Divining the Conflicts

Terror in the Mind of Godby Mark JuergensmeyerUniv.of California Press. 316p $27.50

There was a time, not long ago, when neither religion nor politics was discussed in polite company. These emotionally charged topics were taboo. Today, when people actually have time to take dinner together and linger long enough for real conversation, talk of politics and religion may often be overheard. But the topics are no less explosive today than in the days when etiquette banned them from polite company.

Even in educated company, the connection between religion and violence is marked by prejudice and exaggeration on the one side, and by denial and wishful thinking on the other. Apologists for secularism, for example, intent on indicting religion, sometimes speak as if the Inquisition had done more harm than 20th-century totalitarianism. By contrast, many believers, influenced by figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., regard religious violence as strictly aberrant behavior. They believe nonviolence to be the norm for all true religions.


Finding and stating the truth, therefore, about the interaction of religion, violence and peacemaking is exceedingly difficult. Is the conflict in Northern Ireland a religious one, or is it essentially a class and ethnic struggle? Were the recent Balkan wars ethno-religious or ethno-nationalist conflicts? Does a religious past make a contemporary struggle among nonbelieving and unchurched belligerents a religious conflict? Is Zionism a secular or religious ideology? Are Timothy McVeigh’s loose associations with white supremacist doctrines and churches sufficient to describe him as a religious terrorist?

It is into this minefield that Mark Juergensmeyer and Scott Appleby walk. Juergensmeyer (professor of sociology and director of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara) is a longtime student of South Asian religion and has authored or edited three previous books on religion and violence. Terror in the Mind of God results from more than a decade of interviews and studies of religiously motivated terrorists.

His subjects include the American anti-abortion extremists Paul Hill and Michael Bray, convicted World Trade Center conspirator Mahmud Abouhalima and Hamas’s political chief Abdul Aziz Rantizi, Zionist Yoel Lerner, J.D.L. and Kach party founder Meir Kahane, and Hebron mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, along with radical Sikhs from Punjab and cult members from Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo.

By contrast, Scott Appleby (a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies) is interested more broadly in movements, organizations and political conflicts. Prepared as a study for the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, his book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, deals not only with the confluence of religion with violence, but equally with the role of religion in conflict resolution, reconciliation and conflict transformation.

How do religion and violence come to be linked? Terror in the Mind of God offers an explanation by way of a psychosocial analysis of the religious terrorist. According to Juergensmeyer, the terrorist’s attraction to violence begins in the imagery of cosmic war found in most religions.

The projection of a cosmic war permits the rules of everyday morality to be overridden for the sake of an ultimate cause. Notions of cosmic warfare also permit treating all those who do not belong to the inner circle of the committed, even moderate co-religionists, as enemies. To turn the believer with an apocalyptic vision into a committed terrorist, however, an additional set of psychosocial conditions must come into play.

Belief in the apocalyptic vision, Juergensmeyer argues, is itself a response to a crisis of legitimacy. Authority figures are either unable or unwilling to deal with problems that threaten the identity of the potential terrorist: preventing abortion; securing respect and social-economic gains for Northern Irish Catholics; restoring a Palestinian homeland; reclaiming the whole of Eretz Israel for the Jewish people.

In addition, the religious terrorist is usually socially marginal: young, jobless, unmarried, sometimes with military experience. A young male, he has experienced repeated humiliation, either as a result of a social situation or because of authorities’ inability to improve it. More important, he sees no way out.

Such individuals are ready recruits for the I.R.A., Hamas or the J.D.L. Or, in the case of lone wolves, like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Robert Rudolph, they are capable of perpetrating terrorist acts on their own, confident of the sympathy of fringe religious groups.

Juergensmeyer goes far in helping the reader penetrate the mind of the religious terrorist. One of his most interesting interlocutors is Mahmud Abouhalima, the convicted World Trade Center co-conspirator. Abouhalima, in a surprising move, turns the tables on Juergensmeyer, and his intellectual jujitsu is not a cheap jailhouse trick. Critical of the bland tolerance of American society, he berates Juergensmeyer and the average American churchgoer for being neither hot nor cold. He knew what people like me lacked, writes the author. [T]he soul of religion,’ he said, that’s what is missing.’

Juergensmeyer accepts the truth in the Muslim’s analysis. I interpreted what Abouhalima advocated to be not just religious doctrine, or even a born-again’ religious conversion, but a longing for vitality and meaning in life. What he wanted was a tough, grounded existence, not one simply floating toward a pointless death. I agreed with Abouhalima that religion at its best helps give people that sense of purpose.

Ironically, while Juergensmeyer focuses the spotlight on terrorism, he and his terrorist subjects draw our attention away from the light into the shadows, where other moral monsters lurk in the form of a soulless secularism and undemanding religion.

To this reader’s dismay, the pervasiveness of secular agenda is revealed in the otherwise instructive second part of Ambivalence of the Sacred. There Scott Appleby looks at the positive role of religion in the transformation of conflict. He puts special emphasis on the pursuit of human rights as a promising means to insure future peace against sectarian violence. This portion of the book is also truer to the constructive role of organized religion in peacemaking than earlier sections, with one exception. Repeatedly Appleby talks about a progressive human rights agenda and progressive rights and church groups. Could it be that he is unaware that the progressive agenda is a tacit consensus among secular activists? Religious efforts at peacemaking only make the grade, it would appear, when they imitate their secular counterparts or when they stand before them in judgment.

Though Appleby is extremely knowledgeable about movements, conflicts and personalities, I have serious questions about his method. Two points are worth citing. The first is an unnuanced definition of religious militants. The second issue is the grounding of religion’s ambivalence toward violence in the experience of the holy.

In a move he shares with Juergensmeyer (though Juergensmeyer is less adamant about it), Appleby does not distinguish between militants and other activists. The peacemaker or human rights activist is a militant just like the terrorist. Any distinction between militants (or extremists)who are committed to the use of violenceand other religious activistswho refrain from violence as they campaign for their causeis blurred.

Furthermore, Appleby’s standard for determining who are religious militants is highly flexible. religious describes any militant who claims a religious motive, no matter how casually, or anyone to whom such a motive can be ascribed. For example, to characterize unchurched Serb soldiers with only a few inherited talismans of Orthodox identity as religious actors in religious wars is a questionable blurring of boundaries that requires cautious treatment, a posture Appleby energetically resists.

If one insists on broad categorization of religious conflict, then, a typology of religious militantsor perhaps a sliding scale of militancywould help make the needed distinctions, but Appleby offers none.

To support casting such a wide net to embrace every kind and degree of religious militant, Appleby appeals to Rudolf Otto’s idea of the Holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The repulsion and attraction of the holy are the basis, he proposes, for religion’s destructive power and its efficacy for peace. But the awe the religious person experiences before the divine is not primarily experienced as a threat to others, as Appleby implies. Rather, it is felt as a threat to the mystic’s own ego, including what Reinhold Niebuhr would call the ego’s pretensions to power.

Although he argues for an inclusive list of religious actors, Appleby is inclined to disregard organized religion as a force in peacemaking in preference for small informal or para-religious groups. No doubt, some of these groups, like the Community of San Egidio or Corrymeela, have done significant work, but so too have formal religious organizations and their leaders.

For example, Carole Dagher in her newly released Bring Down the Walls (Saint Martin’s) credits the Synod for Lebanon and the Holy Father’s 1996 visit to that country as having decisive influence on post-conflict peace-building in that country. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a notable contribution to a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. During the early 90’s, to take another example, more than 30 Catholic bishops served as national or regional conciliators in protracted civil conflicts in the third world. The list goes on.

Institutionally the Catholic justice and peace and human rights commissionslike the Vicariate for Solidarity in Chile, Tutela Legal in El Salvador, and the Archdiocesan Human Rights Commission in Guatemala City, of which Appleby takes brief notewere also a key factor for peacemaking in many conflicted societies. They often served as primary sources for the better known, international rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. To overlook or pass lightly over these contributions of institutional religion in a vast, detailed study reveals a disappointing lack of perspective.

Ambivalence of the Sacred, however, contains rich veins of information about the complex relationship of religion, violence and peacemaking. It provides dozens of detailed portraits of personalities and religious movements that put faces on anonymous groups like Hamas. It also introduces others, especially from South Asia, like the Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda and the Buddhist tradition of conflict resolution, which are little known in the West. Appleby’s account of the initiation of a Hamas suicide-bomber, his revelations about the priest chaplains to the I.R.A. and his reporting on the work of Mennonite peacemaker John Paul Lederach are among the many portraits this reader will long remember.

But when it comes to theoretical integration of the material and interpretation of specific conflicts, Ambivalence falls short. Even if I had had less direct acquaintance with some of these personalities, movements and events, I would have found the book an uncertain guide.

Is there some way to inhibit religion’s penchant for violence and harness its potential for peace? Can we recover or invent a 21st-century version of what William James called the moral equivalent of war? Appleby offers possible outlets in conflict transformation work and in human rights advocacy. Juergensmeyer speculates that a resolution depends, in part, on secular society providing public space for religion. He writes: [R]eligious violence cannot end until some accommodation is reached between...some assertion of moderation of religious passion, and some acknowledgment of religion in elevating the spiritual and moral values of public life. In a curious way, the cure for religious violence may ultimately lie in a renewed appreciation for religion itself.

For my part, I wonder whether the public can reach such a utopian state without first understanding the pathologies of secularism. Can resolution be had without learning to diagnose the moral disabilities that ensue from an undiscerning tolerance and without refining our commitment to pluralism? Can moderate believers contribute to such a resolution without facing and overcoming their own passivity? Can the advocates of easy compromise stand fast when they confront close up the moral sacrifices they would ask others to make?

It is a testimony to the importance of the topics and the quality of Juergensmeyer’s exposition that he leaves the reader with such penetrating questions. Both books provide a point of departure for an even more intense engagement between religion, politics and social science for what promises to be three great dramas of the 21st century: religious violence, religious peacemaking and the renewed interaction between religion and secularism.

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