The Death of Osama bin Laden Marks the end of a Cosmic War of Religious Terrorism

The death today of Osama bin Laden marks the end of one terrible Cosmic War of Religious Terrorism. Previously we taught about this subject in our course on Religious Terrorism, War and Violence, as summarized in our post here below.

What is a cosmic war?

Marc Juergensmeyer, in Terror in the Mind of God, makes a convincing case that the religions that practice violence share some common assumptions. One of those is that their members are engaged in a great war. The most dramatic of such statements to this effect comes from Osama:

The world is at war, Osama bin Laden proclaimed in a fatwa delivered in February 1998, months before the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania--bombings he was accused of masterminding and financing. Bin Laden wanted to make clear that it was not he who started the war, however, but Americans, through their actions in the Middle East. These had constituted, in bin Laden's words, "a clear declaration of war on God, His messenger and Muslims." His own acts of violence, by implication, were merely responses to a great ongoing struggle.

The text of that fatwa concludes as follows:

On that basis, and in compliance with God's order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims.

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies--civilians and military--is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, "and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," and "fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God."

This is in addition to the words of Almighty God "And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated and oppressed--women and children, whose cry is 'Our Lord, rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will help!'"

We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.

Almighty God said "O ye who believe, give your response to God and His Apostle, when He calleth you to that which will give you life. And know that God cometh between a man and his heart, and that it is He to whom ye shall all be gathered."

Almighty God also says "O ye who believe, what is the matter with you, that when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of God, ye cling so heavily to the earth! Do ye prefer the life of this world to the hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the hereafter. Unless ye go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; but Him ye would not harm in the least. For God hath power over all things."

Almighty God also says "So lose no heart, nor fall into despair. For ye must gain mastery if ye are true in faith."

Juergensmeyer further defines and presents his theoretical framework as follows:

I call such images "cosmic" because they are larger than life. They evoke great battles of the legendary past, and they relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil. Notions of cosmic war are intimately personal but can also he translated to the social plane. Ultimately, though, they transcend human experience. What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle--cosmic war--in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation.

The script of cosmic war is central to virtually all of the incidents of performance violence described in the first part of this book.

Juergensmeyer illustrates this theory with a familiar case in point:

Jewish activists following Rabbi Meir Kahane have also been convinced that their violent acts have been authorized as weapons in a divine warfare sanctioned by God. Dr. Baruch Goldstein's massacre at the shrine of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994 was described as a military act. "All Jews," one of his supporters told me--implying that it was common knowledge--are "at war with the Arabs."

In an odd echo of this Jewish activist's statement, Hamas supporters claim that they too are "at war"--a war with Israel. It is this great conflict that has created the need for Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin told me. Mahmud Ahouhalima warned me that Americans are unaware that there is "a war going on." Shortly before the bombing of the World Trade Center when Ahouhalima was driving a taxicab in New York City, an ABC journalist recalls riding with the Muslim activist and being lectured that America would lose the war against Islam without even knowing that it was in it, or when the moment of defeat had arrived.

The logic of religious violence will unfold further over the next few units of the course as we analyze our data along with Juergensmeyer. He says:

These nearly ubiquitous images of warfare evoked by militant religious groups in the 1990s are significant for the understanding of violence and religion that will he explored in the remainder of this book. In this chapter and the next, we will see how the notion of cosmic war provides the script being played out in the violent performances of militant religious activists and is linked to notions of conquest and failure, martyrdom and sacrifice. In Chapter 10, we will see how violence can he part of a broader justificatory scheme that is empowering on both the personal and social levels. In the final chapter we will explore ways that images of struggle have helped to make religion an agent of honor and legitimization, thereby raising the importance of religion as an ideology of order that sustains public life.

Why must they make cosmic war?

Juergensmeyer spells out a succinct and eloquent explanation that affirms:

A bellicose stance fundamentally contradicts the purpose of compromise and understanding, and adopting an inflexible position of militancy early in a dispute calls into question the motive for doing so. A warring attitude implies that its holder no longer thinks compromise is possible or--just as likely--did not want an accommodating solution to the conflict in the first place. In fact, if one's goal is not harmony but the empowerment that comes with using violence, it is in one's interest to be in a state of war. In such cases, war is not only the context for violence but also the excuse for it. War provides a reason to be violent. This is true even if the worldly issues at heart in the dispute do not seem to warrant such a ferocious position.

Each religion's script is different in its details. One example given by Juergensmeyer highlights the link between war and the moral justification of violence:

One of the reasons a state of war is preferable to peace is that it gives moral justification to acts of violence. Violence, in turn, offers the illusion of power. Christian Reconstruction theologians argue that public executions are appropriate in a time of warfare, implying that they, rather than the state, can mete out punitive judgments. In a similar vein, followers of Christian Identity claim that in a time of war the ends justify the means, thereby rationalizing their attempts to confound the everyday workings of secular society. When asked if he would consider the use of poison to contaminate the water supply of a major American city, a member of the Phineas Priesthood said, "When one is at war, one has to consider such things, unfortunately." Rev. Michael Bray made an ethical distinction between what is legal in a peaceful society and what is morally justified in a situation of warfare: the latter includes transgressing property rights and laws against murder. In an interesting way, Bray's argument is similar to that of the assassin of Mohandas Gandhi, Nathuram Godse, who in his court trial eloquently justified what he called his "moral" though "illegal" act of killing the mahatma.

How does a cosmic war use symbols and rituals in its religious system?

Juergensmeyer summarizes an illustration regarding symbolism:

The images of warfare in Protestant Christianity situated the faithful in a religious cosmos that inevitably had a moral valence, hut this has not been the case in all traditions. The battles of the Mahavamsa, the Hebrew Bible, and the Hindu epics, for example, testify to a different sort of ultimate encounter. The motif that runs through these mythic scenes of warfare is the theme of us versus them, the known versus the unknown. In the battles described in the Hebrew Bible and in such epics as the Ramayana, the enemies were often foreigners from the shady edges of known civilization--places such as Canaan, Philistine, and Lanka. These foes often embodied the conceptual murkiness of their origins; that is, they represented what was chaotic and uncertain about the world, including those things that defied categorization altogether. In cases where the enemy possessed a familiar face--as in the Mahabharata, where war was waged between sets of cousins--chaos is embodied by the battle itself. It is the wickedness of warfare itself that the battle depicts, as the mythic figure Arjuna observed at the outset of his encounter with Lord Krishna on the battlefield. To fight in such a circumstance was to assent to the disorder of this world, although the contestants knew that in a grander sense this disorder is corrected by a cosmic order that is beyond killing and being killed. Such was the message of Lord Krishna in his address to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

Juergensmeyer says of the elements of religious ritual of violence and warfare that:

Thus violent images have been given religious meaning and domesticized. These acts, although terribly real, have been sanitized by becoming symbols; they have been stripped of their horror by being invested with religious meaning. They have been justified and thereby exonerated as part of a religious template that is even larger than myth and history. They are elements of a ritual scenario that makes it possible for the people involved to experience safely the drama of cosmic war.

Can we predict when a cosmic struggle will turn to religion to justify violence?

Juergensmeyer presents these criteria:


1. The struggle is perceived as a defense of basic identity and dignity. If the struggle is thought to be of ultimate significance--a defense not only of lives but of entire cultures, such as Sikhism or Islam--the possibility is greater that it will be seen as a cultural war with spiritual implications. The Irish confrontation, for instance, became spiritualized when Rev. Ian Paisley interpreted it as an attack on Protestantism, and the Palestinian struggle took on a religious aura after a significant number of sheiks and mullahs interpreted it as a defense of Islam. In other cases, the very nature of the issues--such as abortion or the sanctity of life--can attract religious activists, such as the followers of Christian Identity and Christian Reconstruction, whose involvement has spiritualized the anti-abortion struggle. A sense of personal humiliation, such as Dr. Goldstein's belief that Jews were being humiliated by the Israeli government's protection of Arab Muslims, can lead to desperate attempts to recover both personal dignity and cultural pride.

2. Losing the struggle would he unthinkable. If a negative outcome to the struggle is perceived as beyond human conception, the struggle may he viewed as taking place on a transhistorical plane. Some Palestinian Muslims, for instance, have refused to even consider the idea of a Jewish state in what they regard as Arab territory. Similarly, some radical Jews have regarded the Israeli government's return of biblical lands to Arabs as unthinkable. The more that goals are reified and made inflexible, the greater the possibility that they will he deified and seen as the fulfillment of holy writ.

3. The struggle is blocked and cannot be won in real time or in real terms. Perhaps most important, if the struggle is seen as hopeless in human terms, it is likely that it may he reconceived on a sacred plane, where the possibilities of victory are in God's hands. When Shoko Asahara felt trapped by the Japanese police, he created an act that he thought would elevate the struggle to the level of cosmic war, just as Rev. Jim Jones did in Guyana when he chose a suicidal act of violence to escape what he feared would he capture and defeat. According to Weston LaBarre, these moments of desperation precipitate religion. He described a poignant historical moment in 1870 when a group of Plains Indians from the Paiute tribe were trapped by the U.S. Cavalry and responded by spontaneously creating a ritual of dancing and hypnotic trances known as the Ghost Dance religion. LaBarre's study indicates when religion and its grand scenarios of cosmic war are needed most: in hopeless moments, when mythical strength provides the only resources at hand.

The presence of any of these three characteristics increases the likelihood that a real-world struggle may he conceived in cosmic terms as a sacred war. The occurrence of all three simultaneously strongly suggests it. A struggle that begins on worldly terms may gradually take on the characteristics of cosmic war as solutions become unlikely and awareness grows of how devastating it would he to lose. The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, was not widely regarded as a sacred battle from the perspective of either side until the late 1980s. Then the process of sacralization overtook the conflict and transformed it, in the eyes of religious activists on both sides, into cosmic war.
When a struggle becomes sacralized, incidents that might previously have been considered minor skirmishes or slight differences of understanding are elevated to monumental proportions. The use of violence becomes legitimized, and the slightest provocation or insult can lead to terrorist assaults. What had been simple opponents become cosmic foes. As the next chapter shows, the process of satanization can transform a worldly struggle into a contest between martyrs and demons. Alas, this inescapable scenario of hostility does not end until the mythology is redirected, or until one side or the other has been destroyed.

1 comment:

evanstonjew said...

I think at a much more modest level the following is relevant: Over at Rabbi Mayles' blog there is a discussion today on why the Orthodox refuse to recognize Reform.Different opinions were offerred. My own view is the reason Orthodox don’t give Reform any de jure or de facto recognition is because Orthodoxy needs an enemy who has declared war. The idea of a beleaguered Orthodoxy serves many purposes, first and foremost being cohesion and a feeling of purpose.

The Reform must be pushed away in order to maintain the illusion of a real,ongoing fight. At this point in time the real horror is not the existence of Reform ; the horror is that there is no longer any battle, the Reform have walked off the battlefield and don’t care or think about Orthodoxy.The idea that Orthodoxy is alone, no one cares and no one is looking goes against the self image that Orthodoxy is the center and those who have left are either tinok shenishbah or baalei taaveh. This feeling of being abandoned forever by the bulk of Jewry is so scary it must be denied.

Any thoughts? I hope it is ok with you that I posted this somewhat extraneous comment. Feel free to delete it if you think it inappropriate