This War Is About Religion and Cannot Be Won Without It

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December 1, 2001
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Marc Gopin

The sooner we face facts, the more powerful our chances to succeed in making religious terrorism a temporary phenomenon of human culture. But we cannot do this if we hide our heads in the sand. Politically incorrect or not, this war is about religion. Anyone who thinks it is not about religion should take a good hard look at the document written by the terrorist mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, Mohammed Atta, in order to help his soldiers prepare for their sanctified deaths. It is one of the most profound religious documents I have ever seen, and its preparation for a beautiful death and afterlife is so compelling that I almost forgot, as I read it transfixed, that it was really about mass murder. This death wish is a careful weaving of purification rituals to be accepted into Paradise, including asking God for forgiveness of sins! Mass murder is, of course, not one of the sins in this unique reading of Islam. It is, on the contrary, a supreme religious act of struggle with the forces of evil. But the atrocity is not even mentioned by name. It is simply the struggle with evil. In fact, it is overshadowed in the letter by the holy rituals of death preparations, as if a meditative concentration on Paradise is at the core of every act leading to the end, rather than revenge or murder.

The fact that terrorism defies what used to be thought of as the traditional Islamic laws pertaining to war is beside the point. The fact is that in the experiences of the thousands of people who have been on streets around the world screaming “Osama Bin Laden” in adulation, this was not an atrocity but a religious act. And they have many a cleric who have told them so. Shame on those clerics for betraying other moral principles of Islam, as well universal principles of justice and compassion.

What is to be done? Counter-terrorism? Massive development and poverty alleviation efforts for the Middle East? A complete revamping of relationships to regimes that keep most people absurdly poor in the Middle East? The answer is a resounding yes to all of these efforts. Are they enough? No. The reason is simple. We cannot change hearts and minds in the long run with threats and counter-aggression. And we cannot buy off an ideology with jobs and money. We certainly can make the good life more tempting and attainable for millions more people. And we must do that. But this barbaric ideology, this cruel nadir of some people’s Islam is a phenomenon that must be fought in its own backyard. The offensive must be taken against the barbarity of Islamicism – Islamic fundamentalism – rather than Islamic religion and high culture. And no one can do this ultimately but Muslims themselves. But we Jews can help in some significant ways.

We should help initiate a conversation on religious limits in the use of violence. This will be a hard discussion, because it directly affects attitudes to Israel’s use of force. On an internal level, we must look at when and how violence is justified by Judaism. I have argued elsewhere that the Jewish “just war” tradition, and the “just war” traditions of the other monotheisms, in principle, cannot justify much in the way of war, due to collateral damage – the killing of non-combatants. But all traditions change, and we are witnessing a complete repudiation of this principle in the hands of today’s leading Middle Eastern Muslim clerics. In fact, when the goal is “justified,” such as the liberation of Muslim lands, they seem to be declaring suicidal, terrorist targeting of non-combatants as martyrdom.

Goal-oriented justification of mass murder of non-combatants is inherently evil. In Jewish tradition we must emphasize pikuach nefesh, the saving and protection of innocent life, as the ultimate arbiter of difficult decisions about war and violence. We must avoid at all costs behavior in war and conflict that leads to the injury and death of innocents. The deliberate and purposeful murder of non-combatants is retsiha, a violation of the Ten Commandments.

This is the bridge upon which traditional Jews can travel, meet, challenge, and hopefully join forces with Islamic and Christian contemporaries. There may be some “blow back” regarding Israel, but this ethical standard is one that the vast majority of Israelis would embrace.

We must find more ways to embrace Muslims willing to search for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I have many such Muslim friends. And we must agree to disagree with other Muslims who wrongly believe in violent resistance, but who could repudiate the terrorist essence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This agreement on the limits of war practices is crucial to the eventual settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as to victory over those Islamic forces who are threatening the very stability of Western civilization.

We must build coalitions with beleaguered liberal Muslims for the sake of human rights, democracy, and the basic freedoms of a civil society – distinguishing between the needs and desires of Muslims and Islamicists. Islamicists want control of public space, through violence if necessary. They can be isolated if we, in the U.S. and in Israel, honor Muslims and treat them with utmost dignity. In the long run we will have a hard time existing on this planet unless Islam is reclaimed from the Islamicists. To do that, we will be compelled to address behavior that is out of bounds for humanity.

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Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin is Visiting Associate Professor of International Diplomacy and Senior Researcher at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and author of Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking, as well as the forthcoming Holy War, Holy Peace. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University.

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