September 11 highlighted radical faith; Can it be defused?

September 8, 2011

(The World Trade Center burns after being hit by a plane in New York on September 11, 2001/Sara K. Schwittek)

When Henry Kissinger published “Diplomacy,” his study of international relations, in 1994, it had no index entries for Islam or religion. Ten years later, another secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, wrote her own study on world affairs: “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs.” Almost half the book dealt with Muslims and Islam.

The contrast between the two books highlights the way the world changed after 19 Muslims flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001, claiming to be acting in the name of God. The attacks brought religion back into public affairs for many western countries where faith had largely faded into the private sphere.

“9/11 showed religion can no longer be ignored,” Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, told a seminar on religion after September 11 at Cambridge University. “It is a critical element in many national systems and in radical and extremist movements, but also in movements oriented to human rights, peace-building and civil society,” he said.

Since that day, governments and researchers in North America and Europe have turned to sociology, psychology, anthropology and other disciplines trying to understand religiously motivated violence and work out how to prevent it.  The results are mixed. Religion’s exact role in radicalism is unclear. Psychology and group dynamics may drive extremists more than faith. The Arab Spring could become a democratic option that trumps the jihadist ideology of al Qaeda.

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