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Violence, Blood, Violence!
You will be asked for your patience, for the conflict will not be short. You will be asked for resolve, for the conflict will not be easy. You will be asked for your strength because the course to victory may be long.

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

These portentous words - uttered by President George W Bush at Camp David on 15 September 2001 - constituted a warning. It was an angry warning directed as much at the terrorists responsible for the horrifying devastation that struck at the military and financial heartland of the USA as it was at those states harbouring terrorists across all continents. And mind you, who could blame the American President for such a resolute statement? After all, his country had just experienced international violence of such macabre intensity and accurate deadliness that it could have easily come out of the pages of Tom Clancy’s novel ‘Rainbow Six’.

So one week after the series of mind-numbing events, is it possible to make a few summary observations that would suggest a number of informed judgements? What are the critical dangers that are already evident today?

To start with, let me emphasise that such wide-scale and malignant outrages cannot be justified or condoned in any way. No matter what the political or economic grievances of certain countries or individuals, the wholesale and indiscriminate killing of human beings - children, women and men of various ethnic or national origins from across the world - can never become acceptable under any religious, political or economic system. A chorus of candle-lit vigils and statements by churches and church-related organisations world-wide - ranging from Pax Christi International to the Middle East Council of Churches - underscores such Christocentric and faith-centred denunciations of violence.

Indeed, in his homily for the Mass of Peace held in Jerusalem in remembrance of the hapless victims in the USA, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah reminded the assembled faithful that Jesus himself called us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Therefore, he affirmed, our obvious guide remains God himself - who symbolises love and mercy, not hatred, death and exclusion. The Patriarch questioned the negative role that religion plays at times in societies, and added that ‘God is the God of all His children, whatever their faith and nationality’.

Over the past week, I have heard many political commentators - both on radio and television - coming up with different rationalisations to the tragedy that has assaulted the USA. Some have compared those dreadful acts of violence to a war between civilisations, and have referred to Samuel Huntingdon’s book ‘Clash of Civilisations’ in order to draw a stark difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’! Others have talked even more prophetically about an imminent apocalyptic end to civilisation itself! There have also been those who have made fevered invocations of Good versus Evil, and have come up with superstitious readings of Nostradamus or numerals to give vent to their political or religious viewpoints.

I believe it is important here to stress the inherent dangers of viewing the world in terms of black and white, or of analysing the conflict as one between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ civilisations - in other words, between the West and its industrialised allies versus all others. Such classifications are simplistic, blending ignorance with arrogance and opening the way for further polarisation, tension and strife. It might perhaps be more reasonable to assert that the conflicts of the world today are as much between different interests (or principalities, to use a biblical term) as they are within the different ‘civilisations’ themselves. In an interview on Sky television some days ago, James Wolfenson, President of the World Bank, argued against the premise that terrorism is a war between civilisations. Rather, he segued, one way of combating terrorism would be through the conquest of poverty and inequity in the world.

One dangerous fall-out of this tragedy has been the emotive - and at times virulent - attacks waged against Islam in some parts of the world. Islam (as a religion) is also being held synonymous with ‘Arab’ (as a people) and then associated willy-nilly with fundamentalism, radicalism and terrorism. The inferences here are clear and lethal! I have read many columns in different newspapers purporting to ‘explain’ the mentality behind Islam for such suicidal and terrorist acts. One paper wrote that Muslims like to die through ‘acts of martyrdom’ in order to be rewarded with eternal life in paradise, permission to see the face of Allah and the privilege to grant places in heaven for seventy of their relatives. To conclude this analysis with a touch of salacious sensationalism, the paper then added that such attacks will also provide each Muslim with the promise of the services of seventy two vestal virgins.

Accusing any religion of terrorism, denigrating its ethos and then demonising its foundation by maligning a large number of its [Arab] adherents, is counter-productive! As an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem, I have enjoyed over the years the friendship and neighbourliness of many Muslim scholars, practitioners and ordinary men and women. I must profess that this brand of violence being attributed to Islam today is alien to my understanding or experience. True, I have had disagreements with Muslims over their theology. I have also voiced my concern about some of the exclusive exegeses and insular ideologies within that faith. But such disagreements form part of a daily pattern of life the world over. I have had them with Jews and Christians as much as with Muslims, and have resolved them by engaging others in dialogue across conference tables or in the real witness of daily life - person to person, neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

To be honest, I do not know what drives ‘Muslim terrorists’ - if I were to use such a tabloid and inaccurate expression! But what I do know are the clear, unequivocal values, moral premises and ethical restraints of Islam. They make the sanctity of human life a permanent obligation. Care for the innocent, the suffering and the bereaved becomes a sacred duty. The Prophet Mohammed forbade the killing of civilians, women and children, the old and the infirm, as well as the destruction of property, the burning of crops and the slaughter of animals. Kidnapping, hijacking and other deeds of terror are as contrary to the true teachings of Islam as they are to those of Christianity and Judaism.

In a statement entitled ‘A Muslim Calls for Sanity’, HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan - whose Hashemite family is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed - stressed that respecting the sanctity of life is the cornerstone of all great faiths. Reminding the world that Muslims, Christians and Jews have a common shared history, Prince Hassan warned the world against the ever-increasing tendency of ceding to Islamaphobia - a common form of xenophobia and intolerance directed at Islam - in our lives. He also cautioned in his statement, “The politics of the Middle East must not be allowed to destroy the natural capacity that people of faith have to live together and to work together. We must always hold fast to the moral values contained in our common heritage despite the conflicting rights and comparable injustices still separating us. Bloodshed is no answer.” In the perennial words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, ‘violence begets violence in a never-ending circle of destruction’.

It is therefore the responsibility of political leaders and media barons to distinguish Islam as a monotheistic religion of core values from those consequences of violence or carnage that are perpetrated in its name. In a rather vulnerable and volatile environment, people must be taught that fanaticism is not the trademark of Islam. Any fanaticism within Islam can be matched with fanaticism in many other monotheistic or polytheistic religions - including Christianity.

But this huge onus - to raise the awareness of different societies to the true values within Islam - lies also with Muslims themselves. In fact, what is critical these days is for the tacit majority of well-thinking and peace-loving Muslims across the world to stand up and proclaim their beliefs in an authentic and user-friendly manner. As Rabbi Tony Bayfield from the Reform Movement in Judaism commented recently in the Evening Standard, such an outward openness on the part of religious leaders across the board will help Jews, Christians and Muslims to rediscover together their shared core values about the sanctity of human life, justice and compassion. Indeed, religious leaders from all faiths should make their positions unequivocal and clear. They should challenge the abuse of power by eschewing violence, by teaching that we worship the one God in spite of our different theological manifestations, and by recognising our common humanity. Only then will it become possible to put those core values at the service of sharing, compromise and peace. Only then will the masses be taught - and therefore learn - to distinguish myth from reality.

Islam remains one of the fastest growing faiths world-wide. It is also a faith that abuts a number of fault lines, and does not draw a distinction between the religious and political lives. This is an important perception toward understanding how the followers of this religion think or act in their own lives. It is also one way toward appreciating the mechanisms by which Muslims tie their concerns in matters related to God with those related to Caesar.

What next? According to most analysts, we are in for a long war. Allies are being selected, encouraged, cajoled or bought in the hope of forming an awesome coalition and confronting the shadowy and hyper-linked nature of global terrorism. This is definitively one method of retribution against the culprits of terror, but is it the only one? Who are those allies? Who is the enemy? In his book ‘Reaping the Whirlwind’, Michael Griffin suggests, for instance, that Iran is a natural ally of the USA in any war with Afghanistan. Considering Pakistan untrustworthy at the best of times, Griffin argues that mutual American-Iranian concerns over energy in Central Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan’s heroin trade as well as the profound Iranian dislike for the Sunni Taliban Muslims, forge natural allies out of those two erstwhile foes.

War strategies aside, however, I would like to posit some tentative pointers arising from this calamity. After all, we cannot accept the stark view of a world created for us by terrorists where the remedy to every human grievance or injustice is a resort to the random violence of revenge - often against the innocent. Surely, true political mettle can only be shown by denying terrorists their victory and by refusing to submit to a world created in their image.

In an article entitled ‘What America must Learn from Disaster’, Tony Judt, Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, claims that the latest acts of terrorism have offered the world a glimpse into a possible future. In the20 th century, he argues, war was made on civilians. In the21 st century, however, war will be made by civilians. It could well assume the shape of a faith-based initiative that bypasses the conventional state. All it will need is planning skills, financial resources and a willingness to die for one’s beliefs. Most of everything else - machinery, technology, targets - will be furnished by a society which then becomes its ultimate victim. The point of such warfare, writes Judt, will not be to achieve an objective, much less win a final victory. It will be - it already is - simply to make a point.

Tony Judt goes further to draw some distinctions between European and American responses to terrorism. Europeans faced with a terrorist campaign typically ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ Americans he has spoken to or heard on the box in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe have demanded, ‘How could this happen?’ Will this mindset alter now?

Once the immediate trauma of this bloody violence is abated to a degree, and once America regains some of its in-bred resilience and vitality, three variables must be dealt with by the US Administration - in one way or another.

  • The obsession with ‘missile defence’ has become redundant. True, there are still quite a number of states and individuals who dream of firing inter-continental missiles at the USA. But that is their least likely weapon of choice because it advertises ever so clearly its point of origin and its owner. The threat in the coming decades is more likely to be from individuals or organisations who want to make a point, to mock and humble their adversary.
  • As Peter Hain, Foreign Office Minister in London, mentioned in a recent BBC NewsNight interview, the Middle East conflict can no longer be shunted away. It remains one of the likeliest sources of indoctrination and one of the likeliest reasons for attacks. Whether we like it or not, countless people from Morocco to Pakistan see Israel as a surrogate for the USA. In their minds, the USA will accrue the blame for Israeli actions. Israel will even be the excuse as much as the catalyst for such attacks. This will not change so long as there is no solution to the regional Arab-Israeli conflict. Therefore, the USA cannot consider itself an optional presence, and cannot see itself as a super-power disengaging itself from the parties - as has happened recently. It is time for the USA to make a virtue of necessity and to tailor a comprehensive peace settlement that will put out the flames of hatred and bigotry. As one priest wrote recently, the conflicts of the world transit through Jerusalem. It is the skeleton key to peace or war no matter how far-fetched, obnoxious or perverse this reality might sound to many people in the USA or elsewhere.
  • America has spent the first few months of the Bush presidency in denouncing treaties, promising to retreat from crisis zones, and repeating that the administration plans to put ‘US national interests’ first. But the blood that was spilt last week proves that the interests of America and those of the rest of the world are inextricably intertwined. In a trans-national world, national interests no longer have any meaning in isolation. Alliances, treaties, international laws, courts and agencies are not an alternative to national security. They remain its only solid hope.

Within this overall political configuration, with prudence and wisdom, it could perhaps become possible to rid the world of the ghoulish spectre of terrorism. But such an objective must adopt a strategy that goes beyond the instant gratification derived from punishing the prime suspects. Any such move must avoid inflicting further pain and penury upon long-suffering civilians in different - deprived - parts of the world. Otherwise, the seeds of further hatred will be sown in the world. And for this purpose, one needs to harness all available political, diplomatic, economic and operational resources.

The world has been reacting to this latest tragedy with muted respect. Even the Last Night of the Proms in London altered its programme to include the Choral Finale from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to highlight the way in which music enhances the universal bonds of humanity and fellowship. However, music is not the sole panacea for grieving hearts. Countless Americans have shown the world that prayers also help in the quest for inner serenity and peace.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav was one such person whose inveterate belief in prayer drove his life. A Hassidic master living in the Ukraine around the turn of the19 th century, he was a pessimist by nature! He often compared the human situation to that of a person suspended by a thread over a raging sea that seeks to swallow him. Yet, like many other mystical thinkers of his tradition, he also believed that goodness - in the shape of divine sparks - is inherent in all human beings. Could men and women of goodwill use the power of prayer like life rafts to see them through these turbulent times? Can they uncover and celebrate those divine sparks within them? Will time heal pessimism and yield optimism?

Or will further violence, blood, violence continue to taunt us and haunt us all for years to come?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   18 September


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