Professor Matthew Ogilvie, Dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Fremantle campus spoke at The Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture’s Speakers Forum on 25 February, 2014. His talk, which can be heard and downloaded below draws attention to the fact that ideas have consequences, particularly when those ideas concern our perception of the nature of God and the nature of our own humanity.
Religion and Terrorism
Our current problems with religiously motivated terrorism have been aggravated, in no small part, by a relativist attitude towards religion that is reluctant to pass judgment on religion while at the same time banishing religion to the realm of the private. At the same time, our society has largely forgotten the crucial role played by religion in the formation of our culture. An unholy trinity of relativism, secularism and ignorance of religion in our culture has made it hard to deal with fanatical religious groups who express their faith violently and publicly, who are willing to condemn and kill those who do not share their faith and who have a vision for a culture dominated by their religion. So it is that, even 12 years after 9/11, we are still struggling ideologically in the war against religiously motivated terrorism.
A secularist, relativist and postmodernist society that has abandoned the faith and values that have made our culture what it is will have little to give the radicals to help them come to the truth of God and human existence.
Religiously motivated terrorism, as we know it, had its genesis in the victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran. The defeat of the seemingly invincible Soviet Army in Afghanistan was interpreted as a sign that an apocalyptic jihad against infidels had begun and that the rule of Islam could be brought to the world. Among the fighters in Afghanistan was a Saudi multimillionaire named Osama Bin Laden who founded an organisation to help foreign fighters. That organisation was called “The Base,” or in Arabic, “Al Qaeda”. After the revolution and ascendancy of Ayatollah Khomeni, Iran became a major state sponsor of terrorism and a number of religiously motivated terror groups were inspired to form and attack Jews and Western targets.
While the 20th Century had witnessed nationalist and politically motivated terrorism, religious terrorism was a game-changer. If we look at the statistics cited in Bruce Hoffman’s seminal “Inside Terrorism,” we see that religiously motivated terrorist attacks have typically been many times more deadly than politically motivated terror attacks. The reason for this increase in violence is because for the secular terrorists, violence is a means to an end. People are threatened in order to achieve a political or nationalistic goal of sorts. In religiously motivated terrorism, violence is not the means but the end itself. People are killed not in order to gain land, ransom or other gain, but they are killed because their deaths are willed by God.
It must be emphasised that, contrary to media-facilitated hysteria, most Muslims are not violent fanatics. Indeed, they take seriously that “Islam” literally means the “peace” that comes from submitting to the will of God. At the same time, most victims of radical Muslim terror are neither Jews, nor Christians, but in fact fellow Muslims. What is it about the radical fringe of Islam that allows them to engage in acts found repugnant by most people, including mainstream Muslims?
First, radical Islam rejects human conscience. It rejects our ability to know truth and the difference between right and wrong. Texts like this one are exaggerated by the radicals: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.” (Quran: 2:216) Being told that their human reason is unable to know the will of God and that they should not trust their consciences, terrorist fighters are left with no other way than to follow their leaders and to abdicate their moral responsibility.
Second, the radicals embrace a love of death; both their own deaths and the deaths of infidels. For the radicals, killing infidels is not a means to an end or a necessary evil, but the killing is the end itself and a necessary good that expresses the will of God. At the same time, radicals are taught that their lives are not valuable and that by sacrificing themselves in battle they are not giving up something good, but relieving themselves of a burden.
Thirdly, unlike Western culture in which non-combatants are meant to be protected from direct attack, the religious radicals offer no such protection. This is because the Quran and certain traditions are interpreted so that any prohibition of killing is not based on a civilian status, but rather on people’s ability to fight. This means that women, children and civilian men may be attacked if they are perceived as a threat. For the extreme radicals, many things can make one an enemy threat, such as: voting in a democracy, paying taxes to an infidel government or having the potential to become a soldier makes one a legitimate target. This means that, for practical purposes, all members of our society may be targeted. The Jewish people often come in for special consideration, as seen in this quote from the Hamas covenant:
The Prophet, Allah’s prayer and peace be upon him, says: “The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: ‘Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him,’ except for the Gharqad tree, for it is the tree of the Jews.”
All of the above is sobering, but we can be asked how it can all end? In the first place, it is important to know that radical Muslim terrorists have a worldview and theology that is different to ours and very different to that of more moderate Muslims. On the one hand, one can embrace a theology in which God calls us to “choose life” (Deut 30:19) or that “he who saves a single life saves the world entire” (The Talmud) or one can embrace a God who treats his followers’ lives as disposable and the lives of infidels as worthless.
We have the vision, taught by Vatican II, that people can know right and wrong and have the duty to follow well-formed consciences in doing what is right. On the other hand, one can reject one’s conscience and abdicate their moral responsibility to others, even if that means committing repugnant acts.
Then there are the conflicting visions of those who believe God has blessed us with the ability to know truth and the others who hold that the human mind cannot now truth.
When asked once how the war on terror could be won (or lost), an experienced counter terrorist said that the war on terror will be won when we either give the terrorists’ supporters flat screen TVs, thus corrupting them with Western secularism, or when we establish liberal arts colleges in their lands. He preferred the latter option. The wisdom of that suggestion is that through a positive view of God, through being able to know truth and to distinguish right from wrong for themselves, people will be protected intellectually and morally from the seduction of religious radicalism. In other words, it is only through formation of faith and values that religiously motivated terrorism will be defeated in the long term.
For this writer’s part, I am convinced that in the short term, the war on terror will be fought with bullets and bombs, but weapons will only scratch the surface. In the long term, the war will be won or lost in the human mind and heart. The war will never be won so long as the radicals believe in a God who despises life, as long as they despair of knowing right or wrong and so long as they give up conscience and personal responsibility.
Unfortunately, a secularist, relativist and postmodernist society that has abandoned the faith and values that made our culture what it is will have little to give the radicals to help them come to the truth of God and human existence. From another perspective, we face the question of whether we will be morally and intellectually equipped to save our own culture from decline from within at the same time as it is being attacked from the outside.
Prof Matthew Ogilvie is Dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology, University of Notre Dame, Australia.
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