6/28/09

What is a Religious Culture of Violence and Terror?

The best social scientific analysis of the subject of religion and terror is the book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergensmeyer.

The author researched the subject and provides for us vivid descriptions of the cultural mechanisms of religion-based terrorism. The main theme of the book is to explain and analyze how religion has been made by some into a cultural system that supports terrorism.

Juergensmeyer's definition of religious terrorism spells out that terrorism requires both an act by the perpetrators and a response from the victims. He says,
...Terrorism is meant to terrify. The word comes from the Latin terrere, to cause to tremble, and came into common usage in the political sense, as an assault on civil order during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution at the close of the eighteenth century. Hence the public response to the violence - the trembling that terrorism effects - is part of the meaning of the term. It is appropriate, then, that the definition of a terrorist act is provided by us, the witnesses - the ones terrified- and not by the party committing the act. It is we - or more often our public agents, the news media - who affix the label on acts of violence that makes them terrorism. These are public acts of destruction, committed without a clear military objective, that arouse a widespread sense of fear.
Juergensmeyer discusses some of the ironies of using religion as a basis for violence. He says for example,
This fear often turns to anger when we discover the other characteristic that frequently attends these acts of public violence: their justification by religion. Most people feel that religion should provide tranquility and peace, not terror. Yet in many of these cases religion has supplied not only the ideology hut also the motivation and the organizational structure for the perpetrators.
When governments use terror those actions are a different form of terrorist acts. He notes,
It is true that some terrorist acts are committed by public officials invoking a sort of "state terrorism" in order to subjugate the populace. The pogroms of Stalin, the government-supported death squads in El Salvador, the genocidal killings of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and government- spurred violence of the Hutus and Tutsis in Central Africa all come to mind. The United States has rightfully been accused of terrorism in the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, and there is some basis for considering the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as terrorist acts.
The point of religious terrorism is hard to imagine. What is in the mind of terrorists? Juergensmeyer provides this insight,
...The term terrorism has more frequently been associated with violence committed by disenfranchised groups desperately attempting to gain a shred of power or influence. Although these groups cannot kill on the scale that governments with all their military power can, their sheer numbers, their intense dedication, and their dangerous unpredictability have given them influence vastly out of proportion with their meager military resources.
Juergensmeyer speaks of "cultures of violence" and explains that terrorists have ways to justify their religious violence,
This is a significant feature of these cultures: the perception that their communities are already under attack - are being violated - and that their acts are therefore simply responses to the violence they have experienced. In some cases this perception is one to which sensitive people outside the movement can readily relate - the feeling of oppression held by Palestinian Muslims, for example, is one that many throughout the world consider to he an understandable though regrettable response to a situation of political control. In other instances, such as the imagined oppression of America's Christian militia or Japan's Aum Shinrikyo movement, the members' fears of black helicopters hovering over their homes at night or the allegations of collusion of international governments to deprive individuals of their freedoms are regarded by most people outside the movements as paranoid delusions. Still other cases - such as those involving Sikh militants in India, Jewish settlers on the West Bank, Muslim politicians in Algeria, Catholic and Protestant militants in Northern Ireland, and anti-abortion activists in the United States - are highly controversial.
In the mythic structure of a religious culture of terror the leaders preach as their truth a strange belief system of their religion,
Whether or not outsiders regard these perceptions of oppression as legitimate, they are certainly considered valid by those within the communities. It is these shared perceptions that constitute the cultures of violence that have flourished throughout the world - in neighborhoods of Jewish nationalists from Kiryat Arba to Brooklyn where the struggle to defend the Jewish nation is part of daily existence, in mountain towns in Idaho and Montana where religious and individual freedoms are thought to he imperiled by an enormous governmental conspiracy, and in pious Muslim communities around the world where Islam is felt to he at war with the surrounding secular forces of modern society.
Finally, Juergensmeyer uses the term culture to include several aspects commonly considered part of religion,
I could use the term communities or ideologies of terrorism rather than cultures of violence, hut what I like about the term culture is that it entails both things - ideas and social groupings - that are related to terrorist acts. I employ it (i.e. the term culture) in a broad way to include the ethical and social values underlying the life of a particular social unit.
[repost from 2005]

2 comments:

The Inquisitor said...

Citizenship begats Terrorism

'Academics' will probably realise that some day. 'Terrorism' is an antithetical force given rise to by the Thesis of the nation-state. It has a logical function which the Thesis, unfortunately is trying its utmost to denty.


http://the-heretic.blogspot.com

bryce said...

"The main theme of the book is to explain and analyze how religion has been made by some into a cultural system that supports terrorism."

If that's the case, then I don't understand how Juergensmeyer can say that "Osama bin Laden is to Islam like Timothy McVeigh is to Christianity." Was McVeigh part of some big violent "culture" within Christianity?