From: Margaret Wertheim
Date: 10.08.01

There is no doubt that religion played a key role in the attacks of Nov 11, but in our response to this tragedy we must not make the mistake of demonizing religious belief or believers. The weekend after the attacks Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar (a philosopher of science now living in London) wrote a superb piece in the Independent in which he explained the real meaning of the Islamic term "Jihad." As he pointed out it has nothing to do with suicide bombers. "Jihad", he explained, is a term which implies the quest within each individual to live a just life. The men who flew the planes into the WTC and the Pentagon had a profoundly corrupted interpretation of this term, and Sardar, like so many other Muslims, is appalled at the twisting of this essentially personal and peaceful concept. Likewise, Sardar stressed that paradise for Muslims "is not a business transaction" nor "a brothel." The idea (much repeated in the press) that these men were buying their way into paradise — complete with 72 attendent virgins — is nowhere supported by the Koran, according to Sardar, who rightly condemns this debased spiritual accounting.

The men of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network do not represent, as some on the Edge list have suggested, the "inherent irrationality" of religion, but rather the face of religion at its most corrupted. Islam is not the only religion to have produced this face. Think of the Crusades — one of the bloodiest and most horrific episodes in world history, when tens of thousands of innocent Muslims were slaughtered in the name of the Christian God. Yes religion does at times efflouresce into terror — and even terrorism (think also of the religious fundamentalists in this country who are killing doctors who perform abortions) — but that is by no means the only face of religion. The notion that religious belief is inherently irrational and that religious believers are inherently prone to irrational acts is not only arrogant, but also dangerous, for it denies the immense amount of supremely rational thinking that has over many millenia been produced by religious thinkers the world over. To those who claim Osama bin Laden as the face of religion I would counter with the names Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Teresa, all people, driven by deep religious feeling, who have fought heroically for justice and equality.

When considering our response to the events of Sept 11 it seems to me that one thing we who love science must also address is not only to role of religion but that of science itself. Religious fanaticism (among other factors) may indeed propel Osama bin Laden but science has made possible the weapons that bought him to power. One of the questions we must now address is why there are so many forms of weaponry in the world and why those weapons are apparently so easily available. Why for example in a country like Afgahnistan, where millions of people are without adequate food supplies, is the country awash with arms? Why is it that in the world today, when 780 million people are living on the edge of starvation, that automatic guns, missiles and even fighter planes are available to every two-bit insurgent? Why, moreover, do we in the developed world continue to spend such vast amounts of our national budgets on the production of ever more weapons of ever more lethal effectiveness — weapons which, inevitably, trickle out of our control and into the hands of our "enemies"? The Taliban might be flying the MIG's but they certainly did not design them? The landmines that seed Afghanistan —and Cambodia and large parts of Africa — were not developed by these poor and poorly educated peoples, but by the well-educated nations of the north — including the USA. In short, we must deal with the issue of supply, where we are inherently implicated.

Physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, cryptographers, engineers, biotechnologists — large numbers of scientists from all these fields contribute directly or indirectly to the development of weapons. Scientists do not of course mass produce these weapons but without the basic R&D such weapons would not be producable at all. In the wake of September 11, the US administration has called for a huge increase in military spending. That will mean the production of more even weapons and more scientists will be implicated in the development of these. In response to the question What Now?, I suggest that one thing we need is a concerted response from the scientific community against any such move.

Science, like religion, is a double edged sword — neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but rather a tool in the hands of its users. If Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist brand of Islam is a perversion of that fairth, I would suggest that so too it is a perversion of the "faith" of science to lend that faith to the production of landmines, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weapons and other such attrocties of war. If we in the scientific community can send any message at this time of crisis I suggest it should be that our "faith" will not be co-opted to the service of mass destruction.

 

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