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The Active Nihilism of Terror

By Mohamad Khatami

Mohamad 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.

Various 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 urgent.

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 philosophy.

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 dialectical evolution.

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 security.

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.


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