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4 December 2001

Security and symbolism: ecumenical group grapples with consequences of September 11 attacks


cf. WCC Press Release, PR-01-45, of 28 November 2001

"We are faced with a conflict targeted at the symbolic level," stated Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Speaking during a 29 November-1 December meeting in Geneva on "Beyond September 11: assessing global implications", Dr Raiser said the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon heralded a new type of war - one not waged for territories or economic resources, but rather over symbols. Our current tools of political, social and economic analysis are inadequate to understand the nature of the current conflict, which is about "symbolic hegemony" - the perception that certain economic, military, and political systems and beliefs are imposed on all parts of the world, he said. Yet it is precisely this symbolic dimension that is a particular challenge for churches, given that religion is "the major carrier of symbolism", Raiser argued.

The WCC meeting brought 20 participants from churches around the world together to assess and reflect, with WCC staff, on the consequences and long-term impact of the September 11 attacks and subsequent military actions. The purpose of the meeting was to begin to discern together the meaning of these events, rather than to formulate a common statement or make an immediate plan of action for the churches.

Participants shared regional perspectives on the global situation and then focused discussion in the following areas:

Global governance: Mr Peter Weiderud, director of international programmes with the Church of Sweden, analyzed three levels of the events' impact on international law and global governance:

  • dealing with the immediate threat, to which the response has been primarily a military one;
  • dealing with terrorism, which has a criminal law perspective; and
  • addressing root causes, which is in the realm of conflict prevention.

    In-depth discussion focused on the role of national governments, the United Nations system, and the churches, including how powerful countries could be held accountable under international law, the need to affirm multilateralism, and to address the increasing world polarization that is a consequence of September 11.

    Weiderud affirmed that the purpose of all measures of global governance must be "to protect human rights and democracy, not undermine their principles".

    Global Security: Dr Patricia Lewis, director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), addressed changing concepts of security, and the need for new understandings of security to embrace human and collective security rather than to rely on military power. Dr Raiser later identified vulnerability and security as central issues, noting that one of the few "new" consequences of September 11 was a feeling of vulnerability among the citizens of the world's most powerful nation.

    Human Rights: Dr Bertrand Ramcharan, United Nations deputy high commissioner for Human Rights, stressed the indivisibility of human rights, peace and security, arguing the imperative of strengthening human rights in all regions. He pointed out that the impact of the events on civil liberties and border controls is particularly evident in Northern countries, where they most affect non-citizens of those regions.

    Global Economy: Dr John Langmore, director of the Division for Social Policy and Development/ Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, assessed the economic consequences of the September 11 attacks in the global context of inequality of power and resources, and distinguished between short- and long-term consequences. He noted a changing relationship between markets and states as a result of the attacks; governments, he said, are becoming more interventionist in the economic sphere. This is a new development, given the globalizing tendencies in which markets are supreme.

    Humanitarian Concerns: WCC staff member Dr Elizabeth Ferris looked at humanitarian issues emerging as a result of the military actions in Afghanistan. While many of these issues - military-humanitarian interaction, security, landmines, access - have characterized previous emergencies, they are dramatically evident at the present time. Participants stressed the need for new thinking about the ethics of humanitarian assistance, and particularly the need to reclaim for the term "humanitarian" its prior emphasis on neutrality and impartiality.

    Challenge to Religions: Bishop Manowar Rumalshah of Pakistan introduced the topic of the challenge to religions, and particularly to Muslim-Christian interfaith relations. He suggested that to deny the potency of religion in this conflict is na´ve. Participants grappled with the difficult question of the extent to which religion is a factor in the present conflict.

    Geneviève Jacques, director of the WCC cluster on Relations, noted in her opening remarks that the social, political, and religious issues and challenges discussed at the meeting are not new; the difference is that after September 11, "the contradictions are more visible than before". "We share more questions than answers, but we have the common conviction that a simplistic vision that this is a conflict of 'good vs. evil' is not the answer," she noted.

    Participants felt that the concept of terrorism needs further reflection since it is defined in different ways by different people. So too does the concept of victim-hood, since it is necessary not only to identify the victims of the attacks and military actions in Afghanistan, but also to understand the relationship between victims and oppressors.

    New "imaginations", the participants said, are needed to discern the significance of these events. This requires financial and political support for institutes and organizations exploring alternatives to current systems of security; it will be important, they added, to incorporate the perspectives and strategies of grassroots groups as well as of intellectuals.

    There is no security against the kind of attacks that occurred on September 11, suggested Raiser in his concluding remarks. Understanding this axiom leads one to a different understanding of power as being based not on the ability to protect oneself or provide maximum security, but rather in "the energy of life in relatedness".

    "All power is legitimized through symbols, and the symbolism of power has religious roots...All forms of human power are mirrors of how you understand divine power," Raiser said. Because religious symbols have been used both by those carrying out the attacks and by those launching the military campaign, Raiser thinks we need to learn to communicate between different symbolic systems. And also that, because our traditional forms of analysis are proving inadequate, religious insight and theology are needed to understand this new - symbolic - form of conflict.

    The insights gained during the meeting will guide the on-going work of participants and WCC staff in this area. Regional meetings, with international participants, to discuss the consequences of September 11 are planned. The report of the meeting is now available.


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    The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.