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August 23, 2007


Tomas Salcedo

I believe that Stern does a very good job of articulating the reality of the circumstances surrounding the formation of religious extremist groups. I particularly applaud her inclusion of American right wing extremist groups and the intelligent comparison that she makes with international religious terrorist organization. The conjecture that religious fundamentalism is being exacerbated by modernity, and the plethora of choices available to individuals whose cultural paradigm does not predispose them to feeling comfortable with such choices, really does ring true. That being the case I believe one can say that our society is changing in ways that leave many feel as though the world is spiraling out of control, a concern ameliorated by the strictness and clarity of purpose of organizations such as Al Quaeda and the Taliban. Such organizations perhaps are the consequences of cultures that do not evolve with the institutions around them, or perhaps the imposition of societal evolution without regard for the flexibility of the recipient cultures. With that in mind it is rather apparent that this is not a trend that is on the decline. It is rather proliferating with rapid speed, as a result paradoxically of the very modernity that fuels it. With the advance in technology that has created vast networking capabilities, and greatly liberalized the flow of capital, the modernity that on the one hand causes the rage behind religious extremism also aids its destructive iteration in human society.

Thomas York

While Stern's analysis of the different forms of leadership and control in terrorist organizations displays an incredible wealth of research, her analysis of the motivations that drive these people to join terrorist organizations is incredibly powerful.

The first five chapters of Terror in the Name of God, alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, territory, all use the powerful comparison of the middle eastern terrorist organization to American cults. The similarities she finds between the two are staggering. Using the psychological model of a “cult” - a deranged organization that reprograms those who are psychologically weak and needy – she helps explain in a rational sense why someone might kill civilians for their religion.

In “humiliation,” she describes a typical Palestinian suicide bomber.

“Young, often a teenager
He is mentally immature
There is pressure on him to work
He can't find a job.
He has no options, and there is no social safety net to help him...”

But without her preface of this description, this hypothetical person is culturally nondescript. The safety of some American fundamentalist cult or the PLO would clearly appeal to him.

What confuses me, however, is that after reading this book I still can't understand the leadership of these organizations. What motivation drives these psychologically manipulative cult leaders and jihadists? Perhaps they too are just products of the jihad-brainwashing-process, but perhaps not Maybe I'm delusional in thinking that wanting to kill civilians just isn't inside the realm of the ordinary.

Ultimately, the factors that cause terrorism are important to analyze and understand. We can attempt to tame the humiliation of American empire, mitigate intense poverty and despair, or try to create innovative solutions for regions where territory is a major concern.

Jessica Chu

Terror in the Name of God brings to light the human side of terrorists that is overlooked by the general populous. In the first part, Stern takes time and effort to explain the stories behind why terrorists choose that path. She tells how they have been alienated and humiliated by the society in which they live. Stern explains how society has marginalized them and they find refuge in religious extremes. Even her manner of writing is very interactive, with simple sentences and clear ideas. Her voice is very prevalent through the novel and she takes care to describe the situations going on around her. Even though it may not pertain to terrorism, the details are inserted into the text to make the reader feel more immersed in the book. Although I didn’t like all the extra detail and the informal voice, it does make an easy read and she gets her point across effectively.
However, her friendly prose and her over emphasis on humanizing terrorists detract from the argument. She focuses too much on humanizing the terrorists and not enough examining them as a whole. Her wordy stories and the emotional baggage that she puts on the reader with her melodramatic stories takes up too much focus and space. Although she does give insight into the minds of terrorist with the unique opportunities she was presented, her argument doesn’t seem as full as I felt it could be.

Kent Yamane

Jessica Stern’s novel works in humanizing terrorists in an era when they are considered monsters and are not embodied as humans. Jessica Stern’s point that “Religious terrorism arises from pain and loss and from impatience with a God who is slow to respond to our plight, who doesn't answer." Is a very strong point to show the reasoning for the terrorism that we have experienced in the last decades. Terrorists are putting this “impatience” to work, they are taking these matters of plight into their own hands. These extremists are on the outskirts of religious orthodoxy and are punishing those that do not conform to their ideals. These extremist groups are making sense of the world in their own ways, they are trying to replace their own order. Earth has grown to become many different things and can be scary to people who do not try and understand what is going on. These extremist groups are unsympathetic to progress other than their own.
I agree with Jessica, in that she says Stern is worrying to much about humanizing the terrorists when we need to look at the groups in which they associate. It is the groups, the blind following that we need to look at. Yes, there are leaders and people are so inclined to follow them blindly to death, why? These groups are in some respects similar to the Nazi’s, and the world can not stand for another World War.

Julia Lohmann

I found Jessica Stern’s book fascinating because she does not focus merely on what are commonly considered ‘terrorist groups’, but also on extremists like hard core pro-lifers, who most Americans would not associate as the “ilk” of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. I applaud Stern for writing such an insightful and truly objective book in a time when the prevailing idea has been to hunt down the terrorists with the same ruthlessness that they are perceived as attacking us, instead of trying to understand their motives and address the problem at its source. Her explanation of what drives individuals to join terrorist groups, or even commit acts of terror on an individual level (that they feel alienated in a world which they do not understand and which cannot help them), has profound implications, especially as terror networks are growing at a rapid rate. Alienation from society has long been one of the greatest downfalls and dangers of modernity, and in an age where you can fully communicate with the outside world without ever leaving your house, it is no wonder why so many people are turning to fundamentalist religious groups in search of a more tangible community. As Thomas pointed out, when Jessica Stern describes the ideal recruit for a suicide bombing, she could easily be talking about teenager in an urban city in the United States; none of the attributes she describes are specific to people of middle eastern descent. Her book is truly revolutionary because it shows the danger in associating what is truly a worldwide phenomena with a particular race. The threat of terror is not merely a weapon being employed by our enemies, but is spreading throughout the globe, masked by the racism that runs rampant in today’s American politics.

Stephen Deng

I agree with many of you have said about Jessica Stern “humanizing” these fringe religious groups. Considering this nation’s current international stance, I think it is easy to lose sight of the very complicated and deep reasoning behind “terrorism.”

However, I think that this focus on the individual level of analysis does not complement the problems we have been tackling in PEIS 101. I am assuming this is an extension of our exploration of modern forces which challenge Fukuyama’s claim that political economic history has ended and liberalism has won. As such, Stern’s book is a bit too confined.

If Fukuyama’s viewpoints are to be truly challenged with a piece on religious terrorism, I would want to know more about progression of religion fundamentalism and the(literal) interconnectedness of these organizations. Though Stern may draw a relationship between these organizations based on their common rationalities, she does little to show me the global picture. Even chapter nine of her book which talks about networks fails to really pull itself out of the individual perspective.

For me to fully conceptualize religious terrorism on a political economic level there needs to be exploration of the movement as a whole. How are organizations utilizing the US as a model enemy to overcome different and cohesively push forth? Is a there a trend of increasing cooperation amongst these groups and are they forming multi-organizational groups?

These are all questions Stern could have helped answer if she were to pull away just a bit from the otherwise very important individual aspect of terrorism.

Allison Moore

Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God was a very interesting read, and even more so because it is very contemporary. She takes on a current issue, and tries to make sense of religious terrorism. My favorite quote of the entire book is at the beginning: "Religious terrorism arises from pain and loss and from impatience with a God who is slow to respond to our plight, who doesn't answer." The pain and loss has, unfortunately, created a desperate, monstrous world that is now clearly in the process of harming itself.

While “sense” may never be found, she provides appealing possibilities as to why extremists take on these unsettling feats. She provides an argument that each group, whether they are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, believes itself to be uniquely favored by the Almighty. The argument is often a fight about land and resources expressed through the powerful ideologies of identity. Most enjoy ample funds, and money has become, for many, a reason for continuing the fight.

After reading Stern’s novel, I felt she stayed rather impartial, and instead of trying to push her politics she provided her opinion on why religious terrorism occurs. She believes that trying to reduce terrorism requires a thoughtful, multi-faceted approach, because the causes of terrorism and the motivations of terrorists are varied.

Norris Tran Duc

I believe Jessica Stern wrote a fascinating study of terrorists and terrorist organizations, especially with her interviews with an “unbias” selection of what we would call religious extremists, fundamentalists, or just pure lunatics, to some. It was very interesting seeing how she developed a correlation between the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic terrorists. She brought about the notion that the interconnectedness of terrorists lied in the “we vs. them” theory. This concept, which echoes nationalist fervor (which we have talked about in class with Angell and other political thinkers), is taken a step further to define the reasons behind joining terrorist groups/organizations.

It is interesting that she focuses on alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory. I raise my concern with the first two parts. To say that all terrorists, or those susceptible to join terrorists, are the ones who feel marginalized by society and in doing so, seek refuge in religious extremes, seems to be correct initially, but not so much anymore. The outgroup similarities are strong, but it seems much deeper than that nowadays. The oppression or the expectation for people to “modernize” is so excessive, that a reactionary movement to slap the face of the tyrants (which would be the U.S.) is not so unfathomable. This rings more true when dealing with other countries, who possess their own sovereignty and their own form of politics and society. Interference and imposition to change or to modernize is not always welcomed when excessively pushed down one’s throat.

Yet when we talk about Islamic fundamentalism, or religious terrorism in the form of jihad, it brings to question whether or not this answer fits in alienation, humiliation, and marginalization. There is something unique involving Islamist terrorist leaders, versus Jewish or Christian terrorists. There is a massive ability to mobilize and raise large armies. You do not see a massive mobilization of Jewish terrorists or Christian terrorists (or perhaps you just don’t hear about them because we consider them the “good guys.”) Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the Islamic world, where quite frankly, it seems that the Islamic terrorists have united under the banner of a common goal, which is to protect their culture at any means necessary. This in essence, is a very impressive goal, yet very dangerous. Nowadays, it seems that there is a clash of modernity and religious extremism.

Tomas mentions that al-Qaeda is an organization that retains fundamental and core beliefs that have not evolved with the institutions around them. It seems that he agrees with Fukuyama, stating that Western liberal democracies is the ultimate ideology in the world and that all others are simply ephemeral, sometimes primitive, precursors. Yet, it seems like they in fact have evolved. Are their forms of terror not more advanced, not more technologically prone, using our own airplanes, our own education against us, or our own system to bring us down? Their organizations do not seem to be dependent on Osama bin Laden. Sure, there is a charismatic person to set off the radical change, but taking him away doesn’t ensure that another one won’t just pop up later. They seemed more decentralized and yet united still in their passion against a common enemy. I actually believe that they have evolved, and they have evolved to counter our “evolution.”

On the side, I found it really absurd reading: ““I was still of the view that faith in God makes people better human beings.” Considering how Jessica Stern is a Harvard Professor, you would have thought that she knew something about, oh I don’t know, the Crusades? All 9 of them and their derivatives? I’m not quite sure how happy or how much better human beings the children in the Children’s Crusades were.

Thomas Whaet

I don’t really know how I feel about Jessica Stern’s book. Her book has a good survey of some of the fundamental causes of religious terrorism/extremism—the so called five categories of alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory. That said I often found myself thinking her arguments were often way too simplistic and over ambitious. Part of the reason I think she finds herself doing this is that I feel she tries to do too much in this book. She tries to be a sociologist, anthropologist, psychologist, journalist, economist, and political scientist all at the same time!

When she makes points like the battle against terrorist organizations cannot be won merely by military means since the war is also ideological in nature, and that military responses against them can backfire because it has the potential to only embolden their evil cause, I remember thinking to myself duh it does not take someone at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to tell me that, that’s common sense. But then again, her book may be valuable since it’s not “common sense” to everyone—such as the architects of U.S. foreign policy regarding terrorism from the past six years.

Noah Castro

I notice that many have posted in praise of Stern's universal analysis of terrorism within different populations and I agree with this observation as it refers to the basic components that lead an individual to extremism. Not withstanding, Stephan asserts an accurate criticism in that the author's perspective is too confined. As Allison points out, fundamentalist groups often have highly integrated political agendas and I would go even further by saying that fundamentalist groups are clearly an integral part of international politics. My biggest criticism of Stern is that she makes little reference to the geopolitical role of terrorism and subsequently undermines her own explanation for why it persists. As previously mentioned by Thomas York, she does not analyze the leadership structures of terrorist networks. Yet based on the reading (specifically CH 9) we can infer that it is this very element, which alludes us in the text, that stipulates the degree of functionality of a terrorist organization. In my opinion the Islamic terrorist networks and especially those in the Middle East have been the most effective in fulfilling their agendas because significant internal and external actors have facilitated their infiltration of wide-spread social infrastructure with material goals in mind.

Why is Osama Bin Ladin a terrorist when he portrays little, if any, of the social-class traits that she describes? Why would governments (many can be cited) support, condone, or even tolerate terrorist organizations when, publicly and in front of the international community they claim to do exactly the opposite. Its unfortunate that these issues, which should be the focus of a thorough examination of terrorism, have not been addressed in Sterns book.

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