I have often argued that the rich nations of the world have not done nearly enough to share their wealth with those who have less. It should have been possible, over the past decade, to make much greater inroads in the number of people living in absolute poverty

The $US40 billion that the United States Congress has now agreed to spend to combat terrorism and repair the damage that terrorism has caused would have been enough to make a real start in that effort – and that amount should have come from all the rich nations of the world, not just from the US. That is not the kind of sum that would have entailed real sacrifice from the citizens of the rich nations, but, properly targeted, it could have made a huge difference to the world’s poorest people.

It is tempting to suggest that the terrorist attacks of September 11 might have been averted if the rich nations had been readier to share their wealth, and that the hatred many people feel towards America would have been lessened by a more generous approach to the rest of the world. Perhaps even now, the argument might go, the money being spent on attacking Afghanistan would be better spent on assistance for poor nations. Apart from helping people instead of killing and maiming them, that money would have the opposite effect of fanning the flames of hatred – hatred that creates more fanatics ready to martyr themselves to attack the country from which the rockets and bombs are coming.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe it. On the evidence available, those who carried out the attacks were not motivated by a concern for the world’s poor, or a desire to achieve greater global justice. They were motivated by their religious beliefs.

A handwritten Arabic document left behind by Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers, is full of references to obedience to God and to the need for prayer and to seek the guidance of God. It contains assurances that “God will stand with those who stood fast”, and that after the end of this life, “you will begin to live the happy life, the infinite paradise”.

Similarly, the videotaped statement issued by Osama bin Laden after the US began attacking Afghanistan on October 7 repeatedly praises God, and calls on him for assistance. It divides the world into two camps, “the camp of the faithful and the camp of the infidels”, and calls on every Muslim to “rise to defend his religion”.

What could the US do to stop terrorist attacks motivated by this kind of religious belief? Among the few political jokes to make the rounds in these grim times is the suggestion that if only George W. Bush would convert to Islam, America could save itself a lot of trouble. But that suggestion is, if anything, more likely to be taken up than the other, more sensible alternative: that Bush should take on the real enemy – religious fundamentalism.

What are the chances that Bush will engage in an intensive effort to educate people around the world in the reasons why we should treat supposedly sacred religious texts as human creations, no less fallible than other human creations? Or that he will seek to puncture belief in heaven, about the only thing that could make it rational to fly a plane into a building, killing yourself along with everyone else?

The answer is: zero. The President who now finds himself fighting Islamic fundamentalism himself came to power on the votes of Christian fundamentalists, who overwhelmingly supported him, largely because of his anti-abortion stance.

America has a higher percentage of its population willing to say that they “definitely believe in the Devil” (45 per cent) than any other country in the world. About one-third of Americans say they definitely believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word”. Bush himself says he regularly reads the Bible, and that his “faith” helps him to make decisions. So he is in no position to criticise anyone else for holding irrational beliefs about God or the afterlife.

But even if the US was led by someone less committed to religious belief than Bush, and therefore prepared to lay the blame for the attacks squarely at the door of irrational religious faith, would it do any good? Probably not. There is little evidence that religious belief has ever been lessened by government criticism, and plenty of examples, such as Poland under the communists, where it thrived in the face of long-term government hostility.

But in the long run, education does make some difference. Even in America, religious belief is lower among those with higher levels of education. To say this is not to deny that some religious fundamentalists – including, it seems, some of the hijackers themselves – have high levels of education. Nevertheless, it is possible to hope that a highly educated nation will provide a less fertile soil for religious belief.

So one lesson to be drawn from the terrible events of September 11 is that the answer may lie in education. And since education is part of development, we have circled around to the conclusion that if the rich nations did more to assist in the development of the poor nations, the kind of terrorism that we have just seen might be less likely.

But the fruits of education are slow-ripening, and therefore no answer for the immediate threat that terrorism poses. Useful short-term lessons are hard to find.

Peter Singer, DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University
Reprinted with permission

By Peter Singer