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Religion fostered, eased 9/11 terrorism

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON "“ Religious leaders trying to be a moderating force against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have had less apparent success than those who use religion to mobilize extremists in support of terrorism.

Along with other factors, the success of religious ideologues in recruiting followers has made the risk of terrorist attacks greater today than five years ago, said people ranging from the head of the Arab American Institute to the director of policy studies at Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Despite official and unofficial efforts at greater religious tolerance, other experts said, assorted U.S. actions and policies, from the war in Iraq to a confusing tangle of immigration laws and restrictions add to an environment that fosters antagonism toward the United States and its allies.

Immediately after the devastating Sept. 11 attacks, when it became apparent that Islamic extremists connected with the terrorist group al-Qaida were responsible, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders called for greater religious understanding. They emphasized that terrorists who say they act in the name of Islam do not represent true Islam or the beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims.

President George W. Bush helped ease some of the tension directed at Muslims after the attacks by promptly stressing that Islam and all Muslims were not to blame for terrorism, said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. But then actions taken by the Bush administration in the United States and abroad undermined that good will, he said.

'On the one hand, the president talks about respect for people of all faiths," he said. 'But then behavior trumps the message." He cited U.S. policies including the special registration program for Middle Eastern and South Asian men soon after Sept. 11, the invasion of Iraq, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the lengthy imprisonment without charges of hundreds of people at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

'I think we've increased the stress everywhere in the world," said Zogby. 'We have plowed fertile ground for more extremism."

Steve Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church's position has always been that terrorism cannot be fought primarily with military means. 'It requires addressing the circumstances that make people desperate and that terrorists exploit," he said.

Combating terrorism

U.S. efforts at combating terrorism have so far tended to be very broad, to the point of Bush including the war in Iraq under that umbrella, he said.

'The threat of terrorism is real and needs to be confronted," Colecchi said. 'But we have to be careful. If we're indiscriminate it could undermine the credibility of the nation."

Whether it's under the sponsorship of the Christian militias of the 1980s and 1990s in Lebanon, Jewish nationalism espoused by Zionists or extreme versions of Islam promoted by al-Qaida or the Hezbollah militia, Zogby said the problem with religion as an organizing force arises when the label of faith is used to aggravate conflict.

Zogby, a Lebanese-American Catholic who holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University in Philadelphia, said true religious faith 'always implies a certain humility."

The version espoused by extremists in support of terrorism shows no sense of humility before a higher power, he continued. Instead, it manipulates people's desire for order in difficult circumstances under the guise of religion.

Gerard F. Powers, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said in the last five years the vast majority of religious leaders of all faiths 'have been crystal clear that violence in the name of religion is violence against religion. Most religious groups have also been clear in rejecting terrorism."

That's led to new interreligious collaboration on many topics, especially in pursuit of greater understanding of Islam. But that is only a part of what has to happen to stop extremists from successfully manipulating religious beliefs, he said.

'Most people recognize that if the problem is extremism "“ whether within Islam or Christianity "“ then the solution has to come from within," Powers said.

Ways to dampen influence

The U.S. government could make changes in its approaches to global problems that might dampen the influence of extremists, he said.

'I don't think there's a recognition of the role U.S. policies play in making it easy for terrorists to recruit support," Powers said. 'The U.S. is focused on trying to change perceptions of the U.S., but they don't see that the policies themselves add to the problem."

For instance, while the Bush White House has done much more than previous administrations to address poverty in Africa, Powers said, extreme poverty is only one of the hardship situations that give rise to extremism. When it comes to encouraging the development of democratic governments, for instance, he added, 'the administration has an almost utopian faith in the ability of military power to produce results."

Military might alone clearly isn't enough to bring about the growth of democracy, he said.

And such policies as long-standing U.S. support for Israel antagonize people who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 'us vs. them" terms, said Powers.

Colecchi concurred that U.S. policy toward Israel adds to the perception problems. Easing the tensions between Israel and Palestine would go a long way toward 'reducing the rhetoric terrorists use to recruit followers," he said. 'Despite our best efforts, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being manipulated by terrorists."

U.S. immigration policies also fuel terrorists' rhetoric, said Don Kerwin, director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC. He recently co-wrote a report on national security and immigration policy with Margaret Stock, a professor of social science at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

One point the report makes is that immigration policy that appears to be fair and open 'can win hearts and minds," Kerwin said. But when it's seen as unfair, it undermines strides being made elsewhere, making immigrants afraid to come forward to provide potentially helpful information and detracting from the image of the United States abroad, he said.

'U.S. immigration policy is a major issue in a lot of countries," said Kerwin. 'It's covered regularly by Al-Jazeera," the Qatar-based Middle Eastern news agency.

The special registration program of 2001-03 was especially divisive, Kerwin said. The report noted that 'of the 83,519 people who participated, 13,799 were placed in removal proceedings and 2,870 were detained. Thousands more fled to Canada and went underground. Only seven persons captured by this program were reported to have had a "˜potential connection' to terrorism. It appears that the program captured no terrorists."

That program, and the arrest and detention in sometimes harsh conditions of Middle Eastern and South Asian men after the Sept. 11 attacks, 'alienated both the targeted immigrant communities and their nations of origin," the report said.

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