Hated, Feared, Misunderstood

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington a decade ago have deepened the gulf between Christians and Muslims – but since the events of that day, the dialogue has become more sincere. By Matthias Drobinski

Dossier by Matthias Drobinski

It was the suitcase, of all things, that escaped the inferno of 9/11. It was found at Boston's Logan Airport, and it had been checked in by Mohammed Atta, the very same man who flew the Boeing 757 that was American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 8.46am local time. Quite by chance, the bag wasn't on the doomed plane. It contained a typed-out will written by the young man in the year 1996:

"I believe that Mohammed is God's messenger, and I have not the slightest doubt that the time will come when God will resurrect people who are in their graves." He also issued instructions that women should stay away from his funeral and his grave; and that the man who washes his corpse should wear gloves so as not to touch his genitals.

Mohammed Atta believed himself to be a good and devout Muslim. He most probably died in the firm conviction that there is can be nothing more lofty for a believer than to give his life in the name in the God – and also to kill people in the name of God whose lifestyle is blasphemy in the eyes of the Almighty. Terrorism and suicide were for him service to God in its purest form. After all the wars and executions and torture that have occurred in the name of God, on that Tuesday in September, the dark abyss of religion assumed its newest, most modern form.

Inspired to cruelty

One can quite rightly say that terrorism can never occur in the name of God and that pretending to serve any God in this way is blasphemy in itself. Regardless of whether Atta flies a Boeing into a skyscraper, or whether the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik shoots young people on an island because he believes himself to be the saviour of Christianity. But that is not the whole truth of the matter.

Terrorism and suicide as service to God: Mohammed Atta

​​The truth is also that the one God in which Jews, Christians and Muslims believe can indeed inspire people to acts of great humanity, but also through jealousy and mistrust of the Gods of others, to acts of the greatest cruelty. On 11 September 2001, the barbaric, violent, sinister side of religion revealed itself, to the horror of the Europeans and North Americans. But in the parts of the world where Islam holds sway, people were already all-too familiar with this religious underbelly.

To this day, more Muslims have died in terrorist attacks committed by Muslims than Christians, something that can be explained by the logic of religiously motivated violence: anyone who is a traitor to his own faith is worse than any enemy from without.

The attacks of 9/11 have made religion the focus of attention in the West, in an apparently secularised West, where Christianity was subdued by the Enlightenment. It had become an emotional prop for the individual and social lubricant for the community; those who believed in something different, or nothing at all, no longer needed to fear the wrath of any religious leaders. And there it was all of a sudden, Islam.

Up to that point it had been the concern of academics and travellers to the Orient, the subject of religious dialogue and a matter for government officials appointed to address integration issues on a local level. Islam had hidden itself away in Europe's backyards and the cities of America, perceived by the majority here as a backdrop to the general retardation and propensity for violence among Arabs, North Africans and people in the Middle East.

Suddenly it was visible, blindingly illuminated in the flames of the exploding planes – Islam, with its intransigent rules and amalgamation of religion and politics. With the belligerent passages of the Koran and the medieval Sharia legal code, the theological rigidity, the ideology of the global Islamic community, united in its hatred of the West.

Twelve years after the end of the Cold War it appeared that the West, that liberty, democracy and pluralism was again under threat. The Middle East conflict, the North-South disputes became disputes with Islam, the integration debate became the Islam debate. Religion had returned to take up its place in the conflicts of the world.

The preliminary history of 9/11

This was a process that had already been set in motion before 9/11 – in fact much of what it now being interpreted as a direct consequence of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had already begun to germinate long before.

"Jihad against the Jews and the crusaders": The terrorist network Al-Qaeda carried out its first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993

​​As far back as the 1960s, the Ayatollah Khomeini branded the Shah regime and its allies in the West as anti-Islamic, setting it apart from Iran's left-wing and liberal opposition. In 1979, the victor in the Iranian Revolution, he referred to the US as the great Satan, and Israel as the small Satan. In 1988, the charter of what was formerly the charitable organisation Hamas stated its goal to be "to raise the flag of Allah over every inch of Palestine", in contrast to the secular-national ideology of the PLO.

In 1998, Osama bin Laden signed the manifesto for an "international front for a jihad against the Jews and the crusaders". Bin Laden's comrade-in-arms, the Egyptian surgeon Aiman al-Zawahiri called on every Muslim to fight the enemies of Islam everywhere and using all means at his disposal, including suicide attacks. The terrorist network Al-Qaeda carried out its first attack on the World Trade Center in the ear 1993. No, what happened 10 years ago was nothing new.

The United States and its allies had also previously responded to the declaration of war in various ways. They supplied Iraq with weapons for its war with Iran. They propped up authoritarian regimes in North Africa out of fear that the Muslim Brotherhood could emerge victorious in free elections, as had occurred in 1991 in Algeria. They waged war against Iraq, when Saddam Hussein destabilised the Gulf region with his attack on Kuwait.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington's book "The Clash of Civilisations" sketched a portrait of the new situation following the end of the Cold War: Taking the place of the antagonism that existed between Communist and capitalist nations, was now the competition between various cultural groups that also spills over into conflict – and one of the most explosive fault-lines is that between Islamic and western-Christian culture. The book is controversial, and Huntington himself did later expand on his initial theories – but the idea of a culture clash has been out there ever since.

Violent potential lurking within religion

The world apocalypse means: what is hidden is revealed. Viewed thus, planes crashing into the towers of the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon and the former coalmine near Shanksville was apocalyptic. It made visible the gulf between the wealthy, powerful, somehow Christian West and that which is referred to as the Islamic world.

The events of 9/11 also made visible the extent of the – at times powerless and at times violent – fury of many Muslims directed at the West or at that which they perceived to be the West, just as they revealed the widespread self-perception of Muslims as the victims of imperialist and colonialist powers, even when this perception was not accurate, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, a rich nation.

9/11 laid bare just how little Muslims and Christians knew about each other, and just how little dialogue was actually taking place. The attacks carried out by men who believed themselves to be acting on behalf of Allah deepened this chasm and in the Islamic world, reduced the ability to understand the terrible violent potential lurking within the depths of religion.

The few Muslims who attempted to initiate a debate on the issue were publicly ostracized.

Where does religion belong?

"Inside-and-outside perception": Over the past 40 years, Muslims have for the most part been loyal citizens of the West, Drobinski writes. Pictured: Street scene in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, Germany

​​In the West on the other hand, the religious charging of the conflict also became popular. For US President George W. Bush this was now about much more than just necessary defence against terrorism, but about the crusade against the "axis of evil"; the wars in Afghanistan and against Iraq found their ethical justification in the defence of individual values against the new, dangerous religion. Islam has been cast as something new and dangerous since 11 September, providing political capital for populist anti-Islamic parties and movements.

Since 2001, Islam has been presented as a religion that is militant, rigorous and alarmingly prolific from a demographic point of view. The Orient, the Turks – this no longer has anything to do with the wise Sultan Saladin from Lessing's "Nathan". On 11 September the Turks were again advancing on Vienna, only this time they weren't firing their canons on the Christians, they were waging their asymmetric warfare of characteristic malice using ambush and demography.

If one takes a closer look at this friend-and-foe, inside-and-outside perception, then it often has surprisingly little to do with real life. Over the past 40 years, Muslims have for the most part been loyal citizens of the West, despite the fact that there might also be problems with a minority. For decades, most Muslims have very much wanted to live in a state of freedom comparable to that which exists in Europe or America, or at least approaching a comparable degree of peace and prosperity, regardless of how much some may demonise the West in their rhetoric.

Inspiration to radical Islam: the French Catholic fundamentalist , biologist and eugenicist Alexis Carrel

​​Even the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood finds its origins in Christian-reactionary cultural criticism: No one quotes Sayyid Qutb, the founding father of modern Islamism who was executed in Egypt in 1966, as frequently as the French Catholic fundamentalist Alexis Carrel, who described the modern age as barbaric in the 1930s and devised a system in which religion dominates and guards over state, society, scholarship and culture.

But it is also less about questions of truth, it is much more frequently about the questions of identity that have gained in significance in both Christianity and Islam as a consequence of 9/11. In a globalised world, how do people find their religious and spiritual place, how do they preserve the individual and the distinctive, where does religion belong?

Modern Islam has not yet found an answer to these questions. Anti-western aggression is also not a sign of alarming strength or even supremacy over a feeble Christianity, it is a sign of weakness. The return to piety also reveals the weakness of Christianity, which is no longer the default religion of the West.

Good things coming out of bad

Many Christians – and this was on the other hand a sign of strength – objected to the crusading rhetoric of George W. Bush. The ailing Pope John Paul II. summoned all his remaining strength to try and prevent the Iraq war in 2003, and most churches in the US spoke out against the campaign. It was also for the most part Christians who felt that any kind of public celebration stage-managed by the state following the death of Osama bin Laden would be inappropriate. The dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the West has in the meantime shed several illusions, but it has also become more sincere and intensive.

"There is hope": The uprising of the Arab peoples has done more to weaken radical Islam than the death of Osama bin Laden, Drobinski says

​​Islamic religious instruction in national tongues, professorships for Islamic theology, a conference on Islam – these are also indirect consequences of that late summer day when the dark underbelly of religion saw the light.

Such developments have so far failed to materialise in North Africa and the Middle East – although here also the vast majority of theologians and religious leaders have made it clear that in their view, there can be no terrorism in the name of God.

But who would have thought a year ago that a revolt incited by young people could sweep away regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and even Libya – without the Islamists inevitably rising to power, as has been predicted for decades? "Arab Spring" is the name now given to what happened in these nations, also because political Islam only played a marginal role. An indication that this upheaval could help the battle for the humane face of religion more than the death of Osama bin Laden – the hope is there, at least.

Matthias Drobinski

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Matthias Drobinski is editor for Germany's daily Süddeutsche Zeitung specialised on issues relating to religion.