What constitutes a holy war? Contrary to what George W. Bush and the rest of our defense department and media apparati tried to sell us, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent war on terror were very much religious conflicts. That is not to say that they were in total, or even primarily, religious conflicts, but divorcing religious beliefs from the equation is not taking a whole hog approach to healthy analysis.
The desire to “no true Scotsman” Osama bin Laden’s Islamic credentials is understandable, but also misses the point. As a Christian, I can’t just say that the Westboro Baptist Church or Trumpism doesn’t represent my faith and then move on without doing any serious engagement with historical and current political realities. More simplistic than that, as an alumnus and fan of the University of Alabama sports programs, I don’t get to just delete the existence of Harvey Updyke and frat boys chanting “F— Joe Biden.”
Ironically, both the fundamentalist and liberal approaches on either side of this fence would be to prove how Christianity and/or Islam are inherently violent, patriarchal, or heretical on a doctrinal level. There are plenty of resources out there to prove your preconceived notion of either, and I have no interest in parsing out what constitutes a “true believer” in this piece, so as to not miss the forest for the trees.
The truth is there are a lot of paradoctrinal facets of a holy war in addition to theology: nationalism, ethnocentrism, economics, etc. Parsing out what constitutes a purely religious idea against what is from the larger culture is harder than it might seem.
A Man, a Fatwa, and a Defensive Jihad
Osama Bin Laden held no officially sanctioned religious positions, but that did not stop him from using extremely conservative fundamentalist Islamic scholars and teachings to engineer his worldview. After the first Gulf War, he called for a “defensive jihad” against America and their allies for what he deemed to be crimes specifically targeted against Muslims.
In 1998, he issued a fatwa that America had made “a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims.” A fatwa is definitionally a ruling or edict by someone with recognized religious authority, so someone with no official status in that regard issuing one shows a desire to be perceived in a theologically authoritative light.
Al Qaeda’s given reasons for the attacks on September 11th were to goad the United States into an invasion of the Middle East and thus, a unification of the Muslim world with the help of Al Qaeda propaganda about fighting off the new crusaders.
The former half of this plan, unfortunately, worked. Conversely, the latter half failed to materialize for the same reasons January 6th wasn’t quite the line drawn in the sand those “Christian patriots” thought it would be. Radically fundamentalist and extremist theocratic movements are by their very nature conspiratorial, nebulous, and antagonistic.
Modern Crusaders: Holy War in the Holy Land
Growing up in the evangelical world, I can’t count the number of times I heard about how Islam was at war with us because they “hate our freedoms,” or that Islam was an inherently violent and/or anti-Christian belief system. As of late, we in America have witnessed first hand, and will continue to witness the influence of Christian nationalism on both our foreign and domestic policies.
Some factions in conservative Christianity have for a long time been very interested in the Middle East, especially as it relates to Israel (there are also other factions within the same demographic that are distrustful of the state of Israel and Jewish people more broadly, but as we know, folks are complicated and movements aren’t monoliths).
For the past two decades, some of the most hawkish warmongerers have been conservative evangelicals who either view our presence in the Middle East as an ally for Israel in the fight against “radical Islam” or that we as a “Christian nation” should import our culture onto these other nations. To them, the crusades were not* a bad idea, and we should just have another one.
*Those early ones had to deal with Popes and Catholicism, so they probably think these are even better.
On the domestic side, the history of Christian nationalism in America predates 9/11 and the War On Terror by decades, but these events did act as a powerful accelerant. According to polls since 2001, white evangelicals are many times more likely to believe that American Muslims believe anti-American thoughts, that Islam itself is incongruous with American ideals, and that America would be better off if it were purely Christian instead of pluralistic.
What’s more, these opinions have increased in the twenty years since. Given these deeply-held beliefs here at home, it’s frightening to realize that the possibility of something much worse than the attack on January 6th, or even further back to the Oklahoma City bombing, is increasingly likely. The FBI has been sounding the alarm that our biggest threat from terrorism is from within and not without.
What we know is that the culture of a place and religion influence each other in ways that are hard to predict. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, et al. on one continent will look different in another practical context, even if they believe the same core principles. I’m of the mind that religions don’t cause wars any more than any value system, but they absolutely influence people to justify decisions they were already prepared to undertake and give eternal weight to things that might not merit that.