Disciples of religious terrorism share one faith

The author gained entry into the world's various extremist groups

"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

But some zealous members of the faith (almost any faith) feel compelled to pursue vengeance for Him. While there are millions who think that "holy war" is an oxymoronic blasphemy, others see it as a sacred duty. Seeking martyrdom, they often become cannon fodder in the battles against perceived infidels.

In a significant addition to a growing shelf of timely books on terrorism, Jessica Stern's "Terror in the Name of God" examines the latest manifestations of murderous campaigns by true believers - fanatical Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Eager to comprehend evil from the inside, Stern sought and often obtained entree into the inner sanctums of a number of terrorist organizations in the United States as well as in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan. She met with those who fervently believe in the necessity of violent action to achieve goals, and her quest proved revelatory.

In interviews with holy warriors from very different religious communities, she discovered common themes and expressions. She also sometimes found herself empathizing if not sympathizing with those who spoke passionately of their beliefs, their motives, and their tactics. These face-to-face meetings, while admittedly providing opportunities for the host/informants to use Stern as a publicist for their causes, were still worth it. They gave her a rare chance to get a sense of the personalities and politics of those who are so determined to purify the earth and save their followers from Satan.

The book is divided into two major sections: "The Grievances That Give Rise to Holy War" and "Holy War Organization." In the first part, the author takes us along on her extraordinary odyssey. In a succession of case studies, we meet and hear prominent figures and key players. Each chapter is labeled according to what Stern thought to be the principal grievances of those she interviewed, starting with the alienation of fundamentalist members of an American and Christian fellowship, the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, whose sworn enemies are "humanists, communists, socialists, Zionists and the United States' 'Zionist Occupied Government.' "

Next described is Hamas, the most violent faction in the ongoing intifada, whose members work relentlessly to address the humiliation of the Israeli occupation, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but throughout the land they feel is their birthright. The same piece of disputed turf is the home of Gush Emunim, Kach, and other modern-day Jewish groups whose grievances are said to be based on history.

The intrepid investigator also met with leading Muslim factions outside the Middle East, one in Indonesia, the country with the largest Islamic population in the world. There she spoke to jihadi opponents of those they call "Kafirs" (Jews, Christians, communists, and atheists) based in Ambon, capital of the Moluccas.

Last are protectors of or claimants to a particular territory, such as Kashmir. At the extremes are Hindu fanatics on one side; on the other, the mujahideen who belong to various groups, including Lashkar-i-Tayyaba (the Army of the Poor), a part of the International Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders, Osama bin Laden's umbrella organization.

While separating these cases by the nature of their grievances is a useful device, what's most striking are the similarities. Almost everyone Stern interviewed said they were doing God's will, defending the faithful against the lies and evil deeds of their enemies. Such testimonials, she suggests, "often mask a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear - fear of a godless universe, of chaos, of loose rules, and of loneliness." It may be that many are "projecting fears and inadequacies on the Other."

Stern also found abundant evidence to support the widely held assumption that lines between religious expression and political action are frequently blurred and are justified only by internalizing an ends-justify-the-means sensibility.

The second part of the book is less about motives and rationales and more on models of organization - ranging from "leaderless resistance" to "commander-cadre organizations" and "lone-wolf avengers." The author outlines how campaigns are mounted, financial support is garnered, weapons are obtained, soldiers of God are trained, and actions carried out.

The book ends with conclusions about why religious militants kill and some recommendations about what might be done to put an end to such behavior. Arguing that "the terrorism we are fighting is a seductive idea, not a military target," Stern returns to her theme of "risk factors," in an analysis that suggests the difficulty of stamping out religious hate and the exponential effects of modern communication in spreading the words of revelation and revenge.

Her judgments, based on her journey into the netherworld of some of the most dangerous people in the world, are sobering and alarming. Her solutions, given all she has learned, seem almost Pollyanna-ish by comparison: "We need to respond - not just with guns," she writes, "but by seeking to create confusion, conflict, and competition among terrorists and between terrorists and their sponsors and sympathizers. We should encourage the condemnation of extremist interpretations of religion by peace-loving practitioners."

Peter Rose, author of 'Guest Appearances and Other Travels in Time and Space' (Swallow Press), is editor of the forthcoming volume, 'The Dispossessed: An Anatomy of Exile.'

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