This essay is Chapter 9 of Kevin Barrett, John Cobb Jr., and Sandra Lubarsky, eds., 9/11 and American Empire: Christians, Jews, and Muslims Speak Out (Olive Branch Press,  2007).

9/11 and American Empire: Some Jewish Questions and Answers

Roger S. Gottlieb

“You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob them. You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.” --Lev. 19:13, 16

 “We are Israel, Adonai, when we proclaim You the God of freedom, as did our ancestors on the shores of the sea.” --Rabbi Harvey Fields, 1965, after participating in the Montgomery civil rights march

 “You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity... you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens: no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.” --Deut. 7:16, 24


WE HAVE BEEN TOLD THAT THE COORDINATED TERRORIST ATTACK OF 9/11 is the defining event of our time.1 Our collective sorrow for the thousands of innocent victims and their families, and our legitimate rage at this terrible violation of basic human decency, has been channeled into support for a new foreign policy doctrine that justifies preemptive American military action anytime our government suspects a threat to national security—and into a “clash of civilizations” in which the US and its allies represent freedom, democracy, goodness, and God’s will. Our enemy, we have been told by the Bush regime, is the very embodiment of evil, seeking to destroy by any means necessary the very foundations of democratic civilization. But since our enemies are not rooted in any particular country, instead organized in small, disconnected splinter cells, they cannot be defeated in national war. Therefore, lest the terrorists win, we are obligated to wage permanent war on a number of fronts.

On the other side of this bitter struggle, violent Islamic fundamentalism has its own reasons for endless conflict. Its leaders cite the invasion of Iraq, US threats to Arab national autonomy in the Middle East and assaults on Muslims throughout the world, military aid to Israel (which has no right to exist), complicity in hundreds of thousands of deaths from sanctions against Iraq, and the export of a godless, licentious culture that conflicts with Muslim civilization. To those Muslims unimpressed by what the US says of itself, “fighting for democratic values” simply masks the pursuit of oil justified by hypocritical moralizing. Violent Muslim fundamentalists, suicide bombers, and terrorists also believe that God is on their side, and they too see themselves in a fight to the death.2 As an American, a Jew, a human being, and a leftist, I stand in opposition to and cannot support either of these dark antagonists.

For a start, I view the US account of its present foreign policy in the historical context of countless other justifications of an aggressive anti-democratic foreign policy. From the Spanish-American war to anti-democratic interventions in Latin America and the Middle East, our policies have typically tended toward the maintenance and expansion of a militarily, economically, and culturally hegemonic system of global capitalism. Our vaunted love of democracy has not kept us from supporting dictators—as we supported Saddam Hussein. Our opposition to terrorism has not kept us from training and arming them—as we did with Osama bin Laden. Our embrace of democracy at home has often coexisted with a brutal, unprincipled foreign policy. At present, the American empire’s enormous wealth and power are matched by an unprecedented destructiveness. The environmental consequences of global capitalist expansion alone are responsible for millions of deaths, widespread poverty, long-term decline in environmental health, and the fastest and largest extinction of species of the last 70 million years.3 We also find increased gaps between rich and poor, genocide of indigenous peoples, and a catastrophically irresponsible waste of money on armaments and addictive consumerism.4

Yet in the conflict between the United States and violent Islamic fundamentalism, we face an adversary that is a grave threat to a just and humane society.5 From Iran to Pakistan, al-Qaeda to Muslim guerillas in Algeria, this movement has been fiercely committed to turning back the clock on democracy, women’s rights, distinctions between church and state, and any kind of religious ecumenism—and will stop at nothing to accomplish its ends. Just as American empire is, I believe, a profound threat to human well-being, so is radical Islam’s stated goal of theocratic world domination and willingness to murder anyone designated as an enemy, including Muslims of a different stripe. Its psychotic anti-Semitism conjures up terrifying images of Nazism reborn.

It seems we are confronted with two fiercely opposing forces, each of which has what it firmly believes are legitimate reasons to fear and hate the other. While this battle rages, concerns with poverty, ecology, moral development, human rights, and human fulfillment will be pushed (at best) to the back burner. If this conflict is to define our times, we face bleak prospects indeed.

How can reasonable, decent, and well-meaning Jews, Christians, and Muslims respond?

My first thought is that perhaps we really have nothing to say, and that saying nothing would be the most powerful and authentic response. Refusing to take sides, to join in the cacophony of self-righteousness and hate, implying that we will not be part of the madness even to the point of making what should be devastatingly obvious criticisms of both sides’ addiction to violence, inability to empathize, naked justifications for capitalism, theocratic male power, and inexcusable waste of resources.

As attractive as this alternative might be, of course we cannot take it. If nothing else, we are American citizens: our tax dollars support the muscle behind American empire and our standards of living benefit from it. As Christians and Jews we must say what it means to be attacked for our religion. If we are devout Muslims we must say what we think about these actions done in our name.  Like it or not, silence often appears as tacit consent. If our faiths cannot tell us what to say about terrorism and empire, of what use are they?

When asked about her view of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, my teenage daughter Anna, cutting through decades of violence and hundreds of thousands of pages of analysis, said only, “It’s a shame, just a damn shame.”

While we will move beyond Anna’s painfully concise judgment, it is perhaps the best place to start. For like the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the conflict between global capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism is also a terrible shame. As religious people we should not shy away from the obvious, since in a complex time the obvious, as necessary as it is, may be lost.  Perhaps then we should begin not with analysis and outrage, programs and calls to action, but with a clear expression of the deep grief that, I suspect, haunts us all. The lives lost on 9/11—including those of the murderers— were a terrible waste. Each person who died began life in innocence, each had unique gifts that could have been used to make life better for the earth community. And what the American empire is doing—with the cooperation and support of economic and military elites in the rest of the world—is also a great tragedy. Religion, at least as I understand it, must help us mourn all these losses. 

Now we must get into the messy details, find the demons there, and try to root at least some of them out.

I will do my part of that enormous task as a Jew, one whose Jewishness has been shaped by (and which has shaped) radical politics, spiritual seeking, and ecological concern. The specifically Jewish resources I can call on to help me include theological writings from Genesis to Elie Wiesel, to be sure, but also what might be called Jewish historical experience and distinct (though certainly not in all ways unique) sensibility. Exile, homelessness, persecution, and newborn nationalism have formed Jewishness as much as any tractate of the Talmud. These factors have led to a perplexing two-sided sensibility of empathy for victims and fear of annihilation; a universally oriented perspective that seeks the coming of the messianic age for everyone on earth; a constricted self-protection that believes that history has made it clear we can only trust ourselves; and a commitment to compassion for human weakness and a sense that absolute evil must be opposed with everything we have.

Defined in this way, what can I say as a Jew about 9/11 and American empire, something that is not simply a repeat of secular political and moral analysis? What does being Jewish help me to say that I might not be able to say otherwise?

To begin, for me Judaism is about a direct confrontation with moral responsibility. God’s challenge to the Israelites is all too clear on this point: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut.  30:19). For Judaism (as I suspect for Christianity and Islam as well), the bedrock of moral life is the human capacity to ally with life or death, blessings or curses. It is not, as for instance it is for Buddhism or Plato, about knowledge.6 We can know everything there is to know and still do the wrong thing—that is what moral choice means.

But this element of moral choice is not simply about taking responsibility for challenging other people’s moral failings—to stand up to US foreign policy, the machinations of the global ruling class, or religious fanatics—but to be critical of oneself: both individually and as a group. From Isaiah’s ringing denunciation of Jewish spiritual hypocrisy7 to the traditional idea that a Jew is supposed to spend more than a month in moral self-examination before he or she prays for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, Jews are reminded that there is no guarantee that Jews will be better than anyone else, or that the Covenant removes us from the possibility of moral failure.  The Covenant, rather, places an increased responsibility on us, without ever promising that we will keep it (in fact, rather, with frequent warnings that we won’t!).

Despite the fact that the exodus from Egypt is a central historical moment for the Torah, in a paradoxical moral teaching, the Torah sees Egyptians and Jews as to some extent interchangeable. To put it another way: it is empathetically motivated moral conduct (“Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt” is a frequent justification for a moral rule) that makes one a Jew rather than an Egyptian, and not simply the vagaries of birth. That is why the same adverb used to describe the Egyptian treatment of the Jews (“The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites” [Exodus 1:13]) is employed in laws instructing Jews how to treat poverty-stricken Jewish workers (“You shall not rule over him ruthlessly...” [Lev. 25:43]). The Exodus narrative defines two fundamental ethical roles—that of slave and that of master. But once the yoke has been removed from his neck, anyone can then act like a master; and once masters give up their oppressive role, they must be treated fairly: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:8).

In that spirit, and before I confront other critically important concerns, I as a Jew must first ask: What is there from my tradition that contributes to our tragic global calamities?8

The answer is neither hard to find nor easy to take. There is a strain of self-righteous violence that runs through Judaism from the earliest texts to the present day, a celebration of our physical and cultural triumph over those who threaten us or who simply stand in our way. From Moses’ instructions at the end of Deuteronomy to kill the Canaanites and destroy their holy places to the grisly depictions of Israelite triumph in Joshua to the West Bank settlers who (with tacit or overt support from “religious” authorities) burn down olive groves and terrorize Palestinians, this strain darkens the moral radiance of my tradition. If as a Jew I can take pride in the Jewish invention of the Sabbath, longstanding concern with personal morality and social justice, and visionary spiritual insights, I must be willing to confront the dark side of Judaism as well.

The first specifically Jewish response to “9/11 and American empire” then, is not to point the finger at George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Halliburton, or Osama bin Laden, but to examine ourselves and see to what extent some part of our tradition may be part of what is wrong, to use our own tradition in order to criticize our own tradition.9 Cautiously, but honestly, we need to ask: How much does Jewish tradition contribute to the goal of annihilating the enemy, or to seeing whole groups as less worthy of life or God’s love than ourselves, or of seeing ourselves as having a special prerogative to take what we want? Does the US’s presumption that it has a seemingly natural right to Middle East oil echo in some way the biblical guarantee that the Jews get the Promised Land, whatever the other inhabitants of the area might have to say about it? Does al-Qaeda’s certainty of God’s blessing on violent conquest reflect some of Islam’s roots in the books of Joshua or Judges? Can such roots also be found mirrored in the assumptions of the religious right that the US has a unique relation with God—and thus unique prerogatives in world politics? Such questions may be especially poignant for a Jew, since as the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths we may have set the tone for what followed. Yet as our religious offspring have long reached cultural adulthood, they must take responsibility for what they have done with the original teaching. Christian-justified colonialist genocides and mullah-sanctioned Islamic wars are the responsibility of Christians and Muslims. Thus this Jewish question is one that Christians and Muslims need to put to themselves as well. All of us need to know if we are carrying within ourselves or our institutions that part of the Abrahamic legacy that celebrates collective violence.

If there are, as Rabbi Michael Lerner has said, “two voices in Torah”10—one that repeats a message of violent conflict and oppression and one that teaches care, humility, and compassion—it is up to us to separate those voices out and join our own words and actions with one rather than the other. And this includes speaking up in our own religious communities when fear or a false sense of entitlement prompts us to unthinkingly celebrate our own power and our triumph over the Other. It is at this point that we must remember that all human beings are made in the image of God, that part of what that sense of human identity means is that we are to be God’s representatives on earth,11 and that the God we seek to represent offers the following self description: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7).

At this point another Jew might say that if the Jewish experience has taught us anything, it is that sometimes the Other does take on a face that we cannot recognize, that no longer calls to us or engages us morally, but is simply the face of death—of them or of us.12 There are Pharaohs—and Hitlers—in this world.  Individuals, institutions, and even whole societies can be lost to morality, respect for life, and even sanity. In such cases, as in that of the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites from the rear after the escape from Egypt, compassion is replaced with a relentless, implacable opposition. When confronted in this way, the biblical call to care for the “widow, the stranger and the orphan,” the Kabbalistic notion that each person is a divine spark who can only be unified with God after we repair the world, the spiritual gentleness that pervades Hasidic spiritual writing—all these must be suspended.

It is only with the deepest fear and trembling that we can decide how to apply these two mutually exclusive perspectives to our current dilemma. Are either—or both—al-Qaeda and American empire the contemporary analogues to Pharaoh or to Hitler, or to some soulless bureaucratic ecocidal nightmare that can be anticipated only by an act of darkest imagination? Can the terrorist be reasoned with or appealed to? Can the World Bank or Exxon or Donald Rumsfeld or Wall Street? It is here that we need to remember the end of God’s self-description cited above: “Yet God does not leave the guilty unpunished; God punishes the children and their children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” And as long as God is silent, as God has been for so long, it may in fact be up to us to punish the guilty, to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14).

Yet once again we must think—what would it mean to “blot out” the terrorist networks, since these networks are a fairly predictable outcome of a certain set of economic, social, cultural, and psychological conditions? What would it mean to “punish the guilty” for American empire, since “the guilty” includes literally millions of people whose actions are directly or tacitly condoned by hundreds of millions of other people in democratic nations?  American empire and global terrorism stem from collective social processes, for example the evolution of global capitalism, world trade relations, the commodification of human relationships, failed modernizations, and destabilized traditional societies. Therefore we cannot “blot out” either side of the conflict at hand by defeating some small group.

How then are we to punish the guilty when responsibility is so widely shared?

Must we side with either al-Qaeda or the US government? In the face of so much reckless hate, must we put aside our quarrels with our leaders and support the “war against terror”? Or shall we say that after decades of murderous intervention throughout the world, the US is getting, if not what it deserves, at least what it should have expected? If both sides seem so evil, must we simply side with the greater against the lesser and hope that eventually, when number one is defeated, we can get around to number two?

At the risk of seeming wishy-washy, naive, unrealistic, or a fence-straddler, I will not side with either. And, I believe, at least some of Jewish tradition would take this stand with me. For Judaism is above all a religion of this earth. Whatever promises of a messiah are present in the tradition, whatever ideas of the resurrection of the actual bodies we have now, the Covenant between God and the patriarchs and Moses concerned continuity in historical time: a land of their own and a people as numerous as the stars in the sky. As a Jew then, I believe that my duty to the earth is to live as decent and human a life as I can, and that to do so I cannot allow the moral alternatives to be defined by others.  Thus I refuse to choose between George W. and Osama, between the mad fanaticisms of the religious fundamentalists and soulless brutality of the globalizers.

Fortunately, this response also makes a kind of strategic sense.  For if the only antagonists really were George W. and Osama, then it might make sense to support one over the other, to join in the patriarchal zero-sum game of might makes right, winner takes all, and “I’m holy—you’re evil.” If only one of these two individuals was going to run the world, then we would have to side with one or the other.

But neither the US president nor the top terrorists do anything by themselves. Everything they undertake depends on complex networks of immediate associates, advisors, generals, lieutenants, and foot soldiers; not to mention a much wider population of taxpayers, media support, and sympathetic popular opinion. No one can defeat the US militarily. Nor, given its decentralized and far-flung membership, can anyone defeat al-Qaeda. The task, then, is not our own jihad against either American imperialism or Islamic fundamentalism, aiming for some decisive victory. Rather, the only realistic plan is to try to lessen popular support for them—to change the minds of those who think either of these groups have the right ideas about what social life should be like.

If we are not about to overthrow the government and institute the messianic age (or at least a global society with a modicum of rationality and decency) through a great apocalyptic battle in which all the evildoers are blotted out, what is to be done?

To begin with, I think it is our continuing duty to reclaim, or at least contest, the public meaning of religion. This is a struggle with two fronts. On the one hand, we need to oppose the notion that religion—in the broad sense of large-scale frameworks of meaning and value—can ever be excluded from public life. Every time we decide to protect an endangered species rather than develop one more wetland into a mall, or define sex education as about mechanics rather than the sacredness of life force, or commit resources to the military over care for the elderly, we are making collective choices that necessarily depend on value perspectives for which there is no ultimately rational justification. The secular myth that seeking more money is rational while serving God is just a matter of (irrational) faith is itself just an ideological justification for one way of life, one framework of values, over another. While ministers should not have political power because of their religious status, and governments should not actively support the Episcopal Church over Quakers, our laws, policies, and budgets will always embody somebody’s version of the central values that should guide human life.

Our second front, therefore, is to say what we think those values should be, and in so doing wrest the meaning of religion from those who would identify it with patriarchal, anthropocentric capitalism or patriarchal, anthropocentric fundamentalism. It is much less important to debate the place of religion in public life—whether we should have a “Christmas tree” or a “holiday tree”—than it is to challenge those who would reduce Christianity to having the clerk say “Merry Christmas” as he hands you your Visa card back, or who believe that religious passion entails crushing the unbelievers. If religion is central to our lives, and if we think society should be guided by at least some of its values, let us say how and why.

To take one example in the Jewish case: If the Talmud teaches reconciliation, humility, and peacefulness (and it does) or the great twentieth-century Jewish teachers Abraham Heschel, Martin Buber, and Arthur Waskow have pointed toward a respectful relation between Arabs and Jews, then it is the obligation of Jews who follow these Jewish teachings to make their case to other Jews, the American public, the US government, and Israel. Clearly the vicious Jew-haters who populate much of the terrorist world will not be convinced by anything we say or indeed by any change in Israeli policy whatsoever—but what about those who are not so fanatical? What about the Muslims who may be sympathetic to al-Qaeda precisely because they believe that US support of Israel would cheerfully consign the Palestinians to national oblivion forever? What about those who might well change their minds about Israel if Israel changed some of its policies?

In short, part of a religious reaction to the joint threats of terrorism and globalization is to offer a third alternative, in which peace, rational ecological policies, human rights, and a reasonable distribution of wealth and respect take a leading place. There is no doubt, I believe, that just as there are within all three major western religions real justifications for narrow and violent group self-interest, there is also justification for the opposite. If we are picking and choosing from the tradition to find this justification, so are, for their part, the fundamentalists—whatever they may say about how orthodox they are.

We are different from them, it must be stressed, not because we are tolerant and they are not. It is, rather, because we are committed to different values and beliefs than they are. For instance, I personally do not care how anyone else prays to and talks about God (or doesn’t), but I am not willing to compromise one bit on such issues as human rights, women’s liberation, and aggressive militarism. If fundamentalists are committed to preserving patriarchal power, or the Defense Department to treating the interests of US citizens as naturally more important than those of the rest of the world, we will—both effectively and humanely, I hope—oppose them. If they think the way to make the world safe is through violence, we would rather actually sit down and talk things over. If they believe that religion should be imposed, we think a religion imposed has already admitted its own spiritual bankruptcy.

In short, as a (particular kind of) Jew I embrace a comprehensive and very particular moral and political vision. If this vision is informed by the history of socialist, feminist, and ecological movements, that does not make it any less Jewish. The idea that Leviticus or the Talmud could have all the answers on how to do God’s work on earth in the twenty-first century makes about as much sense as thinking Isaiah could also tell us how to build the Rebbe’s computer. And in any case, it is often extremely difficult to tell where religious ideas leave off and secular ones begin. Marx’s vision of communism, as many have observed, has affinities with Jewish messianism. Claims to equal rights for all, others argue, make sense in a culture formed by the idea that everyone is made in the image of God.13 Contemporary liberal Judaism certainly did not get the idea of women’s liberation or environmentalism from within the Jewish tradition, though it can find support for both ideas once it has been taught to do so by feminists and environmentalists.14 Certain forms of religion, no less than certain political movements, offer visions of a social life fundamentally altered in the direction of certain comprehensive and sweeping value commitments. Both religion and politics can be ways of making—and remaking—the world. It is not surprising, then, that at times their injunctions should coincide or their ideas should shape each other.15

Equally important to articulating a vision for social life that accepts neither the spiritless attachment to the “bottom line” nor a murderous pretension to holiness is actually to embody an alternate set of values. That is, as spiritually oriented religious people we should be able to demonstrate that we have something to offer that neither the terrorists nor the globalizers do.

First on the list, and in some ways in these days the most difficult, is to live out the idea that, as Anne Frank said, “Despite everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.” While anyone who is not depressed these days probably hasn’t been reading the newspaper, while a kind of madness seems to have swept the globe, if a teenager hiding in an attic to avoid genocide can have some hope for human beings, we can too.

As a Jew, I will maintain this hope (if I can!) without denial, joining my choice to communicate, to avoid demonization, and to openness to the Other with the knowledge that some people are not—or at least no longer—good at heart. As a Jew I cannot forget Hitler or Pharaoh and that while being “good at heart” is something we all come in with, we also develop, along the way, the capacity to become ruthless, morally blind, and murderous.

Embodying hope for humanity while never losing sight of our collective evil gives way to another paradox within which we must live. On the one hand, as Jews we have been told that while the world God created is “very good” (Genesis 1), it is nevertheless unfinished and imperfect. Humans therefore have been given the task of tikkun olam—repair and healing of the world. Translated into secular terms by generations of Jewish social activists, this has meant large-scale attempts—some clearly futile and some not—for large-scale social change. On the other hand, not unlike some of the teachings in other traditions,16 we are also told in the Talmud that “We are not expected to finish the work” (though we are also expected to do some of it) and that “To save one person is to save the world.”

I interpret this to mean that we must seek to heal the world’s brokenness without desperation, fanaticism, or despair. We must do the work having no sense of whether or not we will succeed, or even make a dent in the evil we confront. We need to act without “attachment to results”—that is, without an ego-bound demand that we accomplish what we think is right. Ultimately, the world is much too large, complicated, and confusing for us to ever be certain that we have done so. Ultimately all we can control is our own effort and commitment.

Beyond embodying an emotional, spiritual, and political capacity to tolerate the paradox of compassionate concern in a world in which evil is all too real, we need to keep hope alive by manifesting our own capacity for joy. The world, as the eighteenth-century mystical founder of Hasidic Judaism put it, is “filled with miracles.”17 Because of these miracles—a bird in flight, a child’s laughter, a comforting hand—it is a “mitzvah” (a religious obligation), as another Hasidic rebbe put it, “always to be joyful.”18 The history of Jewish persecution makes it fairly easy for us to attune to the world’s pain. Even as disaffected a Jew as Woody Allen could remark that “the news that someone is starving somewhere could ruin my dinner.” It is perhaps less easy for us to keep the miracles in mind and show some joy. Yet for Jews in particular, and—I believe—for any serious Christian or Muslim, it is to this that we are called: to bear witness to the world’s suffering, to resist it as we can, and still to let everyone know that such witness does not exclude delight.

Indeed I believe that only in the context of awareness and resistance is real joy even possible, for otherwise we will be part of the evil or spend untold psychic energies in avoiding and denying it.19 If all this sounds almost impossibly hard, it is. But then at the very least it gives us a spiritual task, against which we can measure ourselves, for a lifetime.

Any reader familiar with religious literature may at this point wonder: “There is nothing new here, and hasn’t 9/11 changed everything?” My answer, in three words, is simple: yes and no. On the one hand, we live in a new political terrain, which includes both the worldwide terrorist network capable of such mad violence and the US government’s mobilization, deceptions, and threats to our civic liberties. To cope with this situation requires a deep awareness of historically unprecedented threats, powers, and possibilities.

At the same time, however, I don’t think we can really remember a time without moral struggle, resistance to evil, and the task of remaining faithful to a nearly impossible moral and spiritual vision. It is in that task that we find the basis of a meaningful, and even at times joyful, life. And nothing that the terrorists of whatever religion or nation can do will ever take that away.20




1 I am aware that some other authors in this volume believe that 9/11 was the work of the US government. For a variety of reasons, I am not convinced. For one thing, I am much more attracted to the idea that simple incompetence and the cover-up of that incompetence was the US government’s role in the matter. Second, even if there were some tacit agreements between the US government, eager to have reasons to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, and the terrorists, this does not mean the US was not assaulted on that day. Agreements between Krupp and DuPont during WWII do not mean that Germany and the US were not also at war. Third, whatever one may say about 9/11 in particular, examples of fundamentalist Islamic violence, as well as theoretical justification of that violence and praise of it, are all too common.

2 For a cogent and frightening account of what militant Islamic fundamentalists say about their goals and reasons, see David Cook, Understanding Jihad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

3 There are tens of millions of “refugees from development” whose lives, cultures, and health are adversely affected. There have been millions of deaths from the effects of handling pesticides alone. In many Indian reservations in the American west the cancer rate (from uranium extraction) is ten to fifteen times the national average. And so on.

4 The literature on the negative effects of globalization is enormous. For a start: Manfred B. Steger, Globalism: The New Market Ideology (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001); Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen, Nicholas Faraclas, and Claudia Von Werlhof, eds., There is an Alternative: Subsistence and Worldwide Resistance to Corporate Globalization (London: Zed Books, 2001); Jackie Smith and Hank Johnston, eds., Globalization and Resistance: Transnational Dimensions of Social Movements, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. 2002); William F. Fisher and Thomas Ponniah, eds., Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (London: Zed Books, 2003); International Forum on Globalization, Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World is Possible (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2002).

5 A variety of terms has been applied to the many manifestations of this movement: fundamentalist Islam, radical Islam, Islamo-fascism, etc. More important than the label is what I have in mind as the movement’s central ideological characteristics. 1. Fundamentalism arises in response to a perceived threat to established forms of meaning and power. 2. That threat is identified with some features of modernity; e.g., religious and cultural pluralism, equal rights for women, consumerism, sexual freedom, religious freedom, skepticism toward traditional religious claims. 3. As an alternative to modernity, fundamentalism offers what it claims to be the one, true version of a religious faith. 4. Since it is the one true version, different religions and competing versions of its own religion must be denounced and often violently suppressed. 5. The absolute truth of this one true version, combined with a sense of threat (from a secular government, mass culture, feminists, homosexuals, the West, etc.) justifies violent actions on behalf of the threatened community and the threatened truth. In various forms fundamentalism is now common among the Christian right in the US, the Hindu nationalist movement in India, right-wing Jews in Israel and the US, and in various movements throughout the Muslim world. It appears in it most frightening guise when it takes state power (as in Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban), but is also deeply destructive when it has powerful influences on a government (as in India or Israel) or when it engages in terrorist actions. My view of fundamentalism is indebted to: Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: HarperCollins, 2000); Martin Riesebrodt, Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2002). It should be clear from what I am saying that I am not addressing Islam as a religion, Muslims as people, or Arabs as an ethnic/national group.

6 For both Buddhism and Plato, we cannot do evil knowingly. If we truly understand our own nature, we will see that selfishness, greed, injustice, etc. damage ourselves.


“Why have we fasted,” they say,

“and you have not seen it?

Why have we humbled ourselves,

and you have not noticed?”

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please

and exploit all your workers.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,

and in striking each other with wicked fists.

You cannot fast as you do today

and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,

only a day for a man to humble himself?

Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed

and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast,

a day acceptable to the LORD?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

(Isaiah 58:3–6)

8 By saying that this is the first question I do not mean to suggest that it is the most important. Rather, I believe that we should not get to more important critical analyses—of imperialism and patriarchy, violent mullahs or soulless bureaucrats of the World Bank—until we have looked at ourselves.

9 This capacity for self-criticism is one of the great aspects of any serious religious tradition, and makes it (perhaps surprisingly) quite a bit like science, which also must use its own methods to criticize its own positions in order to find better ones.

10 Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995). 

11 Lawrence Troster, “Created in the Image of God,” in Judaism and Environmental Ethics, Martin Jaffe, ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).

12 As Jewish philosopher Emmanual Levinas puts it: Our response to the face of the Other means we are responsible for everyone—everyone, that is, who is not Hitler. Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 1990), 87.

13 See the cogent arguments (with which I actually disagree) in Michael J. Perry, The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

14 As John Cobb observed in regard to Christianity: “One can find within the Bible excellent grounds for overcoming anthropocentrism and for care for the earth. But Christians did not do so until the insights of persons outside the church led to accusations against them.” John B.  Cobb, Jr., Reclaiming the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 64.

15 I have made the general argument for this claim in Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004) and in Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, and Ecological Wisdom (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). The way in which the connections between progressive politics and radical religion are particularly strong in religious environmentalism is described Roger S. Gottlieb, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet’s Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

16 The best example is probably the Bhagavad Gita.

17 One of those quotes which I have used for years but for which I cannot find the reference!

18 Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov, Likutei Moharan, final edition, chapter 25.

19 The (much) longer version of my understanding of the connection between awareness, resistance, and spiritual joy was developed in A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

20 I am indebted to John Sanbonmatsu for helpful and supportive comments and to Miriam Greenspan for much help in making sure I said what I meant and didn’t say anything I didn’t mean. Kevin Barrett did his best to help me see things I hadn’t seen. Whatever confusions are left are my fault alone.

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Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He is the author of Spirituality and Resistance (2003); Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change (2002); and Marxism: Origin and Betrayal (1992). He has edited Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, and Ecological wisdom (2003) and this Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (1995).