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Conflict of religions

Culture | We neglect the underlying religious issues in the war and terrorism at our peril

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

American troops have been able to handle the Iraqi troops arrayed against them. But it is far more difficult to deal with the nemesis that started it all, terrorism.

Iraqi combatants herd women and children in front of them, using them for cover. Machine-gun nests shoot out of the windows of hospitals. Commanders and political rulers move into civilians' homes. Anti-aircraft batteries are placed on the roofs of schools.

Why do they do this? Don't they want to prevent civilian casualties on their own side?

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The answer, of course, is that they know Americans, as well as British and Australians, have qualms about killing civilians. American Marines hesitate to fire through a crowd of women and children, even while their enemies are shooting through the crowd at them. Airmen hate the prospect of bombing hospitals and schools.

The Iraqi regime knows that Americans, even while fighting a war, have a way of valuing human life. They are using our values against us.

Such tactics at least provide a smoking gun for the war that may be more pertinent than weapons of mass destruction or UN resolutions. They prove that Saddam Hussein operates a terrorist regime. Regardless of whether he was involved with al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, he is a terrorist of the same breed. The war with Iraq, like the war in Afghanistan, is not so much a war as a major battle in the overarching war against terrorism.

Underlying this war is not only a conflict of values but a conflict of worldviews. As the terrorists themselves insist, it is a conflict of religions.

Americans tend to be in a state of denial about the religious dimensions of this war, thanks to our habit of political correctness and our omni-tolerant religious relativism. We insist that Islam is a benign religion of peace and tolerance. While it is possible to find certain imams, Muslim intellectuals, and assimilated Arab-Americans who believe that Islam protects women and jihad is a metaphor for moral struggle, this is not the version of Islam we have to contend with.

Just as it is not liberal Christianity that is growing throughout the world but the Bible-believing kind, the Islamic revival that is having its Great Awakening from refugee camps to college campuses is the Quran-believing kind.

Pundits, policymakers, law-enforcement agents, and war planners need to come to terms with a simple fact: A jihad has been declared against Americans.

This means that authoritative Muslim clerics have issued a decree that killing Americans is not just a religious duty but an act that merits salvation. This edict helps explain suicide bombers and the eagerness of Saddam's "martyr brigades" to fight to the death.

It also explains what seems so puzzling to American war planners: why non-Iraqis are sneaking across the border to fight Americans, why we don't seem all that welcomed by the people we are liberating, why opponents of Saddam are turning around to attack us, as well.

We expected the Shiites to rebel against Saddam and his Sunni henchmen. But while these two branches of Islam, like Christianity's Protestantism and Catholicism, have often been at each other's throats, martyrdom is a central tenet of Shiite theology and jihad is a central teaching of the ascendant Wahabi sect of the Sunnis.

Saddam is indeed an infidel, his Baath party holding to an ideology of national socialism based on Arab nationalism. There was a chance to split the Muslim population away from his secularist regime at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, but that was before the Islamic revival and the gospel of jihad. Saddam has been trying to ride that wave, downplaying his Baathism and presenting himself as a pious Muslim, thereby tapping into the new Islamic zeal.

One of the mistakes in human relations is "projection," the tendency to project one's own ways of thinking onto other people. Just as our former European allies project their own history of imperialism onto us, thinking that Americans are just trying to take over other people's land, as Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin were always doing, Americans project their own love of liberty and democracy onto the Iraqis.

We have noble goals of liberating the Iraqi people and replacing tyranny with democracy. This is devoutly to be wished. But American freedom and democracy were built on the foundations of Christian convictions and a biblical worldview.

The doctrine of sin led the Founders to build in checks and balances, to limit the power of the state, to guarantee the rights of individuals. Can a democratic republic be built without these foundations? Can a free society be built from a religious system based on external controls?

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