The Combustible Gas of Religion

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

They all of them committed
a breach of national security. In the alarming new world of Jihad-for-breakfast
they threatened to turn the United States into just another potential victim
for just another holy war. It’s not the kind of war with which Americans
are familiar. We’re learning, painfully, how to generate defense. But we
haven’t a clue about how to play offense.

The separation of church
and state has been a powerful stimulus for national effectiveness in this country.
It has permitted people to believe what they want to believe or don’t want
to believe. It encourages people to engage in religious activities as private
endeavors. It provides a bubble of protection from interference by civil authority
for the lawful behavior of religious groups. This is so serious that Caesar
doesn’t even collect taxes from the sacred realm. The system has been effective
for centuries and appears to remain durable.

One of its features is that
it is traditionally indecent for political figures to seek votes on the explicit
basis of religion. It has been a central American contribution to healthy international
dialogue that Americans don’t do Jihad. If anyone wanted to take on the
United States they had to do so because they hated or feared it or didn’t
like its movies or its starlets or its burgers. But they could not raise their
sword to decapitate our national gods because, as Washington politicians are
fond of saying about policies they don’t like, we don’t have a dog
in that fight.

Now there is a danger that
we do and that they can try. Both George Bush and Al Gore waxed lyrical about
the leadership of Jesus and Joe Lieberman confessed to moral excellence because
of his religion. These glistening pieties not only made normal digestion difficult
but they were exceptionally maladroit positions to establish with the world

Especially in those parts
of the world composed of Jihad summer camps, as in Pakistan or elsewhere. There,
young warrior pietists are trained in regimes that make Army Ranger drill sergeants
seem like guidance counselors in Berkeley, CA. There are 14 private armies in
Pakistan all eagerly producing commando suicide fighters enrolled perhaps at
age 14 and once fully engaged in their noble work unlikely to survive more than
four years. From a remarkable report in the Los Angeles Times of Dec.
28 by Robin Wright, we learn that these individuals decide that "Jihad
gives life purpose. Without it we are useless." Some 2200 recruiting stations
gather together thousands of youngsters who live in some 128 or more self-sustaining
compounds after demonstrating their readiness to serve and Make a New Start
by destroying their families’ television sets. Very serious young men,

Some of the stimulus for
this emerges from the desperate state of Pakistani civic life–itself the
only country explicitly formed on religious grounds and which has endured decades
of corrupt government and collapsing institutions. But the overriding justification
for the effort of the Jihadi is religious zeal and a commitment to establishing
Taliban-like conditions first in Muslim communities such as those in Nigeria
and Indonesia and then–Kansas.

Osama bin Laden’s team
may receive the best publicity of the killer groups. But his is only one of
a number and competition among them for attention and choice assignments is
surely not impossible. They have no capital city and no formal structure but
are everywhere. By definition, groups inhaling the gas of religion have a fertile
source for conflict, namely arguments about perfection and how to achieve it.
And it would not be the first time if innocent bystanders are dragged into struggles
and suffer from the skillful murderousness of trained owners of fine weapons.
This is to say nothing of what such temptestuous manipulations of religious
symbolism will mean for the stability of the arch-monarchies in the Gulf region.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have
already formed, on Dec. 31, the Gulf Cooperation Council for military purposes.
But it is not clear how much of its activity will focus on the challenges to
authority from the elusive empire of Jihad or how easy it will be to separate
the religious fundamentalists supporting the system from those determined to
destroy it.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas
it has become clear that the world’s security situation has taken a sharp
turn for the really worse, because of these recent entrants to the battle for
truth and perfection. In late December the UN approved a joint U.S.-Russian
(!) resolution asking the Taliban please to hand over bin Laden or endure an
international embargo on their enthusiasm for armaments. The presidents of India
and Kazakhstan among others have stimulated efforts to create regional antiterrorist
alliances and 2001 will be marked by an intense effort to generate international
cooperation against shadowy enemies whose principal goal is to be enemies of
those they define as evil. And they are increasingly skilled and experienced
and lethal.

That’s why the pious
politicians who so eagerly murmured about their fabulous rectitude during the
election should shut up about it. It is now becoming dangerous. Their theatrical
sanctimony may attract threats to us all.

It is all very well for
the conservative wing of the government-to-be to be thrilled by the granite
traditional beliefs of some Cabinet appointees and by the thought that at last
moral purity will sweep the land like a brisk spring wind from the North Atlantic.
In the stately alternation of U.S. government between secular lawyers and pious
deacons, it appears to be the turn of the latter group. That’s how the
system worked itself out.

But let’s not attract
the wrong kind of attention for unnecessary reasons of self-righteous sentimentality.
America has enough enemies because it is strong, rich, amusing, noisy, you can
buy cheese at midnight, drive for days without hitting water, adventurers pay
smugglers to sneak them into Arizona rather than Afghanistan. This truly bothers
people. Now that politicians have their votes and jobs and parking spaces, perhaps
they will leave off their theological musings because someone with a Kalashnikov
or Scud or anthrax cocktail and a headset tuned to his own line to divinity
may take dangerous offense.