There is little doubt that future historians will identify the terrorist attacks of 9/11 orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden as a pivotal moment in American and world history. It spawned two wars, one ongoing, and reintroduced religion as a key motivator in global dynamics. Bin Laden asserted that he was acting in self-defense against American religious, economic, and cultural oppression. He saw foreign powers who claim to be leading the free world, standard-bearers for human rights, harm and threaten people and institutions he cares for. Citing support for Israel and other western military campaigns against Islamic communities in Somalia, Algeria and Chechnya, he asserted, “It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression.” To Bin Laden, attacking an evil enemy mired in hypocrisy is the right thing to do. However, by using violence against everyday citizens, he demonstrated his own intolerance.
Contrastingly, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed similar fears for his people but advocated for a very different response. He faced a racial majority claiming superiority, based on false assumptions, often justified with Christian religious and patriotic fervor. Yet King was wise enough to see that responding with violence would justify the oppressors continuing and perpetuating their harmful behaviors and policies. “The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness,” he observed. By avoiding Bin Laden’s mistake, King challenged people to, “win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past,” eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
If Bin Laden had taken King’s advice to be “spiritually aggressive” instead of physically violent and “build communities,” instead of “resistance and revenge,” the world would be a very different place. Instead, he rationalized, “If we are attacked, then we have the right to attack back.” A contemporary of King, Malcom X, expressed the same thought. “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self-defense; I call it intelligence.” Both Bin Laden and Malcom X believed they were making a rational logical choice to “attack back” in “self-defense.” However, it is a self-defeating logic. If you can rationalize retaliation, then so can your enemy. Two enemies who claim the opposition are hypocrites can easily justify aggression, then retaliation to aggression can spiral into unchecked violence.
However, we cannot make blanket statements that completely rule out use of force. A police officer might need to restrain someone who will hurt others, for example. The American Revolutionary War and the defeat of Nazi Germany are generally accepted as good, worthy conflicts despite the loss of life and property.
Navigating our religious differences on a day-to-day basis will stretch and push us on a fundamental level. The challenge is increasingly complex due to the diversity in the religious, ethnic and cultural landscape with a growing proportion of the population choosing to abstain from religious activity. In fact, the fastest growing religion in America is the unaffiliated. Those who make secular arguments have accused religious movements of using free speech and worship arguments to infringe on their rights to speak freely and not worship. Religious individuals and organizations are worried that their voices will be silenced by secular calls for diversity. A case involving a Colorado wedding cake baker will be heard by the Supreme Court on this very subject. What we need to do is forgive each other for our hypocrisy and seek to “build a community” and “win friendship.”