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Joseph G. BockApril 14, 2003

After I graduated from high school, I became a professional firefighter in Kansas City, Mo. Going through drill school, I learned that some fires can be extinguished only by taking away their fuel. In some cases, uncontrolled fire can be stopped most effectively when it encounters blackened ash.

It was with deep admiration that many of us watched the firefighters of New York City and the others from all over the country who went to help them following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We need to keep them in mind as we undertake the long-term struggle against terrorism.Terrorism is like the unpredictable fire encountered on prairies and in forests. It is folly to fight it only with bullets, handcuffs and spies. To be successful, we have to take away the fuel.

Inequity and Iniquity

As current terrorists are hunted down, there must also be a focus on ending recruitment into the terrorist ranks. Addressing the inequalities and injustices that are the bones of contention of the terrorists is far more difficult than engaging the military, police and intelligence agencies in a search-and-destroy or a search-and-incarcerate mission. Thoughtful analysts point out that we need to address the legitimate grievances that fan the flames of hatred, such as the lack of a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; or they contend that terrorism is a consequence of poverty. But even assuming that we can address effectively these grievances and conditions, that is only a part, albeit a difficult part, of the solution. For not only must we address inequities, we must also address iniquities.

For years social scientists embraced equity theory which, broadly speaking, holds that violent behavior is a result of inequalities and injustices. But a new generation of theory is now gaining credibility called iniquity theory, developed by Clark McCauley at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict of the University of Pennsylvania.

It is one thing for people to be upset, say, about the injustice that Palestinian refugees are unable to return to their homes, forced to live in refugee camps for over half a century. It is quite another for them to develop a view that this injustice is evidence that the Christian West is the enemy of the Muslim world and that Muslims have not only the right to lash out violently against the Christian West but a religious duty to do so.

Leaders of militant movements, like Osama bin Laden, recognize that some of those who are discontented about geopolitical issues can be made to feel a collective sense of moral violation. They can be convinced that they have an obligation to be violent against that which is defacing something they hold sacred. Some Saudis, for instance, feel it is undesirable to have U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, since this is an affront to their sovereignty as a country. That discontent is then converted into a sense of moral violation by referring to the sacred symbolism of the cities of Mecca and Medina and the blasphemy involved in having nonbelievers on that soil.

The West will not be effective in responding to terrorism unless it takes away the fuel from this kind of fire. Arguments made on the basis of morality and faith must be counteracted by those who have credibility in that faith, namely leaders of that religion. The pivotal role of co-religionists in countering the hateful side of the religious sword with the other side of tolerance and love for humanity was a key finding of a massive study conducted by the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.

Taking Away the Fuel at the Community Level

There have, of course, been Muslim leaders who have openly criticized Osama bin Laden and other militant leaders. These outspoken critics have argued that Islam is a peaceful religion and that it has been misinterpreted by terrorists to provide justification for their violent deeds. These statements are extremely important and should be encouraged. We need to be careful, however, not to assume that efforts to counteract incitement to violence will trickle down to the community level.

Taking away the fuel from terrorists requires that we respond at least in part where the fire originates. Muftis who are captivated by the rhetoric and manipulation of sacred symbols by the likes of bin Laden are unlikely to be swayed by pronouncements of peace-promoting religious leaders in the country’s capital or somewhere on the other side of the ocean. And these muftis have a powerful influence on faithful Muslims. I was in Pakistan, for instance, when the Christian village of Shantinagar was attacked after muftis in a nearby Muslim village contended that the Christians needed to be taught a lesson after some of the Shantinagar residents had allegedly blasphemed against Muhammad. Counteracting that type of incitement to violence requires local presence and local response.

Interfaith Civic Groups

Where are the resources to develop that kind of ability in communities and villages where there is interfaith tension? One answer can be seen in the model provided by civic groups like Rotary, which are global in reach and have a local presence.

What might a civic group focused on counteracting incitement to violence look like? The best example I know is in Mumbai, India. There the Catholic diocese imported the base Christian communities approach from Latin America and transformed it into Base Human Communities. There are Muslim, Hindu and Christian members in each Base Human Community. These groups monitor aggression by any religious group toward another and take immediate action to prevent malicious rumors from spreading. They also take measures to prevent isolated, yet potentially explosive, events from being blown out of proportion by putting hateful acts by members of one group toward another into perspective. The program has been so successful that where these interfaith civic groups exist, inter-religious riots, which have plagued other parts of Mumbai, have been notably absent.

The beauty of this approach is that aggression is in the eye of the beholder and can be communicated inter-religiously, while counteracting that aggression can be done intra-religiously.

Religious Leaders Have a Pivotal Role

To the extent that terrorists and potential terrorist recruits are mesmerized by the rhetoric and symbol manipulation of those with flawed theological reasoning and a bigoted philosophy, peace-promoting religious leaders schooled in theology and philosophy must serve as gatekeepers of the faith. This is not unlike the role of a bishop, who sometimes has to keep a priest in line when he starts peddling religious nationalism in a way that can be construed as justifying lashing out at other religious groups, as happened, for instance, in the Balkans.

This is no easy task. Creating chapters of civic groups internationally will require considerable time and energy. In addition, certain basic materials need to be developed. I know of no comprehensive list of passages that, if taken out of context, could be potent fuel for militants together with parallel passages that peace-promoting religious leaders can use to counteract that line of theological reasoning while, of course, maintaining the spirit of the meaning of the holy book. What is needed is something comparable to the Gospel parallels but with passages likely to be used for promoting violence in one column and other passages or contextualization of passages for preventing violence in another, with lists of options about how to counteract aggression in the narrative below.

There are some stellar examples of the type of initiatives we need to take. One, conducted by the Jesuits, is the program called Preaching the Just Word, based at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.. It trains priests to engage their parishes in the social Gospel. The project combines theological education with training about social action. Another model is being implemented by Caritas Internationalis, the international confederation of Catholic relief and development agencies that includes both Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services. It is conducting a training program worldwide on reconciliation for various peace-promoting activists and church officials. Christian peacemakers must learn from such initiatives as these and design a program that focuses especially on the formation of interfaith civic groups at a local level that are capable of standing up to rumors and rhetoric that inflict a sense of moral violation.

The Spiritual Realm

But one ought not be overly mechanical about setting up interfaith civic groups with a good training program and supporting materials. There is also a transformative side to the work of taking the fuel away from the fire of terrorism, whereby peace-promoting religious leaders are able to counteract passionate emotions in partnership with God.

A concrete example of this can be found in the work of a Muslim leader named Abdul Ghaffer Khan. Ghaffer Khan was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, and he too was a charismatic leader and advocate of nonviolence. He formed a nonviolent army called the Servants of God. These followers of Ghaffer Khan risked their lives to protect besieged Hindus and Sikhs during the partition of India, when hundreds of thousands were being killed in an orgy of interreligious bloodshed.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that had there been more Ghaffer Khans in Central Asia, such a fanatical variety of Islam as the Taliban subsequently exhibited would not have developed. Both the Servants of God and the Taliban were made up of ethnic Pashtuns. Certainly, the cold war, the invasion of the Soviets into Afghanistan, the use of religion to recruit and inspire holy warriors and the ensuing vacuum in governance in Afghanistan once the Soviets left all added up to a rather peculiar set of circumstances. Yes, it would indeed be naïve to think that geopolitical forces like these would not have resulted in a regime like the Taliban if political forces were considered on their own. That is precisely the point. We have to ask ourselves what might have been the role of transformative religious leadership during the shift from a group that defended Hindus and Sikhs during the partition of India to one that beheaded people in a soccer stadium, beat women who were not covered fully enough and harbored murderers of innocent civilians.

Religion tends to be a powerful influence on people and, in its extreme forms, it can be used to justify terrorist violence on the one hand, or to cultivate a capacity for self-sacrifice to defend those threatened by violence on the other. The direction it takes is a function of religious leadership, and it is leadership in the self-sacrificing direction that we need to cultivate deliberately, systematically and substantially as we develop a response to terrorism.


People of faith would be remiss to sit by idly while governments pursue terrorists with bullets, handcuffs and spies. We must step forward as believers and do our part in the struggle against terrorism. We should consider developing a network of interfaith civic groups that have the training and materials needed to safeguard against flawed theological reasoning and bigoted political posturing that results in violence. And we must not lose sight of the critical role played by credible religious leaders who have the courage to stick their necks out, and the willingness to be instruments of the Holy Spiritthe Dove of Peace. To return to our original analogy, we can take away the fuel of terrorism through interfaith civic groups that counteract rumors, put unfortunate events into perspective and assert the peace traditions of a given faith when they encounter bigoted rhetoric based on isolated passages of holy books. Religious leaders need to be at the helm of these civic groups. They have the credibility to undertake a public theological duel with militant leaders as a way of keeping interreligious violence from catching on like wildfire. They must take away the theological fuel that is used to cultivate bigotry and hatred and replace it with a message of liberation that sees every human being as a child of God.

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