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
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 way.
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
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
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