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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

1.0 – What is Religious Extremism?

Theological references and rhetoric are verbalised by world leaders and terrorists alike. George Bush, a born-again Christian, referenced his deep faith and the role it played in his political decision-making when in 2003 he claimed he was on a mission from God, saying, 'God would tell me, “George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.'[1]

These words echo Osama bin Laden’s declaration of his ‘compliance with God’s order’, and those of Yigal Amir, a young Jewish extremist, who reasoned that he too was ‘acting on orders from God’ when he assassinated Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin. However, President Bush’s words were not disregarded as the theological ramblings of a religious extremist in the same way  Amir and bin Laden’s words have been, but were accepted by his adherents as legitimate grounds on which to perpetrate violence.

Why does the same message of militant action in the name of faith lose its religious legitimacy when spoken by a ‘religious extremist’ rather than a recognized world leader? Religious terrorists claim to be driven by faith alone and employ religious language and symbolism to support their cause, so why is faith so often doubted as being the root cause of religious terrorism?

This is the first in a series of articles in which I will address the relationship between terrorism and the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and investigate whether religious faith is truly the key motivation behind ‘religiously-inspired’ terror, or whether desire for political, economic, or monetary gain (for example), is the catalyst for violence. The Abrahamic faiths are linked by several shared core beliefs, which provide a natural base for study and comparison: all three are monotheistic and God rests at the centre of each faith. All the religions strive for the realisation of a single and unified global community of believers, rather than a religion divided by territory, spiritual variations and politics. Lastly, (and this is not exclusive to major faith terrorist groups as cults often refer to some form of battle), religious extremists believe they are embroiled in a state of cosmic conflict, fighting a defensive position.

Religious extremism has become the principal model for terrorism in the modern era, and is a defining characteristic of ‘new’ terrorism. There is no universally-accepted definition of terrorism, but for the purpose of these articles, religious extremism refers to ‘a form of terrorism that claims be inspired by religious beliefs and seeks a religious objective’.[2] It is a type of ‘political violence motivated by an absolute belief that an otherworldly power has sanctioned – and commanded –terrorist violence for the greater glory of the faith. Acts that are committed in the name of the faith will be exonerated by the divine power and usually rewarded in an afterlife’.[3]

There are several characteristic that define religious terrorism. ‘For the religious terrorist, violence is first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty executed in divine response to some theological demand or imperative.’[4] Secondly, some form of dualism is usually espoused, and the notion of two sides in battle is one of the key reasons behind religious war. Good and evil are brought out in stark relief. This is a world vision shared by all religious militant groups of all faiths. Osama bin Laden proclaimed in his 1998 fatwa that the world is engaged in a cosmic struggle, and spoke in Manichean terms of a word divided in two – believers and infidels’ – and Christian militant Reverend Mike Bray described America as being in a state of hidden warfare, 'comparable to Nazi Germany'.  Even the syncretistic Buddhist-inspired movement Aum Shinrikyo described the world facing a state of global conflict comparable to a third world war.

Finally, religious terror is more violent and lethal than that of secular groups, for religion provides legitimization for violence committed in the name of God and absolves the perpetrator of blame as God’s will is divine and unquestionable.  The former leader of Hezbollah said:  ‘we are not fighting so that the enemy recognizes us and offers us something. We are fighting to wipe out the enemy’.

[2] Gillooly (2007), p. 15
[4] Hoffman (2006), p. 88
[5] Juergensmeyer (2003), p. 23

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