he chilling “last night” letter found in the belongings of three of the September 11 hijackers, which urged them to “stand fast, God will stand with those who stood fast,” underscores that the terrorists believed they were doing God’s will, not just Osama bin Laden’s.
But with knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment cropping up across the nation, it’s tempting to say—as several commentators have—that the killers’ beliefs were “not Islamic.” Sadly, they were—in precisely the same way that Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s blaming the attacks on feminists and homosexuals was Christian.
Like it or not, this tragedy is rooted, at least in part, in an American tendency to demonize or trivialize what we would rather not understand about the way religious groups outside “the mainstream” think.
Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to be ignorant about religion. You would think the United States would have learned this by now. Yet when it comes to matters of religious difference, people who study religion for a living are, ironically, the last ones the government generally turns to for information or advice. Too often, the outcome is tragic.
Religious-studies scholars tried, in vain, to persuade the FBI that David Koresh was neither a lunatic nor a charlatan, but a religious leader. As such, he needed to be understood in the context of a version of Christianity that might have looked bizarre or misguided to most Americans, but was nonetheless deeply meaningful for Koresh and his followers—so meaningful, indeed, that they were willing to die for it near Waco, Texas, in 1993. But it was easier to write off the Branch Davidians as brainwashed or crazy than to acknowledge that they were so committed to a cause that they gave their lives for it. Most Americans are embarrassed by such a depth of religious or political passion.
I am not likening the engineers of the September 11 tragedies to Koresh. If anything, they have more in common with Timothy McVeigh, whose twisted, paramilitary take on Christian retribution led him to avenge the Davidians’ deaths by bombing the Murrah Building in Okla-homa City two years later.
But it is far easier to dismiss or demonize religiously rooted political perspectives we don’t really want to understand than to try to comprehend them, which might lend them even a fragment of credibility. It is easier to castigate their adherents as barbarians or fanatics than to acknowledge that, yet again, we have failed to learn from our mistakes.
I have taught religion to undergraduate students for more than twenty years—since shortly before the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis. I told my students then—and have ever since—that the point of learning about religious perspectives that are divergent (indeed, sometimes dangerously so) from one’s own is that until we recognize how and why religiously “other” people think and act, we will never function effectively in a global community of conflicting religious and political interests. Relatively bright nineteen-year-olds get the point with little prodding—unlike the U.S. government.
I am not blaming the victims, let alone justifying what happened September 11. But we need to understand why it happened: simply and sadly, religion can drive some people to do terrible things. The great tragedy is that McVeigh and September’s killers were not deluded; they acted with cold rationality.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, recently argued in the Washington Post that religious groups such as bin Laden’s al-Qa’eda and America’s Christian Identity, which apparently influenced McVeigh’s thinking, represent democracy’s greatest threat. He was almost right: the greatest threat will be our continued blindness to the darker religious forces that drive some men’s souls—and deeds.
Mary Stange is an associate professor in women’s studies and religion at Skidmore. A version of this essay originally appeared in USA Today on October 4, 2001.