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Need for Secular Public Square

7 January 2002

Media reports tell us that interest in religion has been surging since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sales of books on religion (particularly Islam) have soared, demands for prayer in school have increased across the country and "God Bless America" signs have sprouted outside businesses and on school marquees.

The Pew Research Center for The People and the Press found that "The Sept. 11 attacks have increased the prominence of religion in the United States to an extraordinary degree." The center reported that "78 percent now say religion's influence in American life is growing up, from 37 percent eight months ago."

The Bush administration initially used combative religious language in its response to the terrorist attacks: the president used the word "crusade" to describe the nation's anti-terrorist campaign--echoing the very word used by the radical Islamists to describe American imperialism--and the administration initially dubbed the effort "infinite justice," an overt insult to Muslim believers.

Although Bush's theological themes are somewhat subtler these days, they still are grating on the nerves of our Muslim allies.

But apparently he's ringing bells with the religious right in this country.

Washington Post writer Dana Milbank revealed in a Christmas Eve story that the Bush White House has become the unofficial headquarters of the religious right. "Bush, aided by speechwriter Michael Gerson, himself a religious conservative, speaks the language of religion better than any president since Jimmy Carter," Milbank wrote.

This tactic apparently has worked and Milbank cites some reasons, including Bush's own testimony about his religious faith and the public absence of other key figures in the religious right. But, Milbank wrote, "Bush's handling of the anti-terrorism campaign since Sept. 11 has solidified his standing by painting him in stark terms as the leader in a fight of good against evil."

Those inflexible polarities may be the requirements of war. To paraphrase our commander in chief: You're either with us or you're for terrorism.

There is danger in this rigid polarization. Cycles of violence and vengeance are more deadly and more durable when justified by the divine.

This destructive reality is the primary reason multicultural societies must design political systems based on secular values and religious tolerance.

Americans' move toward religion may be a symmetrical response to the faith-based attack on the U.S., but it isn't a logical one.

Americans were told we were attacked because the terrorists hate "our freedoms." Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's aggressive attacks on those freedoms may soon give the terrorists less to hate. But we have our own internal moral police, as well, who have threatened the very spirit of pluralism that ostensibly makes us so hateful to radical Islamists.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed the Sept. 11 attacks, in part, on "abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians" and civil libertarians, the two religious leaders expressed a deep belief in the hearts of many Americans. What's more, they revealed that the "culture war" that has been raging in this country for the last 40 years has international echoes.

In essence, this war is between the forces of democratic secularism, pluralism, religious tolerance and freedom of expression against authoritarian theology. This isn't a new war. All societies wrestle with these diverging tendencies. But as globalization has made the world smaller, it also has made this struggle more intense.

The religious right in this country will use Sept. 11 to bolster its case, and right-wingers believe the president finally is on their side in this culture war. We already see cultural conservatives mobilizing to get school prayers reinstated, pushing harder for faith-based initiatives and urging the appointment of a sympathetic Supreme Court justice.

But for the rest of America, Sept. 11 should warn us of the dangers of runaway religious passions and reaffirm the need to nourish a secular public square, where our freedoms can be exercised and our opinions expressed without fear of "divine" censure.

Salim Muwakkil.
Published in the Chicago Tribune.
2002 Chicago Tribune.

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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