"If something is defined as real, it is real," goes a common dictum of the
social sciences. The passive voice, however, conceals an uncertainty: Defined by
whom? What if, for example, two antagonists define their conflict in opposing ways?
As American forces strike in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and the
Taliban say this is a religious war--a view that reportedly has resonance through
much, though not all, of the Islamic world. If not merely our adversaries but
millions of others define the war as religious, is that the reality?
No, we say, we have no conflict with Islam. Muslims in America live in peace
and enjoy the right to practice their religion more freely than in many officially
Islamic countries. In Kosovo we intervened on behalf of a Muslim people. If there
is prejudice in America against Arabs and Muslims, it violates our deepest
principles and we mean to combat it.
We frame the war in different ways. At the most general level, we say this is
the War on Terrorism, a war against clandestine enemies that threaten
civilization everywhere and against the states and shadowy transnational
organizations that sponsor and support them. If the terrorists hijack Islam, then
it too is a victim of their perfidy.
At the same time, we define the war in highly personal terms. It is a war,
unlike any other in our history, against a single man, Osama bin Laden, and his
immediate lieutenants. The focus on an identifiable person carries the implicit
meaning that this is only a limited conflict, not a "clash of civilizations." Just
give up bin Laden and his henchmen, President Bush told the Taliban before
fighting began, though as time goes on, the idea of limiting the objectives of
the war to bin Laden's killing or capture seems increasingly implausible. The
focus on bin Laden may have inadvertently given his message more prominence, but
it has the positive function of suggesting that one day, with bin Laden's death,
we can declare the war over.
Still, we won't get off so easily from the war of definitions. Since the
Taliban regime observes no distinction between church and state, we are fighting a
leadership that is as much religious as political. The aftermath of September 11
has also made us aware that in many Islamic countries schools run under
fundamentalist auspices have been spreading anti-American hatred and incubating
the terrorist networks now threatening our security. And rather than simply being
an expression of indigenous sentiment, these schools have developed with money
from Saudi Arabia--officially our ally, though silent and uncooperative in the
At home, we expect our government not to favor one religion over another or
enter into the internal disputes within a religion on behalf of any sect or
denomination. Some cases do test our principles: religious beliefs or practices,
for example, that interfere with the performance of legal obligations. But on the
whole, the state is able to maintain its neutrality because the instances of
religious conflicts with the legal order or national security are relatively
The issue is different when we look abroad today and consider
the ramifications for our foreign policy. Americans have a stake in the outcome of
conflicts within Islam; we cannot pretend to be neutral about sectarian movements
and institutions that not only justify violence against us but also channel young
men into the networks that carry it out. In this sense, the war has a religious
character: It pits us against a religious tendency. The point, however, is not
confined to Islam. Jewish extremists in Israel, unwilling to enter any kind of
compromise with Palestinians, also present a threat to peace, not because they
threaten us with violence, but because they promise to block agreements that
would benefit our security as well as Israel's.
In short, the neutrality toward religious differences that our
government observes at home is not sustainable in foreign policy--at least, not
to the degree that it is domestically. Contests for influence that would
ordinarily be none of the state's business inside our borders are necessarily its
business abroad. The problem is doubly complicated in the Saudi and Israeli cases
because of our uneasy alliances with the governments and the difficult internal
situations each of them faces. We are scarcely able to breathe a word of
criticism, much less exert any pressure.
Unlike Europe and so much of the rest of the world, America has avoided wars
of religion. This is one of many reasons why the current struggle is deeply
threatening to us. It may pull us into a kind of conflict that appears to violate
principles that are fundamental to our constitutional system and national
achievement. The challenge for us is to recognize the religious realities of the
war without allowing the conflict to become a war of religion. Only if we win the
war about the war can we hope, in the long run, to win the war itself.
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