Religious terrorism is the communism of the 21st century, the most serious international threat to human rights, liberty, democratic government, and Christian faith we now face. This fact, which has been known for some years by those who have been studying terrorism closely, is now clear to the rest of America amid the carnage of September 11.

In the aftermath of that attack, government officials suggested that the "war on terrorism" would take "weeks or months." It will likely last for decades—perhaps most of the century, as did the struggle against Marxism in the last century. No matter the length and sacrifice involved, Christians have a unique and vital role to play in the historical drama that is unfolding.

Terrorism is "the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change." (I am indebted to Bruce Hoffman's Inside Terrorism [Columbia University, 1998] for this definition and much of the following analysis.) It becomes "religious terrorism" when a religious ideal inspires or emboldens such actions.

Terrorism has a long history, but the advent of modern, international terrorism occurred on July 22, 1968, when a member group of the Palestine Liberation Organization hijacked an Israeli El Al commercial flight. It shows dramatically how terrorism is not "war" as its perpetrators claim. "For the first time," Hoffman says, "terrorists began to travel regularly from one country to another to carry out attacks. In addition, they also began to target innocent civilians from other countries who often had little if anything to do with the terrorists' cause or grievance, simply in order to endow their acts with the power to attract attention and publicity that attacks against their avowed enemies lacked. The intent was to shock and, by shocking, to stimulate worldwide fear and alarm."

In the 1990s, political terrorism was infused with spiritual energy. Though the first religious terrorist group did not appear until the 1980 Iranian revolution, by 1995, 26 of the 56 known terrorist groups worldwide were religiously motivated. And that has translated into increased violence: though identifiably religious terrorists have committed only 25 percent of the recorded incidents since 1995, they were responsible for 58 percent of the fatalities.

The Seriousness of the Threat
To be sure, no religion holds a corner on terrorism. Attacks have been perpetrated by the Catholic ira and its Protestant counterparts in Ireland, by the American Christian Patriots in the Oklahoma City bombing, and by the Aum Shinrikyo sect (a combination of Hinduism and Buddhism), which released nerve gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995. But clearly, at this juncture in history, Islamic militants pose the most serious threat to world peace. A few examples:

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  • February 1993: Sunni Muslims (Sunna is the largest branch of Islam) set off a bomb at the World Trade Center, attempting to topple one of the twin towers onto the other.
  • July to October 1994: the Algerian Armed Islamic Group unleashes a wave of bombings in Metro trains, outdoor markets, cafes, schools, and popular tourist spots in France; 8 people die and more than 180 are wounded.
  • June 1996: Muslim radicals opposed to the reigning al-Saud regime engineer a truck-bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; 19 die.
  • February-March 1996: members of Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, conduct a series of suicide bombings that kill 60 in Israel, affecting the Israeli national elections.
  • April 1996: Egyptian Islamic militants open machine-gun fire and throw hand grenades at Western tourists outside their Cairo hotel; 18 killed.
  • November 1997: 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians are massacred by members of the Gamat al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) in Luxor, Egypt.
  • August 1998: Bombs explode at two U.S. embassies in Africa, killing 10 in Tanzania and 253 in Kenya; thousands more are injured.
  • October 2000: The USS Cole is attacked in Yemen by Islamic suicide bombers; 17 sailors die.

And during this period, a number of plots by militant Muslims were, thank God, thwarted by U.S. and international intelligence—for example, a 1995 plot to assassinate the Pope when he visited the Philippines, and that same year, the so-called Project Bjinka, which planned to down 11 large U.S. passenger jets over the Pacific.

The seemingly escalating violence of religious terrorism is not a figment of paranoid imagination. Secular terrorists with modest political objectives (freeing prisoners, for example) rarely aim for indiscriminate killing since that would be counterproductive to their negotiations with governments. Even religious terrorism with local goals (as seen in Ireland, for example) restricts itself to political enemies. But many Muslim terrorists have, instead of such limited objectives, a cosmic sense of injustice or righteousness that permits anything in the name of God.

The rhetoric of key Islamic militants bears this out.

A Muslim theologian of the Shiite branch of Islam, Ayatollah Baqer al-Sadr: "The world as we know it today is how others shaped it. We have two choices: either to accept it with submission, which means letting Islam die, or to destroy it, so that we can construct a world as Islam requires."

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Another Shiite theologian, Mustafa Chamran: "We are not fighting within the rules of the world as it exists today. We reject all those rules."

For this reason Hoffman chillingly concluded in 1998, "The pattern of religion-inspired terrorism over the past two years alone suggests that the potential for still more and even greater acts of violence cannot be prudently discounted."

The Reasons for 'Insanity'
During the week after the attack on America, stark words were used to describe the perpetrators: evil, barbarians, cowards, insane, and mad, among others. The choice of terms was understandable given the enormity of the atrocity. But such language trivializes the problem, because the terrorists are anything but cowardly madmen.

"I have been studying terrorists and terrorism for more than 20 years," says Hoffman. "Yet I am still always struck by how disturbingly 'normal' most terrorists seem when one actually sits down and talks to them." Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of Santa Barbara would no doubt agree. He interviewed a number of terrorists for his book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California, 2000), and the interviews reveal people with whom we can, for the most part, identify.

A 1997 interview with Mahmud Abouhalima, a convicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is a case in point. For Abouhalima, "Islam is a mercy," because it saved him from his youthful decadence, a "life of corruption—girls, drugs, you name it." Islam has given his life meaning and purpose. He compares life without religion to a pen without ink: "An ink pen, a pen worth $2,000, gold and everything in it—it's useless if there's no ink in it. That's the thing that gives life, the life in this pen, this soul." Secularism "has none" of this life. Secularists "are just moving like dead bodies." Militant Muslims, like Abouhalima, are models of devotion to both their faith and their families.

But they are also angry, mostly at "secularism," a modern phenomenon they believe is driving Allah out of history. They decry traditionally Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that adopt Western wisdom, rather than Islamic law, to rule their people. They resent the West's exporting of hedonism and materialism into their very homes through television, enticing Muslims to become religiously lazy and morally corrupt.

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They believe the source of this corroding secularism is the United States. A 1985 communiqué from Lebanon says: "We the sons of the community of Hezbollah consider ourselves a part of the world Islamic community, attacked at once by the tyrants and the arrogant of the East and the West.. . . Our way is one of radical combat against depravity, and America is the original root of depravity."

As for their "terrorism"? "We don't see ourselves as terrorists," says Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group responsible for holding American journalist Terry Anderson hostage for 7 years. "We see ourselves as mujahedeen ("holy warriors") who fight a Holy War for the people." Hezbollah militants, among others, though sincere in their belief at this point, have simply lost moral perspective on the difference between "war" and "terrorism."

This Holy War is about establishing the reign of Islam, certainly in the Middle East, and eventually across the world. This war was proclaimed first (in recent history) during the Iranian revolution by Shiite Muslims—members of a centuries-old minority who believe they are persecuted because of their special, revealed knowledge. Shiites believe only the adoption of Islamic law can legitimize a government, which in turn will hasten the return of the Prophet Mohammed as Messiah.

In the view of some key Islamic thinkers, violence and coercion are not only permissible but a divinely sanctioned means to spread the rule of Islamic law. Since this war is against not just a nation but a culture, there are no civilians. Noncombatants are legitimate targets. "No one is innocent in the war between Arabs and Jews," a member of Hamas told Juergensmeyer, adding that all Israelis are either soldiers or potential soldiers, including women and children.

Furthermore, they believe this "war" is primarily defensive. These Muslims argue that American government and culture—by exporting Hollywood values, military actions in Iraq, and boycotts of Iraq and Iran, among other actions—are "terrorizing nations" and trying to "obliterate their power." They point to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of the ultimate intentions of all U.S. foreign policy.

"We are not preachers of violence; jihad [holy war] in Islam is a defensive movement against those who impose violence," says Hezbollah's Fadlallah. "The violence began as the people, feeling themselves bound by impotence, stirred to shatter some of that enveloping powerlessness for the sake of liberty."

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Terrorism is employed as both a military and spiritual tactic. Explaining a series of 14 suicide attacks between 1994 and 1997, which killed 150 people, leading Gaza Muslim activist Abdallah Shami highlighted terrorism's military significance: "We have no planes or missiles, or even artillery with which to fight evil. The most effective instrument for inflicting harm with a minimum of losses is this type of operation."

Such attacks also have a public-relations purpose. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was not an act of desperation or insanity. Said Mahmud Abouhalima in his 1997 interview, speaking in the third person to avoid incriminating himself: "They wanted to reach the government with the message that we are not tolerating the way you are dealing with our citizens." The explosive scenarios are dramatic events intended to impress for their symbolic value. They are designed to make an impact on several audiences so that all who witness the violence will become aware of the terrorists' grievances.

Finally, the attacks, especially when they employ suicide, are a spiritual tactic. The political head of Hamas expressed it well: "To die in this way is better than to die daily in frustration and humiliation." Even more importantly, there is a yearning to give one's life away in an ultimate cause as a martyr. Says Abdallah Shami, "Through such action, the martyr acquires the right to enter heaven and liberate himself from all the pain and suffering of this world." Though Islam formally condemns suicide, "suicidal attacks" done in "self-defense" in a Holy War are not considered suicide but in fact merit immediate entrance into heaven. Thus many witnesses and survivors of suicide attacks have remarked on how the bombers were smiling just before blowing up themselves and their victims.

A Call for Tragic Courage
The careful reader will have noticed that I have yet to quote Osama bin Laden, who at press time was considered the "mastermind" in the September 11 attack. In fact, his views (easily accessed at coincide nearly point for point with those already cited. But he is incidental to a larger phenomenon. If we were to rid the world of bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group, we would not have stopped Islamic terrorism.

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How then should we live and act, especially as Christian citizens of a democratic republic? Toward what goals should we encourage our government? In what should we directly participate? Two equal and opposite paths should be avoided, though both might seem to have biblical justification.

The first and most natural reaction is dualist revenge, in which we divide the world between the forces of evil (Islamic terrorists) and the forces of good (the U.S.A. and democratic capitalism), and see it as the job of the good to eliminate the forces of evil. To be sure, there is much biblical precedent for the military and judicial pursuit of evildoers—one of hundreds of examples: "I chased my enemies and caught them; I did not stop until they were conquered. … You have armed me with strength for the battle; you have subdued my enemies under my feet" (Ps. 18:37, 39). If there was ever a time in recent history in which righteous indignation was called for, that time is now. In fact, one should question the moral sensibility of anyone who did not feel righteous anger at the September 11 attack.

Yet the Bible also reminds us that "there is no one who is righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:9), and that history is not simply the battle of good against evil. The danger of pursuing the wicked in the name of righteousness without recognizing the original sin that infects our own hearts is that we will only nurture our own self-righteousness, which will in turn engender its own injustices.

The other tempting path is cowardly compassion. Here we are enticed by refrains to not be angry, to love our enemies, to demonstrate forbearance and forgiveness, and to seek peace. Such biblical injunctions abound, but when such refrains are repeated, the equally biblical demand for justice is often omitted. Seeking peace without justice is mere sentimentality, and in the end it produces no real peace. This path also skirts the truth of original sin because it fails to take seriously the depths of human evil, and the historical reality that on this side of the Second Coming, unjust power can be most often successfully met with power.

The middle way is tragic courage. It is tragic because it requires us to shoulder responsibilities that entail morally troubling actions, like war, which involve the deliberate killing of soldiers and inevitably the death of some noncombatants. It also entails full-scale commitment to a political community that is far from pure. In the end, the United States may still be the world's "last, best hope," but an honest look at history reveals that this great power, like all such powers has succumbed to self-interest, and to political and economic greed, and will do so again.

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This course requires courage because it means risking one's moral purity in the pursuit of justice. And that means the pursuer must depend on the grace of God for his justification, because when he is done acting on the historical stage, he will surely not be able to point with any pride to his pure works.

This course also requires the courage to recognize the evil that lies buried in our own hearts, even as we try to root out international evil. It is easy to pursue evil if one believes oneself pure. It is impossible if one believes all morality is relative. It is demanding (but possible) to fight evil while nurturing an abiding sense of one's own failings.

Students of history will recognize that this approach is not new. It was articulated by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address in regard to the national campaign against slavery. He noted that God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense [of slavery] came." He could conclude, therefore: "With malice toward none, and charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

Fifty years ago, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr assessed the threat of communism and argued in his The Irony of American History that the U.S. must stand against it in a Christian way. Niebuhr looked back at Lincoln's speech and said, "The combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle."

The struggle must be waged on a variety of fronts: Christians praying always and everywhere; missionaries and local believers hazarding their lives in sharing the gospel in the most religiously repressive settings; relief agencies and local congregations refusing to discriminate in distributing aid to the needy; Christian diplomats employing all the wiles of their craft; and, yes, Christian fighter pilots, navy personnel, and infantry insisting, when other options are exhausted and military force is called for, that liberty must be respected and justice done.

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In this war against religious terrorism, Christians in particular should be able to act with both vigor and humility. As religious people, we understand the frustration and anger that motivate the attacks, and we are particularly scandalized, again as religious people, by terrorism employed in the name of God.

To shoulder this responsibility at this historical moment is both burden and gift for Christians. But we must step into this future with humility, recognizing that we cannot know God's will perfectly at every political turn; with patience, knowing that the fight for liberty is never won in a single generation; with sadness, realizing that on this side of the kingdom, justice is often impossible without some violence; and with a serenity that passes understanding, abiding in God's grace for the meaning and measure of our lives.

Mark Galli is the managing editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

See an article in today's Washington Times: "Scholars differ that Islam requires terror in defense."

Bruce Hoffman's Inside Terrorism and Mark Juergensmeyer's Terror in the Mind of God are available at Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History is out-of-print but available used.

Christianity Today essays on Christian response to the events of September 11 include:

To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)

After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)

Film Forum: Shock Waves Tear Through a Shock-Value Industry | How can we think of movies at a time like this? (Sept. 20, 2001)

Books & Culture Corner: The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)

Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)

Reflections on Suffering | Classic and contemporary quotations for dark times. (Sept. 13, 2001)

When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)

A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)

Fear and Hate | In times like this, as in all other times, Christians have a responsibility to love above all else. (Sept. 11, 2001)

God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)
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Additional Christianity Today coverage of the attacks include:

Volunteers Bring Glad Tidings to Ground Zero | Church located 2.5 miles from World Trade Center feels "God has used [us] because of where we are." (Sept. 20, 2001)

Was September 11 the Beginning of the End? | Observers say geography and gravity of attacks have led to little prophecy speculation. (Sept. 19, 2001)

The End of the World (Trade Center) | Dispatches from out of the dust. (Sept. 19, 2001)

Active Christian on Flight 93 Hailed as a Hero | Wheaton College graduate and others "figured out how to do extraordinary things" aboard United plane. (Sept. 19, 2001)

With Grief and Anger, the U.S. Mourns Its Losses | A week of official services and impromtu demonstrations follows shocking attacks. (Sept. 18, 2001)

Orthodox Church Near Ground Zero Hopes to Rise Again | Members hope to rebuild 169-year-old structure, which stood only 500 feet from the World Trade Center. (Sept. 18, 2001)

Fire Department Chaplain Dies in the Line of Duty | "Father Mike" is remembered for compassion and always being first on the scene. (Sept. 18, 2001)

Churches Meet Needs at Ground Zero | Brooklyn pastors and parishioners thank God for survival, but help victims and families cope. (Sept. 17, 2001)

Church Mourns 'Father Frank' | Fond memories comfort those who knew retired priest killed in World Trade Center attack. ? (Sept. 17, 2001)

'Is That Thunder?' | With metal cracking at the World Trade Center, New York pastors cry out to God. (Sept. 14, 2001)

Shaken Christians Turn to Prayer | Impromptu services usher in the bereaved by word of mouth, road signs, and e-mail. (Sept. 13, 2001)

Christians Provide Comfort in the Shadow of Calamity | Still "stunned and reeling," New Yorkers seek support at prayer service. (Sept. 13, 2001)

Illinois Pastor on Fatal Flight | Jeffrey Mladenik, 43, was involved in workplace ministry, international adoption. (Sept. 13, 2001)

Communication Troubles Challenge U.S. Church Relief Agencies | Aid work continues amid atmosphere of shock, fear, and sporatic harrassment. (Sept. 13, 2001)

In the Belly of the Beast | Christians, calling terrorist attack "satanically brilliant," minister at epicenter of World Trade disaster. (Sept. 12, 2001)

Churches, Agencies Respond to Attacks | Leaders call for prayer, justice, and mercy. (Sept. 12, 2001)

Muslims Fear a Backlash | No matter who is responsible, observers feel a reaction will still be present. (Sept. 12, 2001)

Nation's Religious Leaders Urge Calm, Pray for Peace | Churches will maintain prayer vigils for victims and leaders. (Sept. 11, 2001)

Church Leaders Around World Deplore 'Unspeakable Horror' of Attack | Christians urged to unite in prayer as they unite in shock and denunciation. (Sept. 11, 2001)

Experts Say Spiritual Roots Will Aid in Coping With Catastrophe | Pray and connect with others, advise nation's chaplains. (Sept. 11, 2001)
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For in-depth and continuing coverage, see The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, CNN, and Yahoo full coverage.

The Text This Week, a resource for pastors, has collected sermons and reflections in response to the Sept. 11 events.