Thursday, September 09, 2004

Holy Terror

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergensmeyer is a book that should be read by everyone. Published in 2000 it misses the 9/11 tragedy but looks at the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center (the edition I linked to was revised in 2003. My copy is from the public library). Juergensmeyer also discusses Timothy McVeigh, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo that released sarin gas on the subway, Christian Identity, Palestine, Israel, Indian Sikhs, and Osama bin Laden. He uses these specific cases as a place from which to exam how and why such radical world views are created in the first place, what the goals of such views are and ways in which religious violence can be curtailed. The book is fascinating. When I began reading it I found myself laughing at the radical religious beliefs. What nuts! What kooks! How could they possibly believe such a thing? But it slowly sunk in that because I and other moderate individuals were part of the problem. It is so easy to not take fundamentalists seriously. By not taking them seriously we endanger ourselves. So when I stopped thinking they were all crazy I got scared. These people aren't loose cannons, they are serious, thoughtful, deliberate individuals and groups who are committed to their world views and will do whatever it takes to achieve them. While religions stress the peaceful aspect of their views, Juergensmeyer finds that all religions sanction violence when needed. Radical groups hold a world view that they are at war. It is a cosmic war being fought on this earth, good against evil and they are the soldiers of God. "One of the reasons a state of war is preferable," according to Juergensmeyer, "is that it gives moral justification to acts of violence."

The idea of warfare implies more than an attitude; ultimately it is a world view and an assertion of power. To live in a state of war is to live in a world in which individuals know who they are, why they have suffered, by whose hand they have been humiliated, and at what expense they have persevered. The concept of war provides cosmology, history, and eschatology and offers the reins of political control. Perhaps most important, it holds out the hope of victory and the means to achieve it. In images of cosmic was this victorious triumph is a grand moment of social and personal transformation, transcending all worldly limitations. One does not easily abandon such expectations. To be without such images of war is almost to be without hope itself.
Because of the religious concept of a cosmic war, the outcome must be absolute, there is no compromise or peace treaty to be made. As Juergensmeyer says, "A satanic enemy cannot be transformed; it can only be destroyed." There is much to be mulled over in this book. I feel as though I have a better understanding of religious terrorism, but it seems as though this book has just begun to delve into what the issues are and I haven't even mentioned half of what Juergensmeyer writes about. I need to do some more thinking about it. There is a long bibliography in the back of the book which I have not yet perused. I'm sure I will be adding a book or two to my reading list.