Saturday, June 6, 2009
Contemporary Terrorism: Religion? Politics? Or what?
10:22 am edt
Consider the following questions: Is a jihad to re-establish
the caliphate and impose Shi’ria Law on the civilizations of the world a religious or political movement? Are conquering
the land necessary to recreate the boundaries of “Biblical Israel,” blowing up the Mosque on the Dome of the Rock
and rebuilding Herod’s Temple, and imposing the Mosaic Law on Israelite society religious or political goals? Is organizing
a movement to use democratic means, law suits, and occasional acts of violence and intimidation in order to turn the United
States into a theocracy run by Evangelical Christians a religious or political undertaking?
It seems obvious to me that in these, any many other examples (Hindu Nationalism, for example) religion and politics cannot
be separated. Debating whether religious motivated terrorism is really politics or religion is to misunderstand the
nature of these movements. Western academic culture, from which most scholars of terrorism, pundits, and policy makers come,
is a culture of disciplinary specialization. This culture of disciplinary specialization is thus imposed on these movements.
But they represent a very different ethos in which precisely these compartmentalizations are anathema.
In addition, this mingling of religion and politics
in religiously motivated terrorism, underscores another important dimension of this issue with which policy makers in the
West have hardly begun to come to terms. Such political religiosity, violent or simply politically militant, reveals that
large numbers of people around the world (and within American society) are convinced that God has given them the
single master-plan for how societies should be organized and governed. Since these blueprints come from God, it is the true
believers’ sacred duty to follow them to the letter and even to impose them on the societies in which they live. And
since they are a divine mandate, these master-plans cannot be compromised. Liberal democracies, based on the value of individual
rights and government by negotiation and compromise, have not yet to even begin to find a way to address these citizens and
This is another potential contribution of religion to terrorist actions: the idea that certain devotees possess a divine
mandate for their societies and for the whole world. This comes through clearly in many of bin Laden’s statements. For
example, bin Laden’s 2001 message to the Muslim youth: “The time has come when all the Muslims of the world, especially
the youth, should unite and soar against the kufr [nonbeliever] and continue jihad till those forces are crushed to naught,
all the anti-Islamic forces are wiped off the face of the earth and Islam takes over the whole world and all other false religions”.
Bin Laden’s statements and those of other jihadists make clear that their goal is not simply defeating the west militarily
or driving the “crusaders” from the Muslim holy lands. Their goal is nothing less than replacing secular governments
with those that follow strict Muslim law throughout the Middle East and maybe even throughout the globe. A
mujihadeen in Pakistan described the goal of jihad by saying “Our mission is to invite all of humanity to Islam, to
persuade the whole world to worship only Allah…Islam is not just a religion. It regulates every aspect of life, including
politics. We would like to see implementation of divine laws here.” In the same way, the ultra-orthodox
parties in Israel seek to remove the current secular government and establish instead a government by strict orthodox law.
The same goal
of replacing secular government with a strictly religious one is also articulated by the Christian Reconstructionist movement
in the United States. Reconstructionism’s goal is turning the United States into a theocratic state governed by the
imposition of "Biblical Law" on all US citizens. This would be the end of democracy, labor unions, civil rights
laws, and public schools. Women would be confined to the home. Non-Christians would be deprived of citizenship. Reconstructionism
seeks to make the laws found in the books of Moses the basis for transforming society into the Kingdom of God on earth.
The assumption is that the Bible is the ruling law for all areas of life — such as government, education, law,
and the arts — an assumption shared by ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel in regards the Torah and Muslim jihadists in regards
to the Koran.
are often taken up by Christian terrorists in the United States. Paul Hill, who killed a physician in Florida,
says directly that “My worldview is based on Reconstruction principles.” Hill wrote from prison “The
primary function of government is to uphold the Moral Law with the sword,”. Hill makes it clear that his agenda goes
beyond simply ending abortion, he looks forward to nothing less than the transformation of American society: “Sooner
or later America will become a Christian nation. Only Christians will be elected to public office. No false worship allowed.”
Neal Horsely, another advocate of killing physicians who perform abortions and creator of the Nuremburg Files, has
on his present website mainly pages devoted to calling for the overthrow of the present government and the establishment of
a “Christian Commonwealth” based primarily on imposing the laws found in the Books of Moses on Americans.
Common to religious terrorists across many different religious traditions is a divine mission to impose religious
law on the whole society and replace secular or hypocritical leaders with devout leaders. This is why religious terrorists
reject the separation of church, synagogue, or mosque and the state. Their religion requires of them that all aspects of life
— from laws governing capital crimes to women’s clothing and children’s discipline — be subject to
religious control. And one of the most striking things is that the prominent issues in this divine mandate are exactly the
same across all the traditions: the “proper” roles of men and women, the regulation of sex,
ending abortion and homosexuality. And not just for them in their personal lives but for whole societies, for their God-given
mission demands that they bring all of society under theocratic control. This understanding of the divine mandate is shared
by Christian Reconstructionists, Muslim jihadists, ultra-orthodox Jews, and groups like Aum Shinrikyo and the Hindu nationalist
party as well. Whether such a divine mission can co-exist with liberal democracy may be the major religious and political
debate of the twenty-first century.
May 30, 2008 - "Understanding"
James W. Jones, Psy.D., Ph.D., Th.D.
much do we really know about terrorism? The short answer is "a lot" and "a very little." "Terrorism"
- as the cliché about one person’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter suggests - is more often used
as an epithet or a bit of propaganda than a category useful for understanding. There is general agreement that terrorism is
not an end in itself or a motivation in itself (except perhaps for a few genuinely psychotic individual lone wolves). No movement
is only a terrorist movement; its primary character is more likely political, economic, or religious. Terrorism is a tactic,
not a basic type of group.
The first step in clarifying this topic of "understanding terrorism"
is to become clear about the purpose of our attempts to understand terrorism. Part of the confusion over the understanding
of terrorism results from the more basic confusion of not knowing what we want our explanations of terrorism to do for us.
Before we undertake to "explain" terrorism, we should be clear as to what we want this "explanation" to
accomplish? Many hope that understanding terrorism will help predict future terrorist actions. Others hope that it will help
devise effective counter-terrorism strategies. Will a psychological, or political, or military, or religious understanding
of religious terrorism aid in those goals?
I know from my work in forensic psychology that predicting violent behavior
in any specific case is very, very complicated and very rarely successful. And dramatic acts of violence that change the course
of history - the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that lit the match on the conflagration of World War I, the taking
hostage of the American Embassy in the Iranian revolution, the 9/11 attack - are rarely predictable. We can list some of the
characteristics of religious groups that turn to violence and terror. I have studied some of the themes common to Muslim,
Christian, and Buddhist groups that have turned to terror. We can also outline the steps that individuals and groups often
go through in becoming committed to violent actions. The NYPD has done exactly that in a recent study. But I remain skeptical
that any model will enable us to predict with any certainty when specific individuals or groups may turn to terrorism. There
are warning signs we should be aware of. But these are signs, not determinants or predictors.
As for counter-terrorism,
it is an important strategic principal that one should know one's enemy. We succeeded in containing the expansiveness
of the former Soviet Union in part because we had a detailed and nuanced understanding of the Soviet system. Understanding
some of what is at stake religiously and spiritually for religious groups that engage in terrorism can help devise ways of
countering them. So a religious-psychological understanding of religious terrorists' motivations can be an important part
of the response to them.
In the months following 9/11 I often heard demagogues on the radio say that psychologists
(like me) who seek to understand the psychology behind religiously motivated violence simply want to "offer the terrorists
therapy." The idea that one must choose either understanding or action - that one cannot do both - is an idea that itself
borders on the pathological and represents the kind of dichotomizing that is itself a part of the terrorist mindset. Such
dichotomized thinking, wherever it occurs, is a part of the problem and not part of the solution. I worked for two years in
the psychology department at a hardcore, maximum security prison. But I never thought of that as a substitute for just and
vigorous law enforcement. Understanding an action in no way means excusing it; explaining an action in no way means condoning
There is, however, a deeper issue here. Understanding others (even those who will your destruction)
can make them more human. It can break down the demonization of the other that some politicians and policy makers feel is
necessary in order to combat terrorists. The demonization of the other is a major weapon in the arsenal of the religiously
motivated terrorist. Must we resort to the same tactic - which is so costly psychologically and spiritually – in order
to oppose terrorism? Or can we counter religiously motivated terrorists without becoming like them?