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Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought

Richard B. Miller

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September, 2010
Cloth, 240 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15098-9
$35.00 / £24.00

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Chapter 1: The Problem of Religious Violence

From Incomprehension to Indignation

Reports of religious violence are often met with incomprehension. For many of us, violent religious zealots seem fanatical to the extreme, fueled by ethnic, tribal, racist, or national antipathies that border on the pathological. Whether such persons act within regimes of toleration or in illiberal contexts, they seek to impose their visions with brute force and fail to grasp the benefits of peaceful coexistence wrought by respect for individual rights, pluralism, and religious liberty. For citizens who enjoy such benefits, appeals to religion to authorize indiscriminate killing and seething intolerance are abominable, beyond understanding. The fact that individuals find their personal identity and sense of community in cultures intent on death and destruction seems incongruous if not unfathomable.

Our bafflement, however, may be shortsighted. Even a cursory understanding of history would remind us that religion’s power to inspire violence is hardly new. Today that power is manifest in regions far removed from each other by creed, race, economy, and local tradition—ranging across cities and villages in Western Europe, North and sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf States, Central and South Asia, the Malaysian Archipelago, East Asia, and North America. In 2009, the U.S. State Department produced a list of forty-five terrorist groups around the world, over half of which cite religion as their motivation. Those numbers increase appreciably if we include domestic militant Christian organizations. Religious groups responsible for carrying out recent acts of death and destruction include members or associates of al Qaeda, renowned for destroying the World Trade Center, bombing the train systems in Madrid and Mumbai, attacking hotels and embassies in North and sub-Saharan Africa, and sponsoring suicide bombing missions across a swath of territory ranging from Morocco to Bali; Aum Shinrikyo, a militant offshoot of Japanese Buddhism that plotted to release nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system; Sudan’s Islamic regime, which is carrying out a genocidal war against non-Arab ethnic minorities in Darfur; Sikh nationalists fighting Hindus in the Punjab; Hindu and Muslim militants battling over control of Kashmir; members of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Palestine; Christian white supremacists and antiabortion activists in the United States; and Zionist militants who attacked one of their own leaders in addition to Muslims in the West Bank. Whether conceived in churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples—or in government offices, training camps, or underground cells—violence as a sacred duty is a ubiquitous feature of the global landscape.

How to think normatively about religious violence and terrorism is the subject matter of this book. To that end, I will focus in particular on the events surrounding the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I will do so in large part because, among the recent acts of religious terrorism in the United States and elsewhere, 9/11 raises moral questions about human rights, respect for persons, and the limits of toleration with vivid clarity. For many persons, 9/11 iconically represents not only religious violence but also the globalization of violence—its easy exportation and disregard for borders. More philosophically, 9/11 puts in stark relief questions about the moral challenges of coexistence in an increasingly pluralistic public culture, questions concerning religious authorizations of violence, human rights, and the basis and limits of tolerating the intolerant. These matters are the source of ongoing concerns in liberal democracies, brought on by cases and controversies regarding persons who challenge the limits of our respect for differences and alert us to the demands of justice to ourselves and to innocent persons more generally.

The attacks on 9/11 thus invite us to reflect on basic norms and values according to which liberal democracies organize public life around a vision of citizenship and coexistence—norms regarding personal security, the assignment of respect for persons, and the grounds and bases for religious and other forms of toleration. Such norms provide a deep moral structure to the democratic beliefs and practices that violent religious zealots mock. Drawing sustenance from that structure, citizens can speak with clarity and confidence about the moral stakes involved in defense of themselves and their democratic institutions.

As a work that addresses questions about liberal democratic norms and values in the wake of 9/11, this book is an exercise of liberal social criticism. By “social criticism” I mean intellectual work that enables us to assess customs, practices, and policies that shape the direction of institutions and aspirations of public culture. Social criticism has as its object the moral quality of society and the res publica. Yet the adjective is also reflexive; it reminds us that social criticism is a social activity, contributing to our shared reflections on public life. Social criticism , of course, does not aim solely at identifying moral problems or social evils; it can be laudatory or aspirational, calling us to our higher natures. Liberal social criticism modifies its subject matter by designating certain commitments. By “liberal” I mean two things. First, I mean a basic philosophical view of moral anthropology and, in particular, the value of freedom and deliberation. As Will Kymlicka puts it in his liberal defense of multicultural politics: “We lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life,” and we have an interest in questioning and revising those beliefs in light of whatever information we acquire. Liberalism is premised in part on our interest in freely developing and critically revising our desires and wants against a background of meaningful options. As John Rawls writes, individuals “do not view themselves as inevitably tied to the pursuit of the particular conception of the good and its final ends which they espouse at any given time.” Rather, they are “capable of revising and changing this conception.” Liberals thus assign value to autonomy or “moral subjectivity,” understood as our capacity to self-critically evaluate our immediate, first-order desires in order to determine whether they are indeed desirable and worthy of our attachment. Second, by “liberal” I mean to designate general values underlying modern, liberal democratic societies: the presumption of individual liberty; respect for persons and, with that, the tolerance of different loyalties, communities, and convictions; a commitment to civil equality; an account of the limited authority of the state; and the organization of political life premised on popular sovereignty.

One of my aims in these pages is to offer reasons for speaking confidently in defense of liberal principles and practices in response to religiously authorized calumny and terroristic activities. I offer my thoughts as an act of resistance against what Michael Walzer calls the “culture of excuse and apology” surrounding terrorist action. That is not a culture in which terrorism is openly defended, but one in which the rationales come from oblique and indirect angles. Typically such rationales assume the form of excusing terrorism, including religious terrorism, by assimilating it into a broader critique of political inequality, Western imperialism, or American foreign policy—as if violent zealots were themselves advocating liberal and egalitarian causes. Such views demand a direct counterposition. Writing soon after 9/11, Walzer put the point forcefully:

Secular and religious intellectuals, scholars, preachers, and publicists, not necessarily in any organized way, but with some sense of shared commitment, have to set about delegitimizing the culture of excuse and apology, probing the religious and nationalist sources of terror, calling upon the best in Islamic civilization against the worst, defending the separation of religion and politics in all civilizations. . . . For all their inner-directedness, their fanatical commitment and literal-minded faith, terrorists do rely on, and the terrorist organizations rely even more on, a friendly environment—and this friendly environment is a cultural/intellectual/political creation. We have to work to transform the environment, so that wherever terrorists go, they will encounter hostility and rejection."

The easy conscience of terrorism, itself a formidable foe, scarcely materializes in a cultural vacuum. Although intellectual work is no substitute for politics and the powerful resistance it affords, social critics proceed on the premise that ideas can do real work. Without the practice of social criticism in public culture, the opportunities for excusing the inexcusable are left dangerously wide open.

Yet my purposes go beyond addressing the serious challenges of religious terrorism in the wake of 9/11. The questions I pose and the answers I offer aim to address enduring normative matters surrounding human dignity, religion, and terrorism—the ethics of political religion and violence more generally. In this sense, 9/11 will serve as a crystalline case about which I will address fundamental ethical questions regarding rights, respect, recognition, and toleration. That is to say, the arguments I develop are relevant to moral judgments and practical reasoning about religious terrorism beyond the particular challenges posed by the atrocity of 9/11. I will thus take as my point of departure several questions: On what basis may victims and their sympathizers avow a grievance against religiously authorized terrorism? In particular, how are we to think normatively about radical Islam and its disturbing relationship with religious intolerance and violence? More generally, how are we to think about the aspirations and claims of political religions whose beliefs chafe against what are presumed to be settled liberal norms and practices? Can liberal social critics speak normatively in ways that are sensitive to cultural and religious differences? Underlying these questions is a host of others regarding what it means to respect human rights, questions raised by the liberal democratic commitment to religious toleration and, today, by broader concerns regarding respect and recognition in multicultural politics. Those concerns might lead us to be unclear or uncertain about the grounds for moral indignation in response to violence and injustice, even while we feel our outrage so strongly.

Indignation is one theme that weaves through the pages that follow—sometimes explicitly, sometimes inchoately. That theme stands in tandem with the theme of toleration and its limits. Toleration is a central tenet in liberal political doctrine, indignation less so. Perhaps we think that one idea excludes the other—that to be indignant toward someone is to be intolerant of him or her. But that impression can be deceptive. It is rather the case that these ideas are conceptually linked: our indignation moves us toward the limits of tolerance and alerts us to basic standards according to which we (and others) rightly expect to be treated. Given that fact, we do well to reflect on what it means to feel aggrieved in response to 9/11 and other acts of injustice.

The British philosopher Peter Strawson invited readers to consider feelings such as indignation in an influential essay devoted to the free will–determinism debate and the idea of moral responsibility. Although my interests here do not align with that particular discussion, I want to sharpen my focus in light of Strawson’s ideas and terminology. Strawson asks his readers to consider what he called “morally reactive attitudes” that arise in our responses to experiencing or seeing another person’s conduct or attitude of indifference or malice. Our reactions that flow from witnessing indifference or malice are directed at the perpetrator’s intentions or attitudes. Strawson identifies three reactive attitudes in response to malice or indifference. A person who is wronged typically has a reactive attitude of resentment . A third party witness to wrongdoing typically has the reactive attitude of indignation , which Strawson construes as a “vicarious analogue” of resentment felt on behalf of the wronged party. And the agent of wrongdoing, upon reflecting on the wrong he or she committed, has the self-reactive attitude of guilt . For Strawson, to hold a person morally responsible for wrongdoing exhibits our propensity toward the morally reactive attitude of disapproval. Strawson uses his idea of morally reactive attitudes to argue that denying individuals moral responsibility for their wrongdoing is tantamount to demanding that other members of the interpersonal community forego having morally reactive attitudes toward them.

Strawson’s aim is to show that philosophical debates about whether determinism threatens moral responsibility are idle. On his account, it would be psychologically impossible to stop holding persons accountable because it would be psychologically impossible to stop having certain kinds of emotional responses to them. Our everyday practices presuppose the existence of certain deep emotive states. Viewing moral responsibility as part of a larger life-world, Strawson invites his readers to grasp the interpersonal expectations that express and give structure to our morally reactive attitudes and to see how they are deeply woven into the conventions of everyday life.

Strawson does not set out to provide bases that underlie justified reactive feelings of resentment, indignation, or guilt. That is to say, he does not have us think about the moral wrong to which the reaction of indignation is appropriate. Strawson’s argument is addressed chiefly to metaphysicians, not moral philosophers. But if we are to have confidence in our moral feelings, I propose, we need more than the conventionalist account suggested by Strawson’s discussion. Our grievances presuppose a moral world about which we can argue and provide reasons. In the pages that follow I will offer one set of reasons that lie at the heart of justified feelings of indignation, namely, the idea of human dignity and the respect that it deserves. My account will attend to the notions of resentment and indignation on the premise that both can be justified responses to another’s malice or culpable indifference.

For the purposes of simplicity, I will conflate such feelings under the general category of indignation . Our indignation is justifiably aroused when matters of basic human dignity are violated by others’ acts of malice or indifference. Later I will say more about those ideas and indicate the relevance of human dignity and equal respect for thinking about feelings of indignation and the limits of toleration. Both ideas, indignation and toleration, are wedded to the idea of equal respect for persons—or so I will argue. That argument will have us focus on what it means to expect respect from others (a self-regarding claim) and what it means to assign respect to others (an other-regarding claim).

But I am getting ahead of myself. Here my point is introductory and general: without a grasp on moral reasons that support our indignation in response to 9/11 and events like it, we are left with only our incomprehension and a desire for some explanatory account of religious zealotry and violence. Without moral reasons, our emotions will lack voice and confidence, and our commitment to toleration may find itself tethered to benign indifference as a modus vivendi rather than to principles of justice and respect.

So we have two grounds for thinking about indignation, both of which—oddly enough—are connected to the idea of toleration. At one level, indignation points to the limits of tolerance: our moral reactions reveal where we draw lines regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior. At another level, reasons for our indignation include grounds that help make sense of our toleration and why we draw limits where we do. Reasons enable us to say why and on what terms we can meaningfully conceive of coexistence in a world of diverse beliefs and worldviews. Indignation and toleration, rather than operating in different conceptual spheres, indeed shed light on each other.

I will address these and related matters in the pages that follow. The attacks of 9/11 pose questions not only about the strangeness but about the wrongfulness of religious terrorism. I will comment on our incomprehension in passing. It is the immorality of the atrocity itself on which I wish to focus our attention, and I will do so with an eye to basic liberal values—especially those concerning toleration, respect, and recognition—on which democratic citizens often unreflectively rely.

Setting the Stage

To help set the stage for our discussion, it may help to recall the following statements and events. Three years before 9/11, five leaders of the World Islamic Front, including Osama bin Laden, issued a fatwa variously translated as a Jihad against Jews and Crusaders or Declaration on Armed Struggle against Jews and Crusaders that stated:

"The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian 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-Aqse Mosque and the holy mosque (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. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, '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 Allah.'”

Bin Laden’s fatwa was fueled by his dissatisfaction with the policies of his own government of Saudi Arabia and, in particular, its policy of permitting U.S. presence in that country. He was also aggrieved about allied sanctions against Baghdad and the continued military activity over Iraq’s no-fly zones in the wake of the first Gulf War. The Declaration thus advocated the use of violence to force an American withdrawal from the region. Bin Laden found American presence to be not only a defilement but also a form of ongoing aggression against Muslims and Muslim territory. With those concerns in the background, he and his associates write: “We . . . call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

These and related statements against the “neo-Crusader-Jewish alliance” suggest antipathy that draws from religious conviction. Bin Laden encourages killing in the name of religion: “As for the fighting to repulse [an enemy], it is aimed at defending sanctity and religion, and it is a duty as agreed [by the ulema]. Nothing is more sacred than belief except repulsing an enemy who is attacking religion and life.” Ayman al Zawahiri, second in command at al Qaeda and bin Laden’s long-time associate, described the 9/11 attacks as an opening salvo against Christian and Jewish “infidels.” Soon after 9/11, bin Laden, with al Zawahiri at his side, praised the perpetrators as martyrs. After claiming that “here is America struck by Allah the Almighty in one of her vital organs,” he went on to say that, “Allah has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America. May Allah bless them and allot them a supreme place in heaven.” Indeed, bin Laden and al Zawahiri’s religiously grounded antipathy is comprehensive. It draws on religion both as a warrant for carrying out violence (Islamic tradition) and to name the appropriate targets of that violence (Jews, Christians, pagans).

Islamic beliefs and ritual protocols likewise inform the handwritten document, sometimes called the “Last Night” document, found in the luggage of Mohammed Atta after the 9/11 attacks. Atta admonished his fellow hijackers to view the last night before the attacks as one of spiritual preparation in which they were to pray, read, and reflect on the Qur’an, and concentrate on God’s promise of victory and paradise. Echoing the preparations necessary for worship or pilgrimage, Atta instructed his fellow operatives to shave and make ablutions required for a state of ritual purity before departing for the airport, after which they were to make supplications to Allah. Atta’s admonition to “Strike for God’s sake” was followed by an exemplary story of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet and renowned as a devout and disciplined fighter. The hijackers were also instructed to treat their first victims as sacrificial beasts, whose throats were to be cut in ritual fashion, should Allah so decree. Toward the conclusion of his instructions, Atta writes: “When the hour of reality approaches, the zero hour, [unclear] and wholeheartedly welcome death for the sake of God. And always remembering God. Either end your life while praying, seconds before the target, or make your last words: ‘There is no God but God, Muhammad is His messenger.’” As Bruce Lincoln observes, the key for Atta was to weld “practice to discourse: providing each grubby, banal, or lethal act with authoritative speech that ennobles and redefines it not just as a moral necessity, but also a sacred duty.”

In response to these statements and events, President George W. Bush went to great lengths to distinguish terrorism from Islam in the weeks and months after 9/11, remarking that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.” While visiting mosques, conferring with Islamic clerics, and speaking out against harming Muslim citizens, Bush denounced those who scapegoated Muslims and those who might be mistaken for Muslims. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat , similarly stated: “There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting.” One aim of these statements was to defuse a highly prejudicial picture of Islam as religiously intolerant, politically regressive, indiscriminately violent, and virulently anti-Western.

Bush’s and Blair’s statements echo a concern for justice and a regard for respect, equality, and recognition in democratic public culture. Their comments speak to challenges posed by al Qaeda and radical Islam, a wing of Muslim belief and practice led by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants that, in the words of John L. Esposito, “not only declares jihad against governments in the Muslim world and attacks Western representatives and institutions in the region but now makes America and the West a primary target.” Conflating Muslim terrorism with Islam tout court creates a false picture of Muslim piety and undermines grounds for civic trust and equal respect. Muslims and non-Muslims alike possess fuller resources for properly imagining Islam than provided by the self-styled practitioners of what Esposito calls “jihad international.” In this vein, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes, “The Taliban, like so many Islamic fundamentalist groups today, divest Islam of all its legacies except theology—Islamic philosophy, science, arts, aesthetics, and mysticism are ignored. Thus the rich diversity of Islam and the essential message of the Koran—to build a civil society that is just and equitable in which rulers are responsible for their citizens—is forgotten.” In the wake of 9/11, Muslims rightly expect continued assurances of nondiscrimination, respect, and recognition that take into account a full picture of their tradition.

At the same time, a firewall between faith and ethics can lend the impression of innocence regarding Islam no less than other political religions. In the wake of 9/11, one mood toward Islam and religion more generally has been notably apologetic, underwriting a priority of religion to ethics. By “priority of religion to ethics” I mean the idea that religious conviction is not only immune from social criticism but sets the terms for moral norms and practices. Rendering religion prior to ethics in that way crowds out concerns about religion’s more general social and political responsibilities—responsibilities that religious adherents might disregard in the name of faith. But such worries cannot be long suppressed. Echoing this concern about innocence, religion, and the ethics of belief, the editors of the New York Review of Books bluntly asked, “How Aggressive is Islam?”

In the pages that follow I will not seek to answer that question in any comprehensive sense; I am not sure that anyone can. As I stated earlier, I want to articulate and defend liberal democratic values for assessing Islamic terrorism with an eye to thinking about respect, recognition, toleration, and the relationship between religion and ethics more broadly. My aim is not to focus on religion to explain the conduct of Islamic radicals or other religious zealots who carry out terrorist acts. My purposes are normative and evaluative, not causal and explanatory. That is to say, I will be thinking throughout this book in light of moral concepts and categories that shape liberal social criticism about right and good conduct. I will set out in the next chapter to examine recent efforts to help us think about the relationship between Islam and terrorism and show how such efforts differ from vigorous non-Muslim social criticism of Islamic extremism. I want to defend the superiority of the latter approach to social criticism, drawing on a liberal theory of human rights along with an account of moral disagreement and the values that underlie the practice of religious toleration.

At stake are two related concerns: first, whether (and on what basis) we may evaluate actions justified on terms that invoke religious warrants; second, how and on what terms those aggrieved by Islamic and other forms of terrorism may justifiably feel indignation. Attention to the moral basis of indignation is important, of course, because it provides the foundation for confidently expressing one’s grievances and acting appropriately in response. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States and Britain, along with several allies, deployed military force in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq; rounded up, interrogated, and detained numerous terrorist suspects for prolonged periods of time; and increased intelligence efforts around the globe to thwart the danger posed by Muslim extremists. Those policy decisions presumed a moral grievance that invites thoughtful analysis in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

In the chapters that follow, I will argue that Muslim extremism is unjust when it violates the rights of life and security, basic human rights that I will defend in liberal terms. Central to that argument is the idea that all persons have inherent dignity by virtue of our moral subjectivity, our capacity to deliberate about, establish, and revise our ideas of the good life. The value of dignity lies at the heart of each person’s entitlement to respect. I will supplement that claim by arguing that the grounds for believing in such rights connect with a liberal understanding of respect for differences and religious toleration. On this view, we can say that Muslim extremists should respect human rights, all else being equal, even if they do not endorse specific practices or beliefs those rights function to protect. We can also say that individuals who seek recognition in a multicultural world must first satisfy baseline conditions regarding respect for other persons. We will thereby understand how respect and recognition take their bearings from a key normative concern in this book, namely, the idea of equal liberty.

Defending these ideas will involve identifying and developing core norms in moral theory, in particular, respect for persons and human rights. They will also involve sharpening the distinction between respecting and endorsing that builds on Stephen L. Darwall’s analysis of respect and John Rawls’s account of the “burdens of judgment” in his explanation of liberal toleration and moral disagreement. Darwall and Rawls enable us to understand the moral grounds that support the norm of respect for persons along with the idea that understandable reasons exist for intractable moral disagreement. They also help us grasp the idea that such disagreement should not prevent differing parties from respecting each other along with basic rights and claims of justice.

The fallout of this line of argument is twofold. First, it provides a basis for an ethics of belief that holds religions (and other comprehensive doctrines) morally accountable on grounds that are independent of any single religious belief or practice. Understanding human rights in terms that are independent of any particular religious provenance enables us to draw on rights as an idiom of radical critique. Second, it presumes that recognition of others, properly understood, has limits. Persons who fail to respect rights are not due the kind of sentiments or attitudes that recognition typically requires. Violations of human rights are morally wrong and deserve to be condemned, however much those violations claim the aura of religious authority, and however much recognition of cultural or religious difference is important to the formation or authentication of another’s identity. Or so I will argue.

Readers familiar with liberal thought will likely feel disquiet or at least a sense of irony about the critical interrogation that I will pursue here. Liberals are typically associated with defending religious toleration in the wake of theological and civil conflict. The European wars of religion are central to any understanding of the cultural context in which liberal doctrine and modern political philosophy arose. Posing questions about religions’ duties and the limits of toleration seems to chafe against basic liberal intuitions. But religious toleration is not unconditional. Establishing the qualifications—drawing the limits—requires us to probe values that underlie the ethics of toleration, inviting us to consider the norm of respect for human dignity and equal liberty. To be sure, probing the terms of criticism and the norms of toleration is scarcely new to liberal democratic theory. Yet that task has acquired added urgency given new patterns of global interaction, religious activism, and political conflict in the aftermath of 9/11.

Between Apologetics and Ethnocentrism

Liberal social criticism today is mindful, indeed anxious, about being either apologetic or chauvinistic. Stated differently, liberal social critics are careful to avoid offering what Charles Taylor calls “favorable judgment on demand,” on the one hand, and ethnocentric judgment, on the other. These tendencies mark two reference points, the Scylla and Charybdis, of liberal social criticism in diverse, multicultural contexts today. The first is a romantic tendency that reflexively valorizes others because they are different. On this view, the experience of difference is expansive: it bids us to look outwardly, to discover how (say) the non-Eurocentric imagination has found noble and creative expressions, often under adverse political and social circumstances. The second is a chauvinistic tendency that reflexively dismisses others for the same reason: because they are different. On this view, the experience of difference is contractive. It bids us to look inwardly, to champion the insights of (say) the Eurocentric imagination and its contributions to Western history and culture. These two tendencies have set the terms for much of the culture wars today, expressing broad sentiments about how identity, including civic identity, is to be properly formed and how pluralism is to be negotiated. More abstractly, they presuppose that no encounter with others can be value-neutral, that judgment is an unavoidable feature of any interpretation. Yet both of them operate on the same terms, namely, the “us-them” comparison, and they beg the obvious question about how to defend the yardstick on which any such comparative evaluations are premised.

I want to navigate between these two reference points by describing and defending what it means to respect others along with baseline terms for assigning recognition and esteem to cultural practices and traditions. Against apologetic temptations, considerations of respect may require us to inject a disconcerting note into discussions of religion in a context that is sensitive about diversity insofar as those considerations require us to step back and ask normative questions about others ’ respect for human dignity. Against ethnocentric temptations, my argument will require social critics first to assign “benefit-of-the-doubt respect” to others in cross-cultural commentary. That requirement of respect introduces a normative check on tendencies to privilege one’s own way of being in cross-cultural exchanges and comparisons. The norm of respect for persons will thus enable us to mediate, self-reflexively, between habits that incline toward exoticizing otherness, on the one hand, and dismissing it, on the other.

Typically, in liberal social criticism and cross-cultural dialogue, anxieties about making imperialistic judgments preoccupy us. I am aware of those worries but do not see them as imposing an insuperable obstacle to the inquiry that lies ahead. There is an equally troubling danger to avoid, namely, safeguarding piety from social criticism. Such problems, of course, are not unrelated: our worries about avoiding ethnocentrism often incline us in an apologetic direction. Ellen Willis correctly identified these tendencies when she observed soon after the 9/11 attacks, “We are especially eager to absolve religion of any responsibility for the violence committed in its name.”

In the wake of 9/11, charting a way between these two reference points is complicated by a third: the need to clarify the moral basis for a self-regarding claim , namely, indignation in response to a grievous injustice. Too often we are inclined to overlook duties (and injustices) to the self in our focus on rights and respect owed to others. That inclination, I want to argue, can be too charitable. In what follows I aim to provide moral grounds for self-regarding feelings of indignation while steering between the Scylla of apologetics and the Charybdis of chauvinistic criticism. Such self-regarding ideas, as should be obvious, encumber others, including strangers, with the duty to recognize and respect oneself. That is one implication of thinking in terms of basic human rights: all persons, including those who espouse human rights for others, are rights-bearers themselves.

I have organized the bulk of this book in seven chapters that concentrate on ethical theory and social criticism. The next chapter will examine efforts by scholars and public intellectuals to help us think about the relationship between Islam and terrorism in the wake of 9/11. After describing and assessing those views, in chapters 3 through 5 I will develop a normative understanding of the rights to life, security, and toleration that aim to deepen our understanding of what lies behind my assessments. There we will enter directly into a discussion of human dignity and its implications for thinking about basic rights and duties—especially respect, toleration, and recognition—within diverse, multicultural contexts. The idea of human dignity, I hasten to add, is not only a liberal or parochial Western creation. To make that point, in chapter 6 I will show how the grounds for thinking about human dignity and human rights provide a basis for dialogue with Muslim political theology. That discussion will open up more general reflections about the ethics of belief and the putative priority of religion to ethics, topics about which I will remark in chapter 7. That chapter will be followed by two appendices that focus on theoretical and practical moral questions surrounding the use of armed force in response to the attacks of 9/11.

Discussions of religious terrorism typically aim to render it intelligible. They speak to the enigma of killing conceived as a sacred duty. In the next chapter I want to examine various frameworks that help us wrestle with the relationship between the Islamic tradition and terrorism. Frameworks organize our perceptions and help make sense of our experience. They also help us refine some of our intuitions about how to assess others along with ourselves. Four such frameworks assumed center stage in the wake of 9/11, all of which reflect more general patterns in social criticism for thinking about political religion, normative inquiry, and multicultural politics. To their specifics it is now time to turn.


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About the Author

Richard B. Miller is director for the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions and professor of religious studies at Indiana University. Focusing on normative issues that cut across religion, politics, and culture, he has written on political and social ethics, religion and public life, theory and method in religious thought and ethics, and biomedical ethics. He is the author of Interpretations of Conflict: Ethics, Pacifism, and the Just-War Tradition, Casuistry and Modern Ethics: A Poetics of Practical Reasoning, and Children, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, along with articles and book chapters on the ethics of killing and war, civic virtue, theological ethics, multiculturalism, and religion and public intellectuals.

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