The making of a terrorist

July 28, 2003

(The fourth in a five-part series on Christian Hope in an age of Pax Americana)

IN THIS AND THE FOLLOWING W E E K L Y W O R D , my intention is to:
· understand what produces terrorists; and,
· evaluate the role of Christian hope in world threatened by hopelessness.

So far in this series we have sketched the emergence of a global situation that has implications for us as evangelicals. The rise of America as the sole superpower has provoked a wide range of reactions, from enthusiastic support to suicidal terrorism. What does this mean for international evangelicalism, which began as a trans-Atlantic movement? What does it mean for the world missionary movement? How should Christians respond to the current realities? We have briefly traced the dawning of Pax Americana, paralleled by the demise of the European powers, and the emergence of conflicting views on the use of power.

Now let’s try to understand why a lot of people around the world are upset with America, and what makes someone become a terrorist. We may or may not agree with the following perceptions, but millions – or perhaps billions – in both western and non-western worlds share these perceptions, which become in their minds realities. Whether you or I think they are true is not the point here. We’re trying to understand the realities out there as perceived in Europe and around the world.

Obviously Tony Blair is not one of these discontents. Addressing members of the U.S. Congress recently, he reaffirmed their deep-seated belief in American exceptionalism when he told them that destiny had put America in this place in history at this moment in time. Iraq was a call to greatness for a nation whose power had never before been so necessary or so misunderstood, he declared. The legislators loved it. Their applause interrupted him 31 times in 35 minutes.

The BBC however brought together a range of voices from around the globe for a television programme last month, called ‘What the world thinks of America’, and presented a multinational verdict on the US greatly at odds with the British PM. Americans make up four per cent of the world’s population; what did the other 96 per cent think of their ‘films, firms, policies and swagger’? asked the BBC.
* Seventy-six per cent of those polled in ten nations (Canada, Australia, the UK, France, Israel, Russia, Brazil, South Korea, Jordan and Indonesia), believed their own country a better place to live than the US.
* Sixty-seven per cent did not want their countries to copy US economic policy.
* Sixty-five per cent described America as ‘arrogant’ rather than ‘humble’.
* Most countries polled believed they were poorer as a result of US economic policy.
* Sixty-two per cent agreed with the statement that ‘America was reaping the thorns sown by its rulers in the world’ – a statement made by Saddam Hussein himself!
* Fifty-nine per cent believed the US was wrong to invade Iraq.
* Fifty-five per cent disagreed with Tony Blair’s assertion that America was a force for good in the world.
* A small majority of all those polled believed US did not make the world a safer place. * Most believed America was a bigger threat to world peace than the so-called “Axis of Evil” nations like North Korea, Syria and Iran!
* Even almost half of the South Koreans felt America was more dangerous than North Korea!!

Why do so many people think this way?

“We are all Americans”, read the frontpage of the Paris daily Le Monde, immediately after September 11. But this great sympathy felt around the world for America quickly evaporated as the Iraqi war approached, giving way to hostility, mistrust and suspicion.

For reasons partly explained already, America decided to act unilaterally, to ignore the international rule of law and do an end run around the UN. “The course of this nation,” declared President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address, “does not depend on the decisions of others.” Like Britain in an earlier age, America was not prepared to allow weaker states to constrain its awesome power.

Although giving lip service to its commitment to “lasting institutions like the United Nations” and stating that “in all cases, international obligations are to be taken seriously”, the Bush administration declared the doctrine of preemption; that is, that the US would, if deemed necessary, strike first. This flatly contradicted Article 51 of the UN Charter, which permitted the use of force only in self-defense, and only ‘if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations’.

A quantum leap was being taken beyond the traditionally accepted rules of engagement, spelt out for example by the Just War theory, and flew in the face of centuries of church tradition. America was setting a radical precedent for the world community. Immediately people asked if pre-emptive war was good for America, why not for Russia or India? [Israel of course had already done that in Egypt (1967), Lebanon (1982) and Iraq (1981)].

On the gathering wave of anti-American feeling as the US attempted to cajole her unconvinced allies into joining her adventures in Iraq, the London Times observed: “America is never less loved in Europe than when ‚Ķ it is angry, determined, and certain that it is in the right.”

If America’s western allies react negatively to George Bush’s in-your-face talk about ‘what’s good for America is good for the world’, flanked by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, then what reactions can we expect from non-westerners? One Asian politician lamented that, while during the Cold War there were two giants, one brutal and one gentle, now there was only one – increasingly brutal – giant. From Africa, the voice of global human rights – Nelson Mandela – forthrightly declared Bush and America to be the greatest dangers to world peace today.

America’s conspicuous display of military might appears offensive to many friends and foes alike. Her proclaimed target of a military budget equal to the rest of the whole world by next year, her intention to dominate in every theatre of the world, preventing any other nation to do so, and to act pre-emptively against rogue nations, causes Yale professor Paul Kennedy to worry out loud where his great land may be heading. Shifts in economic power usually run ahead of shifts in military power, he warns, pointing to the growing economic clout of Europe and Asia.

While claiming the moral high ground of standing for ‘good’ against the ‘axis of evil’, America is seen by most of the non-western world as being simply hypocritical. Indian evangelical leader Vinoth Ramachandra boldly addressed a university faculty in New York State, January of this year, saying: “I cannot overstate the dismay that so many people, rich and poor, around the world feel over the way the so-called war on terrorism is being conducted. And these are people who, for the most part, are friends of the US, who are grateful for what the US has given the world. The anger that such people feel is not because the US wants to impose its moral and cultural values on the rest of the world. It is simply that the US is fraudulent, hypocritical in its own practice of these same values.”

America’s support of right-wing terrorist states and dictators, and sabotage of internationally-agreed-upon-treaties are among reasons Ramachandra believes the US has lost moral credibility in much of the developing world. Saddam and bin Laden were simply ‘vultures coming home to roost’, he claims. Who trained and financed them in the first place? Who brought Saddam to power through a coup? Who gave Saddam chemical weapons in the first place? Who turned a blind eye when he slaughtered communists en masse in the 70’s, and tens of thousands of Iraqis during the war with Iran, and used
chemical weapons prior to the Gulf War?

Australian Owen Harries, a close frie
nd of the US and quoted earl
ier in this series, warns of American exceptionalism tending to excuse itself from standards of behaviour it expects of others. While the CIA vigilantly spied on governments the world over, he points to the huge outcry over Chinese espionage on American scientific secrets and interest in the US electoral process.

American Thomas Carothers, writes in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2003) of “a pattern of rhetorical overkill by administration officials that weakens rather than strengthens this country’s credibility in the eyes of others. People around the world are quite capable of seeing that the United States has close, even intimate, relations with many undemocratic regimes for the sake of American security and economic interests, and that, like many other countries, the United States struggles very imperfectly to balance its ideals with the realist imperatives it faces. A more honest acknowledgment of this reality and a considerable toning down of self-congratulatory statements about the United States’ unparalleled altruism on the world stage would be a big boost in the long run to a more credible pro-democracy policy.”

A few days ago, our local Dutch newspaper ran a seven-column page three headline: “IRAQ WAR BASED ON LIES”. This was not simply fed by the latest information about ‘sexed-up’ evidence from the British Government or the White House about WMD, nuclear capacities and al-Qaeda links. The report came with a large photo of Private Jessica Lynch, whose much-trumpeted rescue appears to have been a trumped-up “Wag the Dog”-type propaganda stunt. Jessica herself is not free to talk about the event that catapulted her to world-wide fame.

Jay Gary, in the latest edition of World Christian News, explains that Osama and Saddam did not have a monopoly on evil: “A mega-complex of corruption keeps up to half the world’s population in degrading poverty. Lest we think the war on terrorism will cripple this complex of mega-evil, think again. Affluent Americans and Europeans carry out the bulk of embezzlement, financial, fraud and money laundering, not destitute Arabs. This collectively costs us $25 billion a day! That’s 59.2 trillion per year, or 32% of the entire Gross World Product. If our world were collectively to reduce the ‘structures of sin’ just by 6%, it would free up some $583 billion each year, which would provide the entire world’s poor with adequate shelter, education, food and water. This is the great new fact of our times – that a small ethical change in our world system of selfishness could provide investments in adequate infrastructure for all humans to live above the poverty line.”

Robert Kagan sketches the extreme European caricature of America as dominated by “a culture of death, its warlike temperament the natural product of a violent society where every man has a gun and the death penalty reigns.” The Oscar-winning documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”, reinforces this caricature, implying that he who lives by the gun, dies by the gun. The film reveals that many of the parents of children slain in the Columbine tragedy worked in a local factory producing Weapons of Mass Destruction for the US military.

And so the list goes on.

Canadian journalist Richard Gwyn has written advice to the rest of the world about a situation all Canadians grew up with. Most people around the world, he explains, are bossed about by two governments: their own and Washington.

“Where most of the world now is, we’ve already been. We’ve something to teach others, therefore. We possess trade secrets that now are in widespread demand, or that should be because, if we’ve figured out how to survive while inside the cage of the 800-pound gorilla, then other countries, more distant, speaking different languages, with different histories and without the overwhelming commonalities that shape all who live in North America, they ought to be able to learn something from our high-wire tricks, feints and cross-border arguments.

“For almost everyone, this condition is exasperating. For a great many it is infuriating, unacceptable, humiliating. At best, the Americans are constantly in everyone else’s face. At worst, America’s national interests become the interests of all other governments ‚Äî or are rejected by this or that state at a cost to itself and to its people.

“Almost all of us around the world thus are a new kind of colonials. There’s nothing about today’s version of universal colonialism ‚Äî a form of qualified sovereignty, and of dependency upon another country ‚Äî that Canadians haven’t experienced, haven’t coped with, and haven’t fought both against the outsider and among ourselves.
Thus, it isn’t merely the case the people all over the world have become colonials again. They’ve also all become, in a certain sense, Canadians.

“They ‚Äî Europeans, Asians, Africans ‚Äî are all now trying to do what we’ve been trying to do for decades: At one and the same time extract the maximum benefit from the nature of their relationship with the U.S., and to do this at a minimum cost to their national values and interests, and their national independence.”

Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, unashamably preaches a gospel of democratic imperialism. Pax Americana is both the opportunity and the responsibility to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and beyond, if necessary by force. But, many ask, can a New World Order of liberal democracy be imposed upon nations? Can democracy be crated and exported? Can one take a flower cut it off from its roots and simply transplant it into arid soil? Can the heart of the Islamic world really be transformed by US gunpower? Or will every attempt be seen as the aggression of an imperialistic, neo-colonial oil-thirsty superpower on a crusade against Islam?

The Iraqis have not welcomed the Americans as liberators, but as invaders. Occupation breeds resentment no matter how well-intended.

This brief sampling could be dismissed as cheap America-bashing, but that is not our intention. Something new has transpired that should be our concern as human beings and as Christians. As Professor Kennedy put it, America is in danger of losing many admirers across the planet. We need to heed these voices of concern. If the BBC is correct, billions of human beings share Mandela’s perspective on America to some degree.

However, the factors listed above don’t usually create terrorists on their own. There is a further factor at work: religion.

While many of us wish to downplay the anti-terrorist effort as a Christian-Muslim conflict, we do have to acknowledge that at least nine centuries of religious history feed today’s animosities. Just as the Bible has been used on the one hand to justify war (including the latest) and on the other to condemn it, so too the Koran is quoted by some as obliging tolerance of Jews and Christians (2:256, 5:82), and by others to justify jihad (2:190-192, 216, 9:5 & 49:15).

Suicide bombers see themselves as performing a sacred obligation for Allah and for his people, and acquiring for themselves an eternal reward. Much has been made of the rewards in paradise for martyrs killed in a jihad: forgiveness, a crown of honour and 70 (recently increased to 100) beautiful, dark-eyed virgins. But what awaits female martyrs? A Doonesbury cartoon showed a prospective female suicide bomber being interviewed for radio; “and what will you do with the 70 virgins awaiting you in paradise?” “Oh, I’ll save them for my brother. He works for the Hamas.”

Veteran muslim specialist, J. Dudley Woodberry, explains the factors that have led many Muslims to see America – and the west – as worthy targets of the wrath of Allah. Without diplomatic or military power to overcome God’s enemies by any other means, suicide bombing has become an honourable and eternally rewarding alternative. Terrorism

is a response to a build-up of grievances real or imagined.


dberry’s summary of these grievances includes:
* the Israel-Palestine conflict, with its string of broken promises by the British in World War 1 and by President Roosevelt in World War 2, and American blindness towards the hawkish policies of Premier Sharon. 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.
* the continued sanctions against, and bombings of, Iraq over the decade following the Gulf War. UN reports of civilian casualties or of the thousands of children who died from malnutrition and disease, inflamed passions even before this last war. “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 from 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.”
* the humiliation of Muslims. Islamic empires were the superpowers for a thousand years. God seemed on their side. Then Western colonial powers divided the Muslim World between them. Today Muslims have been humiliated by Jews in Palestine, ‘Christian’ Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, atheistic or ‘Christian’ Russians in Chechnya, and sometimes by Hindus in Kashmir. Bomb blasts that killed 24 Americans in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 prompted bin Laden to say”They have raised the nation’s head high and washed away a great part of the shame that has enveloped us.”
* the rise of the West has flooded the world with alcohol, drugs, materialism, sexual immorality and the infidel’s lifestyle through movies, television, and globalisation in general. Modernist Muslim states have opted for Western law codes rather than “divinely ordained Islamic laws”. Western global economic ideas and institutions control the world’s economy. Islamists are angry because superior American power is suffocating their superior Islamic culture.
* by this same overwhelming military might, Americans have preached democracy but backed autocratic Muslim regimes – in Iran under the Shah, Kuwait, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. The presence of thousands of “infidel” Americans in Saudi Arabia on the holy soil of Islam’s prophet explains the high number of Saudis among the alleged 9/11 hijackers. In 1998 bin Laden 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.”

Woodberry warns that the attempt to stamp out terrorism without addressing these grievances is not a long term solution. Killing a terrorist does not stop terrorism. It simply makes him or her a hero-martyr that inspires new terrorists. Indian Sam George agrees. “Some heroes gain their reputation by the life they live; others, by the death they die. The call of martyrdom gives young people a sense of mission and noble cause big enough for their lives,” says George. To many young men – and increasingly women – who have lived their entire lives under humiliating conditions, martyrdom is a final act of power, in the face of powerlessness; of justice, in defiance of injustice; of hope, in the light of hopelessness. A martyr is honoured and immortalised, and bequeaths to his family high status. He or she becomes a role model for others…

Not all Palestinian suicide bombers are fundamentalist Moslems. Some are socialists. They don’t expect a paradise populated by virgins; they are simply desperate and hopeless and angry enough to go out in a blaze as heroes and martyrs. In the face of poverty, oppression, sickness, hunger, the growing gulf between the have’s and have nots, and the all-pervasive American presence, there is a growing hopelessness.

Surely the most fundamental way to fight terrorism is to bring hope. Surely what is needed more than a war against terrorism is a war against the causes of terrorism!

What might that look like?

Why is it that the so-called ‘Christian’ west is not perceived as this source of hope? That Christians are not seen as the people of Hope?

Let’s look at these questions next week.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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