Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern

[24 February 2004]

By Tara Taghizadeh

License to Kill

Love, friendship, respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.
— Chekhov, “Notebooks”

On September 11, 2001, a horrified world watched in disbelief as hijacked airplanes maneuvered by terrorists crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, killing thousands. The question that perplexed most people that day was why someone would not only murder the innocent, but commit suicide in the process. The answer lies in the devotion to a specific “cause”—most often religious—and the overwhelming hatred that people can harbor. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network’s motives for terror has often been attributed to a deep-rooted hatred of the West (particularly the US), and the fear of the Westernization that is sweeping the world. Religion, and its specific fundamentals, frequently serves as the motive for various religious militant groups -– from Muslim organizations such as Hamas to pro-life Christian groups –- in their attempt to combat their so-called enemy and “cleanse” the world.

In Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, author Jessica Stern investigates a number of religious militant organizations and their motivations for terror. Interestingly, the common denominator that each group shares is their vision: Each believes that that its way is right, and that there is an evil force that has to be destroyed. However, the “evil force” in question varies.

As Stern explains, a common view is that “evil arises from trauma. When the pain of trauma is so great that the victim cannot sustain feeling, he too becomes susceptible to propagating further evil.” The feeling that they have suffered motivates militants to make their oppressors suffer in return. Stern’s chapters on the Palestinian crisis exemplify this best. The anger and powerlessness that many Palestinians feel towards the Israelis has motivated Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas to inspire and recruit young activists to join their ranks and commit suicide bombings and other acts of violence. Stern writes that “The terrorist leaders deliberately inculcate the idea that ‘martyrdom operations’ are sacred acts, worthy of both earthly and heavenly rewards.” Thus, the promise of paradise and God’s approval becomes the prime motivation for the martyr-to-be.

Though the profile of the religious militant is gradually changing (a number of al Qaeda operatives, for example, are educated and middle class), the stereotype of the average suicide bomber is still frequently that of a lonely, poor, unemployed youth with no real prospects who feels that he or she is at the end of their tether, and who finds comfort only at the local mosque. There, the youth is then spotted by, say, Hamas “recruiters” and promised a more rewarding afterlife. The level of interest in youths sacrificing themselves for their “cause,” however, has reached such unparalleled levels in recent years that, as the author explains, “Hamas no longer needs to recruit suicide bombers; they are swamped with volunteers requiring little indoctrination.” By sacrificing themselves as martyrs, their impoverished families also stand to benefit both financially and socially as the religious militant groups with which their children are affiliated offer financial assistance and promote the respective family as honored members of the community.

Inside the US, Stern focuses on the hard-core pro-life Christian groups who kill abortion doctors and destroy abortion clinics in their efforts to “save the babies.” With their beliefs firmly grounded in the Bible, these militants justify their violence with claims that they are destroying those who murder unborn children. As part of her research, the author met with two of the movement’s leaders, Michael Bray and Paul Hill. Hill, a former minister and currently serving a sentence in prison, claims that “the abortionist’s knife is cutting edge of Satan’s current attack on the world,” and that all unborn children must be saved. Though vehemently religious, the anti-abortionists seem to feel no remorse or guilt for their own attempts to kill. Again, as is the case with most religious militants, they excuse their actions as payback for the evil that is being promoted by evil-mongers (in this case, abortion doctors and clinics) and has to be stopped. Violence, often frowned upon by most religious doctrines, becomes, oddly enough, the most important tool with which militants can convey their views in a manner that requires serious attention.

In other chapters, Stern focuses on other religious organizations in Indonesia and Pakistan such as Laskar Jihad and Lashkar e Taiba, who have reported ties with Al Qaeda. The author also discusses the dangers of “lone-wolf avengers” that have cropped up in recent years who, though motivated by religious reasons, are not necessarily affiliated with any particular group. The Pakistani immigrant, Mir Aimal Kansi, falls in this category. He randomly shot several CIA employees in Langley, Va. in 1993. Currently behind bars, Kansi stated his reasons for the attack to the author: “I attacked the CIA for both religious and political reasons.” He then explains that “American policies are ‘anti-Islamic’” and that he had desired only to harm US officials, not “ordinary Americans.”

Stern, a US terrorism expert, also alerts the West to the continuous rise in religious terrorism that is taking hold worldwide, a phenomenon that seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Their ability to find abundant funding and support has allowed many of these organizations to establish footholds in the West. As Stern explains, “They are buying firearms at American gun shows, studying at American flight schools, and soliciting donations from American and other Western citizens.”

Terror in the Name of God is a fascinating read, written by an expert who has successfully managed to put herself in the militants’ shoes, and view the world as they do. Perhaps the most telling sentence in the book is at the very beginning: “Religious terrorism arises from pain and loss and from impatience with a God who is slow to respond to our plight, who doesn’t answer.” The pain and loss has, unfortunately, created a desperate, monstrous world that is now clearly in the process of harming itself.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/terror-in-the-name-of-god/