Islam’. They constitute practices that anchor the Muslim community. They consist of (a) the profession of faith, (b) five daily congregational prayers with bowing and prostration preceded by ritual ablutions, (c) zakat, an obligatory charitable tax to provide for the needy, (d) fasting during the month of Ramadan, and (e) the hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

But some Muslims add a sixth pillar of jihad or holy war where there is a consensus that it denotes ‘active struggle’. Muhammad’s followers in the early years of the faith took it to mean military advance, not by enforcing the conversion of individuals (the Koran forbids compulsion in religion) but by controlling the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islam. After the Muslim empire was established, however, the doctrine of jihad was modified. More spiritual interpretations took over, and the struggle became an internal one of moral exertion against temptation. Today, many Muslims view the concept of jihad as a revolution aiming to replace current regimes with ones based on the rule of the Shari’ah or Islamic law.

Islam versus Fundamentalism

The issue the world is struggling with today is not Islam. Rather, it is fundamentalism - a tendency that is as evident among Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even Confucians as it is among Muslims. Academics argue that it makes no sense to talk of Muslim fundamentalism for if one does not believe that the Koran is literally the inspired word of God, that person is simply not a Muslim. But fundamentalists in all religions share common characteristics beyond the fact that they interpret symbols literally. All are highly selective in the ‘fundamentals’ they chose to revert to in their lives. All take traditional texts and use them out of context. All embrace some form of Manicheanism - seeing themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil in which they have to find their opponents and then demonise them.

Pause for Thought: Questions without Answers?

With this cursory outline in mind, I would now like to posit a few challenging thoughts and leave them with the readers in the hope that they facilitate some discourse, provide some direction or perhaps stimulate some answers.

  • It is a given fact that the events of 11 September 2001 constitute terrorism in its most violent and vilest form. There is no religious, political or ideological justification whatsoever for the murder of so many innocent people of different nationalities, religious affiliations or backgrounds.
  • Terrorism must be fought on all fronts and in all ways possible. But is the strafing of Afghanistan with costly bombs and missiles the best way to move forward? Or is this first stage in the strategy against terrorism meant to placate the American public after the atrocities of 11 September2001 ?
  • Some people are almost poetic in their grief. On BBC Radio4 , we were treated one morning to a Russian politician who was beside himself with bewilderment at how anyone can cause such carnage. Might I suggest that he works through his confusion by recalling who slaughtered50 , 000civilians in the city of Grozny? And then again, what about Nicaragua, the My Lai massacres in Vietnam, Chile or Lebanon?
  • As de Tocqueville pointed out almost 170 years ago, democracy and liberty are often at loggerheads - and Americans value the former above the latter. Once the majority have expressed a view, few dare to contradict it. President Bush currently enjoys a90 % approval rating, and criticising him now is tantamount to treason, lack of patriotism or career suicide - as some journalists have discovered already.
  • It is definitely out of bounds these days to ask oneself why so many Arabs and Muslims loathe the USA. We can give the murderers a Muslim identity, we can even finger the Middle East for aiding and abetting the crime, but we may not suggest reasons for the crime. Granted, I believe that the killing of thousands of human beings is a crime against humanity of Srebrenica-like proportions. But was the whole world not somewhat responsible too? Instead of helping Afghanistan, instead of pouring Western aid into that country a decade ago, instead of rebuilding its cities and culture and creating a new political centre that would transcend tribalism, this country was left to rot. Sarajevo would be rebuilt. Not Kabul! Democracy - of some kind - could be set up in Bosnia. Not in Afghanistan! Schools could be reopened in Tuzla and Travnik. Not in Jalalabad! When the Taleban arrived, stringing up every opponent, chopping off the arms of thieves, stoning women for adultery and exporting heroin, the USA regarded this dreadful outfit as a force for stability- as it still does with other despotic countries across the world today.
  • Aid agencies stress that major humanitarian aid activities in Afghanistan must come to an end by early November due to the onset of a severe winter. But is it possible to conduct any meaningful humanitarian exercise while at the same time waging war? Is such aid anything more than a public relations exercise? Since one person requires 18 kilograms of food per month to survive, the UN projects that some600 , 000tonnes of food will be needed to enable Afghans to survive the five-month winter. This calculation does not include tents, thermal clothing, medicine, water and sanitation equipment. The supply of the food alone would fill21 , 000trucks. Much is made of high-profile appropriations and miniscule food drops. But while military intervention remains the primary focus, aid efforts are on a hiding to nowhere.
  • Some legal scholars are re-examining the concept of the Just War - as propounded initially by Thomas Aquinas in the13 th century - in order to determine whether this war is also a just one. After all, this first conflict of the new millennium did not start as a classic case of state versus state. So do the normative rules of intervention apply? Equally importantly, one needs to examine here the mandate from the United Nations for military action. Resolution 1373 - adopted by the Security Council on28 September 2001 - is one of the most remarkable in the history of the UN. Not only was it agreed unanimously, it also delegated to individual member states sweeping and open-ended authority to fight terrorism. It re-affirmed the ‘inherent right of individual or collective self-defence’ under the UN Charter, and went on to ‘call upon all states to co-operate, particularly through bilateral and multilateral arrangements and agreements, to prevent and suppress terrorist attacks and take action against perpetrators of such acts’. Such words give the anti-terrorist coalition astonishing and unfettered freedom. About the only thing they prohibit is unilateral military action by a single country. As long as there is some degree of co-operation, any measure ‘to prevent and suppress terrorist attacks’ enjoys the endorsement of the UNSC. There is no mention of needing the specific authorisation of the UN at each stage, even less of converting the fight against terrorism into an operation run by the UN. It does not even limit the fight against terrorism either by place or time. Unless the resolution is superseded, it could be cited in years to come by any group of countries that get together to fight all forms of ‘terrorism’. It is true that Resolution1373 provides a rare and welcome example of muscular harmony from the Security Council. But the peril is that it could quite easily become an excuse in years ahead for a legalised form of global lynch law.
  • In his frequent travels and interviews, PM Tony Blair has been propagating a ‘Doctrine of the International Community’. His tests are not absolute, but they tackle issues ranging from war as an instrument for righting humanitarian distress to long-term strategies. And they are commendably close to the five major criteria upon which the doctrine of the Just War has been predicated for many years. However, what this conflict has proved once again is that the world polity still lacks a proper legal definition of terrorism as it does a consolidated code of ethics for international relations. What must be done at long last is to define terrorism, and then to study and compile the various components of such a code - including elements such as the use of force, humanitarian intervention, international and global justice, refugees, citizenship, environmental questions, the utility of just war thinking. Can this trend be expedited, so that it is no longer possible to equivocate on political issues or apply double standards?
  • Another important determinant for the future is the choice of venue for trying those terrorists once they are apprehended. Would it be the American justice system that cannot evoke much support in many parts of the world and whose legitimacy will remain dubious? The International Criminal tribunal will have been a good option, but it is not yet in existence - due in part to US opposition to its ethos. One trend of current legal thought suggests the creation of an ad hoc International Tribunal that would comprise Justices from High Courts around the world and be co-chaired by a US and an Islamic judiciary. The United Nations could well establish such a court as it did with international tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda and then empower it to exercise jurisdiction over all terrorists.

An Unholy Land: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

No matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient, I believe it is important to introduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the overall war formula. This assumes an additional urgency these days in view of the serious deterioration of the situation in the region and the Israeli tank-led incursions into Palestinian so-called autonomous territories following the latest chapter of tit-for-tat assassinations.

Many political analysts, media commentators and ordinary men or women in the street, have linked the atrocities of 11 September 2001 with the non-resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have attributed the terrorist onslaught against the USA as being in part a reaction to the one-sided bias of successive US administrations toward Israel and against the Palestinian people - therefore against the Arab and Muslim peoples as a whole.

Much as I empathise to some degree with this instinctual response by numerous people, I would like nonetheless to place this conflict within the larger geo-political picture by attaching a number of riders to it.

  • I believe there is much visceral hatred in the Arab and Muslim streets against America. Many people I have talked to cited to me as example the unconditional support America gives to Israel and the $ 3billion aid it receives annually from the USA. They have also questioned with serious doubt whether the European Union can transform itself from ‘payer’ to ‘active participant’ in the conflict since it enjoys little leverage with Israel. Whether accurate or perceived, such impressions are imbedded in the minds of many peoples - from Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria or the Gulf countries to Indonesia, Pakistan, North Africa or Malaysia where local policy lines do not reflect this populist - and largely popular - hatred.
  • However, regardless of this pedestrian sentiment, and despite the gut feeling by many people that Israel is the52 nd state of the USA (or vice versa, as some would even claim!), it is important to place this reality within the larger context of the conflict. In other words, I do not believe that Usama bin Laden’s al-Qa’eda organisation attacked the economic and financial centres in the USA (if it did, after all, given that the politicians are keeping the evidence very close to their chests) because of this political linkage. The animosity that the terrorists displayed against America oversteps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and focuses equally upon the economic, political, religious, cultural and financial hegemony of the USA in the whole world. Their sense of injustice and unchallenged American imperialism was at the source of this attack. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a media-friendly toner to a repulsive act of terror.
  • Indeed, I believe that it is both discreditable and dangerous to link Usama bin Laden and his putative anti-Western crusade with the Palestinian aspirations for an independent and viable statehood. Palestinians in large numbers have disputed this linkage that seems to me more politically expedient for the survival of the bin Ladens of this world than it can ever be for Palestinians.
  • However, let me also mark a serious distinction here. I have heard some unsettling comments by Israeli right-wing politicians in which they claim that the war (for lack of a more sanitised word) they are waging against the Palestinians today is the same kind of response - and by implication with the same legal right and political legitimacy - as that of the USA against Afghanistan. This logic is flawed for one major reason! New York and Washington are not occupied territory, whereas the West Bank is territory that was occupied in 1967 - and that thirty-four year occupation is illegal. My statement is not one of moral equivalence! It is the sombre reality, and the sooner Israel recognises this reality, the sooner the conflict will be resolved without further deaths, bloodshed and suffering. Only then will Israel enjoy the security it is fully entitled to in the region. By applying Bismarck’s view of ‘à corsaire, corsaire et demi!’, PM Ariel Sharon is not doing himself or anybody else any favours. By upping the ante constantly, he is leading the region into more violence and turmoil. After all, the Palestinian problem will simply not go away by means of world boredom or attrition.
  • In the final analysis, and as HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah often reminds the world, ‘secure borders can only be found in secure and reconciled hearts’. Indeed, in his latest discourse in Assisi just over a week ago, the Patriarch expressed the hope that the latest events will not launch humanity into further unpredictable wars. Instead, he articulated the hope that they will pave the way for a new dawn of co-operation between peoples that is not based solely on the interests of the powerful but on the dignity of all human beings everywhere in the world. He reminded the assembly that the tensions between Israel’s need for security and the Palestinians’ quest for freedom are not mutually nugatory. In the view of the highest Roman Catholic cleric from Jerusalem, the security Israel seeks can only be the product of the freedom given to the Palestinians. He concluded his address at Assisi by saying that the new global order of justice and peace must be based on a new order of justice and peace in Jerusalem itself.

Religious Discourse: the Moral Maize of Politics?

In an interview on the ‘ 700Club’ religious programme immediately after the terrorist attacks on America, Revd Jerry Falwell told a television audience he believed the terrorist attacks indicated that God had removed a hedge of protection around America because of sin. He added, “the pagans and abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle - all of them who have tried to secularise America - I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen.” His show host, Pat Robertson, concurred with this statement. And although the hard-line evangelical minister later retracted his statement and claimed that his words were taken out of context, the damage had been done.

But is this truly the way that religion should address the issues? Archbishop Rowan Williams, Anglican Primate of Wales, who was at Trinity Church only some metres away from the World Trade Centre on the day of the attacks, offered an alternative Christian voice. He said that the world has been ‘spoken to’ in the language of terror and hate, but that the tragedy of thousands of innocent dead cannot be made ‘better’ by more deaths. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, defended this ‘naïve’ view by a Christian bishop and stressed that the focus should be on justice rather than on revenge.

As Christians, we are encouraged to foster a spirit of justice and reconciliation. Such a spirit is not served by hatred, by violence against the innocent or by picking racial or religious scapegoats within our own societies. Terror is not a recent innovation. For far too many of us, it is a familiar element of daily life. We cannot know or trace the lines between the events of 11 September2001 and the poverty, humiliation and death in which we are silently implicated - or implicated by our silence. In Baghdad, Bethlehem and Rwanda, in Auschwitz, Coventry and Dresden, in San Salvador, Cambodia and Soweto, the lives of the innocent have been all too often sacrificed on the altar of one power or another. This latest spate of terrorist attacks calls neither for revenge, nor for hatred or a naïve belief in redemption by violence. Rather, it calls upon us to strengthen our resolve to combat the roots as much as symptoms of all forms of extremism in this world, as well as refusing to turn the national conflicts [that can be solved] into religious ones that pit one faith against another [and that cannot be solved].

A pivotal element of the Christian tradition recalls Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. His death set God solidly in the midst of human suffering and changed forever our idea about where we can seek and serve God. Whether in New York City and Washington DC, amongst the passengers on the doomed flights, in the streets and homes where families grieve, whether in places where bombs and hunger rule in our midst, where a colonial past serves up a present of despair and destruction, where the market pleads ‘economic necessity’ and the people plead for bread, that is where Christians ought to serve God’s purpose. Violence cannot be admitted as the answer.

Can we muster up the courage to be advocates for peace, justice, dignity and reconciliation in the world? Can we overstep our own self-centred desires and aspire for a higher good? If not, I am afraid that we have learnt nothing from the horrific events of 11 September 2001 and are bound to repeat our mistakes - over and over again, with more panic, pain and loss to ourselves as much as to others in this ever-threatened global village.

The dice have now been cast! But once the script has been fully read, will we have justified our humanity with the faith of reason and the reason of faith? I truly wonder!

A naked man has nothing to fear from War! - Old Afghan proverb

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   21 September


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