This IS a Religious War

Elijah's Mantle

Well-Known Member
I found this old piece and thought to share it here because it has some good points stated to help people understand this
holy war the Islamic s are waging

October 7, 2001
New York Times Magazine

This IS a Religious War
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 alone.
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
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 years.
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 itself.
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 task.
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 magazine.


Well-Known Member
I don't like most of what Andrew Sullivan stands for these days and reject the majority of his positions. He may be a political conservative, but he is also both gay and staunchly RCC (though he does oppose Vatican views on LGBT issues among a few others.) But when he wrote this shortly after 9/11 he was right on the mark!posting.