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Extremists on both sides of the War on Terror are fanning the flames

By Chris McGillion - posted Monday, 21 October 2002

Like it or not, religion is again a dangerous factor in global affairs. The reasons are twofold: first, the challenge posed by militant Islam to Western interests as seen in the September 11 attacks, suicide bombings in Israel and, one now suspects, the weekend carnage in Bali; second, religion's role in shaping our views of this challenge and through them our understanding of this moment in history.

Ultimately, the latter may prove far more dangerous than the former. To say this is not to diminish the outrage we should feel at acts of terrorism but simply to acknowledge that terrorism by nature is a provocation and that whether it sparks an even deadlier conflict depends on how nation states - and those they represent - respond.

In the past 12 months, Westerners have become all too familiar with the incendiary rhetoric addressed at them by radical clergy in the Muslim world. But has as much attention been paid to the gasoline some Christian leaders have thrown on the flames?


Three years ago, for instance, the American TV evangelist Jerry Falwell announced that the last days were nigh and that the Messiah could be expected to return within 10 years. Falwell declared that the Antichrist was among us, although he could supply few details by which to recognise him.

It was easy to dismiss such talk at the time as more crackpot nonsense exploiting fears of the "end times" that many imagined would accompany the new millennium.

But in his 1995 book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco argued a different case: "I believe our culture is now in crisis because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us, while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it."

Delbanco was half right. Americans, like Westerners generally, have lost a commonly accepted symbolic language for evil but they have the remnants of one. It is found in the Bible and takes its most chilling form in the Book of Revelation.

Aside from the creation story in Genesis, Revelation with its prophecies of doom and destruction is a favourite among Christian fundamentalists. And some of their chief proponents are resorting to it to "explain" the headline events of the past 12 months. As a result, the forces of darkness now have a name - Islam - and the frenzy people such as Falwell like to whip up among the God-fearing has an outlet: the war on terrorism.

Muhammad, Falwell has claimed, is nothing less than a "demon-possessed pedophile" whose followers are bent on destroying all non-Muslims.


Pat Robertson, another popular American television evangelist and founder of the influential Christian Coalition, couldn't agree more. According to Robertson, Christians are engaged in a "religious struggle" that amounts to a "clash of cultures" pitting the West against the Muslim world. To imagine that Islam is a peaceful religion, Robertson maintained recently, is "fraudulent".

The Rev Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and heir to his mantle as the single most important religious leader in the US, goes further. After September 11, he declared that the God of Islam is "a different God [to the Christian God] and Islam is a very evil and wicked religion".

These views cannot be dismissed lightly. For one thing they give form to President George Bush's vaguely defined notion that the US is engaged in a struggle between "good and evil". In the Manichean world view of the Christian Right, there is no question about whose side God is on and so no reason to criticise the policies pursued in His name.

The views of such prominent Christian spokespeople can also feed a doomsday mentality and the kind of careless behaviour this encourages. Nobody should be under any illusion that this is a risk confined to small cults.

"The fact is that millions of quite rational men and women, belonging to established religious movements around the globe, look forward to history's conclusion, to be followed by the establishment of a perfected era," writes the American-born Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg in The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. "They draw support from the ideas deeply embedded in Western religion and culture. You don't need to go to central Africa to find them; they live in American suburbs."

We are fast approaching a situation where influential leaders on both sides of this religious divide are talking the language of apocalypse in a climate where large numbers of people are feeling fearful and vulnerable. Unless we are very careful, Armageddon may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 15 2002.

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About the Author

Chris McGillion is the Sydney Morning Herald's religious affairs columnist, and teaches in the school of communication at Charles Sturt University.

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