The Combustible Gas of Religion

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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 watching.

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, obviously.

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.

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