Holy Orders: Opposition to Modern States

By Juergensmeyer, Mark | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Holy Orders: Opposition to Modern States


Juergensmeyer, Mark, Harvard International Review


No one who watched in horror as the towers of the World Trade Center crumbled into dust on September 11,2001, could doubt that the real target of the terrorist assault was US global power. Those involved in similar attacks and in similar groups have said much. Mahmood Abouhalima, one of the Al Qaeda-linked activists convicted for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, told me in a prison interview that buildings such as these were chosen to dramatically demonstrate that "the government is the enemy."

While the US government and its allies have been frequent targets of recent terrorist acts, religious leaders and groups are seldom targeted. An anomaly in this regard was the assault on the Shi'a shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf on August 29, 2003, which "killed more than 80 people including the venerable Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim. The Al Qaeda activists who allegedly perpetrated this act were likely more incensed over the Ayatollah's implicit support for the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council than they were jealous of his popularity with Shi'a Muslims. Since the United Nations has also indirectly supported the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, it too has been subject to Osama bin Laden's rage. This may well be the reason why the UN office in Baghdad was the target of the devastating assault on August 19, 2003, which killed the distinguished UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Despite the seeming diversity of the targets, the object of most recent acts of religious terror is an old foe of religion: the secular state.

Secular governments have been the objects of terrorism in virtually every religious tradition--not just Islam. A Christian terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building on April 19, 1995. A Jewish activist, Yigal Amir, assassinated Israel's Prime Minister Yitzbak Rabin. A Buddhist follower, Shoko Asahara, orchestrated the nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo subways near the Japanese parliament buildings. Hindu and Sikh militants have targeted government offices and political leaders in India. In addition to government offices and leaders, symbols of decadent secular life have also been targets of religious terror. In August 2003, the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, frequented by Westerners and Westernized Indonesians, was struck by a car bomb. The event resembled the December 2002 attacks on Bali nightclubs, whose main patrons were college-age Australians. In the United States, abortion clinics and gay bars have been targeted. The 2003 bombings in Morocco were aimed at clubs popular with tourists from Spain, Belgium, and Israel. Two questions arise regarding this spate of vicious religious assaults on secular government and secular life around the world. Why is religion the basis for opposition to the state? And why is this happening now?

Why Religion?

Religious activists are puzzling anomalies in the secular world. Most religious people and their organizations either firmly support the secular state or quiescently tolerate it. Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, like most of the new religious activist groups, is a small group at the extreme end of a hostile subculture that is itself a small minority within the larger Muslim world. Bin Laden is no more representative of Islam than McVeigh is of Christianity or Asahara of Buddhism.

Still, it is undeniable that the ideals of activists like bin Laden are authentically and thoroughly religious. Moreover, even though their network consists of only a few thousand members, they have enjoyed an increase in popularity in the Muslim world after September 11, 2001, especially after the US-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The authority of religion has given bin Laden's cadres the moral legitimacy to employ violence in assaulting symbols of global economic and political power. Religion has also provided them the metaphor of cosmic war, an image of spiritual struggle that every religion contains within its repository of symbols, seen as the fight between good and bad, truth and evil. …

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