The Weapon of Education to Fight Terrorism

A “secular non-believer” judges the wisdom of the Church and the role of education in discussing September 11th, Iraq, the terrorist attacks, and Europe. Notes from a conversation

edited by Alberto Savorana

On November 21st, Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio, participated in a conversation with some University of Turin law students, in Rome for a visit to the seats of the institutional powers, from the Quirinal Palace to the Constitutional Court and the Ministry of Justice, from the Senate to the Chamber of Deputies, where they were received by the President of the Chamber, Pierferdinando Casini. The meeting with Ferrara took place in the CL International Center. The following is an ample synthesis of the notes from a dialogue valuable for its clarity of explanation and lucidity of judgment.

September 11th, war in Iraq, international terrorism with the recent attacks in Nassiriyah and Istanbul… the possibility of a new war, pacifism, education of the people… What is your opinion of the current situation?
If September 11th were the evidence of a traditional terrorist phenomenon, of groups and minorities that organize for military purposes and platforms that then find expression in terrorism, I would be optimistic. But this is not the case, because this violence has another nature; it arises from other reasons and manifests itself in other forms compared to the traditional one of terrorism, against which a fight can be organized. This is a war, and unfortunately we have to try to reason on the basis of this horrible word.
You see, the world turns on principles that have many roots: capacity for education, religion, artistic creativity, culture, sense of self, the identity of peoples or communities. The world does not turn only on the basis of a power scheme, but without it coexistence cannot endure. During the Middle Ages, Christian Europe was a power scheme; the two poles of the emperor and the pope were a scheme with which men managed to ensure a form of coexistence, even within a world at war.
Now the problem is that with the fall of Communism, there is no longer a stable center. Before, there were two political poles that had established historically to live together by each trying to maintain its own freedom, autonomy, and independence for a coexistence between different social systems. What about the rest of the world? It was divided by a line that passed by way of this agreement between the two giants. We have to put the Islamic world, which is made up of 1,300,000,000 people spread over three continents, in the middle of this rest of the world. And in this rest of the world, there was a colonial situation in the process of falling apart. But these countries did not emerge from de-colonization to move forward under the banner of modernity and the development of equal opportunities for all. Governing classes worthy of this name did not arise, by which I mean classes capable of integrating and promoting their people, of giving them a chance. I don’t say a chance for redemption—because that probably does not pertain to politics; redemption comes from something else, from the relationship with something that is, in essence, spiritual—but at least a chance for development. This is the West’s great failure: not having been able to build the premises for an integration of the de-colonized countries.
This is the situation where we are now, and this is why I say that what we are facing are not bands of terrorists. People who launch themselves in trucks and cars full of explosives against targets like the Italian police headquarters in Nassiriyah are not desperate, solitary terrorists fueled by anguish. They are a global political organization structured in networks characterized by the fact that they are supported by national governments, secret services, police forces, armies, technology, and stockpiles of weapons. These are the so-called “evil axis” countries, but I believe that a better expression is “the failures,” because they do not succeed in producing a real society, but rather deny and hinder it by limiting religious freedom and civil liberty, expanding poverty, and stealing resources through the great corruption of the ruling classes of a large part of the third world.

Should we then expect the outbreak of another war?
I repeat: the war is already there. It has solid, deep reasons that take root easily in the terrain of the modern world. The religious adhesive is the uniting element—naturally, we are speaking of a perverse, fanaticized interpretation of it, which is that of the madrasahs, the colleges for Islamic instruction, where they teach the opposite of what Christianity teaches, because they try to reverse the process of the distinction between the emperor and God. With September 11th, something spectacular happened from the historical viewpoint. What is Al Qaeda’s platform? What do they want? Have they maybe said that it is enough to withdraw the American troops from their holy land? Have they maybe raised a problem with the Iraqi resistance? In reality, liberation of the territory from the infidels is not an issue. And even if there is a plan for toppling the so-called moderate Arab regimes (the part of Islam that has with great effort sought an agreement with the Western world after decolonization), the real heart is something else. It is martyrdom, the position of those who say, “I want to testify to the fact that my way of living, the shariah, the law of the Koran, the unity of political and religious power, and the need for the world to be governed by this unity—interpreted in the most fanatical way possible—is the world’s need. I want to testify with my life, by killing myself, and I do it by hurling myself against anyone who proposes another model of life.”
If terrorism is this, we have only to equip ourselves on the level of education; we have to understand that its defeat will be the work of one or more generations and that the problem, certainly, is capturing the individual terrorist, dismantling the individual network, arresting and neutralizing those who finance, arm, and aid terrorism in any and every way and anywhere in the world. This is the concrete, objective, unavoidable task, but the true issue is to integrate without subjecting, without stripping others of their identity, without giving the impression that this integration is a form of armed robbery—much less a robbery of religious beliefs and traditions—but integrating peoples who have been left out of it into the process of development of the modern world.
The result of a surrender in the face of this challenge would be, I do not say the disappearance, but a great fragility and weakening of the Judaeo-Christian world that we know and of which we are somehow a part. Whoever believes in the values of this world must defend them with education, patience, and the effort to understand, but also by behaving like good citizens when it is a question of acting on the terrorists’ terrain, which is that of violence—and in that case by opposing force with force.

My question goes back to the topic of education. What do you think about the fact that before talking about the education of others we should be educated ourselves, because in order to accept the other one has to be aware of who he is himself, and it seems to me that Europe no longer has this awareness. I wanted to ask you how you view the position of the Church, also in reference to what Cardinal Ruini said at the funeral of the victims of the Nassiriyah attack.
Ruini said, “We will face them with all the vigor we possess. But we will not hate them.” I do not believe that the Church of John Paul II could ever take a position of surrender to this type of challenge, which concerns her directly and on the front line. The “pacifist” Pope is an invention; I have never believed it. On the other hand, the Pope is a peacemaker, who is doing his job; he deprives a political war of a spiritual and religious stamp of approval, which cannot be given to it, and it would be a tragedy if we did give it. Ruini confirms this, the post-Iraq Church confirms this; non-belligerence or even opposition to a terrible war, which is always something political, is one thing, and taking this challenge upon herself is another, because in a situation of peace without Saddam the Church engages herself. Besides, the Apostolic Nuncio was the only diplomat who stayed in Iraq during the bombing. The Church has a courage, a dignity of her own.
As to the other part of your question, which is the hardest part, and which I would summarize as follows: “When are we going to set up our own madrasahs?,” it is complicated. Even though I am not a believer, and have had a secular upbringing, I understand the value and colossal meaning that the religious experience has in the history of the world, and I realize that we must succeed in restoring legitimacy to the lost identity of the West. But we cannot do it in a way that is offensive to other forms of civilization or with an empty fundamentalism, but only with a high-quality, high-level integration. Thus we have to reaffirm that in the West, the position that “everything is possible” is wrong. It is possible to consider the progress of technology and biotechnology, but selective abortion is not possible, or in any case genetic programming of man in the laboratory must not be done. Not everything is possible. It is not only a question of bans, but of who we are. We are free men—we acknowledge the development of science, of knowledge, without attributing to it the trademark of the devil, of a compromise with the apple that was eaten and with original sin, because in reality precisely the spiritual and cultural history of Christianity has offered us the opportunity to be Christian men in history and to encounter the adventure of Jesus Christ with a perspective and a capacity for light that does not deny the possibility of going forward, that does not nail us down, petrify us in a past tradition. This is why we can be modern, progressive, but always putting everything up for debate, without taking for granted that everything is possible, because not everything is possible. This would give us the strength, I believe, to resume the task of education so as to face the phenomenon that we cannot delegate to the police and prefects or to the intelligence community, because it has the roots that I tried in some way to recall a few minutes ago. And we know that education can be two things: promotion of a free society or indoctrination.

What do you think about the fact that for the Islamic terrorists, their gesture is martyrdom as personal fulfillment?
What does it mean to offer one’s own life in exchange for the death of others? Is this a witness of faith, and thus martyrdom? It is obvious that it is a dream of death and nihilism. Something Bin Laden said helps us to understand the profundity of the contrast of our age: “We love death more than life, while you love life more than death. Your civilization tends towards immortality through chemistry, surgery, scientific progress, and ours does not. We offer death our freshest generations, because we love death more than we love life, because a martyr’s death is the promise of Paradise.” I feel a fierce opposition to the fact that the promise of Paradise is the death of others; this is blasphemy—for me it is not religion. Our identity is profoundly different from that of someone who blows himself up.

You have said you are favorable to inserting a Catholic appeal into the new European Constitution. Why should a non-believer, as you have called yourself, accept this proposal?
Europe was born out of the Christian experience. This is a phrase that I accept, not only in the sense in which a great conservative-liberal like Benedetto Croce said, “We cannot help saying we are Christians,” but in a stronger, more American sense—not conservative-liberal, but liberal-progressive. What did the Americans do? They arrived in the seventeenth century, started taking a territory for themselves also by force and violence, and they built a great multicultural and multireligious nation, with a deep religiosity, but also with a strong sense of personal interest and civil liberties. And then they asked themselves how to ratify the religious nature of the community power they were about to construct, and they resorted to a formula that is written in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Now, what can be self-evident? Nothing, unless it is something that is justified in a transcendent way. What is self-evidence? Faith. Nothing else is self-evident, not even the material reality that surrounds us. Thus, at the base of American democracy, of a constitution that fixes the limits of power and crowns the individual as lord of the political community, there is a religious act.
This has a great deal to do with the problem of the European Constitution and of the mention of Christianity. For a society that does not recognize an origin that goes beyond man himself, and the power he grants himself to govern other men, is a strange society, where power is based on something that is very similar to nothingness, to the nothingness of the philosophers. I am not a believer, but I am not a nihilist. In other words, I recognize that the position that a God exists and is set at the origin of humanity is the fundamental one, which then took real form in the faiths, the concrete adventures, the historical fact of Christianity.

Don’t you think a change is needed in the way public opinion regards foreign policy? In the debates on the war in Iraq, including those held at the university, often the conviction that each country conducts its foreign policy on the basis of its own national interests cuts off any discussion immediately and in a negative sense.
There are two answers. The first is that we live in history, and history is made up also of interests, borders, armies, weapons, and thus we cannot pretend to get away from them. Criticism of certain interests is acceptable, but a moralistic premise for it is not; it has to be a criticism based on history, one has to say that an interest is in contrast with the interest of peace in the world. Second, in a specific case you can accuse America, you can be anti-American from a thousand points of view, but facts are facts: America was attacked, and the declaration of war on September 11th moves forward on a terrain that concerns the interests of all of us, the interests of our identity. The first question to ask is, “Who are you? You who profess to be against the war, against America, in the name of what do you say it?” I am a citizen of a Western, Christian world, and I am not ashamed of myself, I do not hate myself, I do not have a sense of guilt. I measure myself against the problems of history and I can recognize guilt and blame on every hand—among other things, this papacy has had the greatness to express guilt and make it public through an ecclesial literature of the highest level. However, I do not have a sense of guilt, I have an identity. Not that the Americans are angels; it is obvious, for example, that they intervened in the two world wars in Europe to liberate us from the ghosts of totalitarianism and profited from it too. The twentieth century has been the American century. Now, if this great country defends stability, security, and tranquility also through the use of force, this is a political problem, not a moral one.
In conclusion, the student who moderated the meeting emphasized two things: “The first, when you said it is not a question of bans, but of who I am. And it seems to me that this brings man to the center and removes, or at least does as much as possible to eliminate, ideologies, because a ban derives from an ideology that sets itself up against a man who hopes, dreams, and desires within reality. The second is that I seem to understand that you are an excellent observer of the Christian experience, when you pointed out that precisely through Christianity it becomes possible to enter into reality in depth.”