Terrorism and the end of an old order

Bombs planted in parked cars explode near crowded market places. Trucks loaded with explosives, driven by suicide bombers, crash through barriers into embassies and wreak devastation. Nerve gas is released in a subway station of a huge city, resulting in agonizing deaths and widespread casualties. Airplanes are hijacked and passengers are threatened with violence or death if demands are not met - or they are deliberately crashed into buildings...

The increase in the power and reach of terrorist threats in recent years surely ranks as one of the most unsettling developments of our time, a multidimensional phenomenon with global ramifications.

Evolving over the last century, terrorism has left almost no area of the world untouched. It has been used as a tool by both left- and right-wing causes and by groups of every conceivable stripe - anarchists, fascists, nationalists seeking independence, communists, extreme right-wing militias, and eco-terrorists - in places ranging from Europe to Asia, from South America to the Middle East, from the US to Africa. Indeed, depending on particular political affiliations and aspirations, one nation's "terrorist" may be another's "freedom fighter" and the terrorist's actions, rather than regarded as reprehensible, are justified as part of the heroic struggle for a noble cause.

Yet as new forms of terrorism generate wider destruction - and as our increasingly interdependent and global society creates ever greater opportunities for disruption and destruction - the need to address the issue is becoming increasingly urgent.

One especially alarming recent development is the evolution of "a new form of decentralized, religion-motivated terrorism." According to terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman, there were no identifiable religious terrorist groups in 1968, but by the early 1990s almost one quarter of the world's active terrorist groups were motivated by their religious beliefs. The number of terrorist acts committed by such groups has risen sharply since 1988; they are estimated to be responsible for more than half of the 64,319 recorded incidents that occurred between 1970 and 1995.

Yet whether the roots of terrorist acts lie in economics, ideology, or sheer aggression, the question remains: What effective mechanisms can be developed to combat this transnational problem, to which modern states are extremely vulnerable?

One starting point for their formulation could be international agreement on strategic principles for states seeking to reduce terrorism. Such principles might include refusal to surrender to terrorists' demands; resolve to use law and the democratic process to defeat terrorism; refusal to make deals or concessions, even when intimidated and blackmailed; persistent efforts to bring terrorists to justice through the legal process; penalization of state sponsors of terrorism; and refusal to allow terrorists' activities to block international diplomatic efforts to resolve political conflicts.

Embrace of such principles would allow the mechanisms for combating terrorism a chance to evolve, including the formulation of a universally applied standard by which to punish perpetrators - the basis of a rule of law adhered to by all nations.

While the adoption of such measures is important, it will not, however, be sufficient to bring an end to conflict, whether traditional or "asymmetrical," as terrorism is sometimes defined.

In 1985, the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, wrote about the prerequisites for universal and lasting peace.

"Banning nuclear weapons, prohibiting the use of poison gases, or outlawing germ warfare will not remove the root causes of war," said the Universal House of Justice. "However important such practical measures obviously are as elements of the peace process, they are in themselves too superficial to exert enduring influence. Peoples are ingenious enough to invent yet other forms of warfare, and to use food, raw materials, finance, industrial power, ideology, and terrorism to subvert one another in an endless quest for supremacy and dominion. Nor can the present massive dislocation in the affairs of humanity be resolved through the settlement of specific conflicts or disagreements among nations. A genuine universal framework must be adopted."

In other words, addressing problems such as terrorism in isolation from the many other issues that disrupt and destabilize society will ultimately prove a futile exercise. Nations must look beyond simply responding separately to disparate problems and move towards the building of a comprehensive international order based on social justice and collective security, in which all can live in dignity.

In the Bahá'í view, such a universal framework would encompass not only an institutional component, such as found in the ever-evolving United Nations system, but also a global sense of shared moral values. These values would include religious tolerance, economic justice, recognition of the need for universal education, elimination of all forms of racism, and recognition of the full equality between women and men.

However, the acceptance of such a framework - one that can bring real, enduring stability - must spring from a new mindset, the overarching principle of which must be the oneness of humanity.

Recognition of the inherent nobility of each human being, the conviction that all people have a role to play in developing an "ever advancing civilization," and unswerving commitment to spiritual principles as the basis of that civilization are likewise essential components of the only stable foundation upon which a universal framework can be built.

'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote, "Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. Divine civilization is like the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit...."

The leaders of religion have a special role to play in the building of a new global civilization. In a letter to the world's religious leaders issued in April 2002, the Universal House of Justice called on religious leaders to act decisively to eradicate religious intolerance and fanaticism. "With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable," states the letter.

Yet, it continues, "the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants."

In keeping with the realization by growing numbers of people that "the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one," the letter calls on religious leaders to "break with the past" and firmly renounce those actions and teachings that lend "credibility to fanaticism."

Indeed, as long as religious or political leaders hide behind any type of rhetoric, religious or otherwise, that accepts terrorism in any form, effective international response will remain beyond reach.

Ultimately, Bahá'ís understand that the world is currently undergoing "simultaneous processes of rise and fall, of integration and of disintegration, of order and chaos," as humanity outgrows old social structures, institutions, and traditions. In their place, the Bahá'í writings say, will emerge new structures and institutions based on the principle of the oneness of humanity.

That principle "calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world - a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units," according to the Bahá'í writings.

From a Bahá'í perspective, then, the rise in terrorism, fundamentalism, and violence in the world today is simply part of the death throes of an old world order that continues to resist the principle of human oneness and the global institutions that are sure to blossom from its widespread acceptance.

Yet Bahá'ís earnestly believe that "world peace is not only possible but inevitable" and that "the current world confusion and calamitous condition in human affairs [are] a natural phase in an organic process leading ultimately and irresistibly to the unification of the human race in a single social order whose boundaries are those of the planet."

Whether that stage of unity and peace "is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth," said the Universal House of Justice. Likewise, the choice before humanity in how to deal with terrorism hinges on whether the nations of the world can rise to a new level of unity in their approaches and actions.