Religious jingoism rules the day: Americans have rallied round the flag, and "God Bless America" has become America's theme song. Today the USA has become a virtual theocracy (de facto if not de jure). Every gathering in the public square invokes God and country; the Congress convenes a prayer session in the Rotunda of the Capitol and sings "God Bless America" on its steps; key members of the Congress and top officials of the Government participate at a memorial service at the National Cathedral; similar religious ceremonies are held across the land in every town and city, and at football, baseball and sporting events. All of this is in violation of the First Amendment prohibiting the establishment of a religion. There are an estimated 1,350 sects and denominations, many with bizarre theologies. The established religion (Christianity/Judaism/Islam) is monotheism, the belief that God the Father looks over this land and guides its manifest destiny. The House of Representatives recently passed a nonbinding resolution 404-0 which permits the posting of "God Bless America" on all public-school buildings. There is almost no room for dissent, and the secularist and atheist viewpoint is all but ignored. September 11th is, of course, the immediate cause for this frenzied pious patriotism. This is the second time that mainland America has been directly attacked. (The first was the burning of Buffalo and Washington by England in the War of 1812!) The destruction of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon by Islamic terrorists and the subsequent loss of more than 5,000 people is a great tragedy. It has been dramatised almost daily by the media, and this has led to an outburst of public prayer, the likes of which I've not seen in my lifetime. September 11th has led to successive waves of emotion: first grief, watching bodies fall or leap from the Trade Towers and the incineration of most people trapped within; then anger, a resolve to punish those who have committed such dastardly acts; and finally fear that the terrorists will strike again.

In response, President Bush, in a militant speech before the Congress, declared a new War Against Terrorism. America has seen many wars in the last 60 years: the War Against Fascism, the Cold War, the hot Wars Against Communism (neither Korea, or Vietnam were officially declared wars as the Constitution requires), the War Against Poverty as enunciated by LBJ, the War Against Drugs (still being waged) and the mini-wars launched by the right wing against secular humanists, liberals, satanists, child abusers, gays, and feminists. Indeed Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed the Twin Trade Towers disaster on liberal secularists immediately after the event for leading the nation away from God.

Bush's prepared speeches are well crafted and rehearsed. His off-the-cuff remarks, however, are disastrous — his calling this war a "crusade" and his using cowboy language, saying that he wished to "smoke out" Osama bin Laden and get him "dead or alive", reverberated throughout the Muslim world. The fact that many of the 19 alleged terrorists were middle-class and well-educated has rattled most Americans. Mohammed Atta, a Muslim suicide killer who believes in the jihad, is reputed to have written that he looked forward to dying for Allah and reaching paradise and the 72 virgins promised. Bush's vow to root out terrorists wherever they are seemed to portend a protracted religious war. For many this war pits the Judaic-Christian religious camp against Allah and his minions: "Allah akbar" competes with "God Bless America" for divine favour. Incidentally, the main foreign cheerleader for this effort is Britain's winsome Tony Blair, whom Bush parades out wherever he can.

The Congress is virtually unanimous in supporting the President, who calls for "unity in the face of threats to our freedoms". There are few dissenting voices, willing to speak out against the war. Many people feel intimidated. Secular humanists have long been aware of the threat of fanatic Islamic fundamentalists; that is why we have recommended "caution and prudence" and not hastily contrived policies of retribution.

Bush has learned a lot in his first ten months in office. He began his term with a unilateral, nationalistic, militaristic swagger, abrogating treaties and agreements and wishing to go it alone. He was against "nation building", abandoned the peace process between Palestine and Israel, and sabre-rattled with China and Russia. At last he has found an enemy: the terrorists, though they're difficult to locate. He soon learned, under the guidance of Colin Powell, that his policies are apt to awaken a sleeping giant, the 1.2 billion Muslims, and that he needed to tone down his rhetoric and seek a coalition of allies in the Muslim world and elsewhere. He has said that he is against terrorism, not Islam. He also has affirmed that Islam is a "peaceful religion" and that it condemns terrorism. This is contrary to the testimony of history. The sword of Islam has advanced the ideological-theological message of the Qur'an and the Hadith over the centuries, and the jihad has been ferocious in many periods of history.

With the decline of British, French, and European colonialism, some 56 Muslim countries came to life, every one except Turkey a theocracy. A new impassioned missionary zeal has inspired terror and revolt, from Nigeria and Algeria to Egypt, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, the Kashmir, Malaysia, and Indonesia. That is the constant theme of Islamic history. The main point is that the absolute prohibitions on blasphemy and unbelief have strengthened the hold of Islam on its adherents. Children are indoctrinated from the beginning; they generally are not exposed to other cultures, science, literature, the arts, or intellectual challenge; the main text of the curriculum is the Qur'an, which is taken as literally true and committed to rote memory.

The battle against Islamic domination should be a battle for democracy: a battle for the separation of mosque and state, human rights, women's liberation, freedom of conscience and the right of dissent. This process needs to begin with Qur'anic criticism, the critical examination of the claims of the Qur'an. Unfortunately, any challenging of religious premises is considered as 'politically incorrect' in America. But there is no way to advance free enquiry unless there is an open exchange of ideas between Muslims and secularists (as Ibn Warraq has so brilliantly advised). The hope is that we can persuade the substantial Muslim minorities in Western countries and moderate Muslim states to liberalise. Islam needs a reformation, like the Protestant Reformation, which made biblical criticism eventually possible. My only caveat is whether there is enough time for this process to develop effectively. Many Muslims no doubt sympathise with the above agenda, but remain silent; for fear of retaliation. We need to work with them to liberate Islam from its radical fundamentalist elements.

As I write this op-ed piece, America, the richest country of the world, is bombing Afghanistan, one of the poorest. If nothing else, this policy fulfils two geopolitical aims of the USA: it is able, by using Uzbekistan as a base, to secure the rich oil finds in the Caspian Sea (they are enormous,) and it hopes to interdict the heavy exportation of opium from Afghanistan (the War Against Drugs).

Meanwhile, fear of anthrax and other forms of biological warfare has hastened the Congress to pass an anti-terrorism bill, with few dissenting votes; and civil libertarians worry about the undermining of basic constitutional liberties. Already free speech has been chilled. Condoleezza Rice and Ari Fleischer, spokespersons for the Bush administration, have criticised the press and the media for its occasional presentation of alternative viewpoints — such as the inflammatory statement by Osama bin Laden. Regretfully the TV networks have agreed to 'self-censorship'.

Hopefully, America will calm down. Americans need to view September 11th in some historical perspective. As a former GI who volunteered in World War II, I witnessed the bombings of London and the destruction of French and German cities (I went all the way with Patton's army to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.) I was shocked by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of tens of thousands of innocent people. Truman said that he ordered the A-Bomb to end the war quickly, but I had serious misgivings about that policy, as I now do about those of George Bush.

The world community needs to root out terrorism, but this should be an international police action, not a holy war or crusade. Criminal terrorists should be brought to the International Court at The Hague. This will be difficult, since the religious right in the United States bitterly opposes the International Court and the United Nations.

We need to find common moral ground within the civilised world over and beyond the hatred and intolerance of the religious chauvinisms and nationalisms of the past. Whether humanists can persuade their fellow Americans to develop a new set of humanistic values relevant to the entire Planetary community, and whether Muslims will agree, remains at this time highly doubtful.