Disarming Terror: A Role for Believers

Walter Cardinal Kasper

President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity

This is a translation of an address delivered by Cardinal Kasper on September 7, 2004 in Milan. The address was part of a conference co-sponsored by the Community of Sant' Egidio and the Archdiocese of Milan, entitled "Religions and Cultures: The Courage to Forge a New Spiritual Humanism." German and Italian texts are available on the website of the Community of Sant' Egidio

Following the conclusion of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was hope for a period of peace and of worldwide peaceful and democratic development. Now we know that that hope was altogether illusory. The new scourge of humanity and the new challenge posed to the whole of civilization is terrorism together with worldwide hunger and poverty. Without doubt this represents a challenge for all civilized states that will arguably characterize the whole of the new century that has just begun.

The causes of this terrible phenomenon are complex. Surely social problems also play a role. However, terrorism can never be justified by existing structures of injustice and the seriously unjust distribution of goods; these, in themselves, play an important role in the terrorists' attempts at justification, and are of help to terrorist groups, especially small ones, or minimally can serve to encourage the toleration [of terrorism] by some segments of the population.

Furthermore, the debate often brings to light another problem; namely, the connection between terrorism and religion. Above all, suspicions of intolerance fall on the three monotheist religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and therefore, of at least having a propensity to violence because of their exclusive faith in actuality or so understood in one only God.

Being self-critical and sincere, we cannot simply overlook all the examples of history that could support this thesis. In the book that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews the Tanak h, there are many texts that speak of holy wars and annihilation of the enemy. As regards the history of the Church, reference is often made to issues about the Crusades, the bloody persecution of heretics, and the wars of religion. Finally, Islam is blamed for defending itself with the sword and glorifying the holy war against the infidels. So the three monotheist religions have cause for a critical review of their own history and for a "purification of the historical memory."

The three monotheist religions are also obligated to confront current recognized and disagreeable phenomena, such as the conflict in Northern Ireland, Israel's security policy, terrorist groups within the Islamic matrix. But also in non-monotheist religions there are intolerant groups that are ready to use violence, for example, in Hinduism.

Those who take a profound interest in this phenomenon know that social, economic and political motives are intermingled with religious motives, and that religion often serves as an ideological cover and, consequently, is instrumentalized. But is it sufficiently clear that religions are opposed to this instrumentalization?

These are phenomena that cannot be denied, and it is senseless to blame others. It is the way children fight, when they argue over who started a quarrel and who first provoked the other.

In avoiding this infantile way of confronting one another, the question becomes basic. The question is: Are the described phenomena better described as a distortion of religion and a condemnable abuse of religion, or whether it lies in the very nature of religion, particularly the monotheistic religions, to be intolerant and tend to violence that ends in the physical destruction or forceful suppression of the disbelieving adversaries? 

An answer is possible on three levels:

Level One: All the religions mentioned can cite core verses of their sacred texts that forbid absolutely all manner of violence and, specifically, terrorism. The Golden Rule which states that one must not do to another what one does not want done to oneself is found in different forms in all religions. The Quran also contains verses that explicitly  tolerance. The Decalogue's prohibition of killing with the single exception of immediate self-defense is very important. Christianity adds the commandment of love even of one's enemy and invites one to forgive. The three monotheist religions also disallow suicide and therefore categorically exclude suicide attacks. Consequently, anyone who carries out such suicide attacks should not according to Quranic principles be acclaimed as a martyr, but should be condemned as a murderer and a criminal.

Level Two: For the Judeo-Christian tradition, the prohibition to kill and to commit suicide is based on the very concept of God. This tradition is revolutionary because it puts in Genesis 1-11 (before the special election of the People of God) human history in general and asserts that each person irrespective of his or her ethnic, cultural, religious background or gender has each been created in the image of God; therefore, God places his hand on all people, because the blood of another must not be spilled. The Bible knows only one God, but this one God is not a national idol, but the universal Lord of all humanity; and the preceding is the reason for the dignity of every man. Therefore, terrorism, as the negation of the human dignity is simultaneously an offense to God. The justification of terrorism in the name of God is the most serious abuse of the name of God and its greatest profanation. And it is very positive therefore that during the Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi all the religions present were in agreement on this declaration.

Level Three: It is insufficient to be in agreement only theoretically; praxis must correspond to the theory. Today terrorism has become a threat for all  humanity; in fact, terrorists can strike anywhere. We cannot defend human dignity and peace only with pious words; we must also defend them with deeds. So the question is posed: What can we do against terrorism? I cannot give a complete program, but I can offer some pointers.

1. The fight against international terrorism certainly presupposes military and police defenses. If necessary, democracies must be prepared to defend freedom forcefully, even if this means the sacrifice of many human lives. In the struggle against terrorism, nevertheless, one cannot use that which one condemns and combats about terrorism. That is why in the fight against terrorism fundamental human rights cannot be cancelled nor instruments of torture used contrary to human dignity. One cannot engage in a preventive war that abolishes the rules of the just war which are valid only as "ultima ratio"; selective killings cannot be committed without a preceding just trial. The barbarity of terrorism cannot lead us to cancel the achievements of civilized humanity and cause us to sink into barbarism ourselves.

2. It is necessary to change with all energy the conditions that favor the spread of terrorism and that might be considered its legitimization; specifically, social, economic and political injustice must be eliminated and there must be a commitment to a more just world order, especially in crisis areas of the world.

3. Religions must wake up and galvanize their own spiritual resources of resistance to terrorist violence. Such a clear and public disassociation from terrorism is what many expect specifically from Islam. The profound nihilist characteristic of terrorism can only be overcome through the affirmation of the essential attitude of all religions profound respect.

This means both the self-critical review/correction of one's own history as the preaching not of hatred but of tolerance and respect for others' beliefs, as well as the consequent condemnation of all forms of violence. Religions must tear off the religious mask from the face of the terrorists to unmask them and show them for what they really are, namely, nihilists who reject all the values and ideals of humanity. 

The "clash of civilizations" can be avoided only through the dialogue of cultures and religions. Dialogue presupposes respect for the common heritage of all religions and profound respect for the sacred, but dialogue in no way means syncretism and the renunciation of one's own identity; rather, dialogue can be conducted only by interlocutors who each has his own identity, an identity that they know [and] esteem and by which they commit themselves through the arms of the spirit.

This dialogical unity of religions, which condemns physical conflict but is not afraid of spiritual confrontation, is the only way for peace in the world.