Editorial: Talking Through the War on the World By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday July 29, 2005

The most appalling aspect of the bombings in Spain, in England and in Egypt in the past weeks is that the choice of victims is indiscriminate. Though it appears that the bombers have some general connection to the Islamic religion, many of the victims, perhaps most of them, do too. 

The Guardian Unlimited website has a section which collects reminiscences about the London victims. One of them, Sharara Islam, was a young woman of 20 described as a devout Moslem. A school friend, Sarah Read, speaks about her:  

“I have known Shahara, or Shaz as we called her, for seven years as we attended the same school. Shahara was a very popular student with her teachers and fellow pupils and was an asset to Barking Abbey Comprehensive School. I was devastated when I heard the news of her tragic death and have thought of her every day since. Shahara was a pleasant upbeat girl who enjoyed socialising and loved her friends and family.”  

A devout, loving, pleasant girl, taken from her friends and family—why? And in Egypt, the great majority of the victims were average Egyptian working people, mostly Moslems themselves.  

What we have seen developing in the last 20 years in indiscriminate attacks like this one is not a war of one religious or ethnic group against another, though we have seen plenty of those as well. Bosnia, Uganda, Darfur—these are locations for the old sort of inter-group conflict, dreadful to be sure, but not fundamentally different from much of human history.  

The term “terrorism” once implied that terror was used as a tactic with a political goal. The expectation was that terrorists had demands, rational or not. But some recent bomb attacks are really just killing for its own sake: a war not against an enemy, but against the world itself. They are not different in kind from the Oklahoma City bombing, where the bombers were Christians instead of Moslems. Sometimes this new kind of bomber is compared to the Irish Republican Army or the Stern Gang in Israel, or even to the Palestinian Hamas, but those groups at least had an agenda for their terrorist acts. The attacks which are part of this new war demonstrate a craving for destruction for its own sake: a War on the World and all its perceived sins. 

Regarding the world and the flesh as evils to be extirpated is nothing new. Manicheanism in the early Christian era was one example, but there have been many more in religions around the world and throughout history. What’s changed is, if you will, part of the phenomenon of globalism. Aberrant offshoots of religious beliefs used to be confined to specific localities, though Manicheanism itself did eventually spread throughout Asia before it disappeared. Now fanatics can be anywhere in the world within days. Another difference is the availability of cheap technology which can easily be adapted to wholesale slaughter by a tiny cell of plotters. 

There’s no simple answer to the question of how to stop these vicious acts. The Bush administration’s nationalist wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be useless and even counter-productive, since they fuel religious hatred while stopping few of the culprits. On a local level, the British police have been firing the classic shots in the dark, but missing the real targets. They might end up killing many suspicious-looking foreigners with no effect at all on the fanatic bombers.  

Britons have gotten used to minicams everywhere, a sight still unnerving to visiting Americans. These have proven useful in identifying bombers after the fact, but don’t seem to be much of a deterrent to suicidal attackers. Airport searches are no barrier to weapons manufactured from parts available at local hardware stores.  

A modest hope for heading off these insane acts of destruction might be the usual clichéd remedy for all kinds of problems: communication. In this case, the communication needs to take place between communities—a continuous open dialogue between religious believers and those outside their own group—and especially within communities. Women of these communities, often opponents of violence, need to find ways of talking to their husbands, sons and occasionally daughters about any feelings of alienation from the world before they fester into violent acts. Religious leaders must preach the messages of peace and love for fellow humans which are central to all of the major world religions, as Islamic clergy in Britain are reported to be doing now at Friday services.  

In communities like Berkeley—or London—where inhabitants come from many parts of the world and have many different belief systems, ongoing dialogue holds out the only real promise of eventually conquering terror. Organizations like Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission will not by themselves put an end to inter-group strife, but they can function as testing grounds for openness and cooperation among participants. Councilmembers should query their appointees about their commitment to the commission’s goal of promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts among all kinds of groups. No religion, no ethnic group and no nation—even Israel—should be given a free pass out of the discussion arena. It’s too important.