September 11, 2001 and a Theology of the Signs of the Time

 A text of the research program "Religion-Violence-Communication-World Order"
Theological Faculty, University of Innsbruck/Austria
Editor: Raymund Schwager

Translation for RGKW by Jim Williams

April 22, 2002

The Second Vatican Council developed, in connection with the encyclical Pacem in terris, a theology of the signs of the time. By that it understood the attempt of the people of God "to discern the true signs of God's presence and purpose in the events, the needs and the desires which it shares with the rest of humanity today." (1) Among the events that may intimate the purpose of God, the Council mentioned above all the great dynamic character of modern society with its dangers and promises, the growth of populations, and the encounter of the creeds and the religions.

The Council interpreted these signs of the time in light of the biblical message, on the one hand, and in light of the Church's own life, on the other. The Church's life is itself "a sign and instrument, that is, of communion, with God and of the unity of the whole human race."(2) Special events in the life of the Church thus become special signs in which the faithful can detect and discern the purpose of God for each new present. In this sense the Second Vatican Council was itself not only an occasion with authority, but a signifying event by which the Church presented itself, for the first time, as also empirically visible as universal Church in a dynamic period of history. In connection with this signifying event the popes deliberately attempted to establish further signs. So it was already during the Council that Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jersualem (January 5, 1964).

A special signpost in the complex sphere of violence and conflict between religions was the meeting at Assisi on October 27, 1986. Pope John Paul II had invited representatives of all the great world religions to this meeting, held under the theme of "Coming Together to Pray." (3) By doing this he wanted to give visible expression both to belief in the unity of all humanity in Christ's plan of salvation and and to the task of all religions to work for peace. He was motivated by the conviction that true peace is not the work of man. We must rather pray to God for it(4), and the different religions can come closest to one another in prayer for this peace. Pope John Paul II expressed the same conviction during his trips to Jerusalem and Muslim lands, and precisely because of these statements his journeys received much appreciation, in spite of political difficulties.

Signs of the time can, however, also be events that show all people of good will, whom Pope John XXIII addressed in his encyclical Pacem in terris, how true peace can not simply be created. September 11, 2001 with its terrorist attacks in the USA may have been such a negative sign. But at the same time these negative signs require careful interpretation and deciphering so that they do not become merely an occasion for acts of rejection and shortsighted retaliation. Since Muslims committed this terror, and in doing so appealed - for the most part incorrectly - to their religion, this event challenges us to sound out the deeper problems in the encounter between the liberal Western society and the Islamic world and to ask how these can gradually be overcome.

2) Different Worlds

In order to avoid a general conflict with Islam, the worldwide alliance against terrorism led by the United States distinguished between the great majority of moderate Muslims and the small group of terrorist fundamentalists. From the standpoint of Realpolitik this distinction between good and bad Muslims has been prudent for the moment, and it is also initially correct concerning terrorism. Yet it bears within it a long-term danger, a fundamental problem, namely concealing the fundamental opposition of two different concepts of society. Liberal Western society would like to separate religion and politics and push all faith convictions back into private life. Islam, on the other hand, understands itself not only as a faith for individuals but as a faith giving order to all of life that should also determine the public realm.

An essential element of traditional Islam is dividing the whole world into two realms. Its own realm is the house of peace (dar al-salaam or dar al-islam), while the entire non-Islamic world is seen as the house of war (dar al-harb). By harb is meant the godless war that the unbelievers conduct against one another or against Islam. From this viewpoint the world of the infidels is filled with violence, whereas in the society of Muslims (umma) peace should rule so that public order may be determined by the commands of God. Muslims must extend this peaceful order, specifically through jihad. This concept initially means every sort of striving which promotes Islam and adds to it new believers. Jihad can also include actual war (qital) against the infidels. "The final goal is reached when all areas of the non-Muslims become areas of Islam and when unbelief is definitively rooted out."(5) Muslims are obliged to go to war when it is a matter of maintaining Islam's sphere of influence, for once an area becomes Muslim it may no longer be given up. Those subjugated do not have to convert, for faith is based on free acceptance. However, they must submit to the status of "protected by Allah" (dhimmi) and of second class citizens within Muslim society.(6)

Given this background it becomes evident that the encounter of the Muslim world with the Western understanding of social order cannot proceed without problems. The secularization of Turkey after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War produced a trauma that was further intensified by the penetration of Western ideas with the formation of national states in Muslim lands. This led in 1928 to the beginning of the Muslim Brotherhood under Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949). It pursues the goal of fighting Western influences and bringing about a global Islamic social order.(7) What distinguished this movement was a strong social commitment and educational activity, and since the Arab Rebellion (1936-1939) it was engaged in the Palestine question. The movement became radicalized, however, when it was suppressed in about 1954 by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt after it had had initial great successes in Islamic lands. Among those imprisoned then was Sayyid Qutb(8), who was executed in 1966 and whose writings mark the beginning of the recent "Islamism," which demands the total union of religion and politics in reaction to the Western secularization of the state.

The economic and technical success of the West, the severe conflict between Palestinians and Israel, the corrupt regimes and the great poverty in Muslim lands, and the victory of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 over the Shah, who was aligned with the West, gave this fundamentalism further impetus. The various tendencies characterizing this fundamentalism "seem ever more clearly to gain the upper hand in the Islamic world" (9). In its radical offshoots Islamism advocates a new understanding of jihad. This radical fundamentalism holds that even the use of violence is an instrument that God wills for the accomplishment of a true Islamic order, and given the general danger to Islam that a godless world poses terror itself is permissible.(10) This led in the most recent decades to many assaults, whose rank includes Osama bin Laden(11) and the assassins involved in the World Trade Center attacks, although these latter pushed terrorist action to a new stage. Even before September bin Laden attempted to justify terrorist attacks by referring to similar American deeds(12), and the suicide assaults against America seem to follow a concept of martyrdom contrary to Islam.(13)

Far from being an accidental result of the confrontation of the Muslim world with the outwardly more successful Western civilization, it is the obvious consequence. Western civilization is, to be sure, tolerant toward all those people who practice their faith as a personal and private matter, but it stands in clear opposition to an understanding of public order or government which presents itself--like pre-Vatican II Catholicism or Islam--as ordained by God. Two factors masked this opposition until now: a politics of contradiction and the spontaneous power of attraction exerted by Western culture. Many Islamic lands--above all Saudi Arabia--cooperate with the West for economic reasons, but in their own lands they are totally undemocratic, persecute the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations; at the same time they manage to maintain a religious public order through imposition of power and they systematically violate human rights. The West, out of economic interests, lets this contradiction remain without interference and it appeals to human rights only where it is in its own interests. Even after September 11 it continued consciously to build its alliance against terror upon this contradiction.

The second factor that contributes to masking the opposition consists in the powerful attraction of the Western system, which for a long time has not had to resort to direct force in order to accomplish its global claim. Thanks to the symbiosis of natural sciences, technology, and economic power new goods are constantly produced which exert an alluring and even seductive effect on peoples of all cultures, and of course this includes the Muslims. Even if the matter of power always plays a role in the realization of economic interests, it may still remain far in the background. The triumphal march of the Western system proceeds as though automatic, because

even its enemies try to imitate it,(14) and it can thus do so without having to appear to be imperialistic. However, times of crisis disclose that military power must finally play a decisive role. Already prior to the new constellation of power, Thomas Friedman, advisor to the then US Minister of Foreign Affairs Madeleine Albright, wrote in the New York Times on March 28, 1999: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist - McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnel Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."(15)

This hidden fist is today stronger than ever and indeed, it has become completely visible. An open war against it is outside of all political reality for Muslim lands. So only two alternatives seem to remain: acceptance of Western dominance, as most of the Muslim regimes do, or wage war as an invisible enemy by means of terror. The tension in any case is so great that no way to a just order and to a true and enduring peace for everyone concerned presents itself on a purely political level. As Pope John Paul II continually emphasizes, one can finally only pray for this peace. Yet still the "necessity of peace" summons everyone to action.

3) Tensions within the Western World

The demonstrated difference between the Islamic and the Western understanding of public order may give the impression that we will have to encounter a total opposition. That, however, is not the case, for not only Islamic but also Western civilization experiences deep tensions, even oppositions in itself. Many Christians in the Western world believe in God and revelation , yet society functions without reference to God. This does not mean that the denial of God is fundamental to modern society. The decisive thing is rather that it is driven by largely anonymous mechanisms. This includes the market with its invisible hand as the navigator of a society based on division of labor. It includes also democracy with the principle of the private vote for leaders for limited term and scientific and technological thought and research, which adheres to what is calculable and what works but which is abstracted from all concrete subjects with their hopes and anxieties. The kind of thought ruling in all these domains is utilitarian and holds to a technical rationality; it does not consider the question of God. Nevertheless it does not get by without a certain faith, for its presupposition must be the hope and confidence that the anonymous mechanisms will lead human society step by step to something better. Because of this the modern anonymous world tends also to accept features of a neo-pagan religiosity. But is the faith in a constant and enduring improvement of the world justified? Its basis is the fact that so far through the new scientific and technical means we have attained a new form of cooperation between human beings, that has led to scientific, technical, and economic successes such as humanity has never before known. This belief in progress builds further on the theory of evolution, which in today's dominant varieties affirms that the world has developed into complex and higher forms through anonymous mechanisms.

But there is much that speaks against a blind belief in progress, for the Western world records only its successes; it has also created dangers such as mankind has never previously known. The growing split between rich and poor combined with an emphasis on the equality of all human persons produces unbearable tensions. Weapons of mass destruction could cause disaster never known before. The exploitation of nature and the altering of the environment threaten to destroy the foundation on which human life rests.

Although Western society originated in the Christian world, the Christian faith forms a very critical stance towards the naïve belief in progress because it is cognizant of the great significance of the biblical theme of judgment. Christian faith carries the conviction that a world that is not built on God finally brings judgment upon itself. In investigating the signs of the time the Christian faith discovers also new parallels between apocalyptic themes in the Bible and the modern possibilities of humanity's self-annihilation.(16) It stands therefore in ongoing debate with dominant tendencies in the modern Western world.

In this context the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, together with the already long-lasting conflict over Jerusalem and Palestine, (28) contain a multiple significance. On the one hand they intensify the fear that a lasting conflict between two segments of Islam could come about. On the other hand they summon us to perceive more profoundly the problems in our own social order. Finally they urgently invite us Christians in the Western world to perform a bridging function so as to avoid a lasting and spiraling confrontation from both sides in what will be an extremely challenging dialogue.

4) Dialogue between Christians and Muslims

The dialogue must be conducted at different levels in which there will always be both things held in common and differences.

a) Christians can join with Muslims in affirming that God created the world and reveals himself to humankind, and that the final meaning of life is fully disclosed only after death in the life everlasting. Christians and Muslims thus trust finally not in anonymous mechanisms; they see rather a common task in forming the world by conscious effort in such a way that it may conform as far as possible to the will of God. Beyond utilitarian and technical reason they defend a reason that is open to the deeper mystery of human life and its final goal. They are convinced that human history stands finally under the judgment of God. They entrust themselves in prayer to this God understood as person.

b) Since the anonymous mechanisms of modern society are not expressly godless but put aside the question of God, Christians expect of Muslims that they too will be ready to live their faith under new social and cultural conditions. History has taught us that a social order based on democracy and the rule of law is a necessary prerequisite, so that people of different beliefs can live together mor or less peacefully. To become part of that kind of order has become necessary in view of the growing intertwining of all peoples. But this demands of the Muslims a radical change in thinking for which there are in their own tradition certain initial possibilities. Even modern Islamists stress that the order of Islam, as they conceive it, never really existed except in the brief period of Muhammad and his first companions.(17) In the history of all Islamic lands there were always certain differences between the religious and the political realm. Such models from the past should be further extended today. Already in the present many millions of Muslims live in states with Western-style, democratic governments. We would do them an injustice if we asserted that they were worse Muslims. They have to have new perspectives, as for example Smail Balic has presented in his book, Islam for Europe(18). He understands secular society as a challenge for Islam, but also as an opportunity. Christians should in this sense support European Muslims and help and encourage them to live their faith in a world they experience first of all as foreign. This should bring about on their part certain ideas and considerations that find increasing approval in lands with Muslim majorities. In this regard the current president of Iran, Seyed M. Khatami, offers some important thoughts.(19)

c) The acceptance of the state as liberal and democratic in no way means, as liberalism would have it, that faith must be completely privatized. The Catholic Church, after a long and laborious process during the Second Vatican Council, has said a clear "Yes" for the democratic state and religious freedom. Nevertheless it claims, quite rightly in our view, to be a voice in public debate, whose acceptance of course depends on its free adoption by a majority of citizens. Indeed, liberal streams in the theology of recent decades tended forcefully to subordinate Christian faith to the "norms" of modern culture and to make the question of truth dependent on majority opinions. Yet this is a wrong way to go. A vital Christian theology must, as the example of the prophets and Jesus Christ shows, be able to engage in opposition and to base its work on a community of faith with clear convictions. (20) The liberal biases in Western theology make it more difficult also for Islam to find its appropriate place in the modern world because they constantly arouse the suspicion that accepting the idea of a liberal state means the surrender of one's own faith. It would seem therefore that only a Christian theology that clearly adheres to divine revelation and simultaneously accepts a constitutional democracy could helpfully mediate in the encounter between Islam and the Western world.

d) The common witness of Christians and Muslims against powerful negative tendencies in the modern world is also of central significance for Western society. If only one religious community comes forward in the public sphere, it stands easily under the suspicion of representing only its private own interests. But together the religious communities can more persuasively counter individualistic and egoistic tendencies. Together they can more clearly criticize the one-sided dominance of utilitarian and technical reason. Together they can more effectively counteract the division of the world into the haves and the have-nots, and together they can perhaps correct those biases that otherwise result in the self-judgment of human societies around the world.

e) Due to the terrorism of September 11, 2001 and many earlier attacks the question of violence has advanced into the center of public discussion. Violence occupies also a central place in that interreligious dialogue that intends to serve the cause of peace. Of course, no state is able to exist without the distinction between legal and criminal violence and without a minimal degree of legal violence. With the acceptance of a political order that is distinguished from the realm of religion the religious communities are liberated from being directly responsible for the maintenance of the political order. They can therefore, in their own realm, more unambiguously take a stand on the question of violence.

f) Most of the reproaches against Christianity in its long history are connected to the problem of violence, and this in turn was largely conditioned by concern for the public order. The clear distinction between church and state was already asserted in the New Testament and the early church and reaffirmed in the modern encounter with democratic nation-states, and this distinction can make it easier to clear away misunderstandings and acknowledge past transgressions. The Catholic Church did precisely this in the Jubilee year 2000 by making an official act of repentance, in which it confessed transgressions in the past and asked forgiveness in a prayer to God. Through this public testimony the Church completed a "cleansing of conscience," just as Pope John Paul II had expressly intended. The Church thus declared before all the world how it wants to be understood, what it adheres to as its authentic tradition, and that from which it separates itself as deviations from its true faith.

May a similar act of repentance be expected of Islam? To begin with, the question it poses is different, for in its normative writings there are no statements that can be directly compared, as regards the threat of violence, with the demand for nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount and with the conduct of Jesus. Indeed, Muhammad himself led small wars, and in its early phase Islam quickly spread primarily through military expansion. Nevertheless, the question of violence must be clearly addressed in the dialogue. The military preponderance of the Western world is now so great that the Islamic nations cannot engage in open confrontation with the West in the foreseeable future. To be sure, one can inflict wounds on one's opponents through terrorist acts, but the reactions put the Muslim countries themselves under great pressure and have accordingly caused them to suffer. The many attacks associated with Islam damage it greatly, moreover,in universal public opinion and destroy its credibility. Yet since Islam, too, finally holds to the freedom of faith, its credibility must be a matter of concern and it must show how it conceives its co-existence with human beings of other religious convictions on an equal plane. Can the peace and righteousness that are expected to prevail within the "House of Peace" (dar al salaam) not also make a contribution to living together in the "House of War" (dar al harb)? These are difficult subjects, which must be worked out in any future dialogue and which must include the question of the Cross, which the Quran clearly excludes in its reception of the figure of Jesus as a prophet.

g) Islam understands the words that came to Muhammad as the final and definitive reception and purification of those revelations which Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and Jesus had previously already received. Christianity sees in Jesus Christ the final and definitive reception of Israel's religious experiences, and thus it views him as the final and definitive revelation of God. Both claims for finality stand in conflict with one another. Precisely in the working out of this conflict these respective understandings of revelation must prove themselves at a deeper level. The thing to note first of all is that both claims appeal at least in part to an earlier history, and so to that extent they must make reference to history, even if in different ways. But what is finally important is the correct distinction between the creation and the creator. Just as the Quran for Islam is simultaneously both created and uncreated, so for Christianity Jesus Christ is simultaneously both God and human creature. The gradual working out of this problem is of central significance. If success is attained in some measure, then the claim to revelation that both religions raise up in a world whose ears are scarcely open to it will once more become believable.

In this way the dialogue will serve not only peace on earth. It offers the possibility of giving Islam and Christianity the opportunity to discover the deepest demand in their respective traditions.

This text was produced out of several sessions of the Innsbruck research program "Religion-Violence-Communication-World Order" and was approved on January 18, 2002.

Colleagues in the research group who took part: H. Büchele (Christliche Gesellschaftslehre), Ch. Drexler (Katechetik und Religionspädagogik), W. Guggenberger (Christliche Gesellschaftslehre), O. Muck (Philosophie), J. Niewiadomski (Dogmatik) , W. Palaver (Christliche Gesellschaftslehre), D. Regensburger (Medien), W. Sandler (Dogmatik), M. Scharer (Katechetik und Religionspädagogik), R. Schwager (Dogmatik), R. Siebenrock, N. Wandinger (Dogmatik), F. Weber (Pastoraltheologie)

Editor: Raymund Schwager.

Translation: Jim Williams


1. Gaudium et spes 11; cf 4; Unitas redintegratio 4; Presbyterorum ordinis 9; Apostolicam actuositatem 14.

2. Lumen gentium 1.

3. Cf. G. Riedl, Modell Assisi. Christliches Gebet und interreligiöser Dialog im heilsgeschichtlichen Kontext. Berlin: de Gruyter 1998.

4. R. Schwager, Dramatische Theologie als Forschungsprogramm. In: ZKTh 118 (1996) 317 - 344, esp. 334; (English online text:

5. A. Khoury, Toleranz im Islam. München: Christian Kaiser 1980, 108.

6. Cf. ibi. 138 - 176.

7. Cf. J. Reissner, Die militant-islamischen Gruppen. In: W. Ende, U. Steinbach (Ed.), Der Islam in der Gegenwart. Müchen: Beck 31991, 471 - 476.

8. Cf. Qutb, Sayyid, In: L. W. Adamec, Historical Dictionary of Islam, London: Scarecrow Press 2001, 221.

9. A.Th. Khoury, Der Islam und die westliche Welt. Religiöse und politische Grundfragen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 2001, 132.

10. "He (Qutb) advocated the use of violence to overthrow the existing Muslim rulers as they had strayed from the Islamic way... His teaching inspired the formation of such radical Islamic movements as Jama'at al-Takfir wa al Hijrah (Excommunication and Exile), al-Jihad (Holy War), and Jama'at al-Islamiyah (Islamic Sciety) in Egypt, as well as others in many parts of the Islamic world." Qutb, Sayyid, In: L. W. Adamec, Historical Dictionary of Islam (cf. note 8) 221.

11. Interview with Osama bin Laden (may 1998): "Terrorism can be commendable and it can be reprehensible. Terrifying an innocent person and terrorizing him is objectionable and unjust, also unjustly terrorizing people is not right. Whereas, terrorizing oppressors and criminals and thieves and robbers is necssary for the safety of people and for the protection of their property... The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah, the tyrants, the traitors who commit acts of treason against their own countries and their own faith and their own prophet and their own nation... Tyrants and oppressors who subject the Arab nation to aggression ought to be punished... America heads the list of aggressors against Muslim... For over an century, Muslims in Palestine have been slaughtered and assaulted and robbed of their honor and of their property." (

12. "The Americans stareted it and retaliation and punishment should be carried out following the principle of reciprocity, especially when women and children are involved. Through history, American has not been known to differentiate between the military and the civilians or between men and women or adults and children. Those who threw atomic bombs and used the weapons of mass destruction against Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the Americans. Can the bombs differentiate between military and women and infants and children? America has no religion that can deter her from exterminating whole peoples... We believe that the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorist are the Americans. Nothing could stop you (the Americans) except perhaps retaliation in kind. We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian." ibi.

13. Cf. Kanan Makiya, Hassan Mneimneh, Manual for a 'Raid'. In: The New York Review 17. Jan. 2002, 18 - 20;

14. Cf. R. Girard, "Ce qui se joue aujourd'hui est une rivalité mimétique à l'échelle planétaire". In: Le Monde, 5. November 2001;,5987,3230--239636-,00.html

15. Thomas Friedman, A Manifesto for the Fast World. In: New York Times 28. March 1999.

16. R. Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

17. "In his writings Qutb stated that 'true Islam existed only in the time of the Prophet and his Companions', and he called for the reestablishment of the state according to the early example. He advocated the use of violence to overthrow the existing Muslim rulers as they had strayed from the Islamic way." Qutb, Sayyid, In: L. W. Adamec, Historical Dictionary of Islam (cf. note 8) 221.

18. S. Bali, Islam für Europa. Neue Perspektiven einer alten Religion. Köln: Böhlau 2001.

19. Cf. S. M. Khatami, Religiosität und Modernität. Edingen-Neckarhausen: deux mondes 2001.

20. Cf. W. Palaver, W. Guggenberger, Pluralismus - ethische Grundintuition - Kirche. In: ZkTh 120 (1998) 257-289 (ethik.html).

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