A Quaker Response to Terrorism

Paul Lacey

Paul Lacey has written a short book, The unequal world we inhabit: Quaker responses to terrorism and fundamentalism (London, 2010) which is a good example of using scholarship and faith to wrestle with the problems of the world we live in.

He reminds us that there is much to be learned; that we should listen as best we can to those who don’t share our perspective; that we must trust in the truth we have experienced; and, most importantly, that there are no easy answers.

He challenges many of the stereotypes that accompany standard interpretations of the phenomenon of terrorism. Here are just a couple. State-sponsored and secular terror (such as in The Terror of the French Revolution) is just as much part of the history of terror as is religious fundamentalism (the usual suspect). Most Muslim suicide bombers are middle class and well educated and are motivated by solidarity with their humiliated brethren rather than by religion or their own destitution.  He says that dismantling these stereotypes is necessary so we don’t comfort ourselves with glib dismissals (“terrorists are religious fanatics”) as well as self-satisfying excuses (maybe the bumper sticker “Terrorism is War on a Tighter Budget” applies here).

He also challenges Quakers, like myself, who find themselves caught between opposing any use of violence and not doing anything to protect innocents (either the victims of state-sponsored or dissident terror). (I am thinking right now of the case of Libya. Is the war against Gadhafi justified?) He says we have to acknowledge that in some cases the use of violence is necessary to uphold the UN doctrine of responsibility to protect innocents threatened by genocide or crimes against humanity.  A stronger resolve on the part of the UN and its Western backers might have prevented the genocide in Rwanda and the war crimes committed by Serb nationalists in Bosnia.

He does not refute Michael Walzer’s view that, as abhorrent as it is, war operates within some legal guidelines aimed at protecting innocents while killing innocents is the “essence of terrorism”.  I have come up against this view in my classes again and again and I can’t say I have an unambiguous response.

Lacey concludes by advocating a form of “just policing” on a global scale through institutions like the UN as a way of staying true to a “living” Peace Testimony. Violence or the threat of violence may be necessary as long as justice remains its hallmark.

In addition to drawing upon scholars like Talal Asad and Karen Armstrong, Lacey’s analysis is firmly rooted in the Quaker tradition. It is refreshing to hear John Woolman’s words which are as relevant in the post 9/11 world as they were in the days of American racial slavery: “Wealth is attended with power… and her oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice, and becomes like a seed of discord in the [soil]… so the seeds of war swell and sprout.. and become strong, until much fruit is ripened. Thus cometh the harvest spoken by the prophet, which “is a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrows.” [Isaiah 17:11] (John Woolman, The works of John Woolman, in two parts (Philadelphia, 1818), 313.)

Some things never change. Well, not quite. In Lacey’s understanding of Quakerism, the human spirit should always be open to change. Even the Peace Testimony “must be adapted to each new generation’s challenges.” (66)  A just policing model will require the use of force. “By testimony we always mean behaving as though one were a witness at a trial, obliged to speak with integrity only the truth one has known and understood. This is the key process for Quakers: minds can be deceived; hearts can be misled; but the liberty in Christ the Inward Teacher proclaimed by Quakerism insists that minds and hearts can also be persuaded, convinced by openness to God’s Light. “ (68).


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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