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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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