Published in Turkish Daily News 2003-10-20

Terror in the name of God

By Ingmar Karlsson

Terror in the name of God and religion is an old phenomenon, a fact illustrated in that many of the words used to denote terrorists can be traced to religious groups active many years ago.

The etymology of the English word for a fanatic - zealot - goes back to the Zealots, a Jewish liberation movement that, seven years after Christ, began a national uprising with strong religious overtones against the Romans, which ended in the destruction of both the temple and of Jerusalem in the year 70. The defeated Zealots then retreated to the rock cliff fortress of Masada, where, in the year 73, they committed collective suicide when the Roman troops attacked after an extended siege.

The word assassin, used in both English and French, has a Muslim background and comes from an extremist breakaway sect from the mainstream Shiite belief. The Assassins acquired a number of permanent strongholds in both Persia and central Syria. Under the influence of hashish - hence the name - they carried out their suicide assignments during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries aimed at murdering leaders of the armies that approached their strongholds.

Even the English word thug has its background in a religiously motivated terrorism. It originates from the name of an Indian religious society of professional murderers and thieves who, for more than one thousand years - from the end of the seventh century until the middle of the nineteenth century - systematically murdered travellers in rural areas of India as a sacrifice to Kali, the Hindu goddess of terror and destruction. Throughout the centuries up to one million people lost their lives through strangulation at their hands.

Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, when nationalism, anarchism and communism became the inspiration, religion was the driving force behind terror attacks. Of the 13 terrorist groups identified in 1968, the year in which politically motivated terrorism reached its climax, none could be labelled as religious. Even though many of the Palestinian groups, the Tamil Tigers, the Provisional IRA and the Armenian terrorist groups had ideological elements with religious overtones, the political aspects still dominated.

It can be said that religious terrorism first made a comeback on a broad scale after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. During the 1980s, the new Islamic regime sponsored groups in many countries that wanted to establish the same theocratic system, and this activity was facilitated by the fact that the Iranian revolution coincided with an ideological collapse, in which both capitalism and communism were seen as outdated ideologies in the Muslim world. Religious demagogues made skilful use of this ideological vacuum.

The U.S. Department of State´s list of terrorist organisations in 1980 did not contain any religious groups. In 1994, 16 of the 49 listed terrorist groups were identified as being religious. The year after, the number was 26 of 56, and when 30 of the world's most dangerous terrorist organisations were listed in 1998, half of them were religion-oriented with an ideological base not only in all of the major world religions but also in a number of more or less mystical religious movements.

While secular terrorists view arbitrary terror that affects people indiscriminately as counter-productive and perhaps outright immoral, it appears that religious terrorists are more inclined to view this kind of violence as morally justifiable and necessary for them to achieve their purpose. Terrorism motivated by religion therefore risks being much more violent and much more extensive than its secular counterpart with its distinct political goals, however confused they may seem to be. The religious terrorist's host of enemies are often much more extensive and he or she therefore does not hesitate to make use of mass murder and indiscriminate violence on a large scale. Accordingly, this terrorism acquires a sort of spiritual dimension that its secular counterpart lacks, and its perpetrators consequently see themselves as absolved from the political, moral and practical considerations that a secular terrorist still often feels should be taken.

Both in New York on 11 September 2001 and in the attacks against the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, Muslims killed innocent Muslims just as indiscriminately as they killed other innocent victims, while secular terrorists are less inclined to injure people not considered as belonging to the enemy forces. The IRA issues warnings in advance of their bomb attacks in order to minimize the loss of human life. The attack against the World Trade Center, however, took place when everyone was on their way to work so that the loss of life would be as great as possible, the Christian fundamentalist Timothy McVeigh's bomb attack against the federal office building in Oklahoma City was, for the same reasons, carried out during office hours and Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists attacked tourists in Luxor in November 1997 at a time when the number of visitors at the site reached its peak.

Another difference between religious and political terrorists is that their actions are aimed at influencing completely different target groups. Secular terrorists try to gain the support and sympathy of the groups they claim to be fighting for and they imagine that their actions will act both as eye openers for the "oppressed" and increase their support. Religious terrorists, on the other hand, are engaged in what they view as "the total war" and their acts of terror are often carried out only for their own sake or a very small group of supporters. They consequently do not feel that they should or need take any consideration to the impact their actions can have on sympathy to their cause in the rest of the world but rather carry out their deeds for their own sense of well-being. Violence can therefore be aimed without hesitation at anyone who does not sympathise with the sect in question. Terror is holy and aimed at "unbelievers" or "children of the devil."

Often, the deed is said to be carried out directly on divine command. Such was the case in the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. It was preceded by a religiously oriented campaign against him that had been going on for over two years and during which he and everyone who supported the Oslo Agreement and a territorial compromise with the Palestinians were characterised as murders, enemies and traitors. It therefore became a religious duty for Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, to kill his own Prime Minister since according to him, the peace process would involve giving up the Holy Land. The same psychological atmosphere was created in Egypt after the Camp David Accords in 1978. Sadat was condemned from the pulpits of the mosques and was considered an apostate from the true belief. Khaled Ahmed al-Islambouli listened to this message and came to the conclusion that it was a religious duty to kill this "new Pharaoh". In a letter to his sister he wrote: "I haven't committed a crime. What I did, I did for the sake of God, the Merciful, the Almighty."

The American police archives are said to contain information on 100 000 persons who in one way or another have been involved with religiously motivated violence. At present, there are hundreds of organisations and so-called churches with close to 50 000 members throughout the USA, with ideologies ranging from anti-federalist beliefs to race oriented religious hatred. The various groups are united by resistance to any form of government beyond the municipal level, by regarding Jews and non-whites as the children of Satan, by belief in a Jewish conspiracy that can only be surmounted by overthrowing ZOG (The Zionist Occupation Government) in Washington. All of this racism, anti-Semitism and hatred towards governmental institutions is cloaked in religious terms and given a theological basis. Members of these extremist groups see themselves as the last bastion against the assault by the powers of evil against "the faithful remnant".

The bomb attack in Oklahoma City in April 1995 was, to date, the culmination of religiously based violence in the USA. The attack cost the lives of 168 people. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, belonged to the Michigan Militia, a paramilitary organisation of approximately 12 000 persons who seriously believe that the American government already has a political program whose purpose is to totally control the lives of every American. According to Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City was a centre for this conspiracy - "one of the epicentres of an unspeakably evil plot". All patriots west of the Mississippi were to be deported there, and he claimed there were already five crematoriums set up with the capacity to cremate 3000 patriots per day.

What all religious terrorist organisations have in common, regardless of their religious affiliation, is a Manichaean perspective of life, with the irreconcilable division of the world into good and evil, the rejection of all pluralistic social models and an eschatology contending that the end of the world is approaching and that true believers will be rewarded on the last day. In this paranoid view of the world, all outsiders are demonised. This results in extreme rigorism and moralism, a fixation with apocalyptic end of the world and final battle scenarios, and a self-chosen isolation from the contemporary sinful culture and the sense of contamination it produces. Preparations for the final battle include stockpiling weapons, which can also contain poisons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The first large-scale terrorist attack using chemical means, in this case sarin gas, was carried out in March 1995 on the subway system in Tokyo by an apocalyptic Japanese religious sect, Aum Shinrikyo. Twelve people were killed and over 5000 were injured in this attack. The group proved to have an extensive arsenal of biochemical, biological and conventional weapons, including mustard gas, anthrax and TNT, which would have been enough to kill up to ten million people. In 1984, a group of militant Jews from the settlement movement Gush Emunim planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem in order to initiate a holy war between Jews and Muslims of such dimensions that the Jewish Messiah would feel compelled to return and intervene.

The goal of religious terrorists is to re-establish an idealised, harmonic, uncorrupted society - in the case of Muslims, umma, the believers' ancient community; in the case of America, the pilgrim fathers' sectarian community, seen as the actual origin of the true American culture. Religion is their only means of salvation and an absolute, effective remedy against all evil and all personal and social problems.

In order to prepare the way for an ideal Christian, Jewish, Sikh or Muslim society, these groups view violence and oppression against those who think differently as something entirely legitimate, violence that with due right can also afflict those who are weak or indifferent in their faith. Violence as a form of sacrament and a divine duty. Religiously inspired terrorists feel they have a monopoly on the absolute truth, which is also manifested in the names they have adopted: Hizbollah (God's Party), Jund al-Haq (Soldiers of Right) and Aum Shinrykuo (The Supreme Truth).

All opponents of the faith are to be exterminated on the way to the true divine state and these groups see themselves as an extension of God's hand through acts of violence. Also characteristic for a religiously motivated act of terrorism, regardless of whether it is committed by a Christian, Muslim, Sikh or a Jew, is that it is seldom followed by a letter claiming responsibility that justifies the act or conveys an ideological message expected to attract other target groups or which contains demands that must be met in order for the terrorism to cease. The message from 11 September was conveyed through pictures alone, there was no text. One result of this is that acts of violence can be given a number of different interpretations and this may very well be the actual intention. Was 11 September a result of the unresolved Palestinian issue or was the attack a protest against the presence of American soldiers in what to Muslims is the holy ground of Saudi Arabia; was the triggering factor a conflict of values between the secularised western world and the Islamic concept of a righteous society, or was the purpose to trigger Huntington's so celebrated "clash of civilisations"?

This question is still unanswered. One message was, however, clear to both friend and foe, namely the will to pursue a totally uncompromising battle in the name of religion.

[ Turkish Daily News ]

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