Religion & Public Life
Your link can go here
Your link can go here

‘Terror in the mind of God’

UCSB professor seeks to understand the thinking of religious militants

"Through these acts, they are trying to wake us up into their view of the world at war." — Professor Mark Juergensmeyer

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

The unseen war

Long before Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were parties to a war they knew nothing about — at least according to Mahmud Abouhalima, who was convicted for taking part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

“There is a war going on – a war between good and evil, religion and irreligion; and your government is the enemy. You just didn’t see it. You people are clouded by your media and the Jews that control it,” Abouhalima said during a 1997 jailhouse interview at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif.

But the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks finally woke up Americans to the war, according to Abouhalima.

“You didn’t get it; you didn’t see the war. But now you know,” Abouhalima said, the Egyptian militant's demeanor moving from frustration to fulfillment.

Abouhalima was speaking with Mark Juergensmeyer, director of Global and International Studies and Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Juergensmeyer chronicles his many discussions with religious militants around the world and analyzes his findings in his book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2003, University of California Press).

“Almost to a person, they [the militants] think of themselves as soldiers in a war – an invisible war; and through these acts they are trying to wake us up into their view of the world at war,” he said. “If they could get us to see the world at war, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The rise of religious nationalism

"In the rubble of the Cold War dichotomy emerged a new confrontation of religion and the secular state."

Following the euphoria when the Berlin wall fell in 1989, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the emerging global religious conflict took many by surprise.

“People thought the failure of communism marked the end of ideology, and the beginning of a new era,” Juergensmeyer said. “But in the rubble of the Cold War dichotomy emerged a new confrontation of religion and the secular state.”

Juergensmeyer has traveled throughout the Middle East, Gaza, Palestine, Japan, and the Punjab region of India. “Everywhere I could see signs of this emerging religious nationalism,” he said. “It’s an almost ubiquitous pattern of religious politics around the world; it’s a religious critique of what are seen as failures of the secular state.”

Religion has become the primary vehicle for protest against failing secular states throughout the world, he said. “It’s not so much an example of the politicization of religion, but the religion-ization of politics – where a political struggle was seen in some way as a religious struggle, where the ordinary mundane social politics had risen to the level of religion.”

In conducting his research, Juergensmeyer said he was also intrigued by the way in which religious nationalist movements had become “trans-nationalized,” such as militant Islamic groups, radical Sikhs in India, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and even the Christian Identity movement in the United States.

“They all have a trans-national character in the battle against the ‘new world order,’” he said. “They stand for anti-globalization, but at the same time they themselves are global networks.”

Inside the mind of terror

"My job is to try to get inside the minds of these people. I tried to understand how they saw their actions as somehow justified or even mandated by God."

In 1991, Juergensmeyer interviewed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the 67-year-old spiritual leader and founder of Hamas. An Israeli missile killed Yassin in March, 2005.

Juergensmeyer said he was struck at how Yassin had mastered leadership in both the political and religious arenas. “He was not just regarded as a savvy political leader, but also a kind of guru – someone who had considerable spiritual weight,” he said.

Juergensmeyer said a central riddle in his studies is how violence could be considered appropriate, justified, and even moral by people who were otherwise ethical and pious.

“It’s easy to understand why bad things are done by bad people, but the idea that sensible people would do bad things is more difficult to conceive. I wanted to understand why bad things happen from people who are highly regarded and have spiritual weight and authority,” he said.

“My job is to try to get inside the minds of these people. I tried to understand how they saw their actions as somehow justified or even mandated by God. I also wanted to understand why this is happening now. How did it come that at this particular moment we are a world at war?”

Juergensmeyer's latest interviews and analyses are contained in his 2008 book, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militants to al Qaeda. Juergensmeyer is also author of The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (1993, University of California Press).

The cult of victimhood

"They are fighting for selfhood and ownership of self – for reasons that are both understandable and purely fantastic."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continually reinforces a sense of victimhood among Palestinians, and rage among the rest of the Arab world.

“We are not the perpetrators of violence, we are the victims of it,” Sheikh Yassin told Juergensmeyer. “Our struggle is not about land or property; it’s about pride.”

Juergensmeyer further interpreted the Sheikh's sentiments: “It’s more than pride: It’s an attempt to regain one’s selfhood, dignity, humanity. It’s a situation where one’s conception of the world is so threatened. They feel ashamed, deprived. They are fighting for selfhood and ownership of self – for reasons that are both understandable and purely fantastic.”

Men are particularly vulnerable to this shame and resulting violence, Juergensmeyer said, although militant Palestinian groups, and particularly Chechen rebels in Russia, recently have been recruiting women for suicide bombing missions.

“Aside from the testosterone issue, men think of themselves as responsible for the social order; and when things go awry, they feel vulnerable,” Juergensmeyer said. “They want to regain sense of manhood and pride in a world that seems fiercely determined to take away.”

Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden

"He thinks of himself as the new caliph."

Osama bin Laden has very effectively captured the minds of the Muslim world and encapsulated their grievances against the West, Juergensmeyer said.

“He evokes an image of the prophet standing in front of his cave in military fatigues,” Juergensmeyer said. “He vaunts himself as the leader of all Muslims in their war. He summarizes all of their grievances and asks, ‘What have your leaders done for you? They’re wimps.’”

Bin Laden recites a narrative that begins with the glories of the Islamic world during its first two centuries, followed by the disaster of the fall of the Caliphate and later the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the territories of the Ottoman world were replaced either by independent European states or mandates to Western colonial powers. Then came the ultimate catastrophe, the founding of the state of Israel, and the blasphemy of the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.

Bin Laden’s solution to this state of affairs: The elimination of Israel; the expulsion of Americans from Muslim soil, and the reestablishment of the Caliphate – uniting the Arab world under Islamic law.

“He thinks of himself as the new caliph. He takes leadership of the whole Muslim world in one fell swoop. The megalomania of the guy is extraordinary,” Juergensmeyer said.

The new Caliphate would do away with all things American and Jewish – the main conspirators in globalization and Westernization, in bin Laden’s view.

“It is a movement of anti-globalization with its own global vision. In an eerie way, Al Qaeda is fighting the war of 21st century,” Juergensmeyer said. “It’s a classic confrontation between the enlightened, secular world and religious life in the Arab world. This is exponentially expanded, because not only are we dealing with the clash of religious life and private life, but the cultural invasion of private life by the globalized world. It’s a fundamental issue of identity and selfhood.”

‘Performance violence’

"The act is meant for its own sake, to be seen."

In his research, Juergensmeyer examined recurrent patterns among various terrorist acts – from Hamas suicide bombings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, to the 1995 chemical attack in the Tokyo subway.

“All of these attacks had no direct military purpose, but were very dramatic in character,” Juergensmeyer said. “The act is meant for its own sake, to be seen – to show a government’s vulnerability and the possibility of some kind of transformation. It’s almost performance art, an act, conceptual theater designed to draw us into their world view. They act; they perform to what they perceive is a sympathetic audience.”

In this sense, the attack on the World Trade Center was not meant for Americans, but a display for all Muslims to see.

“Osama Bin Laden does not care what Americans think, but he cares a lot about what Muslims think. So for him to be seen as the power broker — giving the Americans a black eye — this gives him tremendous credibility and sympathy within Muslim world,” Juergensmeyer said.

Juergensmeyer said the best way to respond to bin Laden and other terrorists is to find a way to remove the sympathy of their audience. “If their audience comes to view these acts as counterproductive, their basis of support would dry up quickly,” Juergensmeyer said.

Equivalency and relativism

There is no easier way to elicit mass cancellations of newspaper subscriptions than to cop a relativist attitude, i.e., “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Controversy over the Reuters’ news agency policy after Sept. 11 highlighted this point.

Nevertheless, Juergensmeyer challenges journalists to consider the language they use carefully, particularly the word “terrorist.”

“The problem with this term is that it lumps together all of these different actors in an undifferentiated way. I don’t use the term, not because I want to be nice to terrorists, but it doesn’t help us understand who these people are and why they do what they do,” he said.

“It also fails to distinguish between acts committed between paramilitary groups and acts carried out by lone individuals that perceive themselves as soldiers in an invisible army,” he said.

Further reading
Breivik believed he was 'at war'

The lawyer for Norwegian terrorism suspect Anders Behring Breivik said the man who takes credit for killing up to 76 people "believes he is in a war."

Inside the Global Jihad

More on bin Laden and suicide bombing, as expounded upon by Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations.

A ‘moody’ God

Author Robert Wright correlates scriptural anger with political violence.

What is the West’s Problem with Islam?

Author Christopher Caldwell takes on the "clash of civilizations."