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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

September apocalypse: who, why and what next? (part II)

We in the first world must learn more about other ideologies and develop a
"one-world" mentality in the coming years if we want to win the war 
agasinst terror, writes Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong
Saturday October 13, 2001
The Guardian

When the United States supports autocratic rulers, its proud assertion of 
democratic values has at best a hollow ring.

Increasingly Muslims have felt helpless - some have said that they feel 
that they are prisoners in their own countries.

Their rights and protests have too frequently been ignored.

What America seemed to be saying to them was: "Yes, we have freedom and 
democracy, but you have to live under tyrannical governments."

The creation of the state of Israel, the chief ally of the United States 
in the Middle East, has become a symbol of Muslim impotence before the 
western powers, which seemed to feel no qualm about the hundreds of 
thousands of Palestinians who lost their homeland and either went into 
exile or lived under Israeli occupation.

Rightly or wrongly, America's strong support for Israel is seen as proof 
that as far as the United States is concerned, Muslims are of no 
importance and simply do not count.

In their frustration, many have turned to Islam. The secularist and 
nationalist ideologies, which they had imported from the west, seemed to 
have failed them, and by the late 1960s, Muslims throughout the Islamic 
world had begun to develop what we call fundamentalist movements.

Fundamentalism is a complex phenomenon, however, and is by no means 
confined to the Islamic world.

During the 20th century, every single major religion has developed this 
type of militant piety. Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against the 
secularist ethos of modernity.

Wherever a western-style society has established itself, a fundamentalist 
movement has developed alongside it.

The first fundamentalist movement appeared at the turn of the 20th century
in the United States, the showcase of modernity, and it only developed in 
the Islamic world after a degree of modernisation had been achieved.

Fundamentalism is, therefore, a part of the modern scene. Although 
fundamentalists often claim that they are returning to a golden age in the
past, these movements could have taken root in no time other than our own.

Fundamentalists believe that they are under threat. Every single 
fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and 
Islam is convinced that modern, secular society is trying to wipe out the 
true faith and religious values.

Fundamentalists believe that they are fighting for survival, and when 
people feel that their backs are to the wall, they can often lash out 

This is especially the case when there is conflict in the region. American
fundamentalists have not generally resorted to violence, because until 
September 11, the United States has not suffered enemy attack.

But in a region like the Middle East, which has been convulsed by war for 
over fifty years, fundamentalism has spilled over into violence and terror.

The vast majority of fundamentalists, however, do not take part in acts of
violence. They are simply struggling to keep the faith alive in what they 
see as an inimical world.

They are trying to bring God from the sidelines, to which he has been 
relegated in secular culture, and back to center stage.

They create counter-cultures, enclaves of pure faith, such as the 
ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York City, Bob Jones University 
in Indiana, or the training camps of Osama bin Laden.

Here they sometimes plan and put into effect a counter-offensive against 
the values of the modern secular world.

In recent years, various fundamentalisms have been becoming more extreme. 
In the United States, for example, some Christians expect the imminent 
destruction of the federal democratic government by an act of God.

Some Islamic fundamentalists too have resorted more and more frequently to
terror. But in so doing, they utterly distort the faith that they purport 
to defend.

Every single major world faith, including Islam, teaches an absolute 
respect for the sacred rights of others.

But in their fear and anxiety about the encroachments of the secular world,
fundamentalists - be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim - tend to downplay
the compassionate teachings of their scripture and overemphasize the more 
belligerent passages.

In so doing, they often fall into moral nihilism, of which there is no 
more telling example than the suicide bomber or hijacker.

To kill even one person in the name of God is blasphemy; to massacre 
thousands of innocent men, women and children, as was done on September 11,
is an obscene perversion of religion itself.

Osama bin Laden subscribes roughly to the fundamentalist vision of the 
Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Nasser in 

Qutb developed his militant ideology in the concentration camp in which he,
and thousands of other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were interred 
by Nasser, often without trial, and having done nothing more incriminating
than handing out leaflets.

After 15 years of mental and physical torture in these ghastly prisons, 
Qutb and others became convinced that secularism was a great evil, and 
that it was a Muslim's first duty to overthrow rulers, such as Nasser, who
paid only lip service to Islam.

Similarly, Bin Laden's first target was the government of Saudi Arabia; he
has also vowed to overthrow the secularist governments of Egypt and Jordan,
and the Shiite Republic of Iran.

Fundamentalism, in every faith, always begins as an intra-religious 
movement; it is directed in the first instance against one's own 
countrymen or coreligionists.

Only at a later stage, do fundamentalists take on a foreign enemy, whom 
they feel to lie behind the ills of their own people.

Thus in 1998 Bin Laden issued his fatwa against the United States. This, 
however, is entirely contrary to the central tenets of Islam, which 
essentially preaches peace.

Far from declaring war, as Bin Laden has done, on "Jewish-Christian 
Crusaders", the Koran insists that Muslims treat the "people of the book" 
with courtesy and respect.

"Say to them: 'We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one."

It also insists that there must be no coercion in matters of religion. It 
is not a pacifist religion, but accepts the fact that sometimes it is 
necessary to fight in order to preserve decent values or in self-defence.

But the number of occasions on which a Muslim is entitled to declare war 
are hedged around with a great deal of intricate legislation.

Bin Laden holds no official position; he is simply not entitled to issue 
such a fatwa, and has, like other fundamentalists, completely distorted 
the essential teachings of his faith.

The Koran insists that the only just war is one of self-defence, but the 
terrorists would claim that it is America who is the aggressor.

They would point out that during the last year, hundreds of Palestinians 
have died in the conflict with Israel, America's ally; that the homes of 
Palestinian Muslims have been bombarded with American shells; that Britain
and America are still bombing Iraq; and that thousands of Iraqi civilians, 
many of them children, have died as a result of the American-led sanctions.

And yet, as usual, they would say, America does not care.

None of this, of course, excuses the September atrocities. These were evil
actions, and it is essential that all those implicated in any way be 
brought to justice.

This is by far the most wicked and vicious act ever undertaken by 
fundamentalists of any faith. I must confess, however, that I am puzzled 
by the terrorists of September 11, because they are like no other 
fundamentalist that I have studied.

It appears that Muhammad Atta was drinking vodka before boarding the 
airplane. Alcohol is, of course, forbidden by the Koran, and it seems 
incredible that an avowed martyr of Islam would attempt to enter paradise 
with vodka on his breath.

Again, Ziad Jarrahi, the alleged Lebanese hijacker of the plane that 
crashed in Pennsylvania, seems to have frequented nightclubs in Hamburg.

Muslim fundamentalists lead highly disciplined, orthodox lives, and would 
regard drinking and clubbing as elements of the jahili, Godless society 
that they are fighting to overcome.

I have no theory to offer, but would just like to note that these seem to 
be very unusual fundamentalists indeed.

What can we do to prevent a repetition of this tragedy? As the towers of 
the World Trade Centre crumbled like a pack of cards, our world changed 
for ever, and that means that we can never see things in the same way 

These events, however wicked, were an "apocalypse", a "revelation" - words
which literally mean an "unveiling".

They laid bare a reality that we had not seen clearly before. Part of that
reality was Muslim rage, but the catastrophe showed us something else as 

In Britain, until September 11, the main news story was the problem of our
asylum seekers. Every night, 80 or 90 refugees from the developing world, 
make desperate attempts to get into Britain: some cling to the 
undercarriage of trains, others stow away in trucks; some try to walk 
through the Channel Tunnel.

There is now a strong armed presence in our ports. England suddenly seemed
like a privileged, gated community, designed to keep out impoverished 

The United States also has a problem with asylum seekers and illegal 
immigrants; and the Bush administration had tended to retreat from foreign
affairs and returned to an isolationist policy.

It is almost as though we in the first world had been trying to keep the "
other" world at bay, but as the September apocalypse showed, this cannot 
be done indefinitely.

If we try to ignore its plight, that world will come to us in shocking and
devastating ways.

So we in the first world must develop a "one-world" mentality in the 
coming years.

Americans have often assumed that they were protected by the great oceans 
surrounding the United States.

As a result, they have not always been very well informed about other 
parts of the globe. But the September apocalypse has shown that this 
isolation has come to an end, and revealed America's terrifying 

This is deeply frightening, and it will have a profound effect upon the 
American psyche.

But this tragedy could be turned to good, if Americans use it to cultivate
a new sympathy with other peoples who have suffered mass slaughter and 
experienced a similar helplessness: in Rwanda, in Lebanon, or Srebrenica.

We cannot leave the fight against terrorism to our politicians or to our 
armies. In Europe and America, we ordinary citizens must find out more 
about the rest of the world.

We must make ourselves understand, at a deep level, that it is not only 
Muslims who resent America and the west; that many people in non-Muslim 
countries, while not condoning these atrocities, may be dry-eyed about the
collapse of those giant towers, which represented a power, wealth and 
security to which they could never hope to aspire.

We must learn about the working conditions of those who make our nice 
shirts and jeans, in such countries as Indonesia (another American-backed 
Muslim country, whose present regime came to power after committing 
hideous crimes against humanity, and where men and women earn a dollar a 
day and work 36-hour shifts).

We must find out about foreign ideologies and other religions, such as 

And we must also acquire a full knowledge of our own governments' foreign 
policy, using our democratic rights to oppose them, should we deem this to
be necessary.

We have been warned that the war against terror may take years, and so 
will the development of this "one-world" mentality, which could do as much,
if not more than our fighter planes, to create a safer and more just 

Karen Armstrong is the author of
"The battle for God; Islam: a brief history"
and "Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet".


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