Since September 11, many have turned to religion for solace and comfort. But religious leaders and pastors have also offered moral and political guidance. We have called the nation to respond out of our best values, not our worst impulses, to protect the lives of innocents and defend our Muslim and Arab fellow citizens, to seek justice over vengeance, and to see in these terrible events a "teachable moment" to better understand the grievances and injustices that fuel terrorism. Many of us have called for a resolute response to the terrorist attacks, while insisting that how we respond to that evil will be a test of our national character.
As Taliban forces flee the cities of Afghanistan, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his Al Queda terrorists remain unknown, and the people face a harsh winter with an uncertain future--the time for moral and practical wisdom is again upon us. What should we do now, and what are the best ways to defeat terrorism?
First, the United States and the international community should commence a massive humanitarian effort to save the people of Afghanistan. Aid agencies on the ground predict astonishing numbers of people will starve this winter unless a united and large-scale relief campaign is immediately undertaken. Three decades of conflict, three years of drought, and the new war will result in a humanitarian disaster unless the world community intervenes. Preventing the deaths of millions is not only a moral imperative, but also one of the most effective ways to generate good will in the Muslim world and help undermine the terrorism that thrives on suffering and despair.
Second, the United States should halt or greatly reduce the bombing in Afghanistan. Each day since the military attacks began, the international discussion has subtly but significantly shifted from terrorism to bombing, from a world conversation about the attacks on America to debates over the ethics and consequences of air strikes.
That shift is both bad for America and for the campaign against terrorism. Despite official efforts, the number of unintended civilian casualties has steadily grown, refugee dislocation has accelerated, and the fragile infrastructure of one of the world's poorest countries further devastated. From the high ground of being the victim of attack, the superpower's military reprisals have been losing the propaganda war in the Arab world and Europe. Further bombing, particularly in cities and civilian areas, is much more likely to recruit future terrorists than find the ones we are after.
Because the source of terrorism's strength and power is ultimately not military, a primarily military strategy is unlikely to defeat them. It's time to re-direct our efforts toward choking off their financial assets, strengthening domestic security while protecting civil liberties, building new international alliances for intensive intelligence and policing, and going even further in utilizing international law and enforcement to convict, isolate, discredit and, finally, bring terrorists to justice. A U.N. tribunal on terrorism with the public profile of the Nuremberg Trials may well be in order.
Third, we have a unique opportunity to respect the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during this critical time. It is true that Arab nations attacked Israel on Yom Kippur and during Ramadan, and that Arab nations have often fought each other though it. Yet dropping American bombs on the people of Afghanistan during their holy season and winter of suffering is not a good strategy for defeating terrorism in the long run.
This "war on terrorism" has a strong religious dimension that we must come to understand at a deeper level. The Muslim world is facing a battle for the soul of Islam, and the defeat of violent Islamic fundamentalism will more likely come from inside the Muslim world that from without in a "clash of civilizations." It will be Muslims committed to a peaceful vision of their religion who will finally be key in overcoming militant Islamists who pervert their faith.
I was encouraged in visiting a Presbyterian church in Texas, where a dialogue on Islam with a local Imam drew five times the people expected, and I'm hearing similar stories from around the country. In bookstores, titles on Islam are now among the bestsellers. And I've heard of a high school in Virginia where over half the students have decided to study Arabic. We will not win this battle against terrorism with religious misunderstanding, cultural confrontation, or military firepower.
We will win it only as we build new alliances across religious, cultural, and international lines, with a new collaboration to defeat the voices and strategies of hatred and violence. Ramadan is meant to be a time for prayer, fasting, and reflection. As we ask what to do next, observing such spiritual disciplines from many religious traditions during the Muslim holy season would be a good place to start.