John F. Kavanaugh

It was chilling to read, to see the pictures. The Sunday New York Times Magazine of Oct. 21 displayed a pictorial interview with five of Jihad’s Women, associated with one of the 100 Pakistan religious schools for Muslim females. (There are 10,000 such schools for boys in the country.)

A woman of 35, who supervises one of the schools, is pictured kissing a child: I named my son Osama because I want to make him a mujahid. In the name of God, I will sacrifice my son.... If [my sons] get killed, it is nothing.... I will suicide bomb.

A 16-year-old girl says, Non-Muslims are our enemy according to the Koran, so Americans are our enemy. We hate America. A 12-year-old claims, Osama is a great man, and he is fighting America. Another insists that Osama is not involved in any terrorist act because he is a Muslim, on the path of God.

It should be no secret that millions of Muslims hold to the illusion that Israel actually orchestrated the September massacre. Even if only one out of 100 is sympathetic to Bin Laden, that would be 12 or 13 million people.

Whether there be denial, defensiveness or hardness of heart in such attitudes, the judgments people make, as well as all their prejudices, are invariably formed by information they have received. Information (or disinformation) drives human choice.

A modern formulation of an old Aristotelian and Thomistic principle is this: All information is formation. Whoever informs, forms the people informed. And whoever controls information will hold sway over the judgments, choices and behaviors of others.

This is nothing new. Anyone who remembers the index of forbidden books, anyone who has ever studied the history of propaganda, anyone familiar with advertising knows that information is the key to choice. This is why education can be so liberating and thought control or brainwashing so enslaving.

The information principle is related to the formation of conscience as well. We all believe that people ought to follow their consciences. But what if Taliban consciences, their moral judgment, is misinformed? This is scary, yet crucial to know. The deep text of war is a matter of information. What is the evidence for our beliefs? Where do we turn for data? What facts ensure that our convictions are actually warranted?

Most Muslims know very little about the United States other than what is filtered down through local media, tribal leaders and whatever schooling may be available. How many are aware that U.S. troops have defended Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, that Muslims have freedom and encouragement to practice their faith throughout this country, that some of the most persistent advocates for ceasing the bombing of Iraq and for guaranteeing a Palestinian state have been American citizens? Our failures, our selective interference and indifference, our arrogance, our affluence, our militance, they think they know quite well. But who is presenting information, evidence or even indications of our gifts and grace?

It is easy to see this problem out there. It is not so easy to see how it applies to ourselves. Of Islam itself, its history and culture, its divisions and aspirations Americans know precious little. When there is some knowledge, it is often sifted through preconceived ideology, usually characterized as right or left. There are some who resist any evidence that might challenge their cherished belief that America is a monster, others who reject any information that might dissolve their illusion that America is an angel. We have the sweetness-and-light, peace-loving interpretations of Islam. We have the dark and dangerous portrait of Islam as a threat to our civilization. And never the twain shall meet.

The fact is, there is much to criticize about Islam and Judaism, as well as about Christianity. Criticism is usually most effective when it is done from within, but that takes the most courage. If Americans point out the bungling or meanness of some past U.S. policies, they are liable to be accused of moral equivalence or hate for our country. If a Muslim in Saudi Arabia confronts the injustices of theocratic despotism, he is liable to be accused of apostasy worthy of execution.

Here in the United States, instead of information and self-critique, knees are jerking left and right. The National Review notes Kofi Annan’s reception of The Absurd Nobel Peace Prize. The Nation, at the other end of the political spectrum, gushes that the Nobel Peace Prize committee got it stunningly right. So what else is new? There are people who religiously read just one side of politics every week and think they are keeping themselves informed. It is really the confirmation of prejudice.

At least in this country, however, you can read arguments on both sides. You can stay up late and listen to the BBC on public radio to check out the evidence provided by your own favorite ideologist, the network clones or the Time and Newsweek twins.

Openness to data that may be hostile to one’s prejudices may be uncommon here. But what is truly disturbing about the war we now wage is that there are places in this world where information is so controlled and distorted that even imagining another way than jihad is impossible.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.