Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His current areas of research include nuclear disarmament, nonviolence and just peacemaking, Catholic social teaching, and ecumenical public advocacy. He is a frequent consultant to the Holy See and a member of the steering committee of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. He also served on the Atlantic Council's Middle East Task Force and on the Holy See delegation that participated in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons during summer 2017.
On September 11, I had been watching the burning Twin Towers on TV in my office in Gervais Hall, now Isaac Hawkins Hall, when Fr. Leon Hooper called me to join him on the third-floor balcony. From there, looking across northern Virginia, we saw dark smoke rising from the Pentagon. The terrorist attack had reached Washington.
American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the west wall of the Pentagon. Al-Qaeda’s war had come to Washington. Thanks to the bravery of passengers and crew, the nation’s capital avoided a second attack from United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The United States was at war. With whom, at that point, we did not know.
The ensuing 20-year war against Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban has just reached, if not an end, at least another inflection point. From that list of opponents, it should be clear that the enemy are jihadists. It is misguided, however, to regard the enemy as Islam.
The ensuing 20-year war against Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban has just reached, if not an end, at least another inflection point. From that list of opponents, it should be clear that the enemy are jihadists.
If you consider the other places where U.S. troops have recently deployed, it becomes clear that the enemy is tribal Islam. Small units of American troops are engaged against Al-Shabab in Somalia, off-shoots of Al-Qaeda in Mali and Niger, and ISIS in Cameroon. Boko Haram is close to wrenching control of northern Nigeria from the government in Abuja. The War on Terror, as Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University has written, “is a global war on tribal Islam.”
In part, “tribal Islam” is another episode in a two millennial-long struggle between tribal and rural populations against cultured metropoles . Boko Haram, which means “Western Education Is Forbidden,” captures that tension. In many places, including Nigeria, tribal Islam is also a revolt against the predatory behavior of Westernized elites, as was the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Efforts at education and development will only go so far. Military responses will have but limited, temporary effect. This form of terrorism requires international policing rather than outright war.
In part, ‘tribal Islam’ is another episode in a two millennial-long struggle between tribal and rural populations against cultured metropoles.
Like ancient Rome, the United States, the West, and the developed world may have to adjust to repeated waves of outsiders attacking the walls of the global city. The United States may need to decide what part of that policing mission it can bear. Preferably, the world community should devise a plan for executing the task of protection, even as religious leaders work together for tolerance and friendship.
- For more on the two-millennium long pattern of religious protest against imperial, cultural metropoles, see my forthcoming article “Afghanistan: The Limits of American Power” in La Civiltà Cattolica (English edition).