September 23, 2001

Faith and the Secular State



In the days since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the nation has been numb from grief and anger, unable to comprehend the motives for the attacks, and unsure what to do next. President Bush has declared war on terrorism, and he has said that the prime suspects are radical Islamic groups connected to the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda organization.

There are many questions to be investigated, but one in particular demands immediate attention: Why America?

Osama bin Laden himself has gone some way toward answering this question, most recently in a 1998 interview with ABC's John Miller: he delivered a rambling diatribe against the American military presence in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war. Mr. bin Laden called the United States an illegitimate, infidel presence, trespassing on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia. But it's hard to see why support for a Muslim Saudi Arabia and the defense of a Muslim Kuwait should affront Mr. bin Laden's Islamic sensibilities.

Around the world, United States foreign policy belies the claim that America is an enemy of Islam. In Kosovo, the United States led an intervention to aid ethnic Albanians, who are predominantly Muslim. While Russia waged a brutal military campaign in Muslim Chechnya with surprisingly little reaction from Mr. bin Laden's foot soldiers, President Clinton publicly confronted President Yeltsin about Russia's human rights violations. America has been the leading humanitarian donor to Afghanistan.

It's true that the United States has supported the Israeli government, but it has also supported Muslim regimes in Egypt and Turkey and in Pakistan, a neighbor and close ally of Afghanistan's Taliban government. Surely all this is evidence that America has not been on an anti-Islamic crusade. On the contrary, America has proved hospitable to an estimated 5.8 million Muslims who claim this country as their own.

The Muslim fundamentalist movement began in 1979 with the Iranian revolution that brought down Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranian Islamists took American hostages, calling America the Great Satan or Jahiliyah the New Barbarity. Fundamentalists moved quickly to make good on the ayatollah's call for jihad against Israel and the West, and a series of attacks followed. In 1981, President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. Attacks on American and French troops and the United States Embassy in Beirut followed in 1983, killing more than 300 people. Then came the ayatollah's fatwa pronouncing a sentence of death on Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," which set off violent outbreaks throughout the Muslim world and in the West. In 1993 a blind Egyptian cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman, was implicated in a World Trade Center attack that now seems mercifully small-scale. He was subsequently arrested, but his continued imprisonment in the United States only fueled fundamentalist fury abroad.

All of this was enough to inspire The Economist to publish, in August, 1994, a detailed investigative story entitled "The Fundamental Fear: Islam and the West." It argued that there was a distinct possibility of "a general war between Islam and the West."

If that prediction has not yet been borne out, there has nevertheless been an alarming string of terrorist acts against the United States. Osama bin Laden is believed to have masterminded the 1998 terrorist attacks on the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and he is accused of having been involved in the aborted millennium plot that targeted Los Angeles airport and in last year's seaborne attack on the American destroyer Cole, anchored in Yemeni waters.

It is becoming clear that support for these attacks goes beyond a handful of fundamentalists: Muslim leaders from Mombasa to Malaysia, from Cape Town to Olympia, Wash., praise Osama bin Laden as a hero. Officials in Pakistan are currently struggling to appease the United States without inflaming their own citizens. All these incidents, combined with the horrific events of Sept. 11, demand explanation.

Oddly enough, what most inflames anti-American passion among fundamentalist Muslims may be the American government's lack of religious zeal. By separating church and state, the West and America in particular has effectively privatized belief, making religion a matter of individual faith. This is an affront to the certainty of fundamentalist Muslims, who are confident that they possess the infallible truth. For them, this truth is not a private revelation but a public imperative, and states, like people, are either Muslim or infidel. America's government is not anti- Muslim, but it is among the most secular. For fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden, that amounts to more or less the same thing.

This religious certainty is at odds with the very idea of the nation-state, as has been apparent from the earliest days of the modern Muslim fundamentalist movement. When he met with students from Saudi Arabia in November 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini explained that the demands of Islam went beyond and often against the demands of nationalism. He declared that Islam appealed to all mankind, not only to Iranians, and not only to Muslims. And he argued that secular states drained Islam of its vitality. Western governments "have completely separated [Islam] from politics," he said. "They have cut off its head and [given] the rest to us."

In seeking to reunite Islam with politics, Muslim fundamentalists have embraced globalization as zealously as their capitalist counterparts have, ignoring state boundaries to create a multinational movement. The United States government is discovering this anew as it tracks Osama bin Laden's network.

Many Muslims, especially those living in the West, have sought to distance themselves from fundamentalist ideology. By insisting that fundamentalists have misinterpreted the Koran, they seek to downplay the widespread support for fundamentalism in the Muslim world. But the challenge facing Muslim leaders goes beyond Koranic interpretation. In the aftermath of this month's attack, and in the face of increasing antagonism, both the West and the Muslim world need to make compromises.

Muslim leaders need to embark on programs of democratic renewal with the support of the West, if necessary. The West needs to overcome its insistence that the nation-state must be secular to be legitimate. The West should recognize that specific cultural values and political policy may intersect without threatening civil liberties, and that religion can play an important role in public life. That would enable Muslims to engage with the West without endorsing secularism. Such a compromise would move us away from the current perception of Western imposition and restore real balance in the relationship between Western and Muslim states. Only then could we acquire a sustainable interest in our common security.

Lamin Sanneh is a professor of history and religion at Yale University.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company