Saint Osama?

This controversial piece was written to try to counteract the black-and-white, good and evil, freedom versus terrorist rhetoric that abounded following the 9/11 attacks. Now several years on, I think it still has merit. We see the US and other governments spending enormous resources on war, creating enormous pain and division, while there are many humanitarian causes that would not only have benefited directly from those funds, but that would go some way to building bridges between East and West, Christian and Moslem. It is deeply disappointing that fear and anger continue to prevail, where in truth compassion – and compassionate action – seems much more likely to create sustainable progress.

Attending Aurora Theater’s marvelous “Saint Joan” last week in Berkeley, I was struck by the parallels between the life of this fifteenth century warrior and our current nemesis in Afghanistan. Joan of Arc was a religious extremist who believed that God gave her precise instructions, independent of the advice of the established church or civil government. She also spoke of “France” and “England” in a day when both land masses were ruled in haphazard fashion by feudal lords.

Shaw suggests she was cast out of the church and burned at the stake because she threatened and undermined the institutions of the day. The Catholic Church was unwilling to embrace a theology of individual relationship with God, and the feudal lords were unwilling to relinquish power to a national leadership. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that nationalism and Protestantism have both taken hold across the world.

As we look at the events of September 11th, we may see them very much in the way the English viewed Saint Joan. An individual, with a personal vision that is independent of the mainstream dictates of Islam and independent of the national interests of nations, launches crippling attacks on an enemy who bin Laden believes to be interfering unjustly and illegally with the rights of Arabs and Moslems. The damage caused by his attacks is unprecedented on this continent. Ultimately, however, like Saint Joan, bin Laden stands outside the perceived interests of his own constituency. His extremism threatens Arab self-determination, and it does not implement mainstream Islamic theology and ethics. Equally, his aggression threatens and outrages the West, where we have enjoyed, perhaps unrealistically, an illusion of security.

Early Christian doctrine, as well as some elements within Islam, take the view that those who die in the service of their God have a special place in heaven. Political and religious extremists emerge when there is a deep feeling of injustice in the world. A leader needs followers, and a sizeable organization like Al Qaeda is staffed by men and women who share the sense of anger and outrage bin Laden embodies. I do not say this to dignify or excuse their actions. Once a person or a group has crossed the line from anger to terrorism, they must be brought to justice. Yet it would be so much better to undermine the anger and injustice by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and using our foreign policy as a tool for balance and respect, rather than short-term self-interest.

It has become clear that we are engaged in two wars: the (supposedly) short war in Afghanistan addressed to the disabling of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and the longer global war against terrorism. While the short war may be won with bombs and bullets, an even-handed, generous and ultimately forgiving approach to non-military aid is our most powerful weapon in the larger war against terrorism. It took more than five hundred years for Joan to be declared a saint – she was the enemy in the short war, but the hero of a longer campaign for peace and principle. If Osama bin Laden prompts us to create a world in which there is no need for terror, might he not have earned his own canonization?

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