Abstract: The central role of religion in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., is addressed. The terrorists were motivated by a militant fundamentalist worldview, which rejects modernism. According to Osama bin Laden, corrupt Western values and mores are not to be tolerated, making attacks justified. Religion's role in coping with the attacks also is described using Pargament's theoretical framework. Steps that individuals can take to deal constructively with the situation are listed.
Four planes were hijacked on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Two of the planes were crashed deliberately into New York City's World Trade Center towers, causing their collapse. A third plane was flown into the Pentagon, outside Washington DC. The fourth plane, after a struggle between hijackers and passengers, crashed in a field before hitting its target. An untold number of people are dead as a result of these actions, which also are expected to affect people throughout the world as its repercussions are felt in the economic and political spheres. Clearly, this coordinated, concerted attack was intended to bring down symbols of US economic and military might. Early reports also indicate that important centers of US political power - the White House and the president's airplane - also were targets.
Evidence currently points to militant Islamic fundamentalists affiliated with Osama bin Laden. One may expect that their actions were motivated by several factors, but we are left with an incomplete understanding of this group without an effort to grasp the central role of religion in their lives and how it influences their perception of the world.
Osama bin Laden, a tall man in his mid-forties, grew up in Saudi Arabia, where his father became rich in the building industry. From his father's inheritance bin Laden gained $250 million, which he has used to finance and support his view of Islam. The Sunni branch of Islam is most common in Arabia and in the world, and bin Laden adheres to a radical fundamentalist interpretation of it. Like all of Islam, the Sunnis believe in one God, and that Muhammed was God's last prophet. Islam encourages people to be devoted to God, but also to be generous, hospitable, and to demonstrate care for others. So, the important questions for us to understand regarding the terrorist attack are "What makes something fundamentalist?" and "How did this worldview influence the terrorist actions?" The overarching theme to the fundamentalist, whether Muslim or Christian, is that God is to be worshipped, respected, feared & obeyed above all else. All other considerations take a back seat to God. This intense and abiding devotion means that there are some things that are completely, utterly non-negotiable. In this way, it is like viewing the world as being black and white, with little if any gray between that which is good and that which is evil. Accompanying this is a tendency toward literalism. If scripture says that Noah built an ark, put two of each type of animal throughout the world on it, and that they sailed on that boat while the entire earth was flooded, then it happened. No questions need be asked; it happened, regardless of whether it is logically consistent with what we know about animals, floods, ancient ships or the geological record.
An important element of the fundamentalist mindset is the rejection of modernism. Contemporary western values are inconsistent with God's values and with His will for humanity. People's duty is to worship God, not to ignore or ridicule Him. God's rules are clear and they are to be enforced and respected, not flaunted. As a result, fundamentalists have very conservative views on social issues. The fundamentalist finds media portrayals of sex, inappropriate gender roles, and many other elements of Western culture to be abominations completely out of harmony with God's will. God does not like it, doesn't tolerate it, and neither do God's devoted followers.
Bin Laden was exiled from Saudi Arabia for his views in 1991, during the Gulf War. Bin Laden objected to the Saudi government policy that allowed infidels, US and other non-Muslim military troops, on their sacred soil (Saudi Arabia is considered sacred because the most holy of Islam's sites are located there.). By exiling bin Laden, the Saudi government avoided complications within its borders and with its allies. Bin Laden went to Sudan, where he used his inheritance to help the country's poor (by developing jobs, etc.), and also is said to have continued his efforts against the west. In 1996, Sudan bowed to international pressure and exiled him.
From Sudan, bin Laden went to Afghanistan where he has stayed until the present time. For bin Laden, this was a return to Afghanistan. He went there earlier, in the mid-1980s, during the country's ten-year war with the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Soviet Union left, defeated, and an intense civil war raked the country. During that ongoing war, a group known as the Taliban gained control of the majority of Afghanistan; a separatist faction remains in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban, who share a deeply rigid, radical fundamentalist view of Islam, are sympathetic to bin Laden, and have allowed him to maintain training camps to support members of his group al Qaeda. It also is important to note that most countries never recognized the Taliban's government. Indeed, the civil war continues.
Bin Laden formed the group al Qaeda (Arabic for "The Base") as a vehicle to help him achieve his goals for Islam. The consistent theme of the group has been to fight against the West, most chiefly against the US, but also against countries that aid US interests. Among other things the group has been implicated in several terrorist attacks, perhaps most notably the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 224 people. Frequently these attacks have come after a declaration (fatwa) denouncing the US and its socio-political agenda. For example, a May 1998 declaration entitled "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam" included the statement that "it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God" (Washington File, 1999). A few months later, the embassies were bombed; the US responded with cruise missile attacks in Afghanistan (bin Laden's suspected training camp) and Sudan (where he stored or made the weapons believed to have been used in the attack).
It is worth mentioning that in August, 1996, bin Laden issued a declaration of jihad. Its lengthy title makes clear bin Laden's position: "Message from Usama bin Laden to his Muslim Brothers in the Whole World and Especially in the Arabian Peninsula: Declaration of Jihad against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques; Expel the Heretics from the Arabian Peninsula" (Washington File, 1999). This declaration of jihad reflects the meaning that most westerners have come to associate with the word. Jihad, however, has been called the most misunderstood word in religion today. Although we may read of it in this context, its common, usual meaning is that of a struggle to purify oneself. In many ways, it is more appropriate to consider jihad as having the connotation similar to that of a fast, or going on a retreat, to a Christian.
People who view bin Laden as a typical Muslim, make a serious mistake, as do those who view any single individual as a prototypic example of any group. For example, a selection of public figures who profess Christianity might include: Jerry Falwell, Pope John Paul II, David Koresh, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Each claim Christianity, but few would consider each of these men to represent Christianity equally well. More broadly, Aryan Nation groups that use Christianity to further their social cause of racial separation and hatred are not considered by most people to be prototypic Christians. Likewise, bin Laden is not a typical Muslim, and militant fundamentalist Muslims are not representative of Islam.
Regardless of whether it was bin Laden or someone else who coordinated the attacks, there are more general questions for us to consider. Why are we surprised when people act in accordance with their religious beliefs? This certainly isn't the first time it has happened; examples abound. In 1997, a group of 39 people known as Heavens Gate committed suicide. "Heaven is a beautiful place," they said, and they wanted to go there. It shocked the country.
During World War II, some Japanese pilots went on Kamikaze missions. Many people learned with disbelief that these pilots, with just enough fuel to reach their targets, flew directly into the enemy and sacrificed themselves in order to serve the emperor, their God.
This was not the first time that extreme views have resulted in extreme behavior. Nor will it be the last, because attitudes do affect behavior.
In light of this, it is instructive to ask about attitudes and behavior regarding the attack. How do individuals use religion to cope with disasters such as this?
Ken Pargament (1997) describes many different ways that religion helps people deal with traumatic, life-changing events. Examining his theory will help us make some sense of people's reactions to the attack. The basic assumption underlying Pargament's theory is that people search for significance in their lives. We are goal-directed, and try to find and hold on to the things that give our life a sense of significance and meaning. For many people, religion provides a way to do this. It gives us something to strive for, and tells us how we can obtain it.
Crises, however, threaten one's sense of significance (Solomon, Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 2000). They put at risk the things that are valued, and many people use religion in order to regain and maintain that which is significant. It does this in two basic ways. The first method, which Pargament calls conservation, maintains the same items as being significant. People prefer conservational strategies because they involve less change, less stress. The alternative, transformation, is used when people determine that their current sense of significance is untenable, that they must change their source of significance.
Conservational coping comes in four general types.
Religious prevention helps us maintain the sense of significance by declaring certain things as being off limits. Drug use and extra-marital sex, for example, may be determined to be out of the bounds of acceptable behavior. Avoiding these activities helps people maintain an ongoing sense of purpose, that they are headed in the right direction, so to speak. Although it often refers to reduced rates of behavior that put one at risk, comments from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (Harris, 2001), who suggested that overly permissive societal norms are the root cause of the terrorist attack, also illustrate this perspective.
Religious support maintains the sense of significance by helping people feel as though they are not alone in their struggle or stress. God may be viewed as a helping partner, and a group of like-minded people may lend a sense that they are receiving help during a time of need. Many people's comments, such as "God is with us," reflect this form of religious coping.
Ritual purification offers a way for people to address personal failures and inadequacies. By participating in purification rites such as confession or repentance individuals can reconcile their ideal, their sense of significance, with the reality that they don't always measure up to those ideals. The countless prayer services and candle-light vigils that have been performed, and the millions of people who have participated in them, demonstrate the importance of ritual purification as a coping method to people distressed by the terrorist acts.
Religious reframing enables the individual to reinterpret (or "reframe") things so that the sense of meaning and significance is maintained. This occurs, for example, if the negative events take on a new meaning, and perhaps even become an opportunity to grow. Many of the messages heard from political leaders, such as the idea that terrorists and bombs can not destroy freedom, fit into this category. They reaffirm core values and identities, and in so doing maintain individuals' views of themselves and what they consider to be important.
Transformational coping strategies are more difficult to deal with because they require more change. If for some reason individuals cannot maintain their sense of significance, if the things that they value actually lose value, then people will opt for transformational coping. An example of this is a conversion or apostasy experience. Suppose that, after learning of the attacks and the tremendous loss of life, a person lost faith in God and humanity, forsaking them for a new belief system. This would be a transformational coping strategy. Changing one's belief system is a major undertaking, and typically comes only reluctantly, after conservational coping strategies have been tried and failed. Recent media reports have not yet reflected this type of coping but because people first attempt conservational strategies, we may expect such accounts in the future.
Religion provides a powerful way to cope with stress. Pargament's (1997) research shows that religion adds additional resources to the other coping resources that a person has available. Even if one has a close-knit family, the feeling that one is part of a religious group helps the individual to weather difficult times. Also, because religion is abstract and symbolic, one can reinterpret events so that they make sense within the core belief system. It lends itself to reframing.
Where do we go from here? Clearly, typical citizens are not empowered with the ability to strike back at the terrorists, whoever they are. Nevertheless, there are some things that people may do to benefit themselves and their communities.
Individuals can reach out to those in need. Many reasonable persons feel that we have a moral obligation to offer help to those who suffered personally in the attacks. There also are many legitimate relief agencies that can use your time or monetary contribution.
Talk about the attacks, about their implications for daily life. There will be debates about the nature of freedom and democracy, and what freedoms people might be willing to forego for the hope of greater safety. Think about these important issues and discuss them with other people. In all likelihood these debates are going to become increasingly important in the future.
Individuals can be involved in the political process where they live by writing to their elected officials, urging them to use care in responding to these heinous acts. For example, some commentators in the US and in the world remind us that much of the world sees the US as being hypocritical for preaching the virtue of democracy, at the same time that it refuses to encourage elections in countries led by what amounts to dictatorships. Do people in the US believe deeply in democracy, or do short-term expediencies win out? These are questions that American citizens should be debating. Discuss these issues, and write to your elected officials, urging them to do the same. Ask what the US can do to help its actions match its lofty ideals.
Finally, people can learn about Islam and share that knowledge with other persons. One very good source of information about Islam is http://www.religioustolerance.org. Treat Muslims well, and refuse to tolerate or condone acts of abuse. During World War II, the US held captive many of its citizens simply because of their race. The US, as a society, has learned something during the 60 years since that war. Let us show each other and the world that we reject prejudice and hate.
William James (1902/1985) suggests that we can judge religion by its effects. If religion helps people deal with tragedy, then that is good, but we also must recognize that religious ideology played a role in initiating the tragedy. Like many things, religion is complex and multifaceted, with many different effects. Religion's complexity challenges psychologists to understand its nuances and to communicate that knowledge to our fellow human beings. The attack of September 11, 2001, reminds us of the importance of this task.
Harris, J. F. (2001, Sept. 14). God gave U.S. 'what we deserve,' Falwell says. Washington Post, Page C3.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Fear of death and social behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 200-204.
Washington File, US Department of State International Information Programs (1999). FBI websites document evidence against bin Laden. [No longer online]
© September 2001, The North American Journal of Psychology
Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared at this URL on September 12, 2001. The present version was published in The North American Journal of Psychology. If you cite this article, please use the NAJP citation:
For additional study of the issues involved, I recommend the following resources:
The American Academy of Religion's section for the Study of Islam has assembled a wide array of statements and resources devoted to the terrorist attack. The AAR Section for the Study of Islam homepage is located here.
An archive of material, in the form of personal stories, photos, and emails from September 11th, 2001, is available at the 911digitalarchive.org website.
WGBH, a public television station in Boston, has produced a worthwhile program dealing with questions of religion, faith, and terrorism. Read the internet version of this program at Faith and Doubt and Ground Zero.
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