We can change our foreign policy, we can feed the people who live in these desperately impoverished places, we can give more or less aid to Israel—but none of that is relevant to this particular jihad, or holy war. Those responsible for this wave of terrorist activity are fighting modernity. And there is no more important element of modernity than the secular state.
As I write this, the shock and horror of September 11th are still fresh, fed daily as they are by reports of bodies recovered, press coverage detailing the lives of those who were lost, and constant updates on the “war” against terrorism. (I put “war” in quotation marks because I believe it is an unfortunate term that elevates the opponent. Terrorists are not warriors, even misguided ones. They are criminals. But I digress.)
Overall, reaction to the attack has been admirable. Most people answering reporters’ questions or writing letters to their local editors have expressed what I believe to be appropriate sentiments: let’s be sure we find the right people before we attack; let’s be careful to keep our individual liberties and not become like the enemy, lest we hand them an inadvertent victory; etc. There have also been appropriate expressions of outrage at the scattered attacks on American citizens of Arab descent, and on other innocent immigrants. And there was widespread condemnation of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they tried to blame the attacks on the ACLU, abortionists, homosexuals, People for the American Way and others who had (in their view) caused God to turn his back on America.
Actually, as others have noted, the Falwell broadside was entirely in keeping with the attacks on September 11, because this conflict is nothing if not a religious war—a throwback to centuries of sectarian battle. (Not that sectarian battle is entirely a phenomenon of earlier times, as a glance at Northern Ireland and the Middle East will confirm). Nevertheless, battles waged to vindicate one’s God grow out of a distinctly pre-modern worldview, and that is what makes them virtually incomprehensible to those of us who reside intellectually and emotionally in the 21st Century.
In the aftermath of September 11th, among all of the talking heads and instant experts who populated the airwaves, perhaps the most telling commentary came on PBS’ Newshour with Jim Lehrer. A Newsweek reporter familiar with the politics and religion of the Middle East put it very bluntly: when Islamic Fundamentalists see a woman without a veil, they blame America. We can change our foreign policy, we can feed the people who live in these desperately impoverished places, we can give more or less aid to Israel—but none of that is relevant to this particular jihad, or holy war. Those responsible for this wave of terrorist activity are fighting modernity. And there is no more important element of modernity than the secular state.
In the early 1990’s, Benjamin Barber wrote a prescient book, entitled “Jihad vs. McWorld.” In it, he predicted that the overarching conflict of the twenty-first century would be between globalization and tribalism; between commercial, capitalistic interdependence and insular, isolationist communities that view global capitalism and its accompanying secularism as overwhelming threats to the comprehensive worldviews shaped by their religious beliefs.
America is the pre-eminent symbol of the modern, secular state. We have separated Church from State (following, ironically, the biblical injunction to “render unto Caesar” that which is Caesar’s). We have insisted upon equal rights for those who believe and those who do not; indeed, the prohibition against imposing religious tests is in our Constitution. We have equal rights for women, despite the beliefs of some religions that women should “submit” to men. We teach evolution in our public schools, rather than the doctrine of those who believe that the Earth was created in seven days by their particular God. We allow individuals to choose contraception and abortion, even though some religions consider such choices evil. While we have much progress to make in securing equal rights for gays and lesbians, we have steadily decreased the number of states in which sodomy is criminalized.
In short, we are an abomination to fundamentalists. Theirs and ours.
The President has suggested that this is a War between Good and Evil. Perhaps. But I think it is more accurately described as a war between dramatically different conceptions of religion, one modern and one medieval. It is ironic that Bush has been so eager to encourage undifferentiated “faith based” action; the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were nothing if not “faith based.”
America is an abomination to those who believe that all aspects of the world must be ordered in accordance with their particular faith. As we fight the Islamic fundamentalists who hold such views, we would do well to be equally wary of their counterparts here at home. This is not a conflict between different religious beliefs; it is a conflict between different beliefs about the proper role of belief in shaping a global community.