Nihilism of Terror
Khatami is the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His remarks
are adapted from a talk on "Rejecting Terrorism" sponsored by the World
Conference on Religion and Peace at the UN in November.
authors have talked about an end of history. They say that Western
history, which began in ancient Greece and passed through the medieval
and modern ages, is now coming to a triumphant close. With its science
and technology, the West attained global sovereignty. However, it is
precisely this hegemonic sovereignty that is coming to an end.
Globalization implies the extension of communication networks and the
mutual resonance of political, economic and cultural events. Through
this process, ultimate uniformization threatens to spread everywhere.
But cultures and religions are attempting to resist and counter these
forces of global uniformity by preserving their own identity and
capacity to act with autonomy. This resistance amidst such a torrential
process has in turn awakened many nations and peoples to their own
culture and religions.
Were this awakening confined to the realm of human morals and to the
preservation of the existential roots of each nation, it would be quite
welcome. As recent catastrophes have demonstrated, though, turning back
to the past in search of "pure" and "real" knowledge often begins with
the premise that the modern course of history is "satanic" and wrong.
This misguided assessment denies all the invaluable and essential
achievements of the modern era and calls for their eradication, even
through recourse to violent action.
In this situation, never has a dialogue among civilizations been more
In the modern era, philosophy has faced natural science as an opponent.
Natural science, proceeding inductively, aims at turning philosophy into
an exact science. Not only Husserl, but most philosophers since the 18th
century have sought to make a scientifically exact discipline of
Since Descartes the "object" has been relegated to what is out there
apart from the spirit-in philosophical terms, "the realm of extended
substance" to be conquered by man. Reality thereby becomes a
quantitative dimension without qualitative characteristics.
Such a mechanical conception of the world reduces living objective
reality into a dry abstraction. Hume further transformed our world into
a stream of sense-impressions devoid of meaning and without causal
relationships. Following this, Kant argued we were only capable of
perceiving phenomenon, or appearances, while the noumena, or spiritual
essence, lay eternally beyond our reach.
Fichte soon thereafter declared that phenomena was also illusory, a
projection of the self. Eventually, in the absolute idealism of Hegel,
the entire realm of objective reality was pronounced to be no more than
a thesis bound to become its opposite, evaporating in the course of
This disappearance of objective knowledge in Western philosophy has
continued in other idealist and subjective guises-positivism,
materialism, psychologism and historicism.
In the wake of this elimination of objective knowledge, the knowing
subject [believer] was also slated to disappear. Freud depicted humans
as complexes of sexual instincts and drives. Marx reduced man to being
entirely defined by his social condition. In declaring God dead Nietzche
also condemned his superman to nihilism.
The absence of values based in objective knowledge-nihilism-may prove
socially harmless as a mere philosophical indulgence. But what we are
witnessing in the world today is an active form of nihilism that
threatens the very fabric of human existence.
This new form of active nihilism assumes various names, some tragically
bearing a semblance of religiosity and self-proclaimed spirituality.
Vicious terrorists who concoct weapons out of religion are superficial
literalists clinging to the most simplistic ideas. They are utterly
incapable of understanding that, perhaps inadvertently, they are turning
religion into the handmaiden of the most decadent ideologies. When
terrorists purport to be serving the cause of religion and accuse all
those who disagree with them of heresy and sacrilege, they are indeed
serving the very ideologies they condemn.
Given the eruption of active nihilism in the name of faith, the role and
responsibility of religious scholars has become ever more crucial.
Christian thinkers in the 19th century put forward the idea that
religion should be seen as a venue for social solidarity. Now that the
world is on the verge of chaos, struggling with violence, the notion of
Christian solidarity should prove helpful in calling for peace and
In the Holy Koran, human beings are also invited to join their efforts
in ta'awon, which means "cooperation to do good." Ta'awon is a
consequence of solidarity and implores us to cooperate in the cause of
doing good with courage, resolve and mutual understanding.
Christian social thinkers have stated that solidarity involves mutual
interests, common approaches and an altruistic sense of duty and
compassion. We all need this important concept and should work together
in realizing it as a global goal.