Atheism In The New Holy War

It's been a time for fear, grief, strength, and awkwardness for many atheists in the New York City area. Whether we lost someone in the ruins or merely struggle with cut-off streets and services, the World Trade Center terrorist attack has disrupted our lives very locally. When the rest of the world reads about the aftermath, they also read about us.

Most New Yorkers identify with a religion even when they're not religious. So it's understandable that all the available support forums are religious, and mostly Christian. To their credit, the sectarian groups that sponsor them have joined together and have bent over backward to make them friendly and open to all. But interfaith efforts, vaguely spiritual at best and monotheistic at worst, rarely support the rationalism of freethinkers. And even purely patriotic acts seem to echo religious fervor or ritual, such as buying a flag and discovering the almost Levitican federal laws that govern how it is raised, displayed, lowered, and eventually destroyed.

The post-attack support groups and charity relief have had an explicit organized-religion character. Both community vigils at firehouses and neighborhood altars on sidewalks show a more popular piety, starring votive candles and hand-drawn art, and they include flyers with both familiar religious verse and the new "O God, Our Words Cannot Express," a hymn composed by a New Jersey minister hours after the attack. The makeshift murals of printouts on walls come closest to a rational response, showing the missing people's names and faces and characteristics and relatives' information. Hard information mixed with hope.

Is all this religiosity a harmless coping mechanism? Or could it instead reflect beliefs that created this crisis, beliefs that might make it worse? Why are Islamic extremists so eager to demonize the West, and why are Westerners, including sympathetic Muslims and Arab-Americans, so eager to demonize and disavow those extremists? Will there be an American holy war, and if so, how will atheists feel in its foxholes?

The Popular and Press Response

"This Is a Time to Turn to Your God," shouted the New York Post in a headline soon after the attack. Its article "Grief-Stricken Seek Solace In Religion" quotes a churchgoer as saying, "I've prayed to God to give us a sign that he's still here. We need divine intervention now more than ever." "I was having a cigarette [outside] when it exploded," said another. "I never thought a cigarette would save my life -- and I'm here to give thanks.'" Predictably hawkish, the Post's Steve Dunleavy wrote, "The response to this unimaginable 21st-century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift -- kill the bastards. . . . A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them if you have to. . . . As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts."

"New Yorkers Seek Solace in Prayer," said Newsday in an article profiling a woman who said that her being "guided by God" let her "dodge the shattered remnants of elevators and flames that burned like funeral pyres to lead fellow employees to safety." The Daily News in one article called early rescues "miraculous," and in another article credited a victim's "strong faith" for her rescue from a subway through a street grate. (Presumably those that died were without faith, or without faith that mattered.) Churches bulged with new visitors, but articles described them as listless, confused, and looking for answers. "I'm just torn up by what's happened. I can't go down there and help dig, so maybe I can help pray," said one person.

Prayer services, prayer vigils, and candlelight vigils reigned for several days. The Upper East Side's Von Steuben parade and other fairs, as well as a public college's graduation ceremonies, were canceled and replaced by prayer services. Many churches, including those of fringe sects such as Christian Science, hope to bring in new faces by advertising free support and counseling. Some Jewish groups have promoted their emergency charity efforts in the context of the High Holy Days (the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) A New York Times article did concede that "humanists, atheists, and agnostics" also mourned, but to illustrate that, it quoted a Humanistic Judaism rabbi.

Those who like visions savored a Brooklyn photographer's snapshot that includes a strange shape in the random clouds of smoke (see photo at top right). They say they can see eyes, a nose, a mouth and horns. Others say they see heavenly images above the face. The photographer, a longtime journalist, said he never noticed a face till he was questioned about it, and that he had not doctored the image. CNN and several other news organizations have also broadcast a color smoke photo (see photo at bottom right) that "many" say also contains a satanic face.

The Official Response

On the national front, President George W. Bush's first statement announcing the attacks immediately characterized them as "evil," a word weighty with religious absolutism. He also said, "We pray for healing and for the strength to serve and encourage one another in hope and faith," and that "[all those who grieve] will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.'"

The official Congressional benedictions, as usual, offered submission and asked for inspiration, and also specially mentioned the attacks. The Senate chaplain's opening prayer on the following day asked for divine leadership. The House of Representative's chaplain, two days later, prayed to "You alone who can change human hearts. . . . You alone [who] can reshape perspective and bring to focus determined goals based on the truth that removes illusion."

Soon Bush called for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, asking for nationwide noontime memorial services. He also encouraged "employers to permit their workers time off during the lunch hour to attend the noontime services to pray for our land."

On that day, at a service at Washington National Cathedral (after performances of the now often heard "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful"), Bush gave a sermon. "We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who loved them. . . . Our purpose as a nation is firm, yet our wounds as a people are recent and unhealed and lead us to pray. . . . This world he created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn. . . . Neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth can separate us from God's love."

Former presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter, and Ford, along with members of Congress, cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices, joined Bush. Billy Graham, a longtime advisor to American presidents, also attended despite his lingering illness. At the service, he preached that "we've always needed God. . . . God is sovereign, and he is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering. The Bible says God is not the author of evil. . . . We desperately need a spiritual renewal in this country. . . . God understands our sin and our suffering, for he took them upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ our sins and our suffering." The country will "feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us," said Graham.

Bush also flew to the World Trade Center rescue site for a half-hour visit. Standing on a crushed fire truck, he said that "America today is on bended knee in prayer." Later he briefly huddled with Giuliani, Cardinal Edward Egan, and other officials for more praying. He spent "a prayer-filled 90 minutes" at the Jacob Javits Center with relatives of the victims, and signed "God bless" on a photo that a grieving widow slipped it into her Bible.

Back in Washington, both at a visit to a mosque and in an address to a joint session of Congress, Bush again emphasized the "evil" of the terrorists but stressed that Islam itself was peaceful. "Those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah," he said in his congressional address. "The terrorists are traitors to their own faith."

In Manhattan, Egan led a mass of supplication at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Guests included Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the city police and fire commissioners, and Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. About 200 U.N. diplomats were also present. Afterward, Egan appeared on the church steps and along Fifth Avenue to bless the outside crowd and lead them in singing "God Bless America."

Despite still permitting commercial jets to overfly stadiums, the Federal Aviation Administration routed flights away from Yankee Stadium during the Prayer for America, a 20,000-strong interfaith service with tickets reserved for families and colleagues of the World Trade Center attack victims. The thin crowd, one-third the expected total, were entertained by celebrities, preached to by leading clergy from a dozen religions, and played patriotic music including "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and of "God Bless the U.S.A.," and inspirational music including "Wind Beneath My Wings." Special effects included the Muslim call to prayer, the sound of a ram's horn, and a church bell. Political leaders present including former President Bill Clinton, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, and former Mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins. The service was simulcast on giant screens at KeySpan Park in Brooklyn and Richmond County Bank Park on Staten Island.

Across the Hudson, principals in Roxbury, New Jersey added "God Bless America" to local public schools' signs in response to the attacks. The local superintendent had first ordered the phrase removed "to respect the beliefs of Muslims and others with different religious beliefs," and the signs were changed to "Stand Up for America" and "Proud to be American." But after claiming that there was a "strong public backlash," the superintendent rescinded his order and plans to implement the signs across his district.

A Bad Time to Be Muslim (or Just Swarthy)

Local discrimination against Arabs and Muslims began even before investigators were certain that the attackers were foreign rather than domestic. It has continued, even though Muslim lives also were lost in the World Trade Center. In South Huntington, Long Island, a 76-year-old man tried to run down in his car a Pakistani woman and then chased her by foot outside a mall. He screamed "I'll kill you! I'm defending my country!" while passers-by did nothing during the ten-minute chase. Arab teenagers in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn have been kicked off sidewalks by police who said, "It's not safe for you." Also in Bay Ridge, non-Arab volunteers now escort Arabic children safely to school. Across New York City, many yellow-cab drivers are refusing to work, and some who do work are suffering assaults, thrown rocks, and spitting. Police have so far documented assault, rock-throwing, graffiti and other vandalism, car rammings, attempted arson, telephone harassment, hate mail, menacing against Arabs and Muslims. In response, some Arabic men have shaven their beards and mustaches.

The Middle Eastern commercial strips of Steinway Street in Queens and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn are unusually quiet. In parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, leaflets and e-mails urge residents to boycott Arabic stores whose staff are accused of celebrating the World Trade Center attack. Some women who wear Islamic veils or headscarves are harassed, spat at, egged, or stoned on the street. Some remove such clothing before shopping, or substitute baseball caps, or don't use trains or streets at all. "Our mothers and our sisters are trapped in their homes, afraid to leave," said a Jersey City Muslim man. Because many Arab-Americans came from oppressive countries, almost none of the women call the police when they are chased or have scarves pulled from their heads.

Even those who are mistaken for Muslims are victimized. Because observant male Sikhs wear turbans and untrimmed beards, they too are targeted, despite having themselves been treated badly by Muslims throughout history. "We look more like bin Laden than do most Muslims," said one Sikh to a reporter. Some Sikhs have discussed wearing smaller turbans or abandoning them for baseball caps or bandannas. But boastful Sikhs interviewed in an Associated Press article said "I'd rather die than give in," and that "Sikhs don't fear." Recently, a Queens Sikh man was shot in the forehead by a BB gun as he left a temple. Pakistanis and even non-Muslim Indians are at risk. A Hindu temple was firebombed in Matawan, New Jersey.

The Jewish Response

City officials ordered the evacuation of a number of synagogues, perhaps fearing terrorist attacks against Jews. Organizers canceled the IsraelNOW Solidarity Rally, which had expected to draw 50,000 participants from across the country. Billed as a "non-political" expression of unconditional support for the Jewish state, it was to feature Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as a speaker.

Because of the widespread deaths at the World Trade Center, many New York City rabbis softened harsh Rosh Hashanah sermons, which normally stress that repentance, prayer, and charity can lessen divine judgment's severe decree over who lives and who dies.

Since some bodies will not be fully identified or even found, Orthodox Jews are frustrated by their inability to confirm such deaths without Talmud-approved direct identification, and by their inability to bury their dead within 24 hours. Some rabbis question DNA tests and will do not accept those results alone as evidence of death. Religiously acceptable proof among the Orthodox is also needed to invalidate Jewish marriages so surviving spouses can wed again.

Many Jewish groups see the attack as a validation of their fears and support for Israel, and hope it will inspire more American sympathy and support. "Today, every American, irrespective of their country of origin or religious affiliation, is a Jew and an Israeli," said a Brooklyn rabbi. "Yesterday, we woke up in the morning to know what our brothers and sisters have been living with in the state of Israel." But some groups are worried that Israel may become less important as the United States tries to build an Arab-Muslim coalition. And though many Jewish groups were quick to express condolences when the local anti-Muslim attacks began, several warned that "poorly planned ecumenical efforts" might whitewash Islamic groups that they felt had inadequately opposed Middle East terrorism. "One of the lines we don't cross is a line that takes us into terrain of dealing with people who defend our worst enemies," said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

The Washington Post has noted that while "virtually all [American] news organizations described the carnage as the work of 'terrorists,' they have often avoided that term when reporting attacks against Israeli civilians," preferring terms such as "suicide bomber" or "militant Palestinian organizations." Jews may look forward to a change in media references to such Palestinians in the near future.

The Enemy Is Evil, or Worse, Irreligious

Clergy who urge retributive violence are in the minority, at least those who make it into print. For instance, at the early mass before Egan's at St. Patrick's Cathedral, officiating priest Eugene Clark raged that "anyone who preys on the innocent is an enemy, and if that enemy persists we must strike them down."

But even clergy and politicians who counseled temporal restraint did not moderate their opinion of the "evil" of the Islamic enemy, or of the supremacy of the god of the West, under whom retaliation would somehow happen without hatred. Floyd Flake, the former member of the Congressional Black Caucus who is pastor at the 13,000-member A.M.E. Church in Queens, told his congregants that "this attack reminds us of the evil that is prevalent in the world. We need help that only God can give." Said New York City's Cardinal Egan in his mass, "I am sure that we will seek justice in this tragedy as citizens of a nation under God in which hatred and desires for revenge must never have a part. . . . I am sure that we will not harbor thoughts of war of any kind without careful, careful consideration of what is right and just before the one God and father of us all." Said Bush on September 11, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Returning to the White House from Camp David, Bush urged the United States to prepare to rid the world of "evildoers." "This is a new kind of evil and the American people are beginning to understand," he said.

The same leaders often call the enemy uncivilized, especially in comparison to the West. "We want this outrageous crime, this evil, to be handled before the courts of civilized people," said Egan in his mass. Egan then read a message from Pope John Paul II (nee Karol Wojtyla) that urged New Yorkers "not to be conquered by evil, but to conquer evil with good. . . . The best of us donned hard hats and workmen's gloves and face masks to deal with this horror as decent, civilized human beings."

"Civilized people around the world denounce the evildoers who devised and executed these terrible attacks," Bush said in his call for a national day of prayer.

Bush has added to the demonization by defining childishly the terrorists' agenda. On the national day of prayer, Bush said, "They have attacked America because we are freedom's home and defender, and the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time." At the joint session of Congress, Bush said that the terrorists "hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

At the same time, Bush has separated the attackers from all Muslims by declaring Islam free of aggressive intent. "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. . . . The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," said Bush while touring a Washington mosque. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war." At the joint session of Congress, Bush closed with: "[Islam's] teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself."

Others are also eager to exonerate the faith. "Islam is not a killer religion," said heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali when visiting rescue workers at the World Trade Center attack command center. "Islam means peace." The terrorists, he said, are not followers of Islam. At the Islamic Mission, a downtown Brooklyn mosque, an imam vehemently denied that "true Muslims" would have attacked the World Trade Center. The director of the Muslim Center in the Bronx said the terrorism "is absolutely against the teachings of Islam. No matter what they say, whoever did this does not belong to our community. Whoever did this does not belong to Islam." "They are no believers of God at all, nor do they believe in his messenger Muhammad," said an Islamic New York Police Department chaplain at the Prayer for America in Yankee Stadium.

Some leaders even have exonerated not only Islam, but all religion. "This emphatically has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with people overcome by the venom of hatred. It is beyond comprehension how anything like this could have happened," said Episcopal bishop Mark Sisk of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington said, "We strongly deplore the misdeeds of those who routinely justify violence on religious grounds. . . . Our religions teach us the sanctity of human life; they apply no veneer of respectability to slaughter carried out for personal vengeance or political purpose."

Religious Violence? You Don't Say!

Only the religious place religions above reproach. The history of war is mostly one of religious carnage, with religious campaigners slaughtering themselves and each other in competition for resources or in condemnation of ideas. Arguments over the true intents of scriptural teachings are inevitably prejudiced by the sympathies of the arguers. Those who quote technicalities to separate themselves from their violent religious peers ignore the fact that religious conflict need not be doctrinally sound.

The acts of the few terrorists of September 11 do not indict the billion Muslims who share their faith. But their acts do arise from the same faith, and cannot be disavowed as non-Islamic because those acts are unpleasant. Moderate Arab governments have often condemned these new attacks and past attacks on American interests, but that does not mean they would not welcome a weaker American presence in the Middle East.

Fatwa of February 23, 1998, issued jointly by bin Laden and several other leaders of the International Islamic Front (excerpts)

From the preamble:

For more than seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. . . . Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Crusader-Zionist alliance, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres. . . . Third, if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.

From the fatwa itself:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim [again]. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, "And fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," and "fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God."

Osama bin Laden's expressed goals (see box at right) hint at the possible motivations of September's terrorists. Bin Laden focuses on an intruding Israel and a corrupt Saudi Arabia, both of which are closely tied to the United States. But Islamic opposition to the West also includes resentment of U.S. military activity in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as even longer-term American political and economic support for autocratic Arab regimes, as well as cultural influences seen as an endless affront to Islamic culture.

On the American side, some official slips of the tongue help show a Western religious attitude behind the planned reprisals. In his post-Camp-David speech, Bush called the future war on terrorism a "crusade." Since "crusade" has historically meant a Christian holy war against Muslims, some Middle Eastern clerics and Arab-American critics instantly denounced the word as proof of that intent. Also, the U.S. military named its planned retaliation "Operation Infinite Justice," evoking both omnipotence and omnipresence -- too much of it; several Islamic scholars objected on the grounds that only a god could render infinite justice, so the name changed.

An unofficial but even more newsworthy quotation was retracted as yet another slip, but less convincingly so. When fundamentalist evangelist Jerry Falwell was a guest on fundamentalist evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club, he told Robertson that the Christian god had protected America "wonderfully these 225 years. And since 1812, this is the first time that we've been attacked on our soil and by far the worst results.

"Throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools," Falwell said. "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad.

"I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America," Falwell continued. "I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" Later in the show, Falwell asserted that because of those groups, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

The media happily hammered Falwell, although headlines singled out his blame of gays and lesbians more than they did his blame of secularists, which was his main point. Two days later, Falwell said he didn't mean to blame any one group for the destruction. "But I'd say this is a wakeup call from God," he told the Associated Press. "I feel our spiritual defenses are down. If we don't repent, then more events might happen in the future." Yet before Falwell's weak retraction, Robertson backed Falwell, saying, "We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, 'Why does this happen? It is happening because God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.'"

The vengeful god of Jerry Falwell seems a world away from the rescuing and redeeming god celebrated in the candlelit sidewalk altars that have sprouted on New York City area sidewalks since September 11. No more than a tiny fraction of those cruelly trapped in the World Trade Center were rescued, another poor performance by an illusory deity. After such injury to America, will Falwell's god seem more powerful and appealing? Which one will be invoked to support future foreign policy?

Atheists choose no gods, but we should be wary of the ones that rise and fall for others. We should speak out and vote according to clear consciences unmuddied by religious loyalties. If Americans do not acknowledge the motivations of Islamic extremists, and past imperfect U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and instead fall for the simple claims of Bush and others that opponents are "uncivilized" and "evil," then we will be unable to respond rationally and effectively. The cost of an irrational response might be the creation of what hasn't existed for over 1,000 years -- a united, zealous, expansionist Islamic superpower with the strength to oppose the Enlightenment traditions of the Western world. And then, whether you believe in a god or not, all hell will break loose.

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