A Zoroastrian Educational Institute

Spring 2006





Response to Terrorism: A Zarathushtrian Perspective.

One has only to consider the sectarian strife in Ireland, and the events in the Middle East over the past two decades, to be acutely aware of the wisdom of separating church and state in national governments.

Yet as individuals, when confronted by a crisis that affects our nation, most of us search for answers, by looking within ourselves, and also by consulting others, including the teachings of our respective religions.  For as the later Zoroastrian texts remind us, wisdom is both innate, and acquired by the ear.

September 11, 2001 and its aftermath was a crisis by any standards. It was a defining moment in the history of terrorism.  Not because it happened to us in our country – indeed, the people who were killed were from countries around the world – but because of the sheer magnitude of the terrorists' disregard for human life and suffering, without being motivated by self defense.

In my struggle to come to terms with this tragedy, I have wondered how we should respond to terrorism within the framework of Zarathushtra's teachings.

According to Zarathushtra, we have an obligation to actively fight what is wrong, wherever we find it – in the small day to day events of our lives, and also in the great events that affect nations and our world. 

We all believe in the freedom to hold differing points of view.  We all believe in the freedom to speak and act.  But, as Mr. Justice Holmes pointed out so many years ago, there is a difference between freedom and license.  True freedom requires responsibility.  No one has the right to incinerate thousands of people in the absence of self defense, simply to make a statement, or worse yet, deliberately to cause harm.  Clearly, that is evil by any standard of decency.  As Zarathushtrians, we have an obligation to actively oppose and fight it.  The question that arises is:  How?   How do we fight it?

According to Zarathushtra, the most powerful weapon we have for fighting evil, starts with good thinking, vohu mano, reason and intelligence committed to goodness.  But good thinking alone is not enough.  It has to be translated into action.

Few would quarrel with the expression of these ideals.  The difficulty, as always, arises in trying to implement our ideals.  What actions should a good thinking mind take to fight this kind of evil? 

Obviously, our immediate need is to stop terrorists from continuing to wreck death and destruction.  Our government has embarked on a comprehensive worldwide effort that includes a broad network of initiatives – including law enforcement, economic, diplomatic, and military initiatives – all targeted against these terrorists as well as the governments that support them, so as to deprive them of the ability to continue to wreck death and destruction.  Our government has also made it clear that it is the terrorists and their supporters that we will target, and not any race or religion or the civilians of any country, who themselves have suffered so cruelly from these same terrorists.  To me, this wise, balanced, and restrained approach is an expression of vohu mano, of intelligence committed to goodness.  It recognizes the need to use force, in a manner that minimizes harm to innocent civilians.  It's purpose is to neutralize the terrorists' ability to harm, and not to wreck wanton retaliation in an indiscriminate manner to satisfy feelings of vengeance.  I hope and pray that we are equally wise in implementing these plans.

If we use force, will there be civilian casualties?  Undoubtedly there will be.  But if we fail to destroy terrorists and those who support them, the alternative will be many more civilian casualties, as they continue to wreck death and destruction with impunity.  That is not a viable alternative.

I realize that any military option, with its attendant loss of life, is not an easy alternative.  Most of us admire the successful non-violent strategies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Unfortunately, non-violence only works when you have a decent adversary.  An adversary who finds it repugnant to attack and kill unarmed people who are acting in a non-violent way to achieve basic human rights.  Terrorists are not so constrained.  Nor do they care about human rights.   And recent history makes it clear that economic sanctions alone cannot stop terrorists or the governments that support them. 

But what of Zarathushtra?  Does he mandate non-violence in such circumstances?   It is a basic teaching of Zarathushtra that material things are not, in and of themselves, evil.  It is how we use them that creates good or evil.  If military power is used to oppress, that use is evil.  If it is used to protect or defend, that use is good.  But in either event, the implements of war, in and of themselves, are neither good nor evil.

All things considered, I believe that the response proposed by our government, including carefully targeted military action, is a good way to oppose terrorism, consistent with our values, on an immediate, short-term basis. 

But as long as individuals are motivated to commit acts of terrorism, such initiatives alone will not be enough to eliminate such acts.  Good thinking requires that we understand and address the causes that motivate terrorism. 

According to Zarathushtra, the ultimate way to defeat evil or what is wrong, is to change minds, so that people will stop choosing it, stop giving it life and substance with their actions.  The truth of his teaching was brought home to me when I heard on the news that hundreds of people in certain countries were demonstrating in support of the acts of terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on September 11, 2001.  "How could this be?"  I wondered.  "Fanatics are one thing.  But how could average people, living every-day lives, support such inhumanity?"

We might never be able to change the minds of some fanatics.  With some people, we just have to make sure we render them incapable of harming, and leave the changing of their minds to God and the law of consequences.  However, there are many thousands of ordinary people who are not fanatics, but who have been influenced by fanatics.  If we are ever to succeed in eliminating terrorism, we need to change the minds of these thousands of ordinary people. Because if we fail, such people will continue to be the resource pool from which fanatics will recruit succeeding generations of terrorists. That is the burning issue of our times. 

How do we do this?  How do we increase understanding – ours and theirs?  How do we change hatred into friendship?  How do we change prejudice into tolerance?  How do we deliver deceit into the hands of truth?   With vohu mano, good thinking, reason and intelligence committed to goodness. 

We need to understand the reasons that enable fanatics to recruit ordinary people into terrorists,  and then act to eliminate these reasons on all fronts. Such actions might include stopping oppression and injustice – both fertile breeding grounds for terrorism. Such actions might include making accurate information available to people, so that they are not misled, or conditioned, into believing the misinformation of terrorists.  Such actions might include building the kind of market forces that give these people a chance at life, instead of having nothing to lose.  Such actions may involve encouraging governments to stop misusing religion to justify oppressive policies.  Effective actions can only be determined after we have a clear understanding of the causes.  But unless we understand and act to eliminate the causes that enable terrorists to recruit ordinary people, our diplomatic, economic, law enforcement and military initiatives will not bring about a lasting solution.

I would like to close with a few words from Zarathushtra himself.  Zarathushtra’s name for divinity is the Wise Lord, or Wisdom.  Zarathushtra lived in an age of great cruelty and oppression.  When asking for the Wise Lord's help, he did not ask for a magical, ready-made solution.  He understood that we ourselves have to find the solutions to our problems, with Wisdom's help and with the help of each other.  So he asks the Wise Lord for the ideas, for the good thinking, to help him find solutions. 

Confronted by cruelty and oppression, he says to the Wise Lord:

"…I lament to Thee. Take notice of it Lord,
offering the support
which a friend should grant to a friend. 
Let me see the power of good thinking allied with truth." Y46.2.

He asks:

"…instruct through good thinking, (the course) of my direction..." Y50.6.

And he tells us:

"Through good thinking
the Creator of existence shall promote
the true realization
of what is most healing
according to our wish." Y50.11

In concluding, I join in Zarathushtra's own wish and prayer that we may translate good thinking into actions.

"Therefore, may we be those who shall heal this world." Y 30.9. 

"…let wisdom come in the company of truth across the earth!" Y 50.5.

1.  From the translation by Professor Insler in The Gathas of Zarathushtra (Brill, 1975).