Last update: 2022-04-22 09:51:00
The attacks of 11 September were attacks against America and her people. These were not strategic attacks aimed at achieving some social or political object: they were an expression of hate. Some subsequent comments tried to rationalise this hatred by interpreting it as a response to the presence of American troops in the holy lands of Islam or as a response to favours granted to Israel. These rationalisations were supported by Islamists themselves but in terms that did not refer to any kind of negotiation. There is no statement, whether explicit or implicit, according to which America would cease to be a target if it withdrew from countries of Muslims or stopped supporting the State of Israel: quite the contrary.
American policy in the Middle East is seen as 'proof' of wickedness and this wickedness would exist even if such policy changed. It is commonly said that ordinary Muslims look on the massacres of 11 September with revulsion and disassociate themselves from Islamist fanatics. This is true. But it is equally true that a large number of Muslims were joyous at these massacres and even amongst those that did not celebrate there were many who thought that in one way or another America deserved that punishment. In addition, the murderers themselves could not have done what they did if they had not believed that this was allowed by their faith. There can be no doubt that they were wrong about this. But a special characteristic of the Islamic faith is the lack of any central authority that can decide on the matter. There is no Church, there is no synod, there is no supreme office comparable to that of the Pope: there are only the contrasting opinions of jurists and ayatollahs whose rival schools give different weight to the holy words of the Koran and reconcile its apparent contradictions in ways that often create new contradictions. To think that the massacres of September were isolated events that that will not be repeated would be comforting. But as we know, the impetus to repeat them is still alive and has cost many innocent victims in Spain and Great Britain. For this reason, it is important to understand the arguments of those who perpetrated such a crime and to reflect on its meaning for our Christian way of life.
The first point I emphasise is that the people who argue that they are motivated by religious beliefs often deceive themselves. Resentment and hatred seem noble sentiments when they are seen as divine commandments, and even if faith has not had a role in the production of such emotions it can play an important role in making them respectable. Christians are taught to avoid hatred, to forgive enemies and to live in justice and mutual charity. This, however, has not saved them from hating and feeling resentment in the name of God: the history of anti-Semitism in Europe is certainly proof of this. The second point I emphasise is that the plotters of 11 September considered America a symbol. In attacking America they were in reality attacking the world of material comforts and individual freedom, gigantic cities and purposeless energy, sexual permissiveness and abuse in lifestyles. It is a world that had tempted them and to whose temptations they had not resisted. After all, they were modern people, like you and me, and for modern people the bonds of ancient faiths are strong. But the modern world is also a world that they viewed with resentment because they were not able to find a niche. Around them they saw people at ease with their mutual freedoms, each one at a certain distance from their neighbour and were happy to share with the person that they had chosen the various comforts of their autonomous suburban cell. The plotters raged against a society that could thus be at its ease in a situation in which they felt completely alienated.
This resentment of the modern world is nothing new. It is present in most of European and American modernist literature and in much radical politics. It inevitably has America in its sights, promoting the false but seductive illusion that America is the corrupt version of a lifestyle which in some purer form could offer hope for the future. We should not, however, forget that everything for which people struggle in the modern world is obtainable in a simpler way and is more widely distributed in America. This country provides an image of material success and open opportunities that has no parallel. America does not display in some corrupt form the successes that elsewhere are achieved in a firstborn innocence. It displays those successes as they really are, it believes in them without shame, and is happy at their achievement. America is what all of us are working for: when, therefore, we look at this country with hatred this happens because it is holding up a mirror to us. The face that we seen in that mirror is a face that we cordially despise.
the Ambiguity of Bearing Witness
The third point that should be mentioned, although it is very delicate, concerns the meaning of the world 'martyr'. Despite the fact that the Greek martyrein and the Arabic shahada both means 'to bear witness', there is an actual and important difference between the Christian martyr and the Muslim shahid. The Christian martyr bears witness through suffering, taking upon himself the cross of Christ. His faith is borne out specifically by his refusal to transfer his burden to others. To kill unbelievers or destroy oneself together with innumerable passers by, however guilty such passers by may be in the eyes if God, is not an action of Christian witness. Christian witness means offering oneself as sacrificial victims in the spirit of Christ.
In contrary fashion, Islam abstains from condemning he who bears 'witness' to his faith by attacking those he believes are his enemies. Although the Koran condemns suicide it dies not condemn thoughtless actions that will certainly lead to death but which are also acts of witness to faith. It seems, therefore, that for Muslims it is possible to see as martyrs those who bear witness to their faith by bringing death and destruction to innocent people, dying in the process, It does not even matter, in the eyes of many potential shuhud, that Muslims figure amongst their victims a sort of thoughtless exultance surrounds the act and makes destruction itself the all-embracing and all-compensating aim.
a Message of Compassion
In the light of these observations I would respond to the attacks of 11 September as follows. First of all, I do not believe that resentment and the hatred in relation to security and the success that comes from it will ever disappear. Resentment is a primary social feeling of those who have to be managed. Resentment is best managed, I believe, by cultivating humility and piety, as is done by the three great Abrahamite religions. (This is discussed by Max Scheler, in his book Ressentiment, in which he defends Christianity against the Nietzschean attack that misunderstands the terms of the questions). I am also persuaded that resentment, when it comes to the surface, will have the tendency to take as its target America and every other Western country that reproduces abundance and American freedoms.
I further believe that the mechanisms of religious excuses, which has given the possibility to those who carried out the attacks of 11 September to portray themselves as martyrs to their faith, will remain active in the minds of many dissatisfied Muslim young people, above all in those who live in the world of Western temptations, far from what Qutb called 'the shadow of the Koran'. Many of these young people experience a powerless nostalgia for a lost world of piety and this nostalgia exacerbates their resentment towards a world that ignores their vulnerability and their deep spiritual need. I believe, however, that there is a response that could distance the worst part of the evil threatened by this situation, and I believe that it is the duty of Christians to work for this.
This response is, very simply, to bear witness once again to the religious roots of our civilisation. The existing balance between Christianity and Islam depended on a shared recognition of the existence of God and an existential face to face rooted in revelation. Muslims feel threatened by Western success and prosperity because they see these things as products of a purely secular, even atheistic, creed. This generates resentment; Western comforts are, therefore, undeserved and can be transformed into punishments with a simple act. To address this challenge, Christians certainly have the duty to show that their civilisation is based upon faith, that their greatest achievements are not sky scrapers, Macdonald's and the international banking system, but the works of spiritual grace and high culture that transmit eternal meanings. They have the duty to give life anew to the Christian message, which calls us not to material comfort but to sacrifice and compassion.
This way of bearing witness has ensured the survival of Christian communities in the Middle East notwithstanding frequent explosions of persecution. This was the reason why the ordinary Muslims of Tibhirine in Algeria thanked God for the Christian monks who lived amongst them and provided for their needs. When these monks were martyred by fanatics they were mourned by thousands of people.
The habit of bearing witness was the reason why innumerable monks and nuns in the Levant brought help to their Muslim neighbours in times of civil war and political collapse, gaining their respect for their religion and their way of life, which ensured their survival. Today, taking up anew the tradition of worship and prayer, which made the European and the Americans what they are and has led to long periods of peace for their divided continents, would give them new heart. 11 September reawakened the awareness of people of the fact that secular goals and values are not sufficient to protect them from the emerging threat and that it is now necessary to be armed with some version of Christianity from which to be able to bear witness through small acts of sacrifice.
The movement towards Christian witness is already at work in America and is producing effects on Muslim Americans who feel at home in a country in which people have begun again to pray in public and in which the custom of confessing one's mistakes has not been lost. A recent article by Spencer Ackerman which appeared in New Republic emphasises that Muslims in America feel more at home in the so-called Bible Belt, the heart of Christian lands, than in the secularised and sceptical cities. A strong argument exists according to which the attacks of 11 September were not an attack on Western civilisation or its religion but an attack on the city, seen as a Babel, a place of confusion where human ambitions go beyond themselves and lose their foundations in piety and love for God.
This is only a thought but it suggests another way in which we in the West have not been able to bear witness to our faith, that is to say our indifference to the fate of Christians in Muslim countries and our reluctance to confront the militants that are persecuting them. From the facts in the Lebanon we have learnt that Western journalists tend to argue that the Christian communities are in some way anachronistic, do not deserve their place in Middle East society, and do not deserve our support. The silence of our governments in the face of the reducing to slavery and the massacre of the Christian communities of the Sudan is not only shameful but is also one of the reasons why Islamists believe that we do not deserve out comforts. It seems to me that resentment triumphs precisely when its deceptive vision of itself, as the voice of God against enemies, is confirmed by not finding any resistance. Resentment is cured by respect and respect often means opposition. In addition, when respect is offered it tends to be corresponded. The will to defend the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of the Lebanon, the Assyrian churches of the Fertile Crescent and so on against the Islamic forces that surround them could lead Muslims in the West to see that they too are a religious minority amongst people who do not shear their beliefs but who nonetheless are in a condition of existential dialogue with them. It is beginning with this recognition that one can begin dialogue.