Christian-Muslim Relations after the Terrorist Attacks

  Thomas Michel, S.J.



After the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and Washington, is there any hope for Christian-Muslim dialogue and cooperation? What directions might discussions between the two groups of believers take in the difficult period ahead?        
Since 11 September, I find myself in contact with Muslims more intensively than before. Through personal encounters, e-mail messages, published statements, working together on peace petitions and jointly organizing study sessions on the current situation, I have had occasion to hear many Muslims express their views on the attacks and their aftermath. Diverse points of view have been aired, but several themes keep recurring which, in my opinion, are worth taking into consideration.

1. Muslim condemnation of the terrorist attacks has been virtually universal. Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians are clearly a violation of the teaching of Islam, and Muslims have cited many Qur’anic verses to establish this judgment. The horror and outrage felt by people around the world at the destructive assaults, and the outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their bereaved survivors, are deeply and fully shared by Muslims. Many Muslims have expressed their profound shame that the attacks were carried out by Muslims and, worse, in the name of Islam. More than one Muslim commentator has angrily accused the terrorists of having “hijacked” the Islamic religion and used it for their own aims.

Muslim leaders have not hesitated to speak out against the attacks in unity with Christians. In the United States and Europe, Muslims and Christians have issued joint statements to condemn the attacks, express commiseration with the victims, engage in prayer vigils, donate blood for the injured, and caution against a mentality of revenge and reprisal.

The condemnations of the attacks by Muslims - scholars, religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary believers - of every nation are so widespread, spontaneous, and consistent as to form a consensus. According to a saying of Muhammad that “my community will never agree on an error,” the consensus of the community (ijma’) is one of the determining principles of Islamic faith and practice. Applying this principle to the ongoing Algerian civil war, a Muslim scholar has suggested that the universal denunciation by Muslims of the killing of innocent non-combatants amounts to an authoritative or community-wide consensus, and such consensus seems even more evident in Muslim reactions to the recent attacks.

2. In this light, the bellicose statements of some Western politicians and journalists calling for a “crusade” against Islam seem irresponsible and misplaced. It is not a war of “Islam against the West,” but the struggle of peace-loving people of all religions to prevail against a way of thinking that justifies violence against innocent persons as an instrument to further or avenge one’s cause. Governments are no more justified in attacking and taking innocent lives than are terrorist cells.
For Christians, the concept of crusade is highly problematic and difficult to justify from the New Testament. Even the notion of a “just war,” proposing the preconditions of last resort, proportionality, self-defense and the immunity of non-combatants, is difficult to justify in the age of modern military technology. In any modern war, with its air strikes, long-range rockets, economic sanctions and masses of refugees, those who suffer most are neither government leaders nor terrorists, but ordinary people who are simply trying to live, raise their families, carry on their work, and pursue hopes for the future. In this context, some Catholic moral theologians are questioning the traditional bases for the just war theory and advocate instead the Biblical categories of the sanctity of life and option for the poor as more appropriate sources of guidance for passing judgment on military actions.

In the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington, Muslims do not advocate giving the terrorists a free pass, but insist that the perpetrators of this crime be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice and brought to justice within the structures of international law devised for this purpose. As a response to the deaths of those killed in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to make thousands of new victims is a measure that neither Christians nor Muslims can condone.

3. Christians, Muslims and others concerned about the sanctity of human life must reflect together on terrorism as a violent and destructive reality of modern life. What is terrorism and where does it come from? Without taking a hard look at its nature and origins, nations cannot hope to diminish terrorist violence. Acts of terrorism arise from a mentality that perceives one’s group as threatened and wronged by a dominant enemy power. Feeling angry and yet powerless to achieve their socio-political goals in legal, peaceful ways, terrorists strike at the most vulnerable target, that is, innocent civilians.

There is nothing specifically Islamic in this. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have expressed their mutual grievances by detonating car bombs in shopping malls, train stations and busy streets in order to cause as much damage as possible. The Singhalese/Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka has seen suicide bombers and other acts of violence directed against civilians and non-combatants. In Spain, ETA has carried out bombings, assassinations and kidnappings to further the cause of Basque separatism.
Many Muslims regard the U.S.A. with anger for using its unchallenged economic, military, and diplomatic power to oppress and terrorize Muslim peoples. If many Americans today spontaneously call for revenge and reprisals for the WTC attacks, one must remember that only ten years ago CNN broadcast daily American bombing raids, more powerful than any carried out in World War II, on Baghdad, Basra and other Iraqi cities, blasting countless innocent civilians, and throughout the Muslim world millions watched in horror.

The decade-long sanctions against Iraq have caused immense suffering among the Iraqi people who continue to perish through malnutrition and the unavailability of medicine and medical treatment. Authorized by the United Nations but really insisted upon only by the United States with the support of Britain, the sanctions keep feeding Muslim feelings of anger and resentment against the American government, whose stubborn policy has transformed the Gulf War bombing of Iraq from an incident that happened in the past into an open wound that continues to fester and appears to many Muslims as an ongoing injustice. The more extreme and unstable among these, vowing reprisal and punishment, have joined organizations like Al-Qa’ida. If the United States government is serious about fighting terrorism, it could take a great step forward in resolving the widespread anger by putting an end to the sanctions against Iraq.

Muslims identify strongly with the sufferings undergone by Palestinians over the past half-century and resent the unreserved support given by the U.S.A. to the Israeli government. The behavior of the state of Israel, with the massive support of the American government, is clearly a factor in the prevailing international tension. The recent announcement of President Bush that the United States will recognize a Palestinian state appears to be a step in the right direction in moving the United States toward a more balanced stance on the ongoing conflict.

4. A terrorist mentality demonizes the enemy by picturing him as innately evil, without any redeeming human qualities, thus making it easy to justify any actions taken against him. If some Muslims have demonized the U.S.A. as the Great Satan who deserves whatever harm can be done, it must be acknowledged that since 11 September some politicians appear to be demonizing Islam, portraying Muslims as innately militant, xenophobic, and a threat to modern civilization, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Muslims reject and denounce violence against innocent parties. This kind of demonizing mentality, which justifies both terrorist actions and “a war of civilizations” against entire peoples, must in either case be strongly opposed by Christians and Muslims.

If the question of terrorism is to be seriously faced, the factors that lead to terrorism must be studied together by Muslims and Christians. Both must acknowledge that truth and justice do not rest solely with any one party, and that a change in mentality is required in all if any long-term headway is to be made against terrorism. Name-calling, stereotyping, and polarization can only be overcome through patient efforts at educating one another in their perceptions of the way in which the world is being run. Air attacks and invasions against one or more nations, even if they result in the capture of an acknowledged terrorist like Osama bin Laden, can do no more than produce short-term results, if the deeper questions of justice are not addressed.

5. Who controls the media, shapes public opinion. The American mass media, through interviews with family members of victims, survivors, eyewitnesses, firefighters and police officers, has performed a good service by “personalizing” the tragedy. The casualties do not remain simply a body count, but become real people whose lives were shattered or ended by this horrific event. In this way, worldwide public opinion has been able to see the terrorist attacks as offences against real people, rather than simply political acts. Some observers ask, however, why the even greater numbers of innocent victims among Palestinians, Bosnians, and Chechnians have not been similarly personalized, why their stories are not recounted or remembered, and why they are usually referred to in the international media as anonymous “casualties.”

Evidence of the success of the campaign of the U.S. media to personalize the tragedy is not hard to find. In the first month after the terrorist attacks, over U.S. $850 million has been collected for the survivors and families of the victims, to the extent that the local governments of New York and Washington will have to create new agencies to distribute the funds. It may be noted that a disproportionate amount of the donations come from Muslims in the U.S.A. and abroad who are trying to make up, however inadequately, for the wrong done by their co-religionists.

The effectiveness of personalizing the WTC tragedy can be measured by recalling the far greater tragedy, in terms of loss of life and permanent injuries, of the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, when 42 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the poorly-safeguarded Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing plant into a sleeping, impoverished community. The tragedy resulted in the deaths of more than 16,000 persons and in the personal injury of another 200,000. In 1989, Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for U.S. $470 million, and Bhopal survivors or their families have received a mere U.S. $3,300 for loss of life and $800 for permanent disability.


One of the most dramatic results of the recent attacks is the destruction of the myth of modern invulnerability. Attacks on the world’s richest, most powerful nation by a shadowy group of highly focused individuals have raised profound questions, not only for Americans but for people of many religions, cultures, and nationalities. “Life will never be the same again,” is a response to the tragedy which has quickly become a cliché. The terrorists chose their targets carefully: the World Trade Center as the symbol of America’s economic power, and the Pentagon, headquarters of its military might. If such seemingly unassailable symbols of modern technology and global economy prove vulnerable to a small number of fanatics, people around the world are asking themselves to what extent the highly-touted advances in science, medicine, agriculture and communications are capable of guaranteeing a peaceful life and harmonious societies.

Thus, the terrorist attacks also pose existential questions to modern people, questions on which the religions have traditionally offered guidance. Here too, Christians and Muslims, and Jews must be in dialogue if any genuine response is to be given to the universal disquiet aroused by the events of 11 September.

In this spirit, Pope John Paul II has proposed as the theme for the 2002 World Day of Migrants and Refugees that of “Migration and interreligious dialogue.” On 18 October 2001, he stated:
“The vast and intense intertwining of migratory phenomena which characterizes our times multiplies the opportunities for interreligious dialogue...If, in the world of human mobility, everyone would be animated by this spirit, almost as in a forge, there will arise providential possibilities of a fruitful dialogue wherein the centrality of the person will never be denied. This is the only way to nourish the hope “for warding off the dread specter of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history” and which have often forced many people to abandon their own countries. It is urgent to work so that the name of the one and only God may become, more and more, what it is, “a name of peace and a summons to peace” (Novo millennio ineunte, 55).    



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