Something changed /6. Until that moment very few Europeans or Americans knew anything about Islam. Suddenly they found themselves faced with a new kind of threat that seemed to have its origins in an extraneous religion. And they began to come to terms with a world which had hitherto been unknown to them.

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:50:59

September 11, 2001, is one of those days that probably will forever be remembered by historians, especially in the Western world. After the Soviet Empire began to collapse in the late 80´s and early 90´s of the twentieth century, most Westerners were convinced that they were witnessing the beginning of a long period of world-wide peace. Marxist-Leninist Communism had disappeared, the Pax Americana had won the day. From now on, one felt, it would not take long until the many smaller local conflicts all over the world in Palestine, in the North of Ireland, in the Basque parts of Spain, in the Kashmir, and so on, would be solved. When the United Airline Flight 11 crashed into the Northern Tower of the New York World Trade Centre, many, including the American military authorities, still believed that it was an accident. When seventeen minutes later the United Airlines Flight 175 hit the Southern Tower and again half an hour later another American Airline plane destroyed parts of the Pentagon, everybody who heard the news knew that the hope for a long period of peace had been an illusion. The conflict between the "Free West" and the Soviet Empire that in spite of the existence and conceivable use of atomic bombs had fortunately never led to warlike activities had been replaced by what soon became known as a "clash of civilizations", by a new and terrifying world-wide terrorism. This is not the place to describe the many political and military consequences that a few days later President George Bush initiated by announcing to all states and nations: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists". Instead, we briefly want to pursue the question whether there were specific reactions and consequences of the September 2001 event among Christians, in particular in the West. Until then, very few Europeans or Americans knew anything about Islam. Now, suddenly, they were confronted with a new kind of threat that seemed to have its origin in an alien religion. Of course the first question was whether, as the aggressors claimed, it really was the Muslim faith that had prompted Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network to assault the United States. The answer was ambiguous and has remained so. Obviously, the terrorists themselves referred to passages in the Koran that promise a Muslim that when he dies in a Holy War he will not have to wait for the Judgement in his grave but will immediately enter Paradise (sura 4,74; 9,89 and others). Also, the terrorists probably thought of Koran passages like the sura 9, 5, that invite the Muslim "to kill, wherever you find them, the worship of idols". But was Osama bin Laden authorized to declare a Holy War and a Fatwa? Some commentators pointed out that the Koran forbids a war of aggression, the killing without need, especially of those who are innocent, and suicide. So the first conclusion was, on the one hand, that many passages in the Koran contradict each other, and, on the other hand, that Islam knew of no authority whose interpretation was binding for all believers. Some Christian theologians pointed out that the most basic difference between the Christian and the Muslim creeds is that the former refers to a person, Jesus Christ, while the latter relies on a text that, contrary to what orthodox Muslim authorities claim, was not made in one casting. Another difficulty consisted in the fact that Muslims all over the world reacted to the September event in many different ways. American Muslims were horrified; the United States had become their home, the basic principles of which they acclaimed. In many Muslim countries, on the contrary, the majority of the population shouted for joy. In still other countries, especially in Europe, the Muslims remained silent, so much so that it was difficult to find out what they thought about the event. One knew that since the conflict with Iran after the downfall of the Shah many Muslims considered "America" the "Axis of Evil", a morally rotten country that aimed for world domination. Also, one pointed out that the painful conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, in which the Americans always sided with the Jews, was one of the reasons why Muslims abhorred the United States. Today, I believe, most Christians in the West have learned to view Islamic terrorism in a new way. Their interpretation has three quite different components. First, ever since the second half of the nineteenth century European powers had viewed the Near East as a battle ground for the pursuit of their private interests. Even the frontiers of the states that exist today were sometimes laid down by them, usually in quite arbitrary ways. As a consequence, the Muslim countries had only one common identity: their Muslim religion, which, of course, was in turn divided into "confessions" that often fought each other. Moreover, due to exploitation by the European powers the great majority of the population of these states and countries remained comparatively poor. Looking at Western countries, the Muslims felt manipulated by foreign powers and humiliated. Now in such situations the hoi polloi easily succumb to radical seducers. It was only a question of time until the Muslim countries started to look for a new identity and found it in their religion. That this identity was nourished by a contempt, often, indeed, a hate for the Western World, was a quite natural outcome of historical development in particular since the rulers of these countries were often set up by Western powers and were far from popular with their subordinates. Distinction of Powers Thus, this is the first point, the subliminal sympathy of many Muslims for terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda reminds us of what in nineteenth-century Europe we witnessed as "nationalist revivals". Yet while Western nationalism had hardly any religious implications, in fact it was often opposed to the dominant creed, this Arab nationalism is religious. Secondly, this quasi-nationalism is defined by a religion that has not passed through the development that is characteristic of Christianity. Almost since its beginning, Christians realized that their creed, although certainly it had indirect political implications, was not suitable as a principle for secular rule. Christ himself had distinguished between what one owes to God and what one owes to the (Roman) Emperor [Mt 22, 15-22]. Towards the end of the fifth century Pope Gelasius I in his letter to the Roman Emperor at that time residing in Byzantium introduced the distinction between the two kinds of authority and power, the sacred authority of the Bishop of Rome and the secular authority of the Emperor. It took, of course, a long time until this distinction became really clear. But by the Middle Ages it was already agreed that while Christians may have to obey the worldly ruler as far as daily political life is concerned, the ruler himself has to obey the Church with respect to everything that concerns the spiritual order. After the religious wars of the seventeenth century the Europeans even agreed that a ruler may have the right to specify which kind of Christian creed the citizens of his reign should follow; but in matters religious he himself had to obey the ecclesiastic authorities. Thus the distinction between the authority of the Church and the authority of the ruler became a principle of international peace. Although for a very long time the Catholic Church, seeing itself as the only truly legitimate Christian community and authority, in principle opposed this idea; in practice it accepted and respected it for the sake of peace. This development culminated in the decree of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom: only God, and no political authority of whatever kind, may pass judgement on a decision of conscience concerning a religious creed. No political authority has the right to forbid anyone to choose or to change his creed. Islam did not develop in this way. From its very beginning it considered religion and the political order a unity. Sometimes it was tolerant toward adherents of other religions, even more so than was customary among Christians. But this tolerance did not prevent it from claiming that wherever possible Islam and its tradition has to be the rule in politics, too. Even today in many Muslim countries the falling away of a Muslim from his creed may be punished by execution. As a result, Islam always was and hitherto has remained both a religious and a political creed, so much so that some scholars doubt whether it could survive the distinctions that Christianity has learned in the course of its history. Thus Islamic terrorism is also motivated by a religion that has never learned to distinguish between the realm of religion and the political order. The third point to be mentioned is the political mistakes that since World War II the Western world has committed in relation to Muslim countries. For example, it supported or rejected rulers according to their willingness to co-operate with the Western world, especially with respect to the West´s own conflict with the Soviet Empire. All too often the rulers the West supported turned out to be egocentric madmen like Saddam. Also, the Western powers seemed to support Israel without giving much thought to the legitimate interest of the Palestinians. Again, this nurtured among the inhabitants of Muslim countries the suspicion that the West did not respect the world of Islam. All this, of course, does not explain the new Islamic terrorism. This kind of terrorism, like that of the European anarchists of the second half of the nineteenth century or the "Red Armies" in Germany and Italy forty ago, has an irrational dimension that can only be explained by the personal biography of the terrorists themselves. But it may help to understand the sympathy for the terrorists of so many Muslims in Arab countries. Also, it may help in finding an answer to the question as to what the Western World could do in order to quench the "clash of civilizations". On the one hand, the West has to learn to respect Islam as one of the great religions of the world. Most Muslims know more about the Christian creed than even a tiny minority among Christians knows about Islam. On the other hand, the West has to look for ways to get across to Muslims the kind of distinctions that Christians have become aware of during the centuries, especially the distinction between religious commitment and the order of politics. Last but not least, the West must help Muslim countries to overcome the widespread poverty of its inhabitants. Unjust poverty has always been a breeding ground for political radicalism. Another question I can only allude to. In some European countries in particular, the number of Muslim immigrants is growing daily. In some European countries this immigration has become and certainly will become a threat to the European and still basically Christian identity of parts of Europe. The West will have to decide what its identity is and what it should do to preserve it. Again, the wisest road would seem to be to help Arab countries to overcome their poverty, because the result of such a development would be to stop the emigration of Muslims to Europe.