War, Sex & God: Religious Terrorism in the Mind of Mark Juergensmeyer

Article excerpt

War, Sex & God: Religious Terrorism in the Mind of Mark Juergensmeyer

Roger Friedland

Roger Friedland teaches in the departments of religious studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara.

Religious terrorism, an ancient practice, is back. Until recently, in the good old days of the Cold War, populist carnage was orchestrated on behalf of the people, the nation, the proletariat, but not God. In Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 2000), Mark Juergensmeyer explores the mindset of a startlingly diverse array of those men--and they are men--who conduct political killings because they believe they can read the mind of God. Over the last decade, tracking his subjects into high-security prisons and into sites under heavy surveillance, Juergensmeyer has interviewed figures like Michael Bray, the American abortion clinic bomber; Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder and leader of Kach; Sheik Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual head of Hamas; and Mahmud Abouhalima, an Islamic radical implicated in the World Trade Center explosion. From Ireland to India, from Israel and Palestine to the United States and Japan, Juergensmeyer takes us into the minds and movements that create such carnage. For this alone, for probing the particular maneuvers and understandings of what these religious terrorists were doing, the book is well worth reading.

We tend to view the religious nationalist project as a retreat from modernity. The Enlightenment philosophers, who set us on modernity's path, made the separation of state authority from religion an essential condition for freedom. In place of religion, the person and the polity would now assume sacred status in the modern Western world. Nationalism would don the trappings of a religion, while religion was to set up shop in the interior of the believer's soul. Religion, whose transcendence and absoluteness used to bolster the rule of state, to set states into conquest and war, and to establish the ethical habits conditioning the accumulation of productive wealth, was sequestered within the walls of the family, made safe and platitudinous. Juergensmeyer argues that the desacralization of the modern state has gone hand in hand with the return of religion as a political force, as those who seek an alternate order on which to ground state authority return to religious nationalism. Religious terrorism is only the most extreme form of this general movement, this reclaiming of religion's inherent political powers, its final judgments. Juergensmeyer insists that we must understand religious terrorism as theater, as cosmic war, and as homosocial ritual.

Terror as Theater

Juergensmeyer argues that religious terrorism is not primarily an instrument to transform government policy, normal politics by abnormal means, as much as it is a ritual drama designed to be noticed, typically targeted at symbolically charged sites--the World Trade Center, the United Nations building, Hebron's Ibrahimiyah mosque, the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Tokyo's Kasumigaseki subway stations in the government area, the Indian government's secretariat in the Punjab capital, Chandigarh. These outrages are also timed to sacred days in religious ritual and/or political calendars--McVeigh, for example, struck in Oklahoma on the day the American Revolution began, which was not only the same day the Branch Davidian compound was burned to the ground but the day the Nazis moved to wipe out the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Goldstein struck on Purim, when Esther countered Haman's plot to destroy the Jewish community. Religious terrorism is a demonstration, a drama designed to show that the state does not hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Juergensmeyer writes: "When we who observe these acts take them seriously--and are disgusted and repelled by them, and begin to distrust the peacefulness of the world around us--the purposes of this theater are achieved. …