Religious jingoism rules the day: Americans have rallied round the flag, and "God Bless America" has become America's theme song. Today the USA has become a virtual theocracy (de facto, if not de jure). Every gathering in the public square invokes God and country; the Congress convenes a prayer session in the Rotunda of the Capitol and sings "God Bless America" on its steps; key members of the Congress and top officials of the government participate in a memorial service at the National Cathedral; similar religious ceremonies are held in every town and city, and at football, baseball, and sporting events. The established religion is monotheism, the belief that God the Father looks over this land and guides its manifest destiny. There is almost no room for dissent, and the secularist and atheist viewpoint is all but ignored.
September 11th is, of course, the immediate cause for this frenzied pious patriotism. The attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon by Islamic terrorists and the subsequent loss of more than 5,000 people are an enormous tragedy. Since the attacks, there has been an outburst of public prayer the likes of which I've not seen in my lifetime.
In response to the attacks, President Bush, in a militant speech before the Congress, declared a new War Against Terrorism. Bush's vow to root out terrorists wherever they are seems to portend a protracted religious war. For many this war pits the Judaic-Christian religious camp against Allah and his minions: "Allah akbar" competes with "God Bless America" for divine favor.
Secular humanists have long been aware of the threat of fanatic Islamic fundamentalists; that is why we have recommended "caution and prudence" and not hastily contrived policies of retribution. Bush has said that he is against terrorism, not Islam. He also has affirmed that Islam is a "peaceful religion" and that it condemns terrorism. This is contrary to the testimony of history. The sword of Islam has advanced the ideological-theological message of the Qur'an and the Hadith over the centuries, and the jihad has been ferocious in many periods of history.
With the decline of British, French, and European colonialism, some 56 Muslim countries came to life. A new impassioned missionary zeal has inspired terror and revolt, from Nigeria and Algeria to Egypt, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, the Kashmir, Malaysia, and Indonesia. That is the constant theme of Islamic history. The main point is that the absolute prohibitions on blasphemy and unbelief have strengthened the hold of Islam on its adherents. Children are indoctrinated from the beginning; they generally are not exposed to other cultures, science, literature, the arts, or intellectual challenge; the main text of the curriculum is the Qur'an, which is taken as literally true and committed to rote memory.
The battle against terrorism should be a battle for democracy, a battle for the separation of mosque and state, human rights, women's liberation, freedom of conscience and the right of dissent. This process needs to begin with Qur'anic criticism, the critical examination of the claims of the Qur'an. Unfortunately, any challenging of religious premises is considered "politically incorrect" in America. But there is no way to advance free inquiry unless there is an open exchange of ideas between Muslims and secularists. The hope is that we can persuade the substantial Muslim minorities in Western countries and in moderate Muslim states to liberalize. Islam needs a reformation like the Protestant Reformation, which made biblical criticism eventually possible. My only misgiving is whether there is enough time for this process to develop effectively. Many Muslims no doubt sympathize with the above agenda but remain silent for fear of retaliation. We need to work with them to liberate Islam from its radical fundamentalist elements.
We need to find common moral ground within the civilized world over and above the hatred and intolerance of the religious chauvinisms and nationalisms of the past. Whether humanists can persuade their fellow Americans to develop a new set of humanistic values relevant to the entire planetary community, and whether Muslims will agree, remains at this time highly doubtful.