Nationalism and Terrorism

BOSTON – September 11, 2001, may – at least at first – seem like an inappropriate addition to the history of nationalism, given Al Qaeda’s explicitly stated global pretensions. In fact, now that the initial shock and confusion have given way to a more sober perspective, the terrorist attacks of that awful day are increasingly seen – as they should be – as one among numerous other nationalist milestones.

From this perspective, the attacks no longer appear, as they did to so many immediately afterwards, to reflect an incomprehensible, irrational, and uncivilized mentality, or a different civilization altogether – pre-modern, unenlightened, and fundamentally “traditional” (in other words, undeveloped). It is in this unflattering sense that Islam, the dominant religion of an economically backward part of the world, was said to have motivated the attacks of September 11, 2001. And, because those who believed this (virtually everyone whose voices were heard) belatedly perceived its insulting connotation, discussing the matter has caused considerable anguish in the years since.

There are no euphemisms that can inoffensively imply that one of the great world religions is a murderous, irrational ideology, unacceptable for modern, civilized human beings. And yet two different American administrations have implied – and consistently acted upon – this assumption.

But, once we place the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the broader political phenomenon of international terrorism, in the context of other historical tragedies in the past century, religion becomes an unlikely explanation. It is here where the influence of nationalism becomes obvious.