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Article No. 105

Tackling terrorism

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Over the last decade we in Western countries have all started to adjust our lives to recognise the existence and danger of the terrorist. That is not to say that the threat was unknown previously. There is a long history of evil people causing death and destruction by a spectacular action of aggression. One only has to go back to the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes to see that this is not an invention of the twentieth century!

It seems to normal people that those engaged in this sort of activity are abnormal. Often it is difficult to see what is being achieved by their actions. In the case of the I.R.A. the aim of the programme was fairly obvious: to clear the British out of all of Ireland. But why did they think that bombs would help achieve that purpose? Because they were trying to affect ordinary people - to build up such a pressure from the ordinary voter - the man in the street - that politicians would be motivated to move the political process along. So in their case the reason for the murderous action was in part explainable. That did not of course persuade people that their action was effective - most of us thought that the bombing was counter productive - would only make the British more determined not to be pushed out of Northern Ireland. So the intention of the action and the result of the action did not always match.

Nevertheless it is interesting to assess the attitude of the politicians forty years ago and their attitude today - the enormous difference must in some small part be put down to the pressure produced by the actions of the I R A on our mainland. They changed the climate of opinion.

In the case of the Basque separatist movement (ETA) the objective can be seen quite clearly: they want to have their independence. Despite having won considerable concessions (their own parliament, their own taxes etc) they still fight on for complete independence. The objectives are clear and the actions taken are clear - violent assaults on targeted politicians and others and on the general public. The result as yet is inconclusive. Has their action over the past thirty years changed the situation? I suggest that the politicians have been affected in some degree to look more urgently for a solution to the problem to avoid future bombings.

What was Guy Fawkes trying to do in 1605? Was it not to overthrow the King and the government which in his opinion oppressed the Catholics in Britain? Did he have a religious aim - to restore the Catholic Faith to Britain? He failed in that too!

Take the Red Brigade in Italy which, since 1972, has consistently used violence to try to achieve their aims. After many arrests their activity has died down.

In all of these cases we see a minority which thinks that it has a just cause and wishes to achieve change. Their action may achieve some change, but often it is only achieved slowly and often with less effect than they hoped.

So now we come to the present situation of terrorism in the world, with al Qaeda. What is different about this situation? I suggest there are three ways in which the present situation differs from the classic rebel group.

The first is that their philosophy, from which their action stems, is world wide. Instead of opposing just one government they are more concerned with the religious/political situation in all Muslim countries. They are concerned with the situation right across the Middle East and in Asia.

The second difference is that the object of their discontent is larger and more diffuse. Al-Quada has declared, for example, that it wants the Western Powers out of Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition they want the resolution of the Arab/Jew conflict in Palestine, which they see as fuelled by American support for Israel.

The third difference between the present terrorists and past terrorists is that now their terrorist actions are on a global scale. The IRA was concerned with Ireland. The Basque movement was concerned with their independence. The Red Brigade operated in Italy. But the present bombers will look for targets in any country of the world - particularly countries which do not have the religious/political regime in power that they favour.

These three factors - a world wide philosophy, a variety of targets worldwide, and a willingness to cause death and destruction to targets worldwide - show us that we are dealing with a new situation. This is not another IRA, another Red Brigade or another home rule group. Instead we are dealing with something that is wider, deeper, broader. It is essentially religious/ideological.

What does that term imply? Religious?- yes, because the glue that holds these people together is their common belief system. They are Muslim. That does not mean that all Muslims will think the same way, any more than all Irishmen agreed with the IRA. But the common factor of their religion is very important for several reasons.

For one thing it taps into deeply held beliefs in the individual. So they become motivated not just with an idea but by a common and deeply held religious belief.

For another thing it provides a common language and conceptual framework. Being Muslim, they are able to feel at one with each other, understand each other better, help each other. And a common religious belief also provides a means of unifying people from different countries - changing disparate fighters into a fighting force that is truly united.

Besides the religious factor there is the ideological dimension to these terrorists. We can see immediately that this new situation has all the necessary constituents to enable us to label it as ideological. It is simple (‘drive out the invader’) it is moral (‘sacrifice all for the cause’) and it has a vision (‘death to the infidel’). It has passion and it is worldwide. An ideology differs from a faith in that it is not just a personal belief, but it has the power to unite people in a worldwide fight.

So we are in a new situation. New, because the two main ideologies of the twentieth century did not have the same drawing power, as they were without the religious dimension.

Communism as an ideology is worldwide. It has purpose and vision. But it set out to destroy religion and thereby failed to really bond people in the way religious belief does.

Nazism was also an ideology. It was not worldwide in its coverage but it was certainly worldwide in the sense that Hitler was aiming for world domination. It, too, set out to destroy religion, although Hitler showed more understanding of the need for the mystical - they held night time rallies that had a distinctly religious flavour. But Christianity was seen as the enemy of the Third Reich.

So we are in a new situation with a religious/ideological force that has declared war and is in the expansionist stage of its growth. We can discern both the motive power and the method behind it. Religious extremism is the motive power and fear is the weapon.

How is the West going to respond to this challenge?

Well, firstly, it must be said that the politicians will - as always and inevitably - respond to this sort of pressure, just as they have done in the past - for example, as in the case of Ireland. There will be an attempt to get out of Iraq as quickly as decently possible. There will be more attempts to solve the Arab/Israeli conflict with a just solution. But these things on their own are not going to solve the deeper problem. Now that the ideology has gained momentum, we have to deal with it at a deeper level than appeasement.

This is where Christianity has a part to play. Why not? I am not talking about the weak and self-regarding churches, of which there are too many in the West. Nor the churches that preach personal salvation without regard to the state of society around them. Nor the churches that are obsessed with excluding gay Christians from their ranks. Nor the churches that are arguing endlessly about women bishops and how many angels can dance of the head of a pin, or some other such irrelevance.

Surely Christianity is a vital blueprint for the life of the individual - and its values provide a sound basis for society to operate and flourish. Christianity that is just concerned with my problems, my aches and pains, my well being, my future happiness, my God - that sort of Christianity is doomed. It may continue to play a small part at the edges, but it is not what Christ came for.

The only sort of Christianity that will survive into the centuries ahead is one that demonstrates intense caring for the needy, wherever they are to be found in the world.

The starving millions of the present world are as terrible a disgrace to the conscience of the world as the slavery trade was two hundred years ago. We don’t generally see that yet. Generally, we are not yet ashamed of it. Maybe some individuals see it. There is some agitation. There is some political movement. There are some attempts to help. Some churches are involved to some degree. But the shame of our selfishness has not taken hold yet. There will come a time when everyone in the world will be concerned about those who are suffering, wherever in the world that suffering takes place.

Terrorism breeds in an atmosphere of desperation and hopelessness. Even if only on the basis of enlightened self interest, the Western world needs to seriously address the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in dire need. Enlightened self interest requires it. But it is an imperative of the gospel.

Until we change our motivation and combine in fighting all out for what is right for the needy of the world, we will not beat these or future religious terrorists. Their ideology is too strong, their hate too raw, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for what they believe too great. Until we find the same passion and commitment for change - that is, until we are prepared to follow in Christ’s footsteps - we have no effective answer to the terrorist. We can get better Police defences, we can hope for better ‘intelligence’, we can put more cameras in shopping malls. But we won’t have the real answer, only a defence, and a pretty inadequate one at that. The Christian message of new life and purpose and hope for all humanity is the essential answer to the challenge we now face.

Tony Cross

September 2005

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