The Worldwide Rise of Religious Nationalism

By Juergensmeyer, Mark | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Worldwide Rise of Religious Nationalism


Juergensmeyer, Mark, Journal of International Affairs


"Palestine is not completely free," a leader of Hamas' policy wing remarked, "until it is an Islamic state."(1) The Hamas activist made this statement in Gaza only a few months before the January 1996 elections, an event that not only brought Yasir Arafat triumphantly into power but also fulfilled the Palestinian dream of an independent nation. Yet it was not the kind of nation that the Islamic activist and his colleagues had yearned to create. For that reason, they refused to run candidates for public office and urged their followers to boycott the polls. They threatened that the movement would continue to carry out "political actions," by which they meant terrorist attacks, such as the series of suicide bombings conducted by a militant faction that rocked Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel in February and March of 1996, jeopardizing the peace process and Arafat's fragile alliance.

On the Israeli side of the border, Jewish activists have also attacked the secular leadership of their nation, and again a virulent mixture of religion and politics has led to bloodshed. Yigal Amir, who was convicted of assassinating Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv on 4 November 1995, claimed that he had religious reasons for his actions, saying "everything I did, I did for the glory of God."(2) Amir has adamantly rejected attempts by his lawyers to assert that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. "I am at peace," he explained, insisting that he was "totally normal." His murder of Rabin, he argued, was deliberate and even praiseworthy under a certain reading of religious law that allows for a defense against those who would destroy the Jewish nation.(3)

A few weeks before the assassination, Jewish activists near Hebron indicated that they shared many of Amir's views. They were still grieving over the killing of Dr. Baruch Goldstein by an angry Muslim crowd in February 1995, after he murdered 35 Muslims as they were saying their prayers in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Goldstein's grave has now been made into a shrine. The militant Jews at the site explained that acts such as Dr. Goldstein's were necessary not only to protect the land but also to defend the very notion of a Jewish nation -- one that for reasons of redemption and history had to be established on biblical terrain. Religious duty required them to become involved politically and even militarily. "Jews," one of them said, "have to learn to worship in a national way."(4)

This potentially explosive mixture of nationalism and religion is an ingredient even in incidents that might appear initially to be isolated terrorist incidents: the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, for instance, or the 20 March 1995 nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway station. In the Oklahoma City case, the Christian militia movements with which accused bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols have been associated have adopted a certain conspiratorial view of American politics: The nation is not free, they reason, because of a vast international conspiracy involving Jews and Freemasons. They believe that it needs to be liberated through an armed struggle that will establish America as an independent and Christian nation.(5)

Strangely, the same conspiracy was articulated by members of Aum Shinrikyo (Om Supreme Truth), the eclectic Buddhist-Hindu religious movement in Japan that has been accused of unleashing cannisters of nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station, killing twelve people and injuring thousands. A young man who was a public affairs officer for the main Tokyo headquarters of the movement at the time said that the first thing that came to his mind when he heard about the attack was that the "weird time had come:" The Third World War was about to begin. He had been taught by his spiritual master, Shoko Asahara, that Armegeddon was imminent. …

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