In God's name, the most mortal of combat

By Susan Page and Jack Kelley
July 17, 2002
USA TODAY

At an Islamic school in Peshawar, Pakistan, Maulana Sami ul-Haq exhorts the 3,500 students at morning assembly to continue their fathers' struggle to abolish the Jewish state of Israel and establish a Muslim nation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

''Like the Prophet, Sheik bin Laden and our Taliban brothers, you are to fight a battle that began centuries ago,'' the school's chancellor declares. Students at the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqquania madrassa shout in response, ''Allahu Akbar,'' God is great. ''We accept our calling.''

''Religion is the most unifying and dividing force on the Earth,'' Haq tells a visitor later. ''Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya -- all of the world's battles have religion at their core. Who would have thought that we in the 21st century would be fighting battles over ancient religions?''

To the alarm of U.S. policymakers, a world that has become more accessible through jet travel and more intertwined through a globalized economy and the Internet has also become more riven by religious wars. The bloodiest and most dangerous disputes today, from fundamentalist Islamic terrorism to Palestinian suicide bombings to a threatened nuclear showdown over Kashmir, are wrapped in religion.

The resurgence of conflicts with a religious dimension creates challenges for diplomats and others now struggling to devise approaches to resolve them. The standard tools of diplomacy -- a willingness to compromise, for instance, and to forgive old grievances -- can be more difficult to apply when combatants claim God is on their side.

That's true even when religion is more a tool used to mobilize support than the cause of a conflict, which may center on less-spiritual struggles over land or power.

''When you add a religious layer, it makes it harder to find pragmatic solutions,'' says Madeleine Albright, who wrestled with religious clashes in the Balkans and the Mideast as secretary of State and United Nations ambassador in the Clinton administration. ''And that's what you have to do if you're going to negotiate a problem.''

Americans recognize the difficulties. By more than 10-to-1, those surveyed by USA TODAY last month said religious disputes are tougher to resolve than others.

These days, the United States is dealing with religious conflicts that span the globe:

* India and Pakistan threaten a nuclear showdown over Kashmir. Over the weekend, suspected Islamic militants disguised in the saffron robes of Hindu holy men killed 28 Hindus in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. Indian officials plan a formal response today. The predominantly Muslim region has been in dispute since the subcontinent was divided in 1947. It has already provoked two wars between India, which is mostly Hindu, and Muslim Pakistan.

* Palestinian suicide bombers have rocked Israel, which sent its troops to reoccupy Palestinian territory. Hopes for an accord that would establish Jewish and Palestinian states, existing side by side in peace, have faded.

* The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11 say they are waging jihad, or holy war, against the United States, although President Bush has taken pains to say the war on terrorism isn't directed at Islam.

* NATO forces, including U.S. troops, patrol Bosnia to prevent a return to violence among Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians. Former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic is on trial at The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of war crimes and genocide.

Disputes that are tinged with religious fervor and fueled by religious grievances often involve more horrific violence -- from mass graves to suicide bombers to the airborne attacks of Sept. 11 -- than other conflicts.

''Those who are looking to change the status quo see religion as a very powerful mobilizer of human emotion,'' says Jim Lindsay, who studies post-Cold War foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. ''You can mobilize people to do things they wouldn't do on the basis of class, they wouldn't do on the basis of ethnicity, but they will do on the basis of religion.''

In the Mideast, a debate over a holy site can become a dispute over a claim that dates to biblical times. In the Balkans, Serbs cite the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when an Islamic Ottoman army defeated Orthodox Serb forces, as an old justification for new bloodshed.

''It makes the conflict more difficult to mediate and more difficult to find a conclusion to,'' says Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, a Washington-based think tank. ''No one wants to compromise the transcendental.''

''It's always hard to argue against people who say that they're responding to the word of God,'' says Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel.

Ancient clashes

Religious clashes, of course, are among the most ancient conflicts in the world. They date back millenniums in the Middle East, the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Middle Ages, Christians in Europe sent military Crusaders to battle Muslims for control of holy sites in Jerusalem.

Some of the earliest European settlers in what became the USA were Pilgrims escaping religious persecution. But the wars the United States has fought generally haven't been sparked by religion.

The United States entered World War II to stop fascism, though there was a religious component to the war in the Nazi Holocaust of Jews. The Cold War battled communism and an atheist Soviet empire. The Korean War was fought to protect allied South Korea against a communist incursion from North Korea and China. The war in Vietnam, which had expelled French colonizers, was fueled by fears of a domino effect if the Southeast Asian nation was ''lost'' to communism. Now, however, some of those underlying causes have disappeared. Colonial wars in Africa and Asia have been fought and finished. The ideological struggle by the West against communism has been won. This spring, Russia even gained partial membership in NATO, an alliance that was established to stand against Moscow.

In the past, the Soviet Union and United States battled by proxy in Latin America, Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When Moscow sent in forces to prop up a regime in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Washington funneled aid to the rebel mujahedin -- elements of which are now part of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Now, combatants who once were able to get financing from the two superpowers are looking to other sources. In some cases, they have turned to religion.

''Often conflicts that are really about land or gold or natural resources are evolving into religious conflicts, in part because . . . their co-religionists will help them,'' says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. ''Claiming to be fighting in the name of religion is good for fundraising and recruiting. I see religion as a kind of branding device for conflicts, for terrorists in particular.''

Islamic movements have tapped some of Saudi Arabia's oil riches. Hindu extremists have raised money from Indians throughout the world. Palestinians, who can be Muslim or Christian, get increasing support from Islamic regimes.

Another repercussion of the Cold War's end: Religious strains that were submerged for decades are reappearing.

''This is not to say there's any nostalgia for the Cold War, but what the Cold War really did do was that it froze everything,'' Albright says. ''A lot of the various conflicts that might have been out there were suppressed or sublimated to the Cold War.''

For nearly a half-century, Christians and Muslims lived together in relative harmony in communist Yugoslavia. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, Croats and Bosnians made moves toward independence in the provinces they dominated. Serbs countered with violence, and the ensuing wars killed hundreds of thousands and drove a million people from their homes. Long memories stoked the violence.

''For 3 1/2 years in the mid '90s, we suffered through a war that the Serbs fought in revenge for their 500-year domination by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire,'' says Zlata Hamiti, 26, a Bosnian Red Crescent aid worker in Sarajevo. ''We were forced to pay a price for something that other Muslims did centuries earlier.

''This region is still bitterly divided by religion,'' Hamiti says. ''As in Palestine, that bitterness is never going to go away. It can't. There is too much hurt on both sides.''

Modern-day globalization has had an effect as well. Political scientist Benjamin Barber calls it ''jihad vs. McWorld,'' the clash between tribalism and globalism. A globalized economy has spotlighted economic inequities and made some societies feel threatened by an encroaching American culture. Some have responded by embracing their religion or ethnicity with new fierceness.

Taken by surprise

When Samuel Huntington was director of security planning at the National Security Council during the Carter administration, U.S. policymakers were stunned when the shah of Iran, a key ally and leader of a pro-Western regime, was overthrown by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shiite cleric, who had lived in exile for 15 years, established an Islamic republic.

''Almost nobody had any idea that this ayatollah living in Paris could come home and overthrow what seemed like the very powerful government of the shah,'' recalls Huntington, now a professor at Harvard and author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. It was a warning flag about the sway religion could hold in the modern world. Even now, he says, the force of religion is underestimated and misunderstood by many U.S. officials.

That can lead to missteps and missed opportunities.

The United States has yet to establish stable diplomatic ties with Iran's Islamic leaders, which has complicated relations throughout the region. In the Balkans, U.S. officials pushed to maintain a multiethnic Yugoslavia before reluctantly accepting the separation largely along religious lines.

And in the war on terrorism and the campaign for homeland security, some moderate Arab leaders warn that the United States risks being seen as targeting Muslims and Islam. ''Because the (Sept. 11) hijackers were Muslims, we've had to work hard to make the point that . . . the war on terrorism is not against their faith; it's against people who have perverted their faith,'' says Karen Hughes, one of Bush's closest advisers. That's one reason Bush visited a mosque days after the attacks.

But the president also used the word ''crusade'' in the first weeks, an inadvertent reminder of the Christian holy war against the Islamic world. Those sensitivities have made it more difficult for the administration to forge and maintain a broad international coalition in the war on terrorism and future action against Iraq.

''You have to address the religious dimension in order to find a way out,'' says Ivo Daalder, who as a National Security Council adviser during the Clinton administration worked on the religious and ethnic conflict in the Balkans. ''If you don't address it directly, you aren't going to be able to solve the problem.''

Officials sometimes debate what role religious considerations should play in making policy decisions and implementing them. During the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, Albright recalls, ''we had big discussions about whether to have an Easter pause, even though we couldn't figure out whose Easter.'' The Catholic Easter celebration falls on a different date than the Orthodox Easter, and most of the people being brutalized by Serb forces were Muslims.

In the end, there was no pause.

In the future, perhaps religious organizations and leaders could be tapped to help arbitrate disputes, some analysts suggest. Others argue that more should be done to address the political and economic grievances that sometimes find an outlet in religious extremism, particularly in the Arab world.

''We have been inclined to put priority on even relationships or easy relationships with countries, as opposed to adding irritants to relationships by challenging them on representative government and economic development,'' says former ambassador Walker, who is now president of the Middle East Institute. ''I had one Middle East ruler complain recently that the U.S. was so quiet on democracy in his region that it made it harder for him to take steps in that direction.''

There are more immediate and concrete concerns as well. U.S. officials working on Bush's call for an eventual Palestinian state in the Mideast can't ignore the competing demands for sites sacred to three religions in Jerusalem.

At the Western Wall, Jews pray at the stone remains of the wall that bordered the First and Second Jewish temples. (The Second Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.) Muslims revere the adjoining Dome of the Rock, where believers say Mohammed ascended to heaven in the seventh century.

''Religion is the powder keg of the world,'' says Aaron Blumstein, 41, a Jerusalem elementary school teacher. He, for one, is prepared to fight. ''Our forefathers waged war for the land of Israel,'' he says, ''and I am ready to do the same.''