Terrorism and religion

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Jessica Stern's book on religion-based terrorism is essential reading for those battling with the scourge.

VIOLENCE inspired by religious bigotry is not a new phenomenon. Students of history will recall the atrocities committed by the Zealots-Sicarti and the Assassins many centuries ago. The hatred for anything that was non-Islamic that brought about September 11 was, therefore, not unique. Nevertheless, it was a class by itself for the choice of its soft targets. It was immaterial even if some innocent Muslims were killed in the process, as long as anti-Islamic forces were taught a lesson. The driving desire was to show to the rest of the world that America was anti-Islam in every way, and not merely in its support for Israel. The materialism that that country showcased was inimical to Islam and, it had somehow to be given a death blow. How else would you explain the madness of Osama bin Laden, who himself was born into an affluent Saudi family?

Plumbing the depths of a mind that empathises with terrorism seems a fascinating exercise. This explains the growing literature exploring the mind of the modern terrorist. Interestingly, the same spirit of adventure and zeal displayed by members of terrorist organisations has been displayed by a few scholars to produce some outstanding writing on terrorism. Not only do the two share the motivation to attain their objective, but are also willing to take risks in the process.

The latest addition to this line of distinguished researchers is Jessica Stern of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Her just-released book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (HarperCollins, 2003), is a remarkable work of scholarship with an unbelievable international sweep.

Jessica is an unusual woman. I had the privilege of getting to know her during my short tenure at Harvard. Those were the sad yet exciting days after 9/11. The implications of the historic happening had not yet sunk into many in the U.S. Jessica teaches structured courses on terrorism at the Kennedy School. The courses are quite a draw. She has already made her mark by her extremely analytical treatise, "The Ultimate Terrorist".

Naturally, in the days following the fall of the twin towers, Jessica was in great demand. The enormity of the attack and the incredible manner in which the assault took place confused every American. The average American citizen needed somebody to interpret authoritatively the brutality in as simple a manner as possible. Jessica filled the bill admirably. She had to literally go into hiding from the media. I pursued her doggedly and managed a brief interview for Frontline. Ever since it has been a friendship that I value most. Her interest in Asia is abiding and her knowledge of men and matters, especially in the Indian subcontinent, is something that any scholar can be proud of. More than anything else, she stands out for her courage in this relentless search for truth. Would you believe that she went to the extent of seeking meetings with some of the deadliest people with whom many of us would shudder to even indulge in a telephonic conversation? She took the same risks as Daniel Pearl of Wall Street Journal, before he was killed by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and its associates.

Her encounters with some militant leaders and their followers were no doubt under controlled conditions, almost always set up by friends or official contacts. It was a time when the real risks of the game - evaluating the terrorist psyche - were not clearly known. Even then, for a Western woman, especially a Jew, to venture into hideouts of terrorists and ferret out information demanded real courage - bordering on insanity.

Like many others who write on the subject, Jessica subscribes to the theory that terrorists who commit atrocities in the name of religion bear many grievances against a variety of institutions, including the United Nations. Apart from feeling that the West was trying to dominate the Muslim world, terrorist leaders such as Ayman Zawahari, bin Laden's principal lieutenant, believed that the rest of the world was ganging up against Islam and its followers. If this is not paranoia at its worst, what else is it? In Jessica's view this perception actually masks "a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear. Fear of a godless universe, of chaos, of loose rules, and of loneliness... .." An obviously correct appraisal of the Islamic terrorist's psyche, one that is in tune with whatever has been happening around us. If it is not "angst", what else could have led to attacks like the ones we saw in Nairobi, Dar-e-Salaam, Mombasa, Bali and the blasts in Mumbai, both in 1993 and 2003? The November 9 explosion in Riyadh is the latest act of desperation packed with callousness and anger directed against those considered as a threat to Islam. If, incidentally, those who are unwavering in their loyalty to Islam are also hurt, it is their misfortune in having been at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is as simple as that. Terrorists shed no tears; nor do they feel any compunction if their own brethren also fall victim to terrorism.

BRUCE Hoffman of Rand Corporation once said (Inside Terrorism, 1998) that the religious terrorist was much more dangerous to the civilised world than his secular counterpart. This was because he was more likely to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as a tool to reach his objective. The 9/11 attack may not technically have been perpetrated with the help of WMD. It came close to it if one reckons the fact that the unique missile of a whole aircraft was no less destructive than a WMD. In any case, this ruthlessness of the terrorist who proclaims he is acting on behalf of his religion was the factor that influenced Jessica to take up her study.

Jessica's investigation covered a wide spectrum of organisations. In her view it was not as if Islam alone promoted lunacy of the kind projected by bin Laden. Fear and a sense of alienation (which is one of the major grievances of terrorists) deflected the course of other religions as well. This is why she begins her account with an American Christian organisation, The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm (CSA) of the Lord, which operated in the early 1980s from a 240-acre compound in rural Arkansas. Its members believed that the sacred land of America had somehow to be salvaged from the sinners who were God's enemies. The cult not only acquired weapons and created paramilitary forces, but also planned to poison those who lived in major cities. It made one unsuccessful attempt to blow up a gas pipeline. Interestingly, one of the buildings targeted for attack was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma that became the target of Timothy McVeigh, a White supremacist, one decade later. When federal and state forces walked into the CSA compound on April 19, 1985, they found a large cache of arms, including hand grenades and machine guns. Several cult members were arrested and imprisoned. A few have served out their terms. Jessica spoke to one of them, Kerry Noble, designated the "God-anointed elder". Kerry was repentant and said that he joined the outfit only because, as Jessica puts it, he "listened to God, and God encouraged him to stay with the cult even if it became violent". Jessica was amazed that a mild-mannered Pastor like Kerry could get converted so easily into a "soldier" for the cause of a religion that was considered to be in `danger' from sinners. Possibly the power of spin doctors, who lead many terrorist outfits, is difficult to estimate.

THE Hamas and violence are nearly synonymous. Jessica's enquiries naturally take her right into the Gaza Strip in the summer of 1999 after a brief visit to Jordan's largest prison, Swaga where, disappointingly, no terrorists, especially of the Hamas variety that she was so keen to meet, were being held. Her doggedness brings her face to face with Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader with a Colorado University degree in engineering. Shanab was in the political wing of Hamas after leaving the military wing, where his activities had earned him prison term.

Shanab was quite forthcoming in describing the Hamas' mechanics of recruiting. What he tells Jessica is amusing: "... .those who use knives tend to have nervous personalities. The person who uses a gun is well trained. The person who explodes a bomb does not need a lot of training - he just needs to have a moment of courage." The Hamas looks out for such precious commodity, and whoever displays such courage is picked up and trained. Shanab pulls no punches when he boasts to the American visitor: "Islam says an eye for an eye. We believe in retaliation. When someone is killed in jihad it is a joyful day."

When Jessica quizzes a Palestinian General as to how suicide bombing had become so appealing, the latter admits to indoctrination. Every recruit is made to believe that death in jehad assures him a place in paradise. More than that, the social esteem of his family goes up heaven high! Interestingly, a suicide bomber is taken away from his house 48 hours before the operation so that he does not change his mind. An Israeli official, who is an authority on suicide terrorism, told Jessica that, while the Holy `Quran' forbade a person from taking his own life, what the Palestinian youth indulge in are not suicides but are considered acts of martyrdom (istishad). An unassailable logic that captivates the young Palestinians confronted with violence and poverty. Many families receive a handsome grant after losing their young ones in action for the cause of Islam. Does this not explain the lure of submitting oneself to martyrdom?

WHEN I met her in Harvard, Jessica was ecstatically looking forward to visiting Pakistan in the context of 9/11, Afghanistan and the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. I am happy that she went on this dream trip - sponsored by Harvard University's Centre for Public Leadership to study the mystique that is attached to terrorist leadership because the part of her book that deals with her experiences in Pakistan is most absorbing. It is also of special interest to Indian readers. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), apart from asking her to deliver a talk to its officers, extended her all possible courtesies that included help to set up meetings with those who are a pain in our neck in Kashmir.

Fazlur Rahman Khalil of the HUM tells Jessica in Islamabad, with a straight face, that he has no relationship with the ISI. (HUM was involved in the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight to Khandahar in December 1999 and many of its members had been trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan.) Khalil goes on to say: "The ISI has no involvement in Afghanistan or in Kashmir. America should not be afraid to talk to us. We are not terrorists. If being a Muslim means I'm a terrorist, then I'm proud to be a terrorist." Jessica is too shrewd not to detect falsehood, particularly when it is dished out in tonnes! But she definitely enjoyed this and many other conversations while being taken around Pakistan.

Much more fascinating was the opportunity to visit a number of madrassas, including Haqqania, the largest in the country. We know of the indoctrination that goes on in such schools. Asked what he wanted to do in life, a 12-year-old student at Haqqania tells Jessica that he would like to be a mujahid so that the could kill all the non-Muslims who were opposing Muslims. Now, don't you know where terrorists come from?

I am possibly biased because I already know Jessica and know her to be brilliant with an amazing passion for exploring the terrorist ethos. I would commend her book for a variety of reasons. It is informative and authentic like no book on the subject has been in the recent past. She does not make value judgments. She is clinical to the core trying to read minds, minds which many of us would consider sick. She writes in lucid prose, laced with humour that carries a distinctive flavour. What she conveys could interest not only policy-makers in Delhi, but also policemen all over the country who are becoming weary battling the scourge of terrorism.

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