Religion and international politics

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As we approach the first anniversary of that horrible day last September, there remains a great deal of soul-searching here and in Europe about Islam. Or perhaps it is about the perversion of Islam in which those who perpetuated those horrible events somehow used their religion as a basis of their actions or at the very least used their religion as a justifying backdrop for their deeds.

The president and various of his European counterparts have gone to great lengths to distinguish between those who engage in terror on the one hand and Islam generally on the other. Listen to this presidential statement:
We will not yield to this threat. We will meet it no matter how long it will take. This will be a long, on-going struggle between freedom and fanaticism, between the rule of law and terrorism. Later in this same statement the president continued with this: I want you to understand, I want the world to understand that our actions are not aimed at Islam, the faith of millions of good, peace-loving people all around the world, including the United States . Our actions were aimed at fanatics and killers who wrap murder in the cloak of righteousness, and in so doing, profane the great religion in whose name they claim to act.

I know that this sounds very familiar to all of us. What I have just quoted, however, came from President Clinton way back in August of 1998 after the bombing of two American embassies in East Africa. President Bush has now said virtually the same thing many times over since last September.

These attempts by two presidents and other political leaders in the West to distinguish between Islam and the fanatics who perpetrated violence is a genuine and important distinction. Back in 1998, for instance, during the week following President Clinton’s oval office speech just quoted, a prominent Islamic cleric in Pakistan declared, Killing Americans is now allowed under Islam. Most of the world’s Muslims do not believe that nor are they likely to. But such inflammatory rhetoric will continue to influence large numbers of people whose animosity toward America is easy to inflame.

These aggressive anti-American sentiments complicate the politics in quite a few countries where the lines between political and religious authority are blurred or, in some cases, where there are no lines between the political and the religious.

In the meantime, the separation of church and state, of religion and government, is so deeply rooted in American life and thought as to complicate our thinking about places where the opposite is the norm. Indeed, for most Americans, one test of the legitimacy of a government is whether it is secular, whether it by definition grants equal protection to all beliefs or, indeed, equal protection to those with no religious belief. However difficult this gulf is for Americans, it may be even harder for many devout Muslims for whom the very openness of the America constitutes a threat. Building bridges of understanding between the cultures of modern democracies and traditional Islam is gong to be a long, uncertain, difficult, and frustrating experience for all parties. But that really is the challenge beyond all the military action. It may turn out that the military part was the easiest.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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