The Future of Religion is at Stake Today, as Much as the Future of The West

February 8, 2001
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First published in The Times on 8th February 2001

The campaign has begun and we must pray that it succeeds. The fight against terror will be long and arduous but it has started well. Contrary to expectation, there was no rush to military action, no instinctual reflex of revenge. The West has been wise. It knows that terror must be fought on many fronts, of which military action is only one. That action must be focused, targeted and precise. It must be informed by long-term strategic thinking and supported by the widest possible coalition of nations. It must make ours a safer, not a more dangerous world. That will not be achieved in one or two decisive confrontations.

The effort will be prolonged and will test our moral strength as a nation. I have unshakable faith that we will rise to the challenge. Extremists bent on violence always underestimate the strength of free societies. Within minutes of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, it was already clear that the terrorists had failed in their ultimate objective. They aimed at creating an atmosphere of panic and fear that would shake the West’s belief in itself.

After the initial shock, however, free human beings do not react with panic and fear. They try to rescue, to help, to comfort, to heal. The wave of solidarity that, within hours, went round the world was powerful testimony to the strength of the human spirit. We will need it in the months ahead.

The political leaders of the world now need not only courage but also wisdom. The risk of military action is that it may achieve too little or too much. It will achieve too little if, even after the instigators of the attack are brought to justice, thousands of their followers remain, sheltered and resourced by countries hostile to democracy, their passions fuelled by those who preach hate. It will achieve too much if it draws a widening circle of countries into a global “clash of civilizations” of the kind warned against by the Harvard analyst Samuel Huntington. At times like this, politicians are called on to be statesmen, thinking not about tomorrow but about the long-term future. Thus far the United States and Britain have been blessed in their leaders. They deserve our support and our prayers.

None of us should underestimate what is at stake. We are at a critical juncture between two possible futures. One is the globalisation of terror. Internet, e-mail, the mobile phone and ease of travel have abolished distance. Passengers on a plane or workers in an office can find themselves suddenly caught up in a conflict that is not theirs and which began hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away. When this happens we are all affected. We lose that trust and sense of security on which everyday life depends. We are plunged into what Hobbes called a “state of nature”, the “war of all against all” in which life becomes “nasty, brutish and short”, or at the very least, etched with fear. That is a world we may learn to endure, but it is not one we may responsibly give our children.

The other is a world in which we share our blessings. Globalisation is full of benign possibilities if we choose to make it so. The Internet is the most powerful means yet devised for universalising access to knowledge. New technologies in medicine and agriculture will make it possible to treat disease and famine across the globe. There is every reason — political, economic and ethical — for the West to wish to share its prosperity with others while respecting cultural and religious differences. But that will happen only if terror is defeated. Partnership depends on trust.

What the world now faces is what individual nations faced when wars of religion scarred the face of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. That era gave rise to the concept of a social contract. We now need a global contract. It will take years to evolve but it should be based on the following principles: first, a respect for cultural difference and no attempt to impose Western culture on the world. Second, a commitment on the part of the West to help developing countries to fight poverty and disease. Third, a commitment by every nation to fight terrorism, giving it neither resources nor refuge.

Religions too now face their greatest challenge since Europe four centuries ago. Which will prevail: the prophetic vision of peace or the call to holy war? As a religious believer, I must face the fact that religion is not always a good thing. Usually it speaks to the best in us, but it can sometimes speak to the worst. Religion is like fire. It warms, but it also burns; and we are the guardians of the flame.

Each of us must have the courage to fight the extremists in our midst. Children deserve better than to be taught to hate those with whom they must one day learn to live. They deserve better than to be told to win their place in paradise by committing suicide in the course of destroying innocent lives. If that is not a blasphemy against the God of life, what is?

There was a time when most people lived surrounded by fellow believers. Today, we live constantly and closely in the presence of cultures radically different from our own. That is what gives rise to fundamentalism: the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world. If religion is to rise to the challenge of a global age it must oppose fundamentalism in the name of faith itself. God creates diversity and calls on us to honour it. He has placed His image in those who are not in our image. He speaks to humankind in many languages, not one. Today the future of religion is at stake no less than the future of the West. God has given us many faiths but only one world in which to learn to live together. And if not now, when?