Concluding Questions on Religion and Terrorism

This is the final post in our series based on Mark Juergensmeyer's monograph, Terror in the Mind of God.

In these posts we employed an interpretive framework looking for the "Logic of Religious Violence." We entered into the minds of those who perpetrate acts of violence in the name of religion. Then we stepped back to analyze what we observed.

Here we look back and ask a few concluding questions.

The Continuum and the Characteristics

You have noticed by now that we have avoided labeling the forms of religion that we have studied as "fundamentalists" or "cults". We agree with Juergensmeyer that what we study is a single continuum of religion. At the same time, the sub-systems we have looked at share characteristics of radical forms of their parent systems. Juergensmeyer says,
The radical religious movements that emerged from these cultures of violence throughout the world are remarkably similar, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Sikh. What they have in common are three things. First, they have rejected the compromises with liberal values and secular institutions that were made by most mainstream religious leaders and organizations. Second, they refuse to observe the boundaries that secular society has imposed around religion -- keeping it private rather than allowing it to intrude into public spaces. And third, they have replaced what they regard as weak modern substitutes with the more vibrant and demanding forms of religion that they imagine to be a part of their tradition's beginnings.
The fact that these movements are marginal, however does not mean that they are intrinsically different from mainstream religion. As strident as some of them appear, I hesitate to label them "cultic" or "fundamentalist," as some observers have described these politically active religious movements that have emerged in the late twentieth century. In my view, it is not their spirituality that is unusual, but their religious ideas, cultural contexts, and world views--perspectives shaped by the sociopolitical forces of their times. These movements are not simply aberrations but religious responses to social situations and expressions of deeply held convictions. In talking with many of the supporters of these cultures of violence, I was struck with the intensity of their quests for a deeper level of spirituality than that offered by the superficial values of the modern world.
The Militants v. the Mainstream

The groups that practice terror also preach a healthy disdain for the mainstream groups of the parent religion. As Juergensmeyer shows, this is often insulting and vituperative:
In America members of Christian militia groups have disdained liberal Protestantism and even mocked Christian conservatives. Richard Rutler left the Presbyterian ministry to form his own Church. William Pierce, writing in The Turner Diaries, observed that "the Jewish takeover of the Christian churches and corruption of the ministry is now virtually complete." Pierce went on to say that the liberal clergy was less interested in the teachings of Christianity than in "government 'study' grants. 'brotherhood' awards, fees for speaking engagements, and a good press." He was even more vituperative about conservative Christians, whom he called "the world's greatest cowards." Adding insult to injury, Pierce claimed that the cowardice of most Christian conservatives was "excelled only by their stupidity." It was the rare Christian who saw, as Pierce's characters did, that the governmental system played a key role in "undermining and perverting Christendom" and that its destruction was essential for the emergence of true Christianity. Matthew Hale took this position one step further and rejected Christian churches entirely, claiming them to be a Jewish conspiracy. His World Church of the Creator was intended, therefore, to be not just a branch of Christianity but an antidote to it.
The tension between militant and mainstream religion has existed within virtually every tradition. In Judaism, for example, at the rime of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the orthodox Jewish leadership in Israel was dubious that rabbis could be found who would give religious sanction to such an act, and their doubt turned to astonishment when several rabbis were located who indeed gave authorization for killing another Jew under the moral precedents of traditional law. Yoel Lerner told me that he regarded the rabbinic establishment in Israel as "comfortable" and "cowardly" -- "unwilling to rock the boat" over political issues that he thought their beliefs should command them to champion.
The Search for Hard Religion

Another commonality among the groups we have encountered is the quest for a harder and more real form of their own religions -- one that rejects indulgence and comfort. Juergensmeyer gives a salient example,

Mahmud Abouhalima told me that the critical moment in his religious life came when he realized that he could not compromise his Islamic integrity with the easy vices offered by modern society. Abouhalima claimed that he had spent the early part of his life running away from himself. Although involved in radical Egyptian Islamic movements since his college years in Alexandria, he felt there was no place where he could settle down. He told mc that the low point came when he was in Germany, trying to live the way that he imagined Europeans and Americans carried on: a life in which the superficial comforts of sex and inebriants masked an internal emptiness and despair. Abouhalima said his return to Islam as the center of his life carried with it a renewed sense of obligation to make Islamic society truly Islamic--to "struggle against oppression and injustice" wherever it existed. What was constant, Abouhalima said, was his family and his faith. Islam was both "a rock and a pillar of mercy." But it was not the Islam of liberal, modern Muslims: they, he felt, had compromised the tough and disciplined life the faith demanded.
Abouhalima wanted his religion to be hard, unlike the humiliating, mind-numbing comforts of secular modernity. His newfound religion was what he perceived to be traditional Islam. This was also the case with born-again Sikhs in the separatist movement in India: theirs, they claimed was real Sikhism.
Does Globalization Cause the Backlash of Religious Terrorism?

We categorically reject the line of reasoning that says because of oppression X people are driven to response Y. It makes no logical sense to us. Yet there are many who seek to discover the "cause" of our terrorist maladies in globalist terms. Juergensmeyer explains,
Is the rise of religious terrorism related to these global changes? We know that some groups associated with violence in industrialized societies have an antimodernist political agenda. At the extreme end of this religious rejection of modernism in the United States arc members of the American anti-abortion group Defensive Action, the Christian militia and Christian Identity movement, and isolated groups such as the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. When Michael Bray and other members of the religious right cast aspersions at "the new world order" allegedly promoted by President Bill Clinton and the United Nations, what he and his colleagues feared was the imposition of a reign of order that was not Just tyrannical but atheist. They saw evidence of an anti- religious governmental pogrom in what they regarded as a pandering to pluralist cultural values in a society with no single set of religious moorings.

Similar attitudes toward secular government have emerged in Israel--the religious nationalist ideology of the Kach party is an extreme example--and, as the Aum Shinrikyo movement demonstrated, in Japan. Like the United States, contentious groups within these countries became disillusioned about the ability of secular leaders to guide their countries' destinies. They identified government as the enemy. In Israel, for instance, Hamas and the Jewish right have been in opposition not so much to each other as to their own secular leaders. This fact was demonstrated by the reaction of Jewish settlers in Gaza to a Hamas suicide bombing attempt in
1998, soon after the Wye River accords, in which an activist attempted to ram a car loaded with explosives into a school bus filled with forty of the settlers' children. One of the parents immediately lashed out in hatred--not against the Arabs who tried to kill her child, but against her own secular leader, Netanyahu, whom she blamed for precipitating the action by entering into peace agreements with Arafat. Her comments demonstrated that the religious war in Israel and Palestine has not been a war between religions, but a double set of religious wars--Jewish and Muslim--against secularism.
What makes them hate the Modern?

Calling religious terror a symptom of postmodernism does little to illuminate the phenomenon. Yet many seek this line of inquiry. For reasons that are clear, individualism and skepticism are the enemies. Juergensmeyer summarizes,
The postmodern religious rebels that we have examined in this book have therefore been neither anomalies nor anachronisms. From Algeria to Idaho, these small but potent groups of violent activists have represented growing masses of supporters, and they have exemplified currents of thinking and cultures of commitment that have risen to counter the prevailing modernism -- the ideology of individualism and skepticism -- that has emerged in the past three centuries from the European Enlightenment and spread throughout the world. They have come to hate secular governments with an almost transcendent passion. These guerrilla nationalists have dreamed of revolutionary changes that would establish a godly social order in the rubble of what the citizens of most secular societies have regarded as modern, egalitarian democracies. Their enemies have seemed to most people to be both benign and banal: modern, secular leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat, and such symbols of prosperity and authority as the World Trade Center and the Japanese subway system. The logic of this kind of militant religiosity has therefore been difficult for many people to comprehend. Yet its challenge has been profound, for it has contained a fundamental critique of the world's post-Enlightenment secular culture and politics.

For this reason these acts of guerrilla religious warfare have been not only attempts at "delegitimization," as Ehud Sprinzak has put it, but also relegitimization: attempts to purchase public recognition of the legitimacy of religious world views with the currency of violence. Since religious authority can provide a ready-made replacement for secular leadership, it is no surprise that when secular leaders have been deemed inadequate or corrupt, the challenges to their legitimacy and the attempts to gain support for their rivals have been based on religion. When the proponents of religion have asserted their claims to be the moral force undergirding public order, they sometimes have done so with the kind of power that a confused society can graphically recognize: the force of terror.


Richard said...

Everybody seems to believe that Religious Extremism is in opposition to modernity. That is the view that is most eloquently expressed by Thomas Friedman in his various articles and books. My opinion is that this fails to take into account the enabling technology behind religious fundamentalism – specifically the Internet. What has happened in our multi-media global society is in fact fragmentation of mainstream liberal thought to the benefit of the extremist views. Al Qaeda is first and foremost an Internet and a Global phenomenon that was pretty much operating in obscurity prior to the introduction of the World Wide Web. The same could be said for the various ultra Christian right wing groups in the heartland of the United States. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think the problem lies with the new technology and not with misinterpretations of ancient religious texts.

Richard said...

One last comment. What does Netanyahu have to do with any of this?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

nobody here says anything about terrorism and modernity. it's modern and yes the bad guys do use the telephone (and the internet). and netanyahu is mentioned towards the end of the post, read on.....