War against terrorism takes on religious tone

  • From: "Muslim News" <editor@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <submit@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2002 13:43:50 -0000

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft sounded like the preacher's
son he is Tuesday during an impassioned speech to a group of religious
broadcasters, quoting the Book of Isaiah, invoking the serpent in the
Garden of Eden and declaring unequivocally that God is on America's side
in the war on terrorism. 
"It is a conflict between those who believe that God grants us choice
and those who seek to impose their choices on us," Ashcroft said in
Nashville, Tenn. "It is a conflict between good and evil, and … we know
that God is not neutral between the two." 

Although President Bush has declared often that America's war on
terrorism is not a fight against Islam, the rhetoric has taken on an
unmistakable religious tone in recent weeks as leading figures inside
and outside government have invoked God, decried "evil" and quoted the
Bible. 

This tone is accentuated by the strong religious convictions of Bush and
Ashcroft, and it echoes an American moralism that historians say has
cropped up repeatedly in times of crisis. Religious minorities and
others are growing increasingly uncomfortable with this
quasi-theological tone. 

Not only does it open the door to prejudice, they say, but portraying
U.S. policy as a fight of "good" versus "evil" risks shutting down
healthy debate over U.S. policy. 

"To come forward with a rubric that casts all of this as the will of God
is a shameless attempt to foreclose debate," said Hussein Ibish,
spokesman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. 

Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public
Life at Trinity College in Connecticut, warned of the dangers of
demonizing. 

"It takes the conflict into a metaphysical realm," Silk said. "That
makes me uneasy, because it says we are not simply engaged in affairs of
state but have divided ourselves from our adversaries in moral terms." 

Bush's defenders say he has been careful to stand up for Islam and that
"evil" is a fair word to describe those who would slaughter thousands
for their own ends. 

"The president has made it clear this is not about a particular
religion," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "But it is about
good and evil, and the people who committed these heinous, barbaric
attacks are evil. The president is plainspoken, and the people who
carried out the attacks on September 11th are evildoers." 

The invoking of religion by U.S. leaders started shortly after Sept. 11.
In a speech nine days later to a joint session of Congress, Bush said,
"The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. 

Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war. And we
know that God is not neutral between them." 

As soon as the U.S. concluded that Osama bin Laden was behind the
attacks, Bush dubbed him "the evil one," a term some use for Satan, and
he has lost few opportunities to called the terrorists "evildoers." 

During his State of the Union address last month Bush called Iraq, Iran
and North Korea an "axis of evil, a comment that has been criticized as
simplistic and praised as gutsy. 

Bush has long proclaimed his faith, making much of his decision to turn
to religion at age 40. 

In a presidential debate, when asked who his favorite political
philosopher is, he famously said Jesus. Coming from such a religious
man, the term "evil" has unmistakable echoes of Satan and Armageddon. 

"The very idea of evil, especially the personification of evil that
seems to be happening here, does have religious connotations," said
James Guth, an expert on religion and politics at Furman College in
South Carolina. 

"The word is inevitably religious in some sense, and even more so the
way it is being attached specifically to specific actors and states." 

The term is reminiscent of the "Great Satan" moniker attached by some
Islamic radicals to the United States, Guth added. For his part,
Ashcroft comes from an even more intensely religious background than
Bush. 

The son of a fundamentalist preacher, Ashcroft reportedly has had
himself "anointed" with oil upon taking some political offices. At the
Justice Department, he has instituted daily prayer meetings that have
made some uncomfortable. 

Like Bush, Ashcroft has spoken strongly against using the war on
terrorism as a reason to target Muslims in the United States. But a
controversy recently flared over Ashcroft's reported comments to
columnist Cal Thomas, who quoted Ashcroft as saying, "Islam is a
religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him.
Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." 

That provoked outrage from Muslim groups, who said it illustrated the
attorney general's deep belief in Christian superiority. Ashcroft
recently issued a statement saying, "The reported remarks do not express
my views and do not accurately reflect what I believe I said." 

But the most explicit link between religion and the war on terrorism may
have been Ashcroft's Feb. 19 speech to the religious broadcasters. 

"Civilized people - Muslims, Christians and Jews - all understand that
the source of freedom and human dignity is the creator," Ashcroft said.
He added, "For people of all faiths - be they Christians, Jews or
Muslims - it is impossible not to see the stark difference between the
way of God and the way of the terrorists." 

Despite the inclusion of Muslims in this construct, Ibish, of the
Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Society, said the speech was troubling
in its exclusiveness and its religious triumphalism. 

"I thought that his definition of who is civilized was far too narrow,"
Ibish said. "Saying that Muslims and Jews and Christians are civilized
because they believe that human dignity comes from the creator-what
about Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists?" 

Charles Kimball, who chairs the religion department at Wake Forest
University, said Bush's tolerant statements about Islam do not mesh with
the thinking of some of his allies on the religious right. 

"A lot of these folks who are close to the administration are decidedly
uncomfortable, because they do not embrace the idea that anything can be
a good religion except Christianity," Kimball said 
 
Source:  Chicago Tribune 

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