In the news we have been bombarded by generalizations about the peacefulness or militancy of Islam or by the equating of fundamentalists (Islamists) and militants. All fail to grasp the diversity within Islam and its roots. The Qur’an is comprised of recitations by Muhammad, believed to come from God, to meet the needs that arose on specific occasions. Some were peaceful; others were militant. Therefore either position can be argued for by selecting specific verses of illustrations from history.

The peaceful interpretation held by a majority of Muslims is based on verses like 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion”) and 5:82 (“The nearest in affection to the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians.‘“). The dhimmi classification, which applied to Jews and Christians in particular, gave them the right to practice their faith as long as they were loyal citizens and performed their obligations.  In the Middle Ages Muslim governments were commonly more tolerant of Jews and Christians than their Christian governments were of Jews and Muslims.

The militants, however, base their position on qur’anic verses like 2:216 (“Fighting is prescribed for you…”); 2:190-192 (” Fight in the cause of God those who fight you and slay them…for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter….Fight them until there is no more persecution and oppression and there prevails justice and faith in God.“); 9:5 (“Fight and slay the infidels.”), and 49:15 (“The true believers are those who…strive with…their lives for the cause of God.“). Militants like Bin Laden use the words I have highlighted in their rationale: Fighting and slaying is prescribed by God. Americans cause oppression, injustice, are infidels (although the Qur’an is referring to polytheists); so Muslims must strive with their lives for the cause of God.

According to the canonical traditions, Muhammad taught that a martyr would have his sins forgiven, be shown his abode in Paradise, avoid purgatory, and receive the crown of honor (collection by Tirmidhi).  The “suicide bombers” thus see themselves as performing a sacred obligation for God and his community and acquiring honor and an eternal reward. Furthermore, their experiences have led them to believe that they do not have diplomatic or military power to overcome God’s enemies by any other means.

Another question that arises is how the rigid faith and practice of the  Taliban fits into Islam. The Taliban have their historic roots in  Hanbalism, the most fundamentalist of the four orthodox or orthoprax schools of Islam. By “fundamentalist” I mean that they go back to the fundamentals of their faith - the Qur’an and practice (Sunna) of Muhammad and the earliest Muslims - and reject later adaptations. They hold that their understanding of the society of the earliest Muslims is the model for society even today, and it applies to all areas of life.  Since there are plenty of peaceful and militant examples in Islam, these fundamentalists can be peaceful or militant. The Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia is a modern example of this Islamism - which was militant when the families of Ibn Saud and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab were conquering most of Arabia and destroying popular saint veneration from the 18th century to the 20th century. Today, however, its expression in the Saudi government is largely peaceful. 

From these same roots have grown the current Islamist groups staring with the Muslim Brethren in the Arab World, some of whose leaders I met with secretly in the 1960’s when they were outlawed, and I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the theology of their founder. They were pious and idealistic, but there goal was so important to them that they would commit terrorism if other means were blocked. One member greatly influenced Bin Laden in his student days in Saudi Arabia while others taught in the schools and mosques of southwestern Arabia which produced a number of the plane hijackers on September 11.

The Taliban are another such group. These movements normally arise from the interaction of a feeling of trauma, local conditions, and a millennial ideology. The trauma and local conditions included the fighting between the seven major mujahideen groups (with their rival ethnicities and leaders), after they had driven the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The original Taliban (literally, “students”) were largely orphans who had lost their fathers in the previous 15 years of fighting and were raised in the religious schools (madrasas) around Peshawar where they learned little beyond the Qur’an and the ideology that all would be well if they got rid of external enemies and initiated a social system based on that of the early Muslim community. After initial success against mujahideen militias, they were seen as a source of law and order - hence got Pakistani support and recruits from  Pushtuns (also called Pakhtuns and Pathans) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But power corrupted many of and many Afghans came to resent their strict laws and punishments and the increasing number and influence of outsiders called “Arab Afghans” that they harbored.

Reflections on the Anger Driving Terrorism

Terrorism is a response to a build-up of grievances real or imagined.  Therefore, one cannot drive out terrorism without dealing with the  grievances that lead to it. The most obvious of these is the  Israel-Palestine conflict because of the frequent news coverage of  rock-throwing Palestinian youths, and some suicide bombs, against vastly superior Israeli firepower with far greater numbers of Palestinians killed. Arabs and Muslims point to broken promises from the British promise at the beginning of World War I to support Arab independence in exchange for the support in the War effort against their Ottoman Turkish masters, to President Roosevelt’s promise in World War II to the Saudi king not to do anything about Palestine without consulting with the Arabs. They note that instead President Truman and many U.S. government officials twisted arms in the United Nations to grant the Jews over half of Palestine though they were only 1/3rd of the population and owned only 12% of the land. In subsequent  fighting the Israelis gained control of all of it and have continued,  Muslims point out, to build settlements in the occupied West Bank despite U.N. resolutions to return the lands conquered in 1967.

I know something of Jewish desperation after the Holocaust having worked on a rusty tramp steamer out of Haifa that had previously smuggled Jews to Palestine following World War II, but I have also seen the Palestinian refugee camps filled with people whose families had owned the land for centuries. Now they watch its occupiers on television defending it and killing other Palestinians with missiles and F-16s made in the U.S. and purchased with \$3 billion in American military aid each year. Bin Laden, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei ask where were the Americans when they wanted justice? And Arabs and Muslims around the world agree - especially since Jerusalem is the third holiest Muslim site.

Another obvious grievance is the continued sanctions against, and occasional bombings of, Iraq ten years after the Gulf War. The reasons are obvious, but pictures and reports of civilian casualties or U.N. reports of the thousands of children dying from malnutrition and disease - the major victims - continue to inflame passions. For many Arabs Saddam Hussein was another Nasser uniting the Arab World, to many Muslims another Saladin fighting the most recent Crusade, and to many Third World people another Robin Hood stealing fro the corrupt rich to share with the poor. Sanctions against Syria, Libya, Iran, and Sudan - plus bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan without convincing proof of its military use - have fanned the flames of hatred.

A third grievance is the stage on which all the others play - the Muslims sense of being humiliated and in danger. For over a millennium the Islamic empires were the superpowers, and the Sunni Islam of the majority did not develop a theology of suffering, for God seemed obviously to be on their side. Then Western colonial powers divided the Muslim World between them. Today Muslims have not only been humiliated by the Jews in Palestine, but by the Christian Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, by the atheistic or Christian Russians in Chechnya, and sometimes by the Hindus in Kashmir. After the bomb blasts that killed 24 Americans in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, Bin Laden is quoted as saying, “They have raised the nation’s head high and washed away a great part of the shame that has enveloped us.”

The ascending of the West is seen, fourthly, as affecting Muslims in a  number of ways. It has corroded morality with the flow of alcoholism,  drugs, materialism, sexual immorality, and arrogance through movies,  television, and two-way travels. Modernist Muslim states have tended to continue the adoption of Western law codes rather than what is believed to be the divinely ordained Islamic laws. Economically the world is seen as controlled by Western global economic ideas based, for example, on charging interest which is not allowed by Islam. To sum up, Islamists are angered by the fact that they believe they have the superior culture but the West, especially Americans, have the superior power.

Lastly, with their superior power Americans have espoused democracy but  backed Muslim regimes that Islamists feel have tried to crush their own  aspirations in, for example, Iran under the Shah, Kuwait, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. For many years Americans have built the Saudi military bases and overseen the training and equipping of both their military and national guard. A significant number of the alleged hijackers in the September 11 tragedies came from the southwestern region of Saudi Arabia where all of us who lived there had daily reminders of the American presence with the planes flying out of the local air bases.  Osama bin Laden directed his sights on Americans after the Saudi government declined his offer to use Muslim veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets, for the Gulf War.

Instead they brought thousands of “infidel” Americans on the holy soil of Islam’s prophet, and a significant number stayed after the conflict.  In 1998 he protested: “For more than seven years the U.S. has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic people.”

Reflections on the Governmental and Christian Responses

Since much of the anger that has led to terrorism has resulted from years of certain people feeling that the foreign policy of the United States and others with power has been unjust, the first area that must be addressed is foreign policy. Although Americans cannot police the world, there are issues like the Palestine conflict where we can help the opposing parties work out solutions, and we must strive for a maximum of justice rather than just do what is politically expedient at home. Since one person’s “terrorist” is another person’s “freedom fighter” and many governments in the coalition against terrorism expect support for suppressing their own opposition groups, such action will require a delicate hand - be it in Palestine/Israel, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, or Kurdish areas of Turkey. Also the world community needs to build on the opportunities the new coalition brings for reproachments between nations.

Next, relief and development in Afghanistan cannot stop at the end of the military action, as much of it did after the expulsion of the Soviets in 1989. Twenty-two years of fighting, three years of famine and five years of Taliban rule in Kabul and much of the country have made the situation desperate. There are millions of landmines and hundreds of men and children on the streets of Afghanistan and Peshawar minus arms or legs. Much of Kabul is in ruins. And there is little food.

Third, as Americans call for revenge we need to be aware of the limitations of military action alone. To kill a “terrorist” makes him a “martyr” that inspires new “terrorists” as the Israel-Palestine conflict has shown. Furthermore a broader action, particularly if it kills civilians, just increases the militants as the same conflict shows. Coordinated international pressure on a country harboring terrorists until they give them up proved effective with Pan AM fight 103 and the Libyans - although less effective with Iraq.

Fourth, although the Afghans were not able to hold together a united  government on their own in the early 1990s, American and other foreign  powers need to keep as low a profile as possible in any help they give to establish a new government because the one thing that history has shown to unite the Afghans is a foreign power on their soil.

Christians need first to trust God to bring some good out of the evil of  current events according to Romans 8:28: “In everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.”  We have already seen how the tragedies of September 11 have turned the “me now” generation in America to God and to each other. Also, the arrest of Christian relief and development workers “for preaching Christianity” has made the world, including the Muslim World, learn of the involvement of Christians in meeting the human needs of Muslims.  The Taliban’s subsequent expulsion of all Christian aid organizations from Afghanistan got their personnel out of harms way and focused worldwide prayer for the region.

The church needs next to prepare for the increased human need that there  will be among Afghans after the military action takes place. The Christian organizations are already international in personnel. They may, however, need even more Europeans, Asians, and Africans if anti-Americanism develops in Afghanistan outside the Taliban, which has not been the case thus far. Or more single persons or couples without children at home may be needed if conditions get more dangerous.

Christians need also to become more equipped to help moderate Muslims reason with extremists. In Afghanistan when my wife and I pastored the church in Kabul, two people were arrested for giving out four gospels of Luke. We were able to give a Muslim lawyer a defense based totally on the Qur’an, and all the religious charges were then removed.  Subsequently, when we pastored the expatriate church in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and got too noticeable, the government prohibited us from meeting in one facility. We were able to share with Saudi officials documentation to show that Muhammad allowed churches as long as the Christians remained loyal. Recently with workers in Afghanistan, we have been able to share with personnel involved arguments from the earliest Muslim sources in support of religious freedom. We can thus help moderate Muslim friends in this way because ultimately it is  moderate Muslims who can best deal with extremism in their midst.

Finally, we can look forward to a time of increased receptivity to the  gospel among Muslims. The attempt of the Cultural Revolution in China to get rid of Christian and foreign influence led to considerable church growth. Likewise research at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission has shown that wherever Muslims have tried to enforce Sharia law, as the Taliban have done, and there are friendly Christians in the region, there is greater receptivity to Christian faith.