Editor’s note: This essay by the late Fr. James V. Schall was originally published in slightly different form at Ignatius Insight on September 8, 2006, to mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
The anniversary of the wanton destruction of the World Trade Center Towers is upon us. We ask ourselves: “Were the three thousand people killed somehow ‘legitimate’ targets?” and, “What was this attack about?” On the accuracy and clarity of our responses everything depends, including the purpose of reason itself. Yet, we are perplexed by the myriad of conflicting and contradictory explanations for the central cause of this day, now called, without further reference, “9/11.”
The best anyone can do in these circumstances, it seems, is to provide a solid and well-considered opinion. This is what I shall try to do here. An “opinion” is an informed judgment based on suitable and available evidence concerning possible actions or explanations. The opinion on which one acts could be wrong, but we always act with some lack of clarity. We are irresponsible in many crucial instances, moreover, if we do not seek to find a plausible and accurate opinion about human events, about what they mean.
All human action takes place with partial information. The fear of being wrong in practical affairs is not the beginning of wisdom but the beginning of self-chosen paralysis. As Eric Voegelin said, we need not embrace the errors of our time. Still, we cannot pretend that such errors do not occur; they must be dealt with. Opinions are necessarily the grounds of all political actions, including wars, especially wars. Seldom are things simply black or white. The most we can have is “practical” certainty or judgment, as Aristotle called it. But opinions are not merely vague guesses. At their best, they are based on evidence and experience. They can (and in the case of prudence do) penetrate to the reality that stands midst the flow of other views. Nor, however tempting, are opinions excuses for theoretic skepticism.
The human mind is able to “invent,” to use Cicero’s word, almost any explanation for some fact or event that really happens. This is, after all, what detective stories are about. The “invention” is the line of reasoning by which we arrive at the intelligibility of what went on. Even when the actors in and the consequences of a deed are fairly well known and sorted out, it is still possible to “explain” them in different manners. This difference of interpretation should not surprise us. Indeed, after these years there is even a small group of professors — who else? — that insists “9/11” was an American political plot having nothing to do with Muslims. Almost anything can be “imagined” if one has a motive.
In the intervening years, then, we have heard almost every conceivable reason for the attack — except perhaps the best one. When we examine the differing analyses coming from various Islamic sources, from Europe, from professors, from experts, from politicians of widely different persuasions, we cannot but be astonished at the fertility of the human mind in coming to opposite explications for the same event. Without the solid reality of the event itself, we have nothing to check the meanderings of our own minds. All is reduced to irresolvable speculation.
Usually, these alternative explanations will likewise reveal the underlying principles of the individual or group proposing them. But I do not consider this likelihood to be an argument that everything is subjective. Everyone still claims to be dealing with facts, based on evidence. In this sense, two things go on simultaneously: the knowledge of the facts and the explanation of what we want these facts to mean for our own purposes. Usually, our politics or our philosophy direct us not so much to the facts we see, but to the meaning we give to them. Though a few people still maintain that men did not land on the moon several decades ago, no one today maintains that the World Trade Towers are still standing. I was across the river in New Jersey the other day looking at the Manhattan skyline. The Towers are gone. I once was at a Georgetown Banquet at the top of one of those Towers; it has just disappeared, but I know I was there. But the fact that it is not there does not explain why it is not there, nor do most of the “why’s” that we have heard since that time explain it, though most contain some truth or plausibility lest they be not credible at all (however, the theory that it was an American plot deserves no credence at all.)
Of course, we know, in another meaning of the word “cause,” that the World Trade Centers were destroyed because passenger planes, hijacked by young Muslim men who shrewdly prepared themselves just for that purpose, rammed planes into the buildings. We know the “physics,” as it were, of what happens to such buildings when planes explode against their sides. We are not sure that these men or their instigators were not themselves clever enough at building mechanics to have intended precisely the astonishing result they achieved. In fact, the plot’s stunning success may have surprised even them. In any case, we know that many people in Muslim cities cheered the event as a “success.” As far as I know, we have received no “apology” from those who claim responsibility. They did not warn their intended victims. They were not “saddened” by their success, but content with it. Nor did anyone of them offer “reparations” for the damage they caused. This implies that, in their own minds, what they did was not unjust but an act of virtue. The pilots and their henchmen were, in their own estimation, “martyrs,” not “killers.”
I argued from the very beginning that the attacks had already begun in the previous two decades with various bombings of ships, embassies, and aircraft in other places throughout the world, and that the driving motivation behind them was not secular, nor political, but religious. What was going on came from a theological understanding of Muslim purpose in the world. Even those Muslims, however few or many they be, who did not think that such means were the wisest ones to use, none the less, understood the legitimacy of the purpose behind them.
I further argued that, by not acknowledging this motivation, we, in a sense, did not do justice to what was going on; we did not, that is, do justice to the men who conceived and carried out the destructive plan. We thus wandered off into fields of explanation that were elaborate, sophisticated, “scientific,” and often self-serving, but which did not correspond to what we were seeing, to what these men said of themselves. Basically, it seemed to me that by calling this a war on “terrorism” a war against “fanatics” or “madmen,” we, in a real way, demeaned both our enemies and ourselves. We did not want to look in the eye of the real storm.
If, on the other hand, we want to call this a “war of civilization,” well and good, provided that we realize, following Christopher Dawson, that civilizations are themselves expressions of religions, or pseudo-religions we now call “ideologies.” No civilization in the history of mankind is less amenable to a purely secular explanation of what it does than Islam. Our efforts to explain this war in terms of Western philosophy or science, however elaborate, fail to get at the central issue, the belief that everyone ought to be Muslim, that this is the will of Allah on earth, that there can be no long-term rest until this submission is brought about and “peace” ensues. This motive, invisible to “science,” is quite visible to those who see it as an abiding mission over time, over centuries. What most handicaps us is an idea that such a purpose cannot abide over time and take various differing forms of reincarnation, including one in our own day.
Let me first run through a number of opinions claiming that the cause of the war is not primarily “religion.” One view would be that religion is a kind of superstructure to economic issues. Either Islam, because of its own principles, is a cause of economic underdevelopment, or it is the victim of other’s greed. Thus, in this quasi-Marxist approach, it is all explained by an economic theory. Islam is not a problem, economics is.
Some sources insisted that the Iraq war was about oil. It is true that oil is the source of enormous Muslim wealth used to finance any expansion effort on its part. Mosques all over Europe and the United States are built and financed by this wealth. But the value of oil has little or nothing to do with economies or inventions that came from Muslim sources. Even the national land theory that gives a state or a sheik control over certain oil lands is a result of Western political views about private and public property. If one used the theory, sometimes seen in Catholic circles, that the riches of the earth first belong not to those who own the land but to “mankind,” we might even deprive these states of the legal right to collect these riches from the land they control.
Another view, that of the famous novelist Salman Rushdie, is that within Islam itself there has arisen a new form of totalitarianism, resembling either Nazism or Fascism. Rushdie, along with several other writers and intellectuals, recently signed a manifesto against Islamism that stated, in part: “After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism…. Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations.” This view admits that a “totalitarian” issue exists within Islam, but denies that it comes from anything in Islam itself, either directly or in logic. Thus, those Muslims who claim that what they do is to carry out the will of Allah are in effect heretics, however much they, in turn, claim Rushdie has betrayed Allah in his novels and thus deserves the death that they decree for him.
David Warren, in the Sunday Spectator, downplayed the notion that what we are witnessing is a new and improved resurgence of a strong Islam. Islam by every military and economic standard is incapable of any significant military threat. Its rate of real economic growth in all its lands is near the bottom. Even the bombs and explosives used by terrorists are invented and usually manufactured by the West. As a result, Islam is in a state of lethargy. Largely because of its own theories and vices, it cannot definitively act even against weak opponents like those coming from Islamic countries. This view, of course, corresponds with the view of many of Islam’s most ardent proponents of violence. They see that the corrupt West is undermining even Muslim values and hence must be destroyed. Obviously, this theme of moral corruption in the West has many Christian proponents as well, and contains a good deal of truth.
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir takes yet another view. He maintains that the current problem in the Middle East is not religious but political in nature. It goes back to the very foundations of Israel as an independent state after World War II. The Western powers at that time imposed on the Middle East a Jewish state as a kind of conscience payment for their failure to protect the Jews from Hitler. Thus, one injustice was replaced with another. The Islamic world, generally speaking, did not itself have anything to do with Hitler. So the political solution proposed for a Jewish homeland was simultaneously an injustice to Arab peoples already living in that area.
Samir does not deny the legal existence of Israel, which is fully recognized; that situation cannot be changed. What he argues, rather too easily, is that “no war ever accomplishes anything,” especially the recent ones. (“Does that include World War II?” one wonders.) One might recall, in fact, that the reason why most existing Muslin states control the areas over which they rule was the result of wars that can only be described as “successful” in terms of permanent control. Many of these conquered lands in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia were once Christian. In the case of Spain, its “re-conquest” of prior Muslim invasions of the peninsula seems permanent (or at least did), aside from Spain’s current decline in birth rate and influx of Muslim immigrants. The fact is, were it not for two battles, Tours and Vienna, against invading Muslim forces, all of Europe might well have Muslim long ago.
In any case, Samir proposes — and it is a good proposal as far as it goes — the establishment of a Middle Eastern Union with International Peace Keeping Forces together with a basic agreement about common diplomatic principles. He does not concern himself with the earlier history of Islam but begins with the post-World War II situation. He admits it is a kind of “utopian” solution, but thinks that it is at least worth trying. The only problem I would have with this proposal is that it does not seem to take into account the corresponding “utopian” motivations of the group within Islam that we now designate as “terrorists,” the very ones who think that what they are doing is carrying out the mission given to Islam by Allah.
Still another opinion is that the so-called “terrorists” within Islam are a minority. They generally are inspired not by Koranic sources but by Western philosophy, especially Fascist and Nazi sources. No doubt, again, there is some truth to this. The historic Muslim problem has been its own failure to modernize. The search for scapegoats to explain this failure is part of the drama of modern Islam. One might argue that the problem lies within Muslim thought, but as this approach is unacceptable for many, there must be an effort to use these violent means in the manner of their most successful examples in the last century. This is the so-called “Islamo-fascist” interpretation in all its varieties.
Now all of these views have points that are not to be ignored. Still, even if most aggressive proponents of recent turmoil admittedly did see the moral weakness of the West to be a major opportunity and many leaders did study in the West, the major explanation is still religious. No doubt, our own internal philosophies, liberalism, multi-culturalism, and ecumenism militate against elevating “religion” to such a prominent place wherein it must be dealt with on its own terms. On this premise that the religious explanation is closed, we must look for other reasons. Once we seek to explain our problems in non-religious terms, we no longer examine the validity of the religious claim on which Islam rests — on its original “inspiration,” on the texts and doctrine that is found therein.
Many, no doubt, will be amused if not scandalized by a proposal that suggests that the first principle of practical politics is to take theological positions seriously by examining the validity of what specifically they maintain. However, I think, by the mere logic of exclusion — the other explanations do not fully explain — it is really the most sensible approach to the long-range problem that faces us from this source. It is also, paradoxically, the most “ecumenical” view, the one that is willing to take seriously the theological view of those who think that the mission of Islam is to spread the law and worship of Allah to every people. It is not the “moderate” Muslims that we must take seriously, but the radical ones.
A central question arises, then, namely, are there intellectual “tools” available to perform this task? In view of the rather obvious refusal of Islamic sources to have its own doctrine subject to public debate or analysis, one might argue that we should not enter into this sort of discussion. It just creates more turmoil. It is best to stick to those more practical things that we have in common, certain aspects of family values, common economic problems, the price of oil, and so forth.
On the other hand, Islam specifically denies the two basic truths of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, both of which are considered to be in Muslim terms blasphemous. Christians are seen, at best, as polytheists. Except in very restricted instances, Mass or the Bible or any effort to explain Christianity (or other faiths) is not permitted in any existing Muslim state. The civil disabilities that the few Christians in these lands experience are objectively enormous. The literature on how followers of other religions are made second-class citizens within Islamic states is, by any objective standard, conclusive. But these restrictions are the logical consequences of theological positions. It does no good to complain about them unless we are willing at some point to challenge their logical veracity. Indeed, one of the reasons given for not pressing these issues is that doing so would just make it worse for remaining Christians, even costing their lives.
I do not consider this endeavor to come to terms with what Islam is to be either something hostile to Islam or its polity. Indeed, I think the reluctance to come to terms with it over the centuries is one of the causes of the current problems. We really do not have, from the Christian side, any authoritative statement on the question, “What is Islam?” It is not enough to speak of “respecting” other religions without going into what it is they believe and how they practice what they believe. Rather, it is a question of asking, in the most careful and reasonable manner, about the “truth” of what they maintain about themselves. No matter how destructive they are to us, the so-called “terrorists” — who claim that they do have a religious motive for their deeds — are forcing Christians themselves (and everyone else) to focus on this theoretic core of the problem
Perhaps the most visible issue that we associate with the resurgence of Islam is, ironically, the suicide bomber. No other instrument, I think, could be, from the Muslim terrorist side, more effective than this in giving attention to the seriousness, in their minds, of their cause. We tend to think that a suicide bomber is about as deviant from any understanding of the good as it is possible to get. To arrive at this conclusion, we have to assume there is such a thing (beside Islamic revelation) common to all, Muslim and every one else, a natural law, or whatever it may be called.
But if natural law itself is not possible in the context of a view of Allah that makes him the arbitrary cause of all activities in the world, with no internal order either to himself or the world, we can have no “natural law.” If it is an “insult” to Allah to say that he is not the direct cause of all things, we cannot propose as an alternative the natural law that proposes stable secondary causes that the Muslim will also recognize. The suicide bomber, be it noted, is not considered to be violating any “law.” Rather he is following a law. The suicide bomber does not see himself violating any such law. In fact, he sees himself obeying the “law” or “will” of Allah.
We do have instances of Western religious leaders sympathizing with suicide bombers on the grounds that their pain is so great they must lash out. But the “oppression” is usually itself defined in terms of Western political philosophy that no suicide bomber himself would ever follow. Moreover, it seems strange that we do not have the moral passion about this phenomenon that we once heard expressed against “nuclear weapons,” even now that countries like Iran claim to have a right to them and may in fact have developed them, or is currently developing them.
Yet, I would maintain that it is precisely the matter of the “suicide bomber” that brings us closest to the religious issue that we must deal with. In terms of the Muslim theology professed by their practitioners, the suicide bombers are in heaven. What they do is wholly justified in religious terms. We cannot simply write this reasoning off as “invincible ignorance.” The suicide bomber claims that it is indeed legitimate both to kill oneself and to kill innocent civilians in the pursuit of the cause of getting rid of Islam’s greatest enemies and eventually establishing the rule of Allah on earth. They are, in their own minds, doing Allah’s work.
Again, here I am arguing sympathetically with what the suicide bombers and their promoters think they are doing. I may think, as I do, it horrendous that any mind or religion could come to this view, but some minds and religion have come to this view. If we insist on writing them off as mere fanatics, madmen, or hypocrites, well and good. But in so doing, we miss the import of what is going on. We are no longer capable of dealing with the root causes of the problem. Again, the root causes are theological. Basically, the question is whether or not Islam is true objectively in its explanation of itself. If so, why so? If not, why not? I think we must locate someplace in the culture to begin to treat of this issue in a much more fundamental manner. Dialogue may be well and good, but it is not the first requirement.
We must be much more aware than we are that Islam denies the validity of the basic truths of what is specifically Christian. We must coldly look at the basis of this claim. Islamic thought explains the Christ phenomenon in such a way that He was not and could not be divine. At most, He was a holy man. To accept this view means that we Christians are required to blaspheme. Moreover, any claim that He was anything more will be considered an insult to Allah. Thus the key issue is: what exactly is Allah and what is the objective status of this “revelation” that Mohammed is said to have received? Is it or is it not in any way credible? When we “respect” other religions, do we imply that the claim for a later revelation that corrected the last Christian revelation is possible or true? And if we deny that it is, on what grounds? What, in other words, is our argument about these claims as such stated as accurately as possible?
Barry Cooper, in “History and the Holy Koran,” the Appendix to his New Political Religions (University of Missouri Press, 2004.) has given a survey of those Western scholars, often German, who have gone carefully through the difficult task of tracing the sources of Koranic texts, their consistency, age, language, integrity. It is work that often involves much personal danger to such scholars unless they come up with positions that see no problem. Publication of such criticism is often again considered, like Christian dogma itself, to be blasphemous. Nonetheless, this research and critique, or lack of it, is where the real problem of the war lies. Is it true that Muslim revelation and its proposals are true? If so, the effort to make the world Muslim by such means is justified. Those who think it is true, however many or few, constitute the real origin of contemporary politics in this area.
While I might think that the “terrorists” have, as they claim, the better part of the argument from within Islamic theology on their own terms, it is up to other Muslim thinkers to prove, again on their own terms, that it does not. But what I think is more fundamental, something that is not really being addressed in any systematic fashion (for a variety of reasons, mostly arising out of our own culture, not Islam) is the lack of a serious critique of Islam as such. We need an examination that is objective, sympathetic, and accurate, but one that does not avoid the fact that not a few Muslim thinkers and their political followers think that what they are doing, including acts of terrorism, is nothing less than the will of Allah. It is because we are not willing to face the implications of this more basic issue that we are having so much trouble in the political order. We do not want to name the problem as it is.
Again, what I suggest is an opinion. We should not forget what an opinion is. But it is an opinion, at least in my own mind, which respects Islam for what it claims it is: a religion destined to subject all to the will of Allah. That is why I think its claim, even when principally promoted by what we call “terrorists,” needs much more serious intellectual attention than it is receiving. This religious position, accurately spelled out, is, I think, closer than the other explanations to the real cause of that horrific event and day that we know as “9/11.”
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