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Thursday, February 09, 2006

After Terror

The Need For Dialogue in an Age of Terrorism
After reflecting on the horrors of 9/11, Madrid and 7/7, and other terrorist attacks around the world; is it possible for different cultures to live in peace?

Book Review: Akbar Ahmed and Brian Frost (eds.), After Terror: Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations (Polity Press, 2005), 196 pages.

For those interested in dealing with the ‘ticking bombs of terrorism and the excessive interventions against it’, for those people who are fed up with the rhetoric of holy war and the war on terror – and want to confront terror with dialogue, mutual understanding and cooperation and by celebrating diversity, then this book will be for you. Featuring essays from a wide array of thinkers from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Lord George Carey and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, this book helps us to make sense of a dangerous and changing world, understand where the hatred is coming from, challenges the idea that the world is destined for never ending conflict and charts a way for us to absorb and move forward in a peaceful direction.
Dealing with the causes of conflict is vital if progress is to be made in reducing tension, conflict and despair around the world. Potential causes of terrorism might include: poverty, autocratic and tyrannical governments, discrimination and alienation. Many of the essayists tell us that the source of conflict and alienation is intolerance and hatred. Rajmohan Gandhi writes of his intolerance towards Pakistan during his youth and how old hatreds can turn to dialogue and reconciliation. He views America’s War on Terrorism as understandable, unavoidable but an inadequate response, because it ignored the difference between a symptom (a violent one) and the cause. It resembled the anti-Communism of the Cold War, with misguided talk of evil people in failed societies, observing a flawed religion; instead of honestly reflecting on the resentment in the Islamic world, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Queen Noor reminds us that no culture is entirely clean in the intolerance or virtue stakes. Those who justify terror cloak their actions in the name of religion, as the actions of a violent fringe have hijacked the Islamic faith, which is based on the values of tolerance and equality, and those who say that Islam and democracy don’t mix are wrong, they only need to read the works of scholars like Abdul Karim Soroush, where it will be found that liberal democratic principles are fully compatible with democracy. It is easier to blame outsiders for a country’s internal problems, and even moderates can switch to the extremes. The United Nations has suggested that the key to tackling extremism in the Arab world is through building a knowledge society, and suggesting that if the lack of freedom, women’s rights and knowledge are tackled then minds can be opened and progress made. To be a ‘passionate moderate’ means embracing tolerance and rejecting extremism and half-truths. Diana Eck points out that reaching out to other cultures in sympathy and solidarity is the best response to violence, because although it may be difficult to carry out a dialogue among religions, it is much easier among people, where people can come together to air their differences, and reach understanding, if not always consensus. Relationships of trust across religious lines is possible. The late Sergio Vieira de Mello said that intolerance is dangerous because it usually hides behind dishonesty and a false pretext. According to him, the best way of securing the rule of law is through human rights. It is up to states to deal with the intolerant acts that occur – whether it is the return of anti-Semitism in Europe or militant Islam. The quest for tolerance and human rights should start with women because the various economic, political, social and cultural changes in the past decade have adversely affected women: wars, displacement, poverty and discrimination. Jonathan Sacks believes that the roots of intolerance lie in fear and ignorance, and not religion. Instead of fighting each other, why not fight poverty, hunger, violence and injustice- a friends. Rabbi Sacks is right to say that most religions value peace, but religions are being exploited by those who want to see political debate shaped by identity, an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality. What makes Islam, Judaism and Christianity unique is that they all believe in God as personal, that is, God speaks. Reflecting on the horrors of the Holocaust, Rabbi Sacks tells us that hating Germans will not bring back the victims – and the best way to honour the past is to learn from it, and respond to hatred with love and reconciliation. Judea Pearl (the father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl) believes it is wrong to frame the current conflict in terms of an inclusive West and an exclusive Rest. Because we can’t be inclusive all the time; because people do reject certain ideologies, and this can lead to a loss of the moral high ground; civilised society must distinguish from right and wrong. For example, there must be no moral equivalence between those who strive to minimise the suffering of innocent people and those who aim to maximise such pain. He pays tribute to Pakistan President Musharraf’s call for Muslims to adopt ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Enlightened Moderation’- which means rejecting militancy and extremism and adopt the path of ‘socio-economic uplift’. The Muslim diaspora in the West can serve as the ambassadors of a partnership between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Shashi Tharoor tells us that the reality of globalisation was brought home to us on 9/11, where the ‘global is the local’; the media have a responsibility to ensure that pluralism and tolerance are maintained, and that the human rights of innocent citizens and migrants are protected. If the media keeps on perpetuating the hatred of strangers, this may exacerbate terrorism, because we will be scared of what ‘they’ may do you. Kofi Annan called for ‘preventive journalism’, which involves reporting on potential crisis before they alight, so that international action is mobilised before lives are lost. Kofi Annan writes of his belief in compassionate globalisation; migration and technology are bringing different people together and breaking down old barriers, and because we are the products of many influences, it doesn’t mean we can’t take pride in out faith and heritage. Zbigniew Brzezinski believes that the ideas of total security are now a myth. Terrorism is a complicated phenomenon; terrorism has roots in religious, ethnic and national resentments, and it is usually caused by social grievances. Jody Williams believes terrorism should be based on a human security approach, where addressing the causes of conflict is key, through dialogue and cross-cultural understanding, and solving the world’s problems through co-operation. The Landmine Ban and the International Criminal Court show that this is not a utopian dream. Walter Isaacson believes that we are in a battle between the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and those of tolerance. He says that the example of Benjamin Franklin in forging the American nation – based on religious pluralism, tolerance, freedom, freedom of expression, a willingness to compromise, respecting other individuals – all done with humour and humility, are the qualities needed to build a peaceful world.
Edward Wilson says that the clash of civilisations is a product of religion. He says that religions have enriched cultures, and at their best they consist of altruism, public service and compassion, but at their worst they can be divisive. Better to rely on rational thinking, science and knowledge instead. Desmond Tutu observes that religion can produce saints or rogues, but all religions emphasise moral values such as honesty and compassion. Although religion is a potent force, it can be thought of as morally neutral. It all depends on its adherents. It was religious zeal that drove Martin Luther King to struggle for justice and equality in the US civil rights movement, it is faith that inspired Mother Teresa to help the poor in Calcutta and it is faith that sustains the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet. But the evil side of religion is there. Those who killed doctors who carried abortions were carrying out a religious duty; Christians went on Crusades to drive out Infidels from the Holy Land, not to mention wars flaring up between people of the same faith.
Lord George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has set out wisely the ideological differences that separate the West (the US in particular) and Islam, The United States and the West are seen as aggressive, arrogant, hypocritical and biased in their foreign policy; Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya are cited as examples. Western nations are criticised for blaming the ills of Muslim countries/peoples due to a lack of democracy, freedom and human rights. Another source of grievance is a sense of unfairness at the way Western governments treat Arab nations: the support for Israel and the plight of the Palestinians are highlighted. All this is balanced by grievances from the West. Muslim leaders have been criticised for not doing enough to stop (and condemn) suicide bombings and terrorism that does not discriminate between innocent people and military targets. Muslim countries are seen as treating peoples of other faiths as second-class citizens, and it is felt that Muslims living in Western countries are not ‘integrating’.

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