A lesson of 9/11: Religion matters

Of the many lessons to be drawn on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, here is one: that religion matters. It motivates people, for good and sometimes for evil.It seems an obvious point, and yet, I don't think it has been fully accepted in academia, in journalism and among government policymakers even now, 10 years after 9/11. If it were, courses in world religions would be part of core curricula everywhere, religion coverage would not be cut back at major news organizations, and government officials would be less apt to see generous financial aid as the first resort toward resolving intractable conflicts.This point was made in a more articulate way by speakers at a seminar for journalists, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, that I attended in the waning days of August at Cambridge University (with two fellow dotCommonwealers, Peg and Peter Steinfels).R. Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame, the opening speaker, said that a "secular myopia" persisted in the decades before 9/11, despite the fact that there had been many significant events with a religious dimension such as the Iranian revolution. After 9/11, he said, religion could no longer be ignored.Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has interviewed terrorists in many parts of the world, sometimes at considerable risk, expressed a certain frustration at the way diplomats fail to recognize that many conflicts involve values the participants consider to be moral and sacred - that negotiating in a business-like, dollars-and-cents way doesn't work. Diplomats need to deal with the sacred values first, then the dollars and cents later, he said.It was interesting that speakers who had direct experience with young people who'd fallen under the wing of terrorists - Pakistani clinical psychologist Feriha Peracha and Russell Razzaque, a psychiatrist from London - both determined that a lack of Islamic religious training made youths more prone to recruitment by extremists. Those well-grounded in Islam would be better able to resist the extremist version of it.If "secular myopia" persists, we will be slow to realize the lessons of 9/11, no matter how many years pass.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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