This is the second of a two-part post. Please read yesterday’s post before continuing.
Most of the terrorists we have met in North America and Europe are not deeply religious. Even among those terrorists affiliated with groups expressing religious motivation, the personal linkages with religion are usually tenuous especially prior to joining the groups.
But wherever else the center of gravity, there is often a religious dimension to terrorism. Religion can play a supportive role to nationalist or ethnic or criminal or other aspirations. And whenever the religious dimension is effectively invoked it lends particular virulence to the pursuit of extra-religious goals.
In his March Call to Jihad Anwar al-Awlaki, explained, “Victory is on our side because there is a difference between us and you. We are fighting for a noble cause. We are fighting for God and you are fighting for worldly gain. We are fighting for justice because we are defending ourselves and our families and you are fighting for imperialistic goals. We are fighting for truth and justice and you are fighting for oppression.”
According to US authorities these and similar arguments were effective in recruiting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Underwear Bomber), Nidal Hasan (Ft. Hood Shooter), and Faisal Shazad (fizzled Times Square bomber). Wednesday two new arrests were made of terror suspects claiming to be inspired by al-Awlaki. Those we have already met share a largely secular, educated, and comparatively affluent background. But they found religious — or at least pseudo-religious — purpose.
In the Age of Sacred Terror Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon generalize regarding terrorists who assert a Muslim identity, “Whether the individual has a buried religious sensibility that is reasserting itself, or has no religious background and is searching for stability and identity in an unwelcoming universe… the perception of past corruption is real. The remedy is to fight the Seducer and sacrifice his people to propitiate an affronted God.”
The sacrifice of others to propitiate God is heretical in Islam. Allah is beyond such paltry needs, self-sufficient, and merciful. But there is an ancient impulse that leads some of us — regardless of theology — to see in the sacrifice of an other atonement for our own failure. Extending this logic, to martyr ourselves should be even more pleasing to the old god buried in the collective unconscious.
For what is jihad — or for that matter, what is agape — but a self-sacrificing love by which we can become our best selves?
Last week a think-tank’s policy paper encouraged the United States to more fully engage the ideological struggle within Islam.
The competition is between a modern, predominantly pluralistic view of the world and an exclusionary, harsh, and equally modern ideology that appeals to a glorious past, places aspects of religious identity above all others, and relies on a distorted interpretation of Islam. Ironically, the ideology, as articulated by either Sunni or Shiite radicals, has little to do with traditional piety and is perceived as religiously unsound by the majority of Muslims, who have been its primary victims. The conflict between these two visions constitutes a struggle for the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims, who abhor violence, but who—out of sympathy, apathy, or fear—will not or cannot confront the extremists in their communities. Any strategy, therefore, that does not skillfully contest the claims and actions of radical extremism cannot succeed. (Fighting the Ideological Battle)
The claims being made are not just ideological, they are also religious. If we fail to recognize the religious dimension — no matter how inaccurate, cynically manipulated, or heretical — we will mistake how we might effectively contest these claims, and — perhaps more important — mis-judge the potential influence of the United States regarding the entire issue.
I am a religious person. I am not, however, wholehearted. In attempting to negotiate between secular expectations and my religious understanding I am often left unhappy, especially with myself. For the devout Muslim, sincerity (ikhlas in Arabic) is a similar challenge. It is a struggle to reconcile what we believe with what we do.
For both religious and non-religious people the uprooted character of modernity — and the anemic relationships that derive from this character — can cause profound dissatisfaction. Percolating below the surface of banal daily activity the dissatisfaction feeds a growing sense of alienation. If a person is inclined to carefully consider their situation the result can be an ontological crisis and an existential panic. Reality is suspect and life meaningless.
Religion, worthy of the name, addresses these deficiencies by pointing the way to a ground of being which, in the words of Paul Tillich, answers the ontological threat of non-being. Once an individual is invested in this alternative reality, there are issues which can only be addressed from this ground of being.
As set out yesterday, my stance on immigration — for better or worse — has become for me a religious issue. No reasoned consideration of policy and strategy trade-offs will move me. If you seek to shift my judgment and behavior in regard to immigration you must also address fundamental issues of how I am in relationship with God and neighbor. Anything short of this will allow me to dismiss your argument and — in my most prideful and sinful moments — dismiss you. In choosing to dismiss you I take a first-step on the path of hubris that can lead to denying our shared humanity. This is the self-serving sin of the terrorist.
Osama bin-Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and others are peddling a pseudo-religion that has mischaracterized the ground of being and the sources of reconciliation to be found in our relationship with that ground of being. They are especially adept at deploying pride to twist and warp their followers experience of the ground of being.
We will not reclaim those who have been mis-led unless we are able to engage the ontological and existential issues that have been manipulated for evil purpose. This is a particular challenge for children of the Enlightenment. Profound progress has emerged from three centuries of dividing reality into smaller and smaller bits: separating church from state, separation of powers within the state, distinguishing each chemical element from another, imposing taxonomies that differentiate each from all, increasing specialization in education and in most aspects of living. But many of us — perhaps most of us — seek to be more than the sum of such sundry parts.
If the only modern answer is to separate good from bad and eliminate the bad — if being imprisoned or invaded or assassinated by a drone are our only therapies for mis-directed ontological crisis — we will find ourselves trapped in tragic absurdity and mutual murder.
I am reminded of Zeno’s paradox. The allegories and dialectics of Zeno aimed to demonstrate we all share the same ontological ground of being. There is a desperate need to find new ways to advance Zeno’s insight. In my own case, the most potent restraint on my proto-terrorist tendency is the paradoxical teaching of my faith: In the face of my enemy (selected by me or self-proclaimed by them) I am to see the face of Christ.
For further consideration:
The roots of violent Islamic extremism and efforts to counter it (Quilliam Foundation)
Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism (Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadr)
Mind over Martyr: How to Deradicalize Islamist Extremists (Jessica Stern)
Deradicalization: A Review of the Literaure (Institute for Homeland Security Solutions)