01 September 2011
How 9/11 placed religion in the dock
Religion can unite people across boundaries and divide people within, and history unfortunately provides a testament that it often also leads to war, Daniel Webster, writes...
When the Cold War ended, and the Berlin Wall came down, the world held its collective breath to see what would come next. Had the liberal values of trade and multilateral international bodies firmly cemented peace, or would the vacuum be flooded with warring nations desperate to become the next superpower? Although we like to think that war is unusual, that it is what happens when things go wrong, history tells us that this view is only available through rose-tinted spectacles. In the final decade of the 20th century nothing much changed, aggression in the Gulf was dealt with swiftly, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans somewhat belatedly addressed and Africa experienced perpetual conflict. Even so, there were few signs as to the future global landscape. Maybe America was becoming the world's policeman, or maybe they would intervene only when their own interests were at stake?
All this changed on a Tuesday morning in September 10 years after the Soviet Union broke up. When 19 terrorists hijacked four planes, nation states suddenly became a whole lot less important in international affairs. Global politics changed on that day because it was people and not countries that decided to wage war. The FBI drew up a most wanted list but when it came to the US, the UK, and their allies declaring war, it was on a country and not against a person.
Yet it was neither a country and its nationalistic ambitions, nor an individual and their personal whim, which led to the terrorist attacks and the ensuing conflict 10 years later. It was religious beliefs. Without wishing to delve into the legitimacy of al-Qaeda's Islamic basis, it is nevertheless fair to say that they justified their actions on what they held and promoted as correct Islamic teaching. This was therefore at a conflict with religious belief at its core, and it showed how religious belief transcends both people and countries.
Religion can unite people across boundaries and divide people within, and history unfortunately provides a testament that it often also leads to war. Religious beliefs are strongly held, and are usually at the core of human identity. The first and second world wars were about nationalism, ideology and race, the wars that heralded the start of this millennium have placed religion, and in particular Islam, in the dock. For people to commit such atrocious acts of inhumanity it requires a powerful motivating force. In other times and places ideological and ethnic passions, and often the defence of these identities, has provoked acts of terrorism.
Wars of previous centuries have often carried a religious dimension; in 1555 the Peace of Augsburg gave rulers the authority to decide the religion of their country. This brought to an end bitter fighting between Catholic and Protestant forces in modern day Germany and set a precedent across Europe. The notable difference with this contemporary re-emergence of religion as a factor in international affairs is that previously it was states that carried out actions even if they were synonymous with religious factions. In the actions of al-Qaeda and other such bodies it is a religious force that becomes equated with certain countries.
This only heightens the sense that this is a religious conflict. In the UK the 7/7 bombings were the acts of British Muslims, albeit trained abroad. This meant that an increased focus was placed on where such domestic religious extremism came from. The government's engagement with religious groups therefore became a tool through which to try and combat religious, and specifically Islamic, extremism.
Religion suddenly came into sharper focus in public debate. One consequence was that religion was seen by some as a contagion which the world would be better to do without, the arguments put forward by Dawkins and co were enhanced when the war on terror was considered as a product of religious fanaticism. Linked to this was a criticism from secularist groups that Christians and other faiths used the provision of community and public services as a platform to evangelise. These combined themes meant that the role of religion in public life came under fresh scrutiny.
After a poor start which illustrated the lack of religious understanding at the heart of our politics the past few years has seen the government adopt a more nuanced position on faith involvement. This began with the former Labour secretary of state for communities John Denham MP who issued a guide for councils to bust some of the myths that stopped them working with churches. Eric Pickles MP has continued this engagement under the current administration.
It was the historian Michael Burleigh who observed that 'Politics and Religion is the issue for the next 50 years'. The past decade has seen religion re-establishing itself as a major talking point in global politics. It has generated public debate about the war on terror and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has traumatised secular liberal elites in the West, showing them to lack the political thinking and language needed for the 21st century. The degree to which the increased rhetoric around religion has changed global politics, either for better or worse, remains to be seen. However, what is clear is that religious belief cannot be ignored, and it is very much relevant to how our world works.