Over the past three and a half years the world – and our place in it – has changed in ways we could have never imagined. Terrorism, world conflict and religious animosity have become the issues of the day.
To help make sense of it all, we invited four Pacific Lutheran University professors to offer their expertise and differing perspectives on these world-changing issues. Participating were Alicia Batten, religion; Peter Grosvenor, political science; Pauline Kaurin, philosophy; and Ann Kelleher, political science. Greg Brewis, executive editor of Scene, moderated the conversation. Their comments were transcribed and edited.
Scene: Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, it became clear that the United States and likely the entire Western world are engaged in a long-term battle against fundamentalist Islam. What are the origins of this conflict? Is it a religious war? Are we facing a new kind of evil?
Ann Kelleher: The public became fully aware of the threat on Sept. 11, but many terrorist experts in the United States knew things were in the works long before then. Arab radical groups and radical religious groups like al Qaeda had been at work since the ’60s and ’70s but hadn’t been able to mount a major effort, and their targets were all specifically related to the Israelis. By the ’80s there was a movement among these groups to begin to target the United States. Even the specific event of flying an airplane into a building was known. It had been planned in Paris but the airliner crashed.
Alicia Batten: The struggle is not primarily about religion. While various political developments and conflicts over land and resources – as well as the suffering and frustration populations are experiencing – can push people to extreme forms of religious expression, these struggles are not fundamentally caused by religion. Whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or fighting in Afghanistan, it’s not the nature of any particular religion to be more prone to terrorist activity.
Peter Grosvenor: And if religions do have theological reasons to go to war with one another, then those reasons are always there. But clearly Christianity, Islam and Judaism have not been engaged in perpetual conflict with one another, so what we need to know more about is what makes conflicts between the faiths erupt when they do. Alicia is right to look at specific political conflicts over land, socioeconomic conditions, and so on.
Another word of caution about seeing this as a religious conflict is that fundamentalist Islam takes broadly two forms. There is a conservative and a radical form. We have, of course, very good and close relations with conservative, fundamentalist Islam in, for example, Saudi Arabia. The radical form of Islamic fundamentalism, with which we’re in conflict, has its roots in society rather than organized religion.
Pauline Kaurin: I agree that this isn’t just about Islam. It’s an issue about how people are dealing with oppression and conflict in their lives. Religion continues to be an attractive source of solace. When things are going wrong in your life you want to know why, you want some community, and you want to know that there is some purpose to it. I can see why radical viewpoints are attractive.
Certainly Sept. 11 got America’s attention, but on the day of the attack I was thinking it is a miracle that this hasn’t happened before. It didn’t particularly surprise me.
Scene: If the attack wasn’t surprising, how did our leaders and so many others not anticipate it?
Grosvenor: The problem for our political leadership is that we have a defense and intelligence structure that is still rooted in the Cold War. It was set up to anticipate actions from a radically different kind of enemy. On the intelligence front, America made a questionable decision to downgrade human intelligence in favor of electronic intelligence. We just don’t know very much about the sections of Islamic society from which this threat is coming.
Batten: We must remember too that the United States government supported radical Islam in Afghanistan in terms of money being funneled to the madrassas and weapons to the Mujahideen. The U.S. should have thought then about the nature of these particular groups and long-term interests and security rather than backing these groups because they supported U.S. interests at that particular time.
Kelleher: Political leaders are always worried about the problems of the moment. The top level political leadership are busy people who are dealing with what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. So while experts within the American defense and intelligence establishment had been sending up warnings for quite some time, it didn’t seem real to the leadership. Other “more important” things were on the agenda of the top decision makers.
Grosvenor: That’s right. And it would be wrong to neglect the extraordinary nature of the Sept. 11 attack. It takes a certain kind of imagination to devise hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. I don’t think we can be too critical of people in the defense community for not anticipating that.
Looking at the enormity of what was done on Sept. 11, I certainly understand what provoked the question about fighting a new form of evil. We can discuss whether it was evil or not, but it was certainly incredibly imaginative and has actually induced a startling degree of paranoia in Western societies. We now expend an awful lot of energy contemplating what they could possibly do next.
Kaurin: After the decline of Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were so many foreign policy issues to deal with that neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations had developed a cohesive foreign policy. It was always crisis management over Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo. Certainly there were warnings and concerns about terrorism, but it was so far down on the list compared to moving from crisis to crisis that rethinking your foreign policy after 40 years of the Cold War paradigm was not realistic.
Scene: Recent generations have seen terrorism from the days of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army. But what we are experiencing today seems different. Why has terrorism changed to become increasingly focused on mass casualties rather than targeting a few for negotiating leverage?
Grosvenor: There are two answers to that. One is rooted in the question about evil. The desire to destroy as much property and kill as many people as you possibly can does resonate with the roots of modern terrorism. For example, in 19th century Russian nihilism, destruction was its own justification. That might be what al Qaeda is engaged in, but I don’t think so. I think they have an agenda. They don’t want to destroy for destruction’s sake, they want to destroy aspects of the West and thereby alter American foreign policy in the Middle East.
They believe they can do it by going for mass destruction rather than selective targets because they genuinely believe that Western society is effete and degenerate, that it can’t handle mass casualties, and that it will back off if you do it enough damage. There was very high symbolism in their choice of targets for the Sept. 11 attack.
Kelleher: I must disagree right now! The terrorists are not thinking that we will back off. Rather, they want the United States to react in a very strong way because that shows the West to be as evil at they think it is.
Grosvenor: I don’t think that what we are saying is incompatible. I think that bin Laden is quite happy to see forceful acts of retribution by the United States because they act as recruiting tools.
Kelleher: Yes. It proves their point.
Grosvenor: But let’s remember that, over the last three years, most of what we have heard from Osama bin Laden has been about what an awful society the West is. And he did make the interesting intervention in the U.S. presidential election when he said if you want us to leave you alone you must leave us alone and disengage. There we saw a pragmatic political agenda from al Qaeda.
Kelleher: But was that bin Laden address in fact focused on the United States? It could well have been in response to a need to represent himself to the Arab world. He wants more recruits. He wants more money. He does not want his money hung up in Saudi-controlled banks. I suspect one of the motivations of the speech may have been to influence the U.S. elections, but he also needs to position himself before his potential supporters as being a reasonable person.
Batten: Militarily weaker people generally perform acts of terrorism. I think of Palestinian suicide bombers. What would push a person to the point of blowing herself or himself up and blowing up innocent civilians? I think that part of the reason people are driven to such desperate acts is that they have no other way of fighting back. They do not have tanks. They do not have helicopters. The only way, they think, of attracting attention to their situation is to strap explosives to their body. I think that it is important to think about what type of desperation pushes someone to commit such an act.
We need to think about state-sponsored terrorism as well. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israelis do punish Palestinians collectively. From a Palestinian perspective, such punishment (air raids, housing demolitions etc.) could be viewed as forms of state terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. might think about how the Sudanese reacted when a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was bombed by the United States in 1998, based on false intelligence. From the Sudanese point of view many innocent people were killed unnecessarily. They might see that as an act of terrorism by the United States. Thus we cannot think of terrorism solely in terms of groups such as Hamas and al Qaeda, but also how certain actions of militarily powerful countries could be perceived by other nations and groups as forms of terrorist activity.
Kaurin: And I don’t think it’s about how they hate freedom. That is an abstract reason to blow yourself up. So what do we mean when we say they hate freedom? Is it our way of saying they don’t like Western liberal democracies that are capitalist in orientation? That’s still pretty abstract. In fact, part of the reason for terrorism may be found in how individual experiences have gotten to the point where they are so upset, they feel so hopeless, that they think that the best solution is to blow themselves up.
Scene: How should the West respond? Only militarily? How are the more deep-seated issues resolved?
Grosvenor: It is very difficult for the West to respond for reasons that are contained in what Alicia Batten has said. We clearly have a problem in the West of not understanding how our actions are perceived elsewhere. In the post-9/11 environment such understanding becomes much more important. But even to say that we need to alter the way we engage the rest of the world sounds like capitulation. In fact it might even be capitulation. What Alicia said is quite heretical and very important. We must understand how we are perceived in the rest of the world even though we are notoriously bad at it.
Kelleher: We assume that there should be a rational attempt by the U.S. to assess its presence and interaction in the world and how other people in the world perceive us. But realistically I don’t know one society that, directly attacked, is going to have the majority of its population sit back with reason and calm and undertake that sort of self-assessment. Any society that experiences a direct attack is going to react in a very strong and emotional way and I don’t hold Americans to a higher standard.
We have a choice. Do we follow the paradigm of realists in the field of international relations who say we must not appear weak, we must always watch our security, we cannot assume anyone is going to assist us? Or do we follow another paradigm that would call on us to understand the context of our situation, to understand the motivations of our opponents, and to see if American policy is in some way part of the complex web of causation.
Even though I knew two people who died in the World Trade Center, I believe, as responsible citizens of the world’s leading material and military power, it does behoove us to pause now, get past our immediate reaction, and have a conversation around the country about our best response.
Grosvenor: The only thing I disagree about in what Ann just said is that she calls on us to have this conversation. I’d say we just had it. It was called the presidential election and Americans made a very clear choice about whether to be unilateral, aggressive and confrontational or whether take a more complex and multifaceted approach.
Kelleher: That is a very good point.
Scene: Here at home there have been significant changes to intelligence gathering, law enforcement, privacy standards and a reshaping of the federal government. Some say we are approaching a national security state. How does a government balance freedom and security? Have we tipped the scales too far in one direction, and how do we know when we have?
Kelleher: I remember when Peter gave a talk right after 9/11. He said straight out that America is going to have to accept the fact that in specific ways – based on the experience that Britain had in dealing with the IRA in order to root out and deal with these problems domestically – there are going to have to be some compromises. But have we gone too far?
Grosvenor: What we have is a very sad paradox here. The openness of Western societies is one of their major sources of strength. It makes them competitive. It makes them innovative. It allows them to import new ideas. It makes them, in my view, the most desirable places to live on the planet, which is why so many people outside of the West want to come here to make better lives for themselves.
But that openness is also now being seen to be a weakness in that it exposes the West in particular to the downside of globalization: an increase in drug trafficking, an increase in terrorism, an increase in illegal arms trading, and an increase in people trafficking. If the West wants to protect itself from that downside, it is going to have to make itself less open. The extent to which that will happen remains to be seen, but I think there are some very worrying signs that there has been a very real regression in Western freedoms as a result of 9/11.
Batten: On the other side of it, in addition to restricting freedoms, we might ask where are we focusing our resources. Health care and education and the other things necessary to building a strong society suffer because we are spending instead on security or the military. It’s another way the American population suffers as a whole.
Grosvenor: Yes, very important aspects of our living standards must fall if we divert substantial resources in the way Alicia describes.
Kaurin: Americans must come to terms with the fact that we want to have an open society and at the same time we want no consequences to accrue from that. That’s part of our delusional perspective. The other issue that we must come to terms with is now having to prioritize what is most important. If we are going to have to restrict freedoms, then I think the argument comes down to which ones can be restricted and in what ways and still not lose the element of being a Western, open society. We need to have a discussion about what things we are willing to compromise on and what things are non-negotiable.
Kelleher: And our leaders are ducking it big time. They see no need to make these choices as they instead pile up more debt.
Scene: What advice would you give PLU students about the role they might play in building a more peaceful world?
Batten: I would encourage students to educate themselves about history, including the history of U.S. foreign policy, to learn another language, and to travel abroad, especially to a non-Western country, where the way of life is far different from many Western nations.
Kaurin: Students should follow what they think they are meant to do in their lives. The people who have changed the world are people who have followed their heart’s desire and their calling.
I would also urge students to learn to be self-critical and not assume that because we do something one way, everyone does it in that way, not assume that everyone looks at things in the way we do. I think that some of the resentment and some of the conflict in the world are caused by people in the West not being aware of how what they are doing is being interpreted. If we can be self-critical and learn to look at what we are doing through someone else’s eyes, it can be the first step toward meaningful dialogue.
Grosvenor: I would encourage PLU students to take advantage of study abroad programs and, when they do so, to be aware of the fact that they are de facto ambassadors for their country. They can present a face of the United States to the world that is more open, tolerant, respectful and cooperative than the face of America that is presented by the current administration.
I learned recently of a Web site that offers to provide young Americans the wherewithal to pretend that they are Canadians when they go traveling. I find it incredibly sad that many young Americans sometimes feel embarrassed, ashamed or perhaps even endangered by their nationality.
Kelleher: I’m truly proud to be American and I think our students should learn to take pride too, to really understand our own country and its history of so many positive accomplishments and positive values. There have been many examples of enlightened action by the United States in the past. Students should do some serious research, find them and have pride in them as Americans.
At the same time, it would behoove all of us to learn more about the many varieties of Islam, including those that are very tolerant. The saddest thing to me about teaching about the Middle East is how the Arab world has been misunderstood. I’ve known Arabs. I know their views of their own religion. I know they perceive their religion as truly sensitive and respectful of human rights – not in the Western sense, but as a set of mutual obligations between ruler and ruled.
But now it appears as though a world-wide war of cultures is upon us. To me I find that to be extremely unfortunate because I clearly see the ways that Islam and Christianity, Judaism and basic grassroots America can fit together comfortably.
Grosvenor: We need a very careful degree of balance in any assessment that we make about where we are in the terrorist dilemma that is confronting us. All of us during the course of this discussion have said something about how the United States needs to be more thoughtful about how it presents itself to the world. I think most of us agree that the United States has made some bad decisions about that over the last three years, which may have made the problem considerably worse.
But having said that, I think it would be wrong to not acknowledge that the Islamic world has a very real responsibility here. This new Islamic terrorism is going to be part of Islamic history just like the crusades were part of Christian history and there is no denying it. This means that there is an enormous responsibility on moderate Muslims for them to take back their religion and to alter the face of their religion in the world. This is the proper agenda for the United States: reaching out to moderate people in the Islamic world and helping them to create more progressive more humane societies and more religious tolerance.
Kaurin: I agree. Even in our own country there is much common ground between moderate Muslims, moderate Christians and moderate Jews. For whatever reason the extremists get the most press time and get the most attention. The moderates in all of the religious traditions as well as in the non-religious communities need to take back the public discourse and try to search out that common ground. Because if it’s a contest between extremes, it will not end in any other way than what happened on Sept. 11.
And here is where our students have a role to play. If people who find common ground with one another can to some degree take back the discourse it can change the way we can think about things. As a moderate Christian, if I can think about moderate Islam and have connections to them and see where they are coming from, then we are both less likely to endorse the more radical and dismissive response.
Batten: I would tell students to not be afraid to speak out, nor to avoid disagreeing even though there seems to be a lot pressure these days to support many moves of the administration. I would also encourage students to be critical and wary of the dominant discourse, including such phrases as "war on terrorism." What does that phrase imply? How is it used to justify specific policies?
Kelleher: There is a war against us now, however. We all must acknowledge that whatever the causes, there are at least a few hundred thousand people out there who consider themselves at war with us. That is a reality that cannot be ignored.