The question that arises is how these concepts came to be distorted by militant Islamic groups in total contradiction to the long-established and authentic traditions of Islamic jurisprudence (Lumbard 2004). This is not just a matter of theology. The Islamic heritage includes not only the religious sciences, as some scholars have rightly observed, but a wealth of rational sciences that are not considered as opposites or mutually exclusive (Nasr 1999: 217–41; 2002: 235–84). Likewise, we also need to ask how the language of the ‘war on terror’ has instrumentalised both Christian and secular traditions of ethical thought about war and peace.

There is a striking parallel with the arguments used to justify terror and the ‘war on terror’. The Bush administration defined the attacks of 9/11 as an act of aggression. The ‘war on terror’ is thus defined as a war of self-defence. Because terrorists do not fight by the rules, because they can attack anywhere and everywhere using every conceivable technique, because they are not swayed by deterrence, ‘the only way to deal with the terrorist network is to take the battle to them. That is in fact what we are doing. That is in effect self-defense of a preemptive nature’ (US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, quoted in Crawford 2003: 12). Moreover, because the terrorists began the war, they are responsible ‘for every single casualty’. The terrorists also justify their actions in terms of self-defence. They are defending Muslims against occupation whether in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Chechnya. Because they do not have access to sophisticated weapons and because they do not have the capacity to defend themselves against American, Israeli or Russian attacks, they also have to take the battle to the enemy. The technique of suicide bombing against civilian targets is the only way that this kind of pre-emptive defence can be carried out, they assert. Thus, one of the British suicide bombers, in a video recording made before 7 July 2005, described himself as a ‘soldier’.

However, in such a war the casualties are not just buildings destroyed and people maimed and killed. The debate that rages among activists and policy analysts in many countries today is about the balance between security and liberty, and its implications for the very future of transnational civil society. Central to this debate is the complex role of civil society in the ‘war on terror’, the events it triggered, and the developments it spawned. George Soros (2006), billionaire financier and philanthropist, is one of many social commentators who have written in scathing terms about the ‘war on terror’ as a misplaced metaphor. It envisages a war on an abstraction, which intrinsically can never be ‘won’, and places the United States and large parts of the international community it seeks to dominate or influence on a permanent war footing.

Such advocates argue that the constraints on press freedom arise from new anti-terrorism and official secrets laws, criminalisation of speech judged to justify terrorism, criminal prosecution of journalists for disclosing classified information, surveillance of communications without judicial authorisation, restrictions on access to government data and more strict security classifications. ‘All these measures can severely erode the capacity of journalists to investigate and report accurately and critically, and thus the ability of the press to inform,’ according to WAN (2007: 1).