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Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist and playwright, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. He spoke with Nobel Laureates 2001 editor Nathan Gardels on Sept. 20.

You have warned of the dangers of religious fanaticism in the 21st century, of those with "exclusive revelations" who seek to apply them universally, of "that rampaging other, that intolerant other, that apocalyptic other that would sooner erase the world than share its potential."

At the time I think you had in mind those Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt who attacked your fellow Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, for what they considered blasphemous writings. Did you ever imagine anything like the terrorism that struck America?

WOLE SOYINKA: When I warned of the dangers of religious fanaticism, I had a number of strains in mind. I had in mind, for instance, those radical Hindus in Uttar Pradesh in India who razed to the ground a mosque they believed was standing on the spot where (revered Hindu god) Lord Rama sat at some distant moment in prehistory.

I was thinking of that man who went on a killing spree along the U.S. East Coast killing so-called "right-to-choice" doctors who conducted abortions. This man thought of himself as a kind of god who could decide the fate of others because he had a special revelation.

I was thinking of that Jewish doctor in Israel who mowed down worshipers in their mosque. I was thinking of those Shiite fanatics who massacred hundreds of Sunnis in Mecca for the haj. And they were "brothers of the faith."

In short, I was thinking of that streak of fundamentalist insanity that runs through all religions -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu alike. I find these fanatics no different from those deluded individuals who carried out the atrocity in New York and Washington in the conviction they would go to paradise. The crimes committed by these people only vary in their magnitude.

So, there is a stratum of the population that believes religious passion must wipe out all consideration for the rest of humanity. They believe they have the god-given right to judge and destroy.
This mindlessness -- and that is what it is -- is a very dangerous failing of humanity, and it threatens us all wherever we are. After the attacks in New York and Washington, Muslim fanatics in Nigeria went on a rampage attacking Christians.

GARDELS: Since America has suffered the worst from this mindlessness, what ought to be its response?

SOYINKA: I absolutely understand and empathize with the rage of Americans at this attack that took place on American soil.
But this was not an attack on Americans alone. It is a crime against humanity; a crime against the right to a civilized existence; a very dangerous slap in the face of the world.

We are appalled by the sheer dimension of the destruction in lower Manhattan. But let's don't forget the earlier attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- and outrage, as far as I am concerned, that was directed against Africans. Yes, Americans were killed there, too. But these attacks took place on African soil. And it was mostly Africans who were victims of those attacks.
Those acts displayed a horrific arrogance. They were hubristic acts of contempt that profoundly offended my inner being.

So, I understand how Americans feel now, and they certainly have the primary right to respond. But if we are moving toward a global order, the response to crimes such as this must be placed in a global context, not just an American one.

If we accept the legitimacy of the U.N. tribunal convened in The Hague to try (Slobodan) Milosevic for crimes against humanity and its adjunct in Arusha to try those who perpetrated genocide in Rwanda, then mustn't we also accept that those who committed this crime against humanity also be tried in the same way?

That is why I believe the United States should use all the resources at its disposal to track down and capture those responsible for the attacks on Washington and New York and try them for crimes against humanity before the international court.

This will galvanize the entirety of the civilized world and spread the burden and responsibility to all nations of bringing the culprits to justice no matter how long it takes.

If America goes it alone, the message to the world will be different: "We want vengeance, not justice."

(c) 2001, Nobel Laureates. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/21/01)

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