Confronting Fear & Terror in the New Age:

A Pacifist Plea for Greater Understanding
By Dr David KL Quek              


“The terrorists of September 11 were in part motivated by hatred of Western “civilization,” including the freedom, tolerance and even secularism that that implies. The starting point in defending that civilization is believing in it.”         In Review & Outlook “Berlusconi’s Bombshell”, The Asian Wall Street Journal: Wed, Oct 3, 2001, p11.


“In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.”     In Samuel Huntington “Clash of Civilizations”


“The use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime against God and man and remains a crime even if they are used in retaliation or for what is regarded as a morally justified end. It is forbidden to do evil that good may come of it.”                                                                              Rev. Denis Geraghty in The Independent, 6 February 1991


Horror in our Living Rooms

Recent events that rocked the placidity of the world has created a bizarre and confusing mixture of emotions as well as heightened the moral tensions within me. I suspect among many of us, physicians who are supposed to practice the art of healing for whosoever in need, usually on a one-to-one basis, will also be grappling with our conscience and our moral, religious values. How then, do we act when we are faced with destruction, death and injuries on such a massive and unprecedented scale, with more in store because of the likely vengeful retaliation by the first victimized – the all-powerful Americans?

The unconscionable attack by suicide bombers using hijacked fuel-laden jetliners slamming into New York’s twin World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon has certainly shocked the so-called civilized world.

September 11, 2001 will surely become one of mankind’s defining moments this new millennium.  Many will remember this date as a poignant and permanently etched scar in our individual lives, when we were thrust into a surreal eyewitness seat for the sheer saddening spectacle of mass destruction appearing before our very eyes. (I was having a rare post-dinner nap, when I was rudely awaken by my son to witness the horrifying drama unfolding on TV…)

War and terror has now reached our living rooms through our cable television serving as a universal purveyor of ‘live’ mayhem and action movies enacted in a virtual reality scenario that is anything else but real.

Death and destruction associated with such atrocious calamities are no longer nebulous, distant and impersonal… we have now become up close and enthralled participants. We have been drawn magnetically even voyeuristically, to share and internalize the fear, the pain and the horror of the battle zone, the victims...

We are momentarily reminded of our own mortality and our present erstwhile lives…

Society’s accustomed equanimity, placid tranquility and familiar safety has suddenly been shattered. The unthinkable and hitherto unimaginable war on innocents in times of relative peace has happened, and thousands have perished in these sudden inescapable, hapless moments of madness.

These orchestrated attacks on the symbols of American, and by alleged wider extension, the western “civilized” influence of economic and military power, were perpetrated by kamikaze-styled terrorists. Despite the call for restraint and understanding as to the possible root causes, there can be no justification or condoning of such despicable acts of premeditated murder. Murder, and mass murder at that, is a heinous crime against man and humanity – no matter what the perceived provocation, seething anger or desperate retaliatory eruption felt among even the most oppressed or downtrodden of peoples.

These senseless murderous acts demonstrate that no country can be completely safe from such shadowy and pseudo-religious acts of violence and ill-perceived martyrdom.

While we deplore such acts of unspeakable crimes against humanity, we are also suddenly thrust into the frightening prospect of a new era of escalating violence and potential global war, pitting disparate entities or divergent cultures against each other – entrenching the whispered yet politically-incorrect fear of “them and us…”

Clash of Civilizations

Perhaps, Samuel Huntington’s controversial thesis of the new millennial “clash of civilizations” is beginning to be enacted as West collides with East in what might become an inevitable sociological, religious, cultural showdown.

Since the collapse of the Cold War, the supremacy of capitalistic triumphalism and globalization has encroached relentlessly into the unyielding fringes of less-accommodating cultures or hermetic theocratic nations. This collision of widely divergent systems is set to erupt into an ever-widening chasm of intolerance and contempt toward each other. “Never the twain shall meet…” might become the new-aged reality, which we can do without to complicate an already confusing and complex world, with so much competing interests and influence.

In the gushing follow-through reaction to this tragedy, it is easy to understand why many of the aggrieved and victimized condemn and even accuse the suspected perpetrators of being terrorists. Unforeseen and unprecedented terror has reached America’s hitherto untouched shores. Yet this blanket response linking these murderers to all manners of Islamic fanaticism is probably misplaced and too simplistic.

There has already been a severe and indiscriminate backlash of labelling all Muslims as potentially violent and anti-civilization, even of being evil. Many westerners have become increasingly (perhaps understandably) more paranoid, more suspicious and wary of any foreigner who looks, speaks, dresses or even prays differently. Even long-time domiciled alien neighbours in America’s own backyard have become the random target of hate and racist crimes. Worst on the global scale, Muslims have been vilified as backward and “anti-western civilization”.

Sadly, in the wake of the Black Tuesday outrage, it will be a long time before Americans and the west can look upon any Middle Eastern or Muslim person without mistrust and suspicion. To quote our Prime Minister, this labelling is grossly unfair because historically, in the name of whatever misguided religion, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and even atheists have committed terrorist acts.

Civilizational superiority has also been parlayed and debated in the ensuing rhetoric, which stokes further the fires of intolerance, bigotry and misunderstanding. Genuine civilizational dialogue has been pushed into the backburner, with both sides becoming more fervent and entrenched in their own value systems and bias.

President Bush did not help when he pointedly demanded that the nations of the world choose to be on America’s side or the other – the latter he unequivocally labeled as his sworn enemies. Although he has since tried to downplay and deny that “Muslim equals terrorist” mindset, by appearing with his country’s Islamic leaders in a mosque, to renounce hate crimes retaliation, the damage has been done. Passions of bigotry have been inflamed too much beyond easy glossing over or political correction.

In a tragic way, the events of this fateful day will likely be the turning point where human civilization enters another epoch of possible dichotomy and schism of systems. This new century is likely to be one, which will be redefined, in another manmade clash of civilizational experiences, or if tackled with a pacifist and humanistic manner, it might be carefully burnished into one of greater and more meaningful universal peace and understanding.

It would be dreadful indeed if this episode triggers a quasi-religious global war – because all true religions eschew all manners of violence, and promotes tolerance and understanding for all humanity. Already though, there is irresponsible talk of an escalating clash of Judeo-Christian versus Islamic civilizations, when in reality there is very little genuine religious bearing in all these bellicose proclamations.

Nevertheless, while it is impossible and probably insensitive to comprehend these terror attacks, it is not only objective but also necessary to try and understand why this had happened the way it did – and to the United States of America, at that. The root causes should be sought with genuine understanding in the hope that such catastrophic conflicts could be forestalled or even eradicated, in the future. To simply demonize and label the attackers as inherently evil, or nations as rogue states waiting for decay and destruction, is to miss the point.

Already, many people in third world regions have protested that the United States is not totally blameless. Such disparate voices – mainly from Asian, Middle Eastern and some European nations — arguing against the lopsided sympathy for the American position stem from a post-colonial era, but that surely is no excuse for these criminal attacks against humanity. Still, such discordant views do beg for a better understanding as to why such a terrible extreme of inhumane underhanded attacks had occurred.

The steadily increasing and unabashed upsweep of emotional and threatening rhetoric by thousands of ordinary Muslims in many distinct Islamic regions such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Middle-East, even in pockets of Malaysia, although chilling, must be better understood, if the mood is to be judged sensitively and accurately. Cries for Jihad in support of the accused Taliban regime in Afghanistan, by these fervently religious – if misguided – peoples can only add to the fear and paranoia of the West, that a looming socio-religious clash is inevitable. Sadly, the moderate and universal face of tolerant and engaging Islam is further shrouded by such belligerent rhetoric and oftentimes-irrational outbursts.

The Islamic Question

“And there is another, vaster shame, the shame of the world. It was memorably pronounced by John Donne, and quoted innumerable times, pertinently or not, that ‘no man is an island’, and that every bell tolls for everyone. And yet there are those who faced by the crime of others or their own, turn their backs so as not to see it and not to feel it.”                                                                    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved

There is no doubt that in the past few decades, there has been a general neglect and looking the other way by major powerful countries, when dealing with certain nations – be they the Balkan states, the Middle-East, or some Islamic nations.

There has been too much expedient accommodation to appease friendly states because of the need to maintain the world’s largest energy pipeline. There has been silent albeit grudging acceptance of rogue state leadership because of delicate tensions in world-power political balance. Many if not most of the Middle Eastern nations cannot truly be recognized as bastions of democracy or freedom. Yet they are given tacit and supportive sanction to rule over and repress the popular will of many of their citizens.

Iraq for example, was tolerated despite the obvious and continuing brutal tyranny of its leadership with the result that its oppressed famine-ravaged citizens suffer interminably, yet only to be turned a blind-eye by a world bent on punitive vengeance. Alas, ordinary Iraqi people are the ones who suffer from such absurd economic sanctions, while the ruling dictatorship continues regardless and basks in fueling the hatred against the so-called oppressive West.

Development and modernization of society has clearly passed by many of these nations, because of the lack of able, committed or responsible leadership. There has been too much hands-off contempt, or misjudged propping up of corrupt, expedient or shaky regimes, which have led to much discontent and terrible privation of the impoverished yet defiant and angry citizens in these beleaguered nations.

Gross neglect in channeling the benefits of the great advances and technological improvements in modern civilization have left many a people behind, while enriching and empowering a few select politicians or autocrats. While we may have been decrying the digital divide in an unreal globalized world, to many in these ignored parts of the globe, material deprivation is by far the greater evil – food, education and work has been desperately lacking.

Corrupt governments while promising development, in actuality, delivers nothing substantial but endless day-in-day-out hardship and neglect, with mind-numbing propaganda and unrelenting repression of human rights, dignity and freedom. Oppressive feudal and brutal poverty reigns, with scant recourse to even the most basic of infrastructure, education, food sufficiency or health care.

Inevitably, this abject vacuum begs to be filled and many religiously oriented elites and ulamaks have risen to fill it. In the name of religion and brotherhood, they have funded and sprouted free religious schools (madrassahs) with board and lodging for impressionable children as the only means of education, even livelihood. Can we not understand then why these religious organizations are looked upon as saviours and saints?

These systems of circumscribed religious teaching, have become the sustenance for a great many in these forgotten lands, where education means memorizing the holy book The Quran over 3-4 years, and has become the one and only objective, and becoming a religious teacher is the only possible vocation. These sanctuaries have offered the only chance of survival for most of these desperate people, where they provide enough food, along with religious teaching, a rigid sense of direction and a chance for growing up, even for life itself.

Is it surprising then that these parochial if misguided teachers have depicted the outside world as distant, corrupt, sinful and oppressive, even as the main cause for their continued misery and hardship?

To make matters even more extreme, many of these madrassahs vary in their approach to religious orthodoxy, with many espousing very fundamentalist tenets of practice; essentially segregating those so educated from the real world. Many are now so hermetically sealed off from contacts with the outside world that they have chosen to believe (or have become heavily influenced or indoctrinated) that their brand of religious practice is superior to anyone else’s. Hence it is not surprising that these cloistered peoples can no longer comprehend the divers universality of a multicultural world.

This has therefore created a huge underclass, which has fallen prey to an alternative worldview – that of religious extremism espoused by the dogmatic interpreters of fundamentalist Islam.  Undoubtedly the diverse Muslim psyche globally has been shaken from the foundations of peaceful coexistence to one demanding greater respect and reckoning – one where religious life cannot be separated from worldly life. 

Here, laws and regulations are derived solely from interpretations of the Quran, and the sayings of the Prophet, i.e. the Syariah system of jurisprudence, administration and law. And because the teachings of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed is supreme, strict and unbending interpretation has meant that followers abide by these religious tenets to the total exclusion of others or even the need to understanding other religious practices. Proclamations and religious dictates (fatwas) by religious leaders are incontestable and followed with life-subsuming obedience. Scant and limited interactions with other faiths have therefore bred further intolerance and zealotry.

Sadly, many Muslims even among moderate Malaysians find it difficult to discuss openly the differences in style and rigor of practices – believing that whether fundamental or practical — the various schools of Islam are one and the same. For the non-Muslims amongst us, however, there is that genuine fear that must be allayed. For multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysians, this is even more challenging and necessary, so that societal harmony and peaceful cooperation and coexistence can take place – to help foster a national purpose and identity.

Throughout the Muslim world, this multi-polarity of views has been played out in varying degrees as socio-religious, and even political tensions where each group tries to be even more Islamic than the other, more truly in tune with the voices of discontent, sense of injustice, marginalization and privation. Sadly, these have entrenched and further deepen the intolerance and prejudice against the world at large – where multicultural and multi-religious societies exist side by side.

Capitalism and the American way

On the other hand the demise of Communism and the ascendancy of unbridled Capitalism has spawned a new secular and amoral fixation on material goods and services. Unfettered corporate greed (with very little social obligation or regulation) has been promoted that allows excessive freedom of economic forces to destroy and marginalize the less fortunate, less advanced or less developed nations and people. Of course it has also enriched the world with unimagined amenities and services to enhance and ease life, but inequitably and only for a relative few.

The unipolar world with America as the sole remaining superpower, has also not been well received by many in the world who perceive the USA as a domineering, arrogant and hegemonic state. Perhaps a touch of envy cannot be excluded. Nonetheless, historically but often with self-serving license, the USA is increasingly seen as the major cause of injustice and inequality in the world.

While America espouses personal and economic freedom and human rights, it also expects the world to abide by its dictates of American interests and laws, but which flaunts and treats with contempt, all other different or contrary views of the world. The perceived unequal treatment by the American-led west, towards the Middle-East question remains a flash point for many an Islamic country.

However, the USA is often simply too obtuse or superior to recognize that its excesses and imperialistic past deeds are blameworthy, believing in their own invincibility and righteousness. In many aspects, America has failed to engage the world better in a civilizational dialogue to unite the world and promote peaceful co-existence and harmony.

However, more westerners are now urging fellow citizens to re-examine themselves with the likes of British Robert Fisk (veteran foreign affairs correspondent) and American Noam Chomsky (writer and foreign policy critic) leading the way, often at the cost of being denigrated as being unpatriotic.

Recently and ironically, Jennie Traschen (a University of Massachusetts physics professor) was caught in the crossfire of speaking her mind. She had opposed the flying of the US flag in her small university town, just one day before the terror attacks on September 11, 2001: “What the flag is, is a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression… To many, many ordinary people in countries around the globe, the U.S. has done terrible things. If I think of the flag, I have to think about it from the point of view of those people.”

Following the attack, she was threatened and vilified, but remained trenchantly unapologetic that her views have not changed, and that America has to learn to face and recognize its less than glorious past and present misdeeds. 

What Now?

In the weeks and months ahead, the world is likely to become even more uncertain. Besides the human toll, the world is likely to go into deep recession. The looming war can only accelerate this certainty. Human and economic costs will be huge and painful.

One transient glimmer of hope so far was that, America had actually held back on the brink, and had chosen to consult and convince a disbelieving world that it is righteous and right to exact limited retribution on the perpetrators of the WTC attacks. Its erstwhile flurry of diplomacy rather than outright hasty and indiscriminate war on a shadowy group of terrorists is to be commended.

However, air strikes on Afghanistan have unfortunately begun and will only jeopardize whatever hope of peace and compromise to resolve this tricky problem…

As peace lovers, we would like to see that magnanimous restraint and not blind vengeance prevail. There should be little or no bloodshed spilled as possible. We are therefore, also heartened that America is sending food and supplies to the Afghanis and ordinary people and refugees who are faultless in being domiciled at the wrong place and at the wrong time. But in the midst of bombs and bullets, surely Mr Hyde’s ugly face will be the more remembered…

In the meantime, peace mechanisms must be pursued doggedly to counteract the rising threat of terrorism in any form, where civilians are targeted. But this must include state-sponsored acts of terror and other crimes against humanity. The United Nations remains the best body to examine this question. All nations must ratify the rules, resolutions and legislations of the UN, including the strong such as the United States – it cannot choose and pick, as it likes to protect its own so-called interests. Surely a nation’s interest must subsume to the universal interest and justice of the world, if it wants to play by the rules it expects others to do so unto them.

Lastly some effort must be made to engage the whole world in a civilizational dialogue if mankind is to survive into the next century without the repetition of the terrible and senseless butchery resulting from the collision of wills and power play of the last twentieth century.

World trade issues and globalization concerns must be addressed, so that a more equitable distribution of the world economy can be made a reality. Unequal and lopsided accents on the supremacy of intellectual or western values, with marginalizing and belittling of the brute and brawn efforts of the poorer nations cannot be left to the indiscriminate forces of capitalistic power. Why should the world’s poor drudge and serve for a pittance to cater to the unbridled greed of the world’s rich and powerful? Why must they be forever yoked to toil and grind interminably with no end in sight, with no self-correcting mechanism to narrow down this economic divide? Muslim nations must elevate and educate their peoples so that they can engage the world with better understanding and less religious disdain and conflict.

Mankind must re-evaluate and re-measure a human’s worth in a more just and equitable manner. Basic necessities for every man on Earth should be the first and foremost goal for us all. The East-West divide must be closed or failing that at least narrowed, with determined vision by those who wield the greatest power to do so.

“Societies are not made of sticks and stones, but of men whose individual characters, by turning the scale one way or another, determine the direction of the whole.”              Socrates, in Plato, The Republic, Book Eight.

“The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind.                                                                                   Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

“Address the underlying conditions that feed terrorism. Injustice, suffering, resentment, and the lack of political expression and economic opportunity create the societal conditions that breed violence and terrorism. Development assistance, especially aid focused on creating a better future for children, is an effective way of countering the conditions that feed extremism. The international community is challenged to build a more inclusive economic and political order in which all people are stakeholders.

“Pray in recognition of our common humanity. We call on people of all faiths to rise above indifference, prejudice and hate. We ask God to move their hearts. And we pray that, in solidarity, we will come to the aid of all innocent victims – not only of terrorism – but also of abuse, war, hunger, disaster and disease.”

World Vision International in ‘Partnership Statement in Response to Terrorism’ 2001

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