September 26, 2001

1. September 11

The terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11 have produced an outburst of patriotic feeling in the U.S. such as I’ve never seen in my lifetime. American flags are everywhere. The attacks have also produced a wave of sympathy for the U.S., and support for the U.S., in many countries around the world. And finally, the attacks have produced a strong military alliance, and a strong will to use military force against terrorists and their sponsors.

For all these reasons, Islamic extremists may someday regard the attacks on September 11 as counter-productive, though at first they may have regarded them as a spectacular success. Bin Laden’s network may become the victims of their own success; as the poet said, they may be “hoist by their own petard.” Remember when, in 1997, Islamic extremists in Luxor, Egypt massacred 58 foreign tourists? That massacre produced a backlash of anti-extremist feeling in the Egyptian people, and it produced concerted anti-extremist measures by the Egyptian police; since that massacre, extremists in Egypt have abandoned violence. Thus, spectacular violence may not only fail to promote the goals of the perpetrators, it may actually produce effects that run counter to those goals.

The attacks on September 11 make Islamic fundamentalists look like bloodthirsty killers rather than fighters for a just cause, aggressors rather than victims. The attacks on September 11 make the violence of the Israelis look like child’s play. The editor of a major Egyptian newspaper recently appeared on American TV, and said that he was “hoping against hope” that the attacks on September 11 were not carried out by Muslims, but now he had to admit that they were carried out by Muslims. The attacks on September 11 were not only a blow to New York City, they were also a blow to the reputation of Muslims, especially Muslim fundamentalists.

Many people in the Arab world are saying that, in light of the recent attacks, the U.S. should re-think its Middle East policy. But these attacks won’t change American support for Israel, rather they will prompt Americans to revise our airline security procedures, to question our lax immigration policies, and to ask, “why didn’t we attack terrorists in Afghanistan sooner?”

The attacks on September 11 resulted in such a large number of casualties that everyone you meet (here in the northeastern U.S., at any rate) seems to know someone who was killed, or someone who escaped, or someone who saw or heard the explosions.

Toynbee, the British historian who lived from about 1870 to 1960, said that the key development in world history in the last two centuries was the coming together of the world. Civilizations that once had no contact with each other began to contact each other, often as a result of Western exploration and Western expansion. Non-Western countries were faced with a choice: embrace Western influence, or slam the door against it. Until about 1860, Japan chose to slam the door against Western influence, then it did an about-face, and embraced Western influence. Now Japan is one of the few non-Western nations to have succeeded in Westernizing. The Shah of Iran attempted to Westernize, but he was driven from power by anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism.

A contemporary scholar named Samuel Huntington predicted a “clash of civilizations,” perhaps following the lead of Toynbee (whom he mentions as an authority), perhaps thinking independently. Writing in 1993, Huntington argues that future conflicts will usually be between civilizations. Huntington quotes an Indian Muslim writer named M. J. Akbar: “The West’s next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim world.”1

Like Toynbee, Huntington argues that non-Western countries can embrace the West or reject the West. Huntington also mentions a third possibility: steer a middle course, become a “torn country” like Turkey or Pakistan, in which the elite tries to Westernize, and the masses remain un-Westernized. “The late twentieth-century leaders of Turkey,” writes Huntington, “have followed in the Attatürk tradition and defined Turkey as a modern, secular, Western nation state. They allied Turkey with the West in NATO and in the Gulf War; they applied for membership in the European Community. At the same time, however, elements in Turkish society have supported an Islamic revival and have argued that Turkey is basically a Middle Eastern Muslim society.”

Those who carried out the September 11 attacks, and those who supported them (bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group), and those who supported Al Qaeda (the Taliban), and those who supported the Taliban (Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan) are obviously examples of non-Western people who have chosen to reject Western influence, to slam the door against the West. They are sincerely religious, deeply religious. Thus, they’re different from the nationalists, fascists and communists of the 20th century, who had strayed away from religion, and who were preoccupied with the nation, the race, political goals.

Nationalism, however, often has a religious aspect; Jewish nationalism, for example, often goes hand-in-hand with respect for the Jewish religion, and Arab nationalism often goes hand-in-hand with respect for the Muslim religion. Bin Laden and his cohorts have a narrow-minded, brittle, bookish religiosity, a religiosity that sticks to the letter of the law rather than the spirit. Religion should be an inner experience, an inner feeling, and it shouldn’t matter who controls the West Bank or who controls Jerusalem. Jews, as well as Arabs, would do well to remember this.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” said Jesus; the kingdom of God is within you, it is not of this world. The Muslim poet Rumi often visited the temples of the Jews and Christians, believing that all three religions are fundamentally akin. The religious spirit unites, the mystical spirit unites, but a narrow religiosity clings to the book, clings to the past, clings to the holy place, instead of finding God within oneself. A narrow religiosity often has a political dimension, often becomes nationalistic. Shouldn’t we give priority to spiritual and cultural pursuits over political goals, and treat politics as a necessary evil, rather than as the road to salvation?

It won’t be easy for Muslims to achieve a genuine religiosity, nor is it easy for Jews and Christians to achieve a genuine religiosity. We all find it easier to obey a clear-cut law (eat fish on Friday, don’t eat pork on Saturday) than to find God within us, and develop our inner life. The West is certainly not a model of genuine religiosity. Indeed, the West has experienced a collapse of spiritual values, a collapse evident in world wars, in the Holocaust, in Stalin’s gulag, in recent mass-murders by American students, in violent movies, etc. Is it any wonder that Muslims want to slam the door against the West? Is it any wonder that Muslims believe that salvation/happiness/the-good-life cannot be found by embracing Western influence, but only by following ancient traditions and ancient books?

The quest for spiritual values, spiritual peace is a quest for all peoples in the modern world. Religions must change and evolve, just as individuals must change and evolve, hence we can never achieve perfect, permanent spiritual peace. All of us, therefore, should regard the spiritual values of others with a measure of toleration and respect, and all of us should be receptive to change in our own spiritual values.

Just as spiritual peace can never be perfect, permanent and absolute, so too international peace can never be perfect, permanent and absolute. Foreign policy should be a constant, never-ending effort to achieve relative peace within the context of the national interest. Too often Americans have viewed foreign policy as a temporary crusade followed by a return to the security of home. And too often we moralize foreign policy, viewing it as a struggle of good vs. evil. President Bush is now saying that we’re going to “rid the world of evil.” We thought we were fighting against evil in World War II, but later we realized that we were fighting with evil, that Stalin was as evil as Hitler. We thought we were fighting against evil during the Cold War, but one of our allies against the Soviets was Osama bin Laden. Driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan created a vacuum that is now being filled by the Taliban. Our approach to foreign affairs should go “beyond good and evil” (to use Nietzsche’s phrase).

The Clinton administration should have launched a serious attack on bin Laden’s group years ago. Liberals are too often reluctant to use force. They opposed the use of force against Saddam Hussein, preferring to use economic sanctions. But sanctions wouldn’t have driven Saddam out of Kuwait. The Clinton administration used sanctions against bin Laden — more precisely, against bin Laden’s hosts — but sanctions have been ineffective. Putin, the head of Russia, said “I talked with [the Clinton administration] and pointed out the bin Laden issue to them. They wrung their hands so helplessly and said, ‘the Taliban are not turning him over, what can one do?’ I remember I was surprised: If they are not turning him over, one has to think and do something.”2 One suspects that if a Republican had been President between 1992 and 2000, the U.S. would have launched a serious attack on bin Laden during those years.

Now we’re on the brink of war in Afghanistan. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson hoped to avert future wars by breaking up empires like the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire. But the break-up of empires has created a host of newly-independent nations, in the Middle East and elsewhere, that lack political traditions and political stability. A rogue regime in Iraq prompted Bush Senior to go to war, and now a rogue regime in Afghanistan is prompting Bush Junior to go to war.

Let’s hope that, in the future, wars can become more infrequent by a combination of spiritual growth and political growth. Surely there’s room for growth on all sides.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Huntington’s essay appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1993 back
2. Washington Post, 9/23/01 back