**The following opinion article was written by Dr. Byron McCane of Converse College. The article was published in the October 14, 2001 edition of the Spartanburg Herald Journal.
The horrible events of September 11 have now been followed by equally hideous words from Osama bin Laden and his associates. They proudly claim responsibility for the atrocities in New York and Washington DC, praise the hijackers, invoke the blessing of God, and promise more terrorist attacks by ìyoung people who long for death the way Americans long for life.î The entire civilized world rightly recoils in disgust ñ we ask ourselves how anyone who believes in God could ever say or do such things. Some are afraid that something must be wrong with the religion of Islam, if it can produce this kind of barbarity.
But Osama bin Laden does not represent Islam. Instead, he represents a type of movement which is present in virtually every major religious tradition on earth today. In the academic study of religion we call them radical fundamentalists. And whether they are Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, radical fundamentalist groups all have some typical characteristics in common. They interpret scripture literally, they isolate themselves from the world, and they harshly condemn anyone who disagrees. But their most important characteristic is that they are all deeply hostile toward the freedoms of modern life.
The strength and prosperity of our civilization is built upon freedom in three important areas of life: politics, economics, and religion. In politics we call our liberty ìdemocracy,î a pattern of government with historical roots reaching all the way back to classical Greece. In economics we call our freedom ìcapitalismî, a system of trade and commerce whose origins can be traced back to early modern Europe and the Renaissance. Religious liberty we call ìsecularizationî, the notion (which arose during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries) that in public life all religions should be respected, but no one religion should be normative. The cultural, scientific, economic, and technological advances of the modern world have come about because societies founded upon these great freedoms are extraordinarily strong, flexible, and productive.
Radical fundamentalists, however, are anti-freedom. They passionately believe that liberty in politics, economics, and religion is contrary to the will of God. Drawing upon ideas which were dominant during the Middle Ages — when the classical culture of Greece and Rome had collapsed and modern civilization had not yet arisen ñ radical fundamentalists of all varieties perceive the dramatic progress of the modern world as a mortal threat to a divinely-ordained way of life. They reject the modern in favor of the medieval. They seek to turn back the clock of history, rolling back the freedoms which the modern world grants to one and all. And sometimes ñ especially when they get desperate — they are willing to kill. Radical Christian fundamentalists shoot abortion doctors; radical Jewish fundamentalists kill an Israeli prime minister; radical Japanese fundamentalists release poison gas in the Tokyo subway; and radical Islamic fundamentalists hijack airplanes and fly them into office buildings. If we could ask them why, they would all say they were defending God.
So the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden are motivated by religion, but they are not an expression of Islam. He and his kind represent radical fundamentalism, and they have more in common with radical fundamentalists of other faiths than with mainstream Muslims. Islam is one of the great religious traditions in human history, calling forth noble aspirations from millions of men and women around the world. Radical fundamentalism, by contrast, is a marginal religious phenomenon, calling forth the dark