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Morality and War

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To spur his followers to the horrendous acts of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden claimed to lead a holy war against America to end its "crusade against the Islamic nation." Yet his chosen means of warfare - the fiery destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center - belied his claim. In the Islamic tradition of jihad, it is forbidden for men to use fire, because that is the weapon God will use in the Day of Judgment.

"One thing that struck me when I saw the TV images was that destroying those buildings by fire [represented] a usurping of the divine authority," says James Turner Johnson, professor of religion at Rutgers University, and a specialist on Islamic and Western traditions of war.

When the US launched military strikes in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden upped the ante with a chilling statement dividing the world into two camps, the faithful and the infidels, aiming to provoke passions and to raise the specter of religious war - and perhaps the clash of civilizations spoken of in the West.

Many Muslims have reacted with anger to the US military campaign, but are fears of a widening jihad well founded? War tends to rouse emotions on all sides, but the perceptions of the majorities in many societies are

likely to be swayed by whether the actions of the players during the lengthy fight against terrorism are considered just.

When it comes to traditions of war and the efforts to harness it throughout history, those in the West and in the Muslim world are not as far apart as many may assume. The voices of Islam are numerous, as are those of Christianity and Judaism, but the moral tradition of jihad shares many similarities with the concept of "just war" in the West.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the acts of men and nations in war will conform to their principles. Yet civilizations have chosen to set those standards, based on their sense of the moral meaning of life, to serve as guides for testing potential courses of action, and for judging acts of war that have been taken.


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