Al-Qaeda and the Christian Moral Imagination

Al-Qaeda and the Christian Moral Imagination August 7, 2013

The following is intended primarily as a thought experiment.  As such, I think it reasonable to request from the outset that it be given some thought.  Since I am addressing a highly charged subject that may evoke a variety of passionate responses, I invite those wishing to comment (and yes, this goes equally for those who agree with me as for those who don’t) to give at least five minutes of serious reflection – I mean genuinely reflecting, not just reacting – to the questions I will end with before doing so.

The purpose of this is to set what I am calling a Christian moral imagination as the paradigm from which we (Christians) examine any charged subject, especially ones that involve those we consider our enemies.

Now then.  The inspiration for this thought experiment comes from a recent Washington Post op-ed by Eugene Robinson, whose argument is capsulized in his opening sentence:

If the new, decentralized al-Qaeda is such a threat that 19 U.S. embassies, consulates and other diplomatic posts have to be shuttered for a week, we have a decade of wrongheaded U.S. policy to blame.

Here is the heart of his argument:

The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.

The most fateful choice, and the biggest strategic error, was the decision to invade Iraq. George W. Bush’s epic misadventure diverted resources and attention from the war in Afghanistan, giving a reprieve to the Taliban. The Iraq war also provided new focal points for jihadist grievance — Abu Ghraib, for example — and gave new oxygen to the simmering intra-Muslim conflict between Sunni and Shiite.

Al-Qaeda put down roots in chaotic Iraq [ahem]. It did the same in lawless Yemen — home to the al-Qaeda “branch” or “affiliate” responsible for the current alert. While the original al-Qaeda may be moribund, its surviving leaders hiding in Afghanistan or Pakistan, terrorist groups bearing the name are trying their best to continue the fight.

First Bush and then Obama discovered the expediency of remotely piloted drone aircraft as instruments of war. Obama has waged what amounts to a campaign of targeted assassination, decimating the ranks of the various al-Qaeda branches. This strategy has the obvious merit of not putting American lives at risk. But the inevitable collateral damage — deaths of civilians, destruction of infrastructure — helps recruit new al-Qaeda conscripts.

The principle behind Robinson’s argument is a simple one, and one that has played out countless times through human history: violence breeds violence.  Thus it is not only morally but also strategically foolhardy: give your enemies an excuse to demonize you and you’re playing right into their hands.  That’s why some al-Qaeda leaders expressed hope for a victorious outcome for John McCain, who appeared at the time to be the more hawkish candidate, in the 2008 presidential election.  Unfortunately, as few would have predicted, they have essentially gotten their wish anyway as Bush-style foreign policy has largely continued – and even expanded, in the case of the military’s drone program – under President Obama.

Now, lest we be tempted to bracket our Christian faith in our discussions of national and international politics, let me pause this trajectory a minute to inject a dose of Christian moral imagination into it.  We can and likely will debate the practical viability and/or moral permissibility of violence until the eschaton.  But what we absolutely cannot do, as Christians, is to praise violence as a positive good.  Indeed, Catholic blogger Mark Shea has drawn the line even further, arguing that attempts to justify the use of evil means for the sake of good ends rely on morally and anthropologically flawed consequentialist premises, rationalized with “the dichotomy between Evil Them and Noble-But-Slightly-Flawed Us by the expedient of judging others by their actions while demanding that we be judged by our good goals.”

I must confess I tend to be better at naming problems than providing concrete solutions, but for a recent example of effective nonviolent resistance, recall Turkey’s duran adam, the “standing man” who sparked a nationwide wave of still, silent protests.  The genius of this was precisely in the fact that these protesters were doing nothing but standing there – stopping the cycle of violence by depriving the Turkish government of any conceivable claim to justified retaliation.  These acts, by virtue of their potency, were anything but passive.  If the government had responded violently, it would only be exposing its own brutality to the world.

Admittedly, though, there are some significant differences between statist and anti-state violence.  But that’s the thing: anti-state terrorism thrives on a David-and-Goliath narrative, with its proponents billing themselves as the underdog taking on the overwhelming thuggish power.  This narrative is of course deeply misguided (and oddly familiar if you look at the consequentialist narrative).  Regrettably, however, the past 12 years of U.S. foreign policy haven’t done much to disprove it.

Here, then, is the question I want to leave you with: what would happen to terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda if we denied them a Goliath to fit their narrative?

Or, for a more modest proposition: what if more Christians in the U.S. started asking this type of question?

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  • Considering that in some of my own musings I’ve reflected on the same idea (“What if instead of responding with violence, we responded otherwise… would we have the problems we have now?”) I offer up, after the requisite 5 minute reflection, the following:

    The same, honestly, could hold true for the Nazi threat of the 1930’s and 40’s. The Versaille treaty was punitive and over the top in it’s suppression of the German people, giving plenty of fertile ground for National Socialism to rise and for a charismatic leader to come to power, preying on the sense of wounded national pride to spread his own propaganda. Don’t we see a similar dynamic in Al-Qaeda?

    I don’t hold out any hope for our nation to completely disarm and stop all violence. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the nation state operates. But perhaps the foreign policy makers can consider a less heavy handed approach to dealing with the terrorist organizations, one that does not give quite so large of a Goliath.

    And, most certainly, I am with you that I think there would be amazing things happening if more Christians recognized this cycle of violence and decided to act as mediators and active peacemakers in the war-torn areas of this world. But, alas, we have American Christianity here… much like the “Holy Roman Empire” of old… Until that empire collapses (and believe me, I don’t relish the idea of living during a chaotic revolution), I don’t think we’ll see that radical change.

  • Kurt

    the weakness in the proposition that Al-Qaeda’s current violence was bred by American violence, is that Al-Qaeda has always been an evil, violent organization. it did not turn from peace to violence following the misguided Iraq war or the strikes, or any other American actions.

    There are important issues to consider in the reflection above. But there is little basis for the “oh, they are only evil because we are evil” meme. In Al-Qaeda’s case, they have proven that they are evil in their own right.

    • Julia Smucker

      “They are only evil because we are evil” is a straw-man argument. Robinson’s argument, and mine (and parts of Mark Shea’s piece on consequentialism apply here too, particularly regarding the ‘devils vs. angels-with-dirty-faces’ narrative), is that the evils committed by al-Qaeda are further perpetuated, and rationalized, by numerous responses in kind (and with vastly disproportionate means).

      Come to think of it, does anybody know the origins of al-Qaeda? When/why/how it came to exist?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Al-Qaeda was founded in 1988 or 1989 during the last days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The anti-Soviet forces during the 80’s were funded by the US Government, by the Saudi monarchy, and by private individuals from various parts of the Middle East. Osama bin Laden, scion of a wealthy industrial family in Saudi Arabia, was active in the mujahideen. He founded the organization, partly to continue the anti-Soviet fighting, and partly to address a radial pan-arabic, pan-islamist agenda. Though the US supported the mujahideen, it was, it seems, a marriage of convenience for both parties. In particular, various events in the Middle East involving the US–particularly when US troops were stationed in Saudia Arabia during the Gulf War–turned bin Laden substantially against the US and led to an escalation of terrorist attacks against American interests in the region, and then to the 2001 9/11 attacks.

      • Kurt


        We seem to agree that Al-Qaeda is evil in its own right. And I suppose we might agree that American foreign policy has made errors, some serious errors. But other than just an assertion, I’m not finding any hard evidence that American errors have resulted in Al-Qaeda becoming more evil or more violent.

        • Julia Smucker

          Kurt, I suppose we’re each reading things through the narrative that makes sense to us, and we could throw numbers at each other all day without any resulting paradigm shifts. I was simply trying to get us all thinking about al-Qaeda’s own narrative and what that might rely on.

          Regardless of whether or not the evils of al-Qaeda have been “caused” by the evils of US militarism (which would be hard to directly prove or disprove), if there were a sudden miraculous cessation of the latter, it would surely deflate much of the former’s self-justification.

          I know, that’s not going to happen. Like I said, it’s a thought experiment – and perhaps one that should leave us asking why the hell not.

  • Ronald King

    “I must confess I tend to be better at naming problems than providing concrete solutions, but for a recent example of effective nonviolent resistance, recall Turkey’s duran adam, the “standing man” who sparked a nationwide wave of still, silent protests.”
    First I think of Christ speaking in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, then Christ on the Cross as the foundation for a spiritual solution which is acted out in the visible world. I think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples of non-violence activism. Their charismatic leadership in the face of death influenced millions of people to follow them on their quest for justice which can only exist with loving one’s enemy. The reality is we are sheep and we follow the example of leaders we most strongly identify with. We remain fragmented individually and as a community due to the structure of our fragmented identity based on our attachments to the world which are in conflict with being made in the image and likeness of God. We/I are not willing to sacrifice as Christ did and instead give according to what we observe in our leaders examples. Our shepherds do not put themselves in harms way as Christ and the martyrs and saints. Consequently, we/I as sheep live faith in a limited way without giving up everything to be a follower of Him. Violence begins internally because of our conflict between worldly attachments and the desire to save our own lives versus the truth which Christ told us that we must lose our lives in order to live.

  • Julia Smucker

    A couple of general thoughts on evil:

    1. People are not evil; people commit evil. (I agree with Solzhenitsyn: “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”)

    2. Any organizational entity that has violence of any kind as its raison d’etre is evil by definition.

    • That second principle is a little… overbroad. The Knights of St. John (the Hospitallers) began with tending to the pilgrims and sick in Jerusalem (hence the name), but found that in order to actually *protect* the pilgrims needed soldiers and fortifications. Would the defense of those incapable of defending themselves be evil? Would self-defense? Would you condemn everything from the Japanese Strategic Self Defense Force to the US military? Let’s be honest, self-defense *is* a kind of violence, but one that is pretty universally regarded as (while maybe not the BEST state of affairs) at least just.

    • Boyd

      Wouldn’t #2 make every military force in the world evil?

      • brian martin

        The difficulty with the following statement “2. Any organizational entity that has violence of any kind as its raison d’etre is evil by definition.” is that it defines as evil only those organizations whose primary reason for existence is the committing of violence only for the sake of violence. Otherwise, violence is a means to an end, and that “end” is the “raison d’etre”, not the violence itself.
        While I would argue that terrorist organizations are evil, violence is not their reason for being.

        And while I agree that people are not evil, I believe they can give themselves over to evil.

        That being said, St. Bernard said “You will never have real mercy for the failings of others until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your own soul”

        • Julia Smucker

          And while I agree that people are not evil, I believe they can give themselves over to evil.

          I completely agree with this distinction. To put an even finer point on it, I would add that while there are people who have evidently allowed evil to take over in their lives, none of us has any special authority or insight to declare anyone to be definitively beyond redemption. And, to echo St. Bernard, none of us is immune to temptations to give ourselves over to evil. “Watch and pray…”

          I may need to give some more thought to your first statement. To clarify, I did not intend to limit a definition of evil to “only those organizations whose primary reason for existence is the committing of violence only for the sake of violence.” One would indeed be hard pressed to find any organization – even one dedicated to terrorism – that explicitly defines itself in that way. Violence almost always attempts to justify itself as a means to an end, which is at the core of the consequentialism that Mark Shea critiques (linked in this post).

          Thank you for such a thought-provoking response.

  • Ronald King

    Are we not creative enough to think differently from the idea that we need violence to stop violence

  • I have to say that as a Christian dedicated to the cause of world peace through the principles of Nonviolence and love of neighbor, I owe Julia a huge amount of credit for these two things found in this posting and the ensuing discussion:

    [1] * PURPOSE: “to set a Christian moral imagination as the paradigm from which we (Christians) examine any charged subject, especially ones that involve those we consider our enemies.”

    > What a wonderful way to frame the invitation for dialogue along these lines of political and strategic options for world peace. Love of enemy is fundamental doctrine for anyone who chooses to embrace discipleship as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth whom we proclaim as the Christ, the Messiah promised and anointed by God for the salvation of the world.

    [2] * QUESTION: “What would happen to terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda if we denied them a Goliath to fit their narrative?”

    > If we deny terrorist organizations a Goliath to fit their narrative, we might discover that they comprise a group of humans made like ourselves in the image and likeness of the one God and Creator of all. We could perhaps even be reconciled to them as brothers in search of our common humanity. The ancient principle of reciprocity will never be surpassed as the revealed paradigm for resolving our conflicts, regardless of circumstances.

    • brian martin

      The radical nature of following Christ is what makes this so difficult. It is not our natural inclination to turn the other cheek to violence, to love our enemies.
      The thing is, to have dialogue with anyone, it requires being willing to listen to them from where they are coming from. It often requires that we look at ourselves.
      And, as my wife likes to remind me, we cling to this life, and the material goods of this life as though we forget that we are promised something better.

  • ivankauffman


    I realize that you’re not a big fan of my aphorisms, but I can’t resist sharing this one: “Fighting fire with fire is like equipping the fire department with flame throwers.”

    Aphorisms aside this is really good thinking that you’re doing. I’m a little surprised but even more impressed. But be careful with any critique of consequential thinking. It cuts both ways. It’s very difficult to critique consequential moral calculations without falling into a consequential critique of it. You have to go deeper–which is what JHY was attempting but never really succeeded in doing. Maybe you can. I certainly hope so.


    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you for this contribution, Ivan. I apologize for having missed your comment until just now. I’m curious as to what you mean about the difficulties in critiquing consequentialism and the need to go deeper. Can you flesh that out a little more?

      Incidentally, for those who may be wondering, JHY = John Howard Yoder.

  • I am now living in the Muslim world — specifically, in Egypt — and perhaps I will be able to provide some balance against this vilification of political Islam that is constantly going on in these American-based threads. I will listen carefully to the perspectives of Muslim acquaintances and report back to you heavily indoctrinated folks from time to time.

    • Julia Smucker

      I welcome the perspective that your current experience provides, Dismas, although I must respectfully point out that beginning with condescension is generally not the best way to get people to listen to what you have to say.

      • Wj

        The fact is, al-Qaeda, both in its centralized and dispersed form, never did and still does not pose much of a threat to the US. AL-Qaeda is useful, though, because of the theatrical way they kill the small number of people they kill. This enabled our government to create a new existential threat to our “way of life” just when it looked liked we lost an enemy against which to define ourselves. The Muslims, besides being useful allies against the Soviets, fit the bill nicely:they’re brown, poor, barbarous, and they ululate. Clearly evil, in other words. I am grateful to al-Qaeda, as without them we wouldn’t have a justification for the bloated defense budget and a million and a half incompetent careerists in the Pentagon and related industries. Since we know we need all these people to “keep us safe”, we won’t ask whether there are better ways to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars annually that finance the military industrial complex. You see, the police state keeps us free by helping us to perceive the necessity of market solutions to health care and social security; without the Muslims, in other words, we might be tempted toward the view that our state could do a lot more to help selfish black welfare mothers, and that would be a violation of subsidiarity!

        • Wonderful comment, WJ, but it’s amazing to me Miss Priss allowed this to pass, but wouldn’t allow MY remark that almost all Americans are “brainwashed”; you’ve said the exact same thing, but differently.

          • Julia Smucker

            Same point, different tone. Vive la difference.