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After September 11: Is a Conflict of Civilizations Inevitable?

Notes for the Presentation of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to the “Religion and Cultures: Between Conflict and Dialogue” summit in Sant’Egidio, September 1-3, 2002.

Archbishop Martin is Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to United Nations and International Organizations at Geneva and to the World Trade Organization.

Monday, Sept. 2, 2002

(translation by NCR)

Is a conflict of civilizations inevitable? To this question the believer must respond with a “no” without equivocations. Religious communities - while recognizing the errors of the past - must feel themselves, after Sept. 11, called in a greater way to realize their specific vocation of being witnesses in the world to the unity of the human family, according to the design of God. It is a vision of the unity of the human family that promotes at the same time the dignity of every single person, and the integrity of all creation. The believer must be a person of hope; a person of hope who does not yield before what others consider inevitable; a person who spreads hope, like the capacity to face that which seems impossible to others.

The message that must leave this meeting in Palermo will have to be that of a choral “no” to conflict, reinforced by an incisive witness for peace. Here in Palermo we must seek to give a living and concrete witness of the possibility that religious leaders can face their differences in a spirit that favors concretely peaceful coexistence among persons and cultures. We’re dealing with a coexistence marked by mutual respect and reciprocal love.

Is a conflict of civilizations inevitable? If one looks at the world from another perspective, that of certain attitudes and certain political orientations that emerged in the period after Sept. 11, the answer, unfortunately, could seem to be “yes.” In front of such a quasi-inevitable “yes,” we believers should urgently create new alliances that will render such a “yes” at least less possible.

The same evening of the attacks of Sept. 11, when we were still under the shock of the events and uncertain about their meaning, a new certainty took over: the certainty of being in a new war, the war against terrorism.

No one places in doubt the necessity of combating terrorism, without ambiguity. We are all in agreement in affirming the necessity of stopping the insane desire of a few persons to impose their ideology of hate upon all, with violent means, that moreover have their most disastrous effects upon innocent persons, often the poor. Our culture of tolerance must not diminish our capacity to express disdain and condemnation when it’s a matter of violence against the innocent. The hand of the aggressor must be stopped.

The war against terrorism, however, is a new form of war. It is a war against an enemy that is difficult to identify, that does not live in a geographically stable zone, that does not represent a nation or a people in the traditional sense. The terrorism of Sept. 11 is not comparable with the terrorist movements that struggle for a precise cause or for a territory. The new terrorist of Sept. 11 is a citizen par excellence of global society. The new terrorism is more definable as a pathological deviation of the process of globalization.

But the war against terrorism is new in another sense. A war against terrorism - by definition - cannot be anything other than a war in favor of the rule of law. It is a war that seeks to restore, in a wounded world, respect for the human person and his or her rights; it is a war that does not seek simply to block an enemy, but to favor an equitable coexistence among persons, populations and diverse cultures.

Paradoxically, when the war against terrorism is defined in this way, it’s clear that it is a war that will not be able to be fought with just the traditional arms. Neither violence in itself, nor the demonstration of one’s military superiority, nor the pragmatic pacts of realpolitik are the instruments suited to the creation of a new vision of human coexistence. They can, in fact, provoke the opposite result.

In the struggle for the rule of law, in the struggle in favor of equitable relations, there is no place for hypocrisy and “spin.” If the means utilized in the struggle are distinguished by incoherence or by the desire to reinforce one’s own position of supremacy, the goal will never be able to be met. The war against terrorism, if it is a war for the rule of law and for equity, must be conducted with coherence and taken all the way to the end.

The problem is that in today’s world there is tremendous political incoherence. How many “double standards” are there? How much instrumentalization of public opinion? We live in a strangely sophisticated society, which has at the same time a tendency towards superficial credulity. As soon as conflicts disappear from the television screen, we manage to suppress them from our memory. Our concern endures only for a few minutes. We are an international community with a short memory and a brief capacity for concentration.

In an environment such as that of the United Nations in Geneva, the success of the United Nations in the transition in East Timor is justly celebrated. But I was greatly struck by an article that appeared in the Herald Tribune last Friday, written by Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili. It was a cry of the heart towards the community of nations, almost the last cry of a person - and behind his voice that of an entire people - that screams: “Don’t abandon us now!,” “What you undertook with courage you now must carry to the end.” But I am afraid that the “international community” believes it has already done its duty, and that, after the elections and the ceremonies, it’s now time to back its bags and move on.

Bishop Belo, while recognizing the courage and the effectiveness of the international intervention, draws attention to its unfinished work: the unemployment rate that hovers around 80 percent, the insecurity of the population, its fear. East Timor suffers from a rate of infant mortality among the highest in the world. Many houses are still in ruins. A war in favor of the rule of law and of equity in relations among peoples is not won with the proclamation of a new constitution, but only with the true functioning of institutions, of law, of the equity and security of a people. Independence should mean the capacity of a people to take in hand its own destiny.

If there is one of the characteristics of traditional wars that must also be applied to the war against terrorism, it is the affirmation of John Paul II: “War is a road without return.” Just as armed conflict has its logic, also the war in favor of the rule of law has its own logic that must be followed to the end. The less great social injustices and inequalities are confronted, the more one runs the risk of reinforcing the climate of insecurity that has contributed, and that will contribute, to fomenting the terrorism that the war should eliminate.

In these reflections of mine, I have utilized often the term “rule of law.” But the Christian - and I am certain that the representatives of the other faiths will be able to find similar sentiments in their own traditions - cannot be satisfied with this. The Christian is called to favor “the rule of love,” what Paul VI called the “civilization of love.”

Evidently such a vision is difficult to comprehend for those who prepare war or who place their trust in realpolitik. The exponents of realpolitik will be tempted to label any politics of values, in fact, as something dangerous. But the struggle against terrorism, if it does want to limit itself simply to the elimination of certain personalities held to be dangerous, becomes by virtue of its nature a struggle for values, a struggle in favor of coexistence among peoples. Such a struggle requires that we look at the other, and above all at the poor, not as a potential enemy, a potential illegal immigrant, or a potential terrorist, but as a brother who has the same right as I do to realize his own capacities received from God.

Paul VI affirmed that “development is the new name of peace.” The war against terrorism will carry us towards peace only to the extent it sustains a new vision of human development and of solidarity.

A war for the rule of law will not be able to take as its point of departure the safeguarding of one’s own interests, much less one’s own privilege, as something non-negotiable. One example is the commercial protectionism practiced by the same countries that propose the free market as one of the future fruits of the war against terrorism. The war against terrorism will not be won with the imposition of our positions, much less with the imposition of our men in arms, but only to the extent sustainable communities are created that promote the fundamental values of human coexistence. Coexistence requires also respect for difference. A pluralistic world will not be built by a coalition of only the “like-minded.”

The great weapon of the war against terrorism will have to be that of trust and respect towards other people, and the will to assist them to realize their capacity to guide their own destiny. The war against terrorism will not be won with some “quick fix” that resolves tensions for the moment, disregarding a sustainable future for all.

The war against terrorism is a new form of war. I am not certain, however, if all the combatants understand the extent to which it is a new form of war. If they do not face the problems with coherence and in depth, such a war will produce a yet more serious conflict of civilizations. If, however, it is conducted all the way to the end as a war in favor of the rule of law and a vision of the unity of the human family, it will promote a dialogue among civilizations that leads to an enduring peace. The response is yet to be seen.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted September 18, 2002