Religion and September 11

Religion and September 11 - Patrick Mcarthy and Aidan Lewis


"Pakistan is one of the clearest demonstrations of the futility of defining a nation by religion."1 Explicit in Christopher Hitchens' judgment is the view that a common religion will not prevent two countries from going to war. A more general conclusion might be that in many cases religion, far from improving the behavior of a state, worsens it. This has been implicitly acknowledged by Pope John Paul II who has repeatedly declared that war in the name of religion is always evil.

Neither Hitchens nor the Pope explains why religion can have this nega­tive effect. We would like to attempt an answer to this "why", using September 11th as our example. Our thesis is that the West's dominance in the twin areas of technology and economics triggers an arrogance or hubris. Faced with such humiliation, other cultures react by closing themselves off and reverting to their most. traditional aspects. Where religion plays an important part in the culture, it turns into fundamentalism and aggression, which are expressions of fear.

Since so much has been said and written about September 11th, we will try to maintain some distance from it by considering two other cases: one is intra-Western - Northern Ireland - while the second involves Algeria, France and Islam. If our analysis is correct, then we will be able to make a few tenta­tive suggestions on how future September 11s may be avoided.

The Islamic world views the Christian bloc as arrogant. Globalization de­ploys Western technological and economic might. At the same time it appears to the Palestinians like a new crusade. The United States and Israel are leading the onslaught on the poor Moslem nations. Their forces are disembodied evil that take the form of not-so-intelligent bombs. Some Islamic elites have chosen to collaborate with the West. An example is the Saudi royal family for whom Osama Bin Laden reserves a special hatred. Still, although he is in Western eyes a terrorist leader and mass murderer, numerous public opinion polls -admittedly carried out hastily and using methods that cannot be checked -have "proved" that Bin Laden has many followers among Moslems and espe­cially among young Moslems.

The West will not, of course, admit that it fights against Islam. It insists that its enemy is terrorism. But what is terrorism? It is not an abstraction: it demands a small number of people who are willing to risk their lives, a larger number to support them, bases, money, and the help of one or more sovereign states. It is a mixture of the primitive and the sophisticated. The foot soldiers of Bin Laden are prepared not only to risk their lives but to give them up in suicidal flights that come crashing into eternal happiness via the World Trade Towers.

The way to prevent the kind of culture-based wars, predicted by Samuel Huntington,2 is to conduct a critical review of our own Western culture. In­stead of the arrogance of conquest, we should satisfy that desire for knowledge and that sense of the other that have at certain periods dominated Western thought. Perhaps we can learn from history. We are taught that the West has become more tolerant as we have progressed through history. This is partly true. Yet comparing the Mediterranean of today, increasingly a hotbed of reli­gious disputes and immigration problems, with its late medieval counterpart, we find interesting differences. Despite many examples of the discourse of reli­gious intolerance that continued unabated through the centuries, cultural in­terchange and tolerance could be widespread. The most telling example on "our" side is furnished by the Norman kings of Sicily under whose rule Mus­lims continued to be employed in the civil service, in accounting and even in the army. Similarly religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - should en­gage in a dialogue today that does not seek to convert but is also not willing to abandon its own positions for the sake of reaching agreement.4 Only in this way can we escape the intolerance that has survived into the age of globaliza­tion, indeed that is an integral part of it.

We shall glance briefly at two examples of what not to do: the first is intra­-Western - the Northern Ireland problem; the second is France, Algeria and Islam. By moving away from the World Trade Towers, we hope to throw new light on their destruction.

An Irish Jihad

During the period when the system of states in Western Europe took its modern shape - the years after the Battle of Waterloo - the Catholic Church was politically very conservative and distrusted reason and democracy. It op­posed the lay Italian state that grew out of the Risorgimento. It supported the Irish state that allowed it great power and that was formed in opposition to Protestant Britain. (The Church supported the Polish state for different but similar reasons.) It opposed the French state and encouraged the faithful to support the "legitimist'' right that was monarchistic and anti-Semitic. Pius IX, the pope in whom the liberal revolutionaries had placed so much hope, never recovered from being chased out of Rome by Mazzini and Garibaldi. He ended up publishing the Syllabus of Errors, which excoriated liberalism, rationalism, science, progress and modern civilization in general.

In all these cases the Church was a political actor participating in bar­gaining. Today it tends to intervene in politics more discreetly; Pope John Paul II, with his frequent jaunts around the world, his flair for using the media and his love of lost causes - of which the most recent is divorce - is an exception. Most churchmen are aware that the faithful are fewer, more reluctant to heed the Church's views and eager to expand their own freedom and their control over their lives.

In Ireland, Christianity has only recently grown milder and less dramatic. In the North, Christianity has been locked into a jihad of Catholics against Protestants. A Marxist explanation would dwell on the decline of Northern Ireland's industries - shipbuilding and linen. But the fault lines of Northern Irish society do not run along divisions between feuding social classes. Can this be a religious war like the wars of the seventeenth-century, which had as their guiding principle "cuius regio eius religio"? The explanation has a certain implausible truth because the fault lines run along religious divisions and the seventeenth-century wars are refought every year when the Pr6testant marches, bands and anti-Catholic slogans fill the public space of the province.

But another factor comes into play here: Rarely does a community go to so much effort to celebrate its past victories. In this case, however, those dis­tant wars, along with more recent conflicts, such as the Battle of the Somme, constitute the identity of the community. It could be argued that this is an invented identity, used in the nineteenth-century to divide the labor force dur­ing the industrialization of Belfast. But an invented tradition· can have very real consequences.

So a person in Northern Ireland defines herself in religious terms. In an­swer to the question of what is Northern Ireland's second-largest city a person who responds with Londonderry is labeling herself a Protestant, while the reply Derry indicates the speaker is a Catholic. There is no way, within the "normal" contours of language, to invent a third identity or to name the city in a way acceptable to all.

Linda Colley has shown how first English and then British identities were forged against the forces of continental Europe, especially Catholic France.5 If the main traits in British identity were linked with the Reformation and Protes­tantism, then Ireland, which had to struggle against Britain, discovered its identity in Catholicism.

The matter was not, of course, so simple. In the late nineteenth-century the leader of the Home Rule movement was an impoverished Anglo-Irish land­lord. Charles Stuart Parnell offered - when his relationship with a married woman, Kitty O'Shea, was made public - the tantalizing dream of a country where one could be Irish without being Catholic. The hope was short-lived, .as the Irish Catholics and the English Nonconformists joined forces against Parnell. Yet, however brief, this was a moment when Ireland might have become a secular country.

The moment passed and Irish Catholicism was very active in the national­ist struggle. It was a special kind of Catholicism that stressed sacrifice and austerity. In the hands of Padraig Pearse and the other leaders of the 1916 rebellion it became one of the main weapons in the struggle against Britain.

Meanwhile the Protestant community in the North, deliberately implanted by the British government in the seventeenth-century in order to divide and weaken the Irish, was carrying out its task. In the late seventeenth-century it helped William of Orange defeat the Catholic James Stuart. Inspired by Randolph Churchill's slogan "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right," the Protestants refused to have Home Rule thrust upon them. When the British repression of the 1916 rebellion drove the Southern Catholics into the arms of Sinn Fein, the North's separation took the form of electoral difference. Its brand of Protestant­ism was different from the British brand: It was more anti-Catholic. It pro­duced a line of virulent, populist preachers who talked as much of politics as of religion and of whom the present representative is Ian Paisley.

Thus religion took on the task in Northern as well as Southern Ireland of providing an identity. This is the key difference between Northern Ireland and other places divided by ethnic or religious differences, such as Alto Adige-Sud Tirol. The Southern and the Northern Catholics found their identity in Pearse's brand of sacrifice and the Northern Protestants in a resistance to all things Irish or Catholic. The religions that shaped identity were harsh, intolerant and exclusive.

The South was, however, fortunate in that, having gained its indepen­dence, it could move forward. The key change was from De Valera to Sean Lemass and it took place in the context of the general European prosperity of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Gradually a new identity replaced the old: The ascetic, very male Irishman rooted in his native land gave way to the more practical, wealthier person who, after Ireland's entry into the EC in 1973, looked toward Brussels. The Church's influence declined, although abortion is still illegal in the Republic. With the decreasing religious fervor came a decline in the enthusiasm for a united Ireland. The Church did not support the use of force to unite Ireland and while individual members of the IRA might be believ­ing, practicing Catholics, the Church banned the organization. Individual priests have, however, always defied the ban and have heard Republican confessions. But both beliefs - in Mother Church and in Mother Ireland – are anti-modern.

As the old identity was replaced by an international identity, the place occupied in Irish culture by violence declined. It remained strong only in the North where there was less prosperity, where the British remained and where there were/are more Protestants. Here both sides retained violence as an im­portant part of their identity: the Protestants as the manifestation of their feelings of isolation in a predominantly Catholic island; the Catholics as a reaction against their permanent minority status in the non-state of Northern Ireland.

Belfast thus has much to teach us about religion in politics. The arro­gance of conquest had been asserted by the plantation of a community of Prot­estants in a Catholic land. In the subsequent context of relative economic back­wardness a particularly tenacious form of religious identity came to dominate.

The key is not belief but allowing religion to become the sole or chief form of identity. Or rather allowing an aggressive, harsh brand of religion to consti­tute an identity. Or to need an identity very badly and to have few options beyond a stern religion. Such an identity, seen as a menace by others, seems weak from within. It is closed, uncomprehending and pre-modern. Because fear is such an important component, it can take many forms, such as aggression and pseudo-tolerance. Its need for the other is great.

The identity may be forced on one, as the Northern Irish force it on each other. It may be the absence of other religious groups that is crucial: A commu­nity of Quakers might make a considerable difference in Belfast, as the Bavar­ian tourists did in Sud Tirol. What is special about Northern Ireland is the strength of the two identities, their strident jealousy and the absence of other kinds of people.

The hundreds of thousands of Irish who immigrated to Britain were at first identified by their religion. Today when Glasgow Rangers take the field against Glasgow Celtic something of the old hostility reemerges. But it has been diluted by new identities, by social integration and by geographical dislo­cation. Both teams have their eyes turned towards the European champions league. "Beating Celtic is not enough," said a Rangers supporter delighted at the thought of playing Real Madrid and Juventus but secretly doubting the Rangers' ability to beat them.

Algeria: The Failure of Decolonization

Turning to Islam, one finds a similar, albeit somewhat different historical process of identity shaping. In Algeria Islam was traditionally weak and did not gain ground until the 1930s, when it may be seen as a forerunner of national­ism. 6 The "ulemas" movement made Islam more popular, while the trial of Sheik El Okbi, covered by a young journalist named Albert Camus, provided it with an instant hero. As nationalism grew stronger, feeding on disappointment with the Popular Front and then with the Free French, the FLN (Front de liberation nationale) discarded the religious component in its culture to concentrate on left-wing politics and on the use of force. The Setif battles of 1945 were a step in that direction and by the time the Algerian War broke out in 1954, the FLN regarded itself as a secular, revolutionary movement. Despite the use of torture by the French army in the Battle of Algiers, relations between France and its former colony were good after independence.

The failure of the post-colonial FLN to govern with equity and to transform Algeria by the correct utilization of its oil and natural gas resources, led to widespread disaffection. One form this took was Moslem Fundamentalism. This may be seen as a reaction against the failed modernity of the FLN, which is also considered part of the Western way of life. The legacy of metropolitan assump­tions of cultural and economic superiority, which had so often given cause to exploitation and violence, had helped to foster a religiously dominated identity comparable in its distortions to that in Northern Ireland.

Fundamentalism is a return to tradition, whether real or largely invented. It arouses animosity in the West partly because some of its practices seem barbaric to Westerners and partly because it is antithetical to the restless drive towards modernization that finds expression in globalization. Moreover Funda­mentalism is aggressive toward the West. It has a strong sense of territory and sees the Islamic world as invaded by Western oil companies.

In Algeria it has turned against the FLN government, although as yet it has not succeeded in overthrowing it. France finds itself in a difficult position that is worsened by the large Moslem communities in France itself. Funda­mentalism is present in France, although far from dominant. It appears to be a reaction on the part of young Moslems against their failed attempt to enter French society, a failure for which French people and customs are partly to blame.


Both the case of Ireland and of Algeria involve debates about the interac­tion of religion, modernization and national identity. Both involve delayed and inadequate processes of decolonization and therefore deal with examples of arrogance, misjudgment and exploitation by - but not only by - the colonizing forces. In both, opposing identities have been carefully constructed or invented, containing within them dominant religious traits and popularized by newly available modern media. These are all traits that might be useful in analyzing the "War Against Terrorism." Islam has been closely linked to nationalist move­ments throughout the era of Communism; it would be odd if it failed to occupy some of the space created after 1989.

Three traits of the World Trade Center towers are worth stressing. All have to do with the formation of an identity that is too narrow or too aggres­sive, of the type we have seen in the two examples discussed above. The first is the development of Islam into fundamentalism, a complex process involving foreigners as well as various indigenous groups. The second is the arrogance of the United States in denying rights to the prisoners of al-Qaede, in putting them into cages and in dumping them in Cuba, as if warning Castro that the United States has not forgotten him. The attack on the twin towers had left Americans feeling vulnerable, but Bush has overreacted and started to behave like a victorious (pagan) Roman emperor organizing his triumphal parade. The third trait, closely related to the second, is the West's exaggerated pride in its own technology and wealth and its economic success. This leads to a certainty that Western values are universally supreme and that other people must sim­ply emulate them. Even if, as is likely, they are unable to equal "us", at least they should cease to be "others", obviously inferior and candidates for bombing.

Neither of these last two traits is ostensibly religious, although both seem inspired by a post-religious view of a world still sharply divided into good and evil and inhabited by a chosen people. This worldview, informed by the same types of attitudes seen in Ireland and Algeria, is capable of provoking similarly vicious reactions. Another of Pope John Paul II's great themes is that such a worldview should not be confused with genuine Christianity.7 The day of prayer at Assisi, where representatives of all the great religions prayed together, was an example of Christian tolerance.

Assisi may be contrasted with Silvio Berlusconi's statement of the West's superiority. This was, however, "golf-club" thinking. Little else can be expected from Italy's prime minister. A worse example may be found in a recent Interna­tional Herald Tribune article.8 A guest editorialist asks the question "Why do they hate?"

The reader is supposed to know who "they" are. Presumably Westerners do not hate. After a short paragraph on such topics as America's policy in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the entire article is devoted to explaining that young Arabs know they have missed out on modernity. Is modernity so wonderful?

On another page of the Tribune an article describes how Americans, running a hospital in Afghanistan, consciously and willfully starved an Islamic militant to death. But then, he probably was not a human being. In this worldview all non-Western people, culture and nature are reduced to mere objects. How of­ten is the Afghan countryside described as "inhospitable, barren" and "empty"?

It can hardly be empty since we are also told it is swarming with terror­ists; their leaders seem to find the country perfectly hospitable since they show no desire to leave it, and the United States, the great subject of this tale, can­not find them, much less carry them off to President Bush's pagan parade. It should be more apparent to the forces fighting their non definable battle against terrorism that using such aggressive language as the "axis of evil" will encour­age a resistance that cannot be bombed into submission.

Professor Patrick McCarthy is research professor at the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He has written several books on the Italian state and other topics and is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and International Herald Tribune. Aidan Lewis is a master's candidate at SAIS Bologna Center and is Professor McCarthy's research assistant. He is a graduate of Oxford University, where he read history.