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November 16, 2007


Nathaniel S. Aylard

I cannot deny that Terror in the Name of God is a thought provoking book in which Jessica Stern does a fine job in conceptualizing the world of what the general public might deem "religious terrorism". However, she pursues it from an individual level of analysis which provides only one lens by which to view the current war over identity that appears to dominate international politics today. By interviewing the leaders, the planners, of religious fundamentalism Stern is able to piece together reasons (as Delong described) to "believe in my loving god, or die" leading her to conclude it “is what we fight for, not what we oppose”. But it is this “we” that I find hard to understand. Is it the general public, the state, companies, all the above? And if “we” is defined, the state appears to be the one often associated based on Stern’s policy recommendations focusing on US foreign policy.
Thus, it is not just government but also international companies that need to understand the pluses and minuses of globalization of which they support. If humiliation from the lack of social welfare perpetuates negative perceptions about this growing web of interdependencies, companies need to be made accountable for their involvement. The production of goods is useless without a life to enjoy them though this is one counter to so called “western-values”; the belief consumerism is good. Nevertheless, it seems we might never get out of this problem of identity. If a person does something, it seems inevitable someone will disagree of their action (especially in the international community). But if we were to try to understand one another and why current perceptions persist, the next step would be to analyze state to state, state to domestic, and non-state relations. We still may not be able to agree with one another but hopefully we will come to a better understanding about the positive and negative aspects of certain actions.

Morgan Brewer

Stern greatly helps me make sense of something I knew nearly nothing about. I had always wondered about the world of terrorism and the seemingly attached religious fanaticism and Jessica Stern provides insights into both. She offers the reader root causes of such terrorism, which truly enlightened me as I had never before progressed beyond wondering on this topic. One thing that does get at me is the fact that Stern almost portrays the recruited terrorists as victims themselves, and, while I do sympathize with how difficult some of their lives are, I do not agree with her on this inference. There are certain things that should be at the core of a human being and to do some of the things that are described in her book, a terrorist would have to lack such humanistic qualities. One thing that really impresses me about the book is that Stern covers many different religions and covers everything on the scale. By this, I mean that her analysis goes from the organizational or societal to the individual.
On a separate note, the line between “terrorism,” as defined throughout Stern’s book, and warfare is becoming more and more blurred. With the increasing number of civilian casualties resulting from modern warfare, while is may be accidental, is the same result as terrorist attacks. The largest difference to me is the method of violence. With many terrorist groups lacking the same resources as, say, the United States military, their methods are going to be different (i.e. suicide bombings or crashing planes into buildings). However, on top of this, the intent is also what separates the two. With many acts of terrorism the secondary purpose of the attack (the first usually being destruction) is, as the name infers, terror. So why are suicide bombers trying to defend their nation or country considered terrorists when they have the same intent as a nation’s military. This brings us back to the common “terrorist vs. freedom fighter” argument, but this is something that I have wanted to resolve for some time. I know there is not much time left before this assignment is due and I am likely one of the last students to post, but if you read this before you post, perhaps you can offer some insight into where you think the line should be or is drawn.

Dorit Iacobsohn

What I found interesting about Stern was that some of the comparisons she draws do not rightfully fit. For example, she compares Christian martyrs to suicide bombers, but one kills themselves in the name of their religion, while another kills themselves in the name of their religion, with the intent of ALSO harming others. She compares the anti-abortion extremists to Islamist terrorists. But the former rarely kills while the other does so en masse (as is seen by 9/11, and by suicide bombings which can injure and kill hundreds of people at a time, and which are daily occurrences in places like Iraq).

Stern ties everything together by saying that different brands of fundamentalism are all dangerous—but they are not EQUALLY dangerous in terms of physical harm. They are not on the same level. Just because different demographics like Christian or Jewish or Muslims can all be terrorists does not mean that the violence and destruction they can wreak is equal in scope. For most other religions, if you are a violent fundamentalist, that often goes against the religion. Christians and Jews cannot kill—it says so throughout the Bible and the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, the Koran is littered with sentiments that say that violence, and murder, done in the name of Islam, make a good Muslim. The Koran has stated, "make war on the infidels who dwell around you." Sura 9:123. As a result of this, the Islamic terrorists are exponentially more dangerous than other brands of terrorists. And the fact that Stern does not make a solid effort to distinguish between the different brands of terrorists and fundamentalists implies that she is looking for neat, clean definitions that do not necessarily mesh with reality.

Like many of my classmates who have commented before me, I do think that Stern's book is insightful. However, I believe her argument is lacking and misleading, and I think that that even the most basic tenets of her arguments are wanting of a further depth and exploration.

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.

Tessa Berman

As alluded to in some of the comments above, one insight of Stern’s book is that terrorism is not a dark and foreign monster but a term used to identify a socially created relationship in which one party feels wronged by the other. Along this line, I think it is important to realize that terrorism is not an objective reality, one which a country can declare war upon or undertake a crusade against, but it is a dynamic and relationally defined phenomenon. By declaring all violent protestors terrorists, declaring them of crimes against idealism, we limit our understanding of global interconnectedness and minimize the possibility of cross cultural solidarity. Abiding to definitions such as “violence against civilians” may in fact, convolute understandings of international movements as nations are linked through more than just military and economic factors, but also through political processes and civil society. To take the example of the US versus oil producing countries, we are undeniably linked by these first two means. However, domestic pressures in the US for “affordable” gas are important determinants of national military and economic policies. As such, military and economic exploitation of Iraq say, cannot be blamed solely on ‘the Fed,’ or particular generals, for these bodies respond in part to domestic pressures. So, when ‘terrorist acts’ are committed against Americans abroad or at home, it is unrealistic to recoil at the ‘unprovoked’ nature of such an attack. All in all, Stern provides a stimulating framework for rethinking terrorism, and reminds us that we must be aware of our own connectedness and complicity in seemingly distant affairs.

Stephen Yang

I find myself equally as shocked, if not more, as my classmates like Elisabeth and Ziwei were by Jessica Stern's book. Not shocked by what she wrote, but by my narrow view of terrorism and what it is. I found myself thoroughly surprised to be reading about the comparison of Middle Eastern extremist groups to violent cultist Christian Identity groups. And yet that's what drew me in: I spent the first few chapters being intrigued by Stern's analysis of the factors involved in the creation/sustainability of such groups and communities. And that's the key word: communities. I admit that I had never thought of people involved in terrorist groups as having faced humiliation, distress, poverty (not for all, but for many), and disappointment from a failed or corrupt government. And I had never seen or tried to see why people turn to these groups as communities that would offer them what they wanted and needed but never could obtain.
One last thing that struck me was that the when Stern described the profile of a Palestinian suicide bomber in the middle of Chapter 2, some of the things she lists out doesn't have to be specific to a Palestinian. It could easily fit in with a troubled youth in rural America that turns to a violent Christian Identity community, to go along with her comparison. Or, it could just be any youth anywhere turning to any group, be it extremist religious group or just a gang on the streets, in search of a security, provision, and a sense of belonging.

Andrew Gurwitz

I think Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God offers a provocative assessment of religious terrorism, but the reading feels often to be over-simplistic and without the appropriate acknowledgement of the history of national and religious movements. Religious terrorism, or for that matter national or group power movements, are certainly not unique to this era and existence of religious terrorism must be viewed in the context of the evolution of fighting causes and religion through time. While she offers pointed insights and revealing interviews, her style of writing and presentation leaves me with the sense of an elementary text which generalizes the stories of a few to explain nuanced and complex conflicts and relationships. Stern seems almost to bask in the sense of approaching her subjects with a tabula rasa which makes me unable to trust her explanations. I think she fails to appreciate her own history and identity, which belies a greater understanding of these issues. Though she may not “feel” especially Jewish or practice Judaism or sympathize with the Israelis, the identity of her last name informs the opinion of her subjects. Her naiveté about the impressions of her “Jewish” last name or those of Israeli license plates in Gaza highlight the missing degree of her argument. Greater attention I think must be placed on people’s sense of identity, real or imagined, and their own sense of justice. While it is easy to understand the circumstances by which normal people are attracted to these movements, we must acknowledge better the religious and national arguments that these leaders rely upon not just as tools of power, but as beliefs. Religion and its conflict are not new and to understand it now simply as demographics, economics, and cults of personality belies the bloody lessons of centuries past.

Vaishnavi Jayakumar

Unlike Stephen, Ziwei and Elisabeth before me, I am not particularly surprised by Stern's central thesis, that terrorist organisations are better understood and defeated in the psychological dimension than the physical one. Having concluded that "perhaps the most truly evil aspect of religious terrorism is that it aims at destroying moral distinctions themselves", Stern's argument is particuarly novel because of firstly, the time in which she wrote her book and second, the tools she uses for analysis.

Stern wrote in a time in which the focus of US strategy and most scholars was understanding the physical challenges posed by religious terrorism as brutally illustrated in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Yet she looks beyond the most tangible aspect of terrorism to engage with the motivations of terrorist groups, and identifies them as, rather than newly emerging trends, patterns of behaviour long observed amongst marginalised and economically backward groups. "Fundamentally the biggest issue is the gap between rich and poor" and the roles of education, information and economic advancement are crucial to undermining terrorist movements. Stern notes two key characteristics of terrorism - that it is aimed at non-combatants, and that violence is used for dramatic effect on a target audience – that belie the prevailing notion that terrorism involves physical harm.

Secondly, the originality in Stern’s argument lies in using tools of organisational theory to understand terrorist organisations. By viewing their patterns of behaviour and actions through such well-known lenses as “leaderless resistance”, “conventional army” and a “military hierarchy”, Stern is able to address the issue with greater familiarity than other writers on the subject. We are thus able to grapple with the issues of terrorism more lucidly, having recognised the main motivational patterns.

Jelena Djukic

I believe that Stern’s arguments make a lot of sense. They are valid because they are based on experiences and knowledge she acquired interacting and interviewing these different religious groups’ members. Therefore, I have to strongly agree with Kieran who pointed this out a several comments earlier.
Another important point that seems to be in the heart of Stern’s argument is that most of these religious groups function in the similar manner. In the first chapter Stern points out that cults are based on the “created” tension between the “in group” and “out group”. It is important to create these tensions between the groups in order to justify “murdering large numbers of innocent people.” In the next several chapters Stern goes into depth to examine different religious groups based on the testimonies and interviews conducted with its former or current members. Therefore, in the first chapter Stern introduces Noble who talks about his experience in CSA, “Christian cult called the Covenant, the Sward, and the Arm of the Lord” in Arkansas. The impression I get from the interviews Stern conducted with Noble is that this group is extremely alienated from the rest of the society. Often people were not even aware of what they were getting themselves into, however they were picked out intentionally by the group leaders as ideal members based on their life experiences (disappointment, fear, isolation and other, which they overcome becoming parts of these religious cults). Soon, even ordinary people after being in the cult such CSA become capable of killing and harming others. Their actions are justified by belief that they are only following the path that the Lord has showed them and that they do only what the Lord tells them to. Similarly, to CSA there are many groups such as Hamas (struggle between Palestinians and Israelis), Wahhabi (struggle among Muslims about the traditional teachings) , Ja’far and other in the Middle East that base their actions on religious beliefs. It is interesting to note that all these groups are strong units that appear to have no fear when it comes to sacrificing their lives for their religious beliefs. Mothers are proud if their children are suicide bombers because they gain lots of respect from the community. After the death, the suicide bombers gain status of heros and their families are financially taken care off. These are great incentives for those depressed who lost a will to live or those who are extremely poor.
To sum, Stern appears to believe in the idea that all of these religious groups are extremely similar in their structure/functioning and they chose the same persona to be their member. The ideal persona is somebody who possesses characteristics pointed out on page 50 as somebody already mention several posts earlier.
This is why it should not be surprising that there are six year olds in the Middle East marching through the school hallways saying “O my God, please take my life-I’m going to be a shahead.” This is where the greatest support comes from; from youth. Teaching the youth to hate the “out group” unites the “in-group” even more and makes it stronger. Consequently, in my understanding of Stern’s writing, this is the case with most of the religious groups that are examined in this book. All this makes sense to me because it is not simply something Stern believes in and subjectively argues but is rather based on the experiences and interviews of the people who actually lived it and experienced it.

Beth Dukes

Not to play the devil’s advocate, but I personally didn’t find Jessica Stern’s arguments to be that exciting. Perhaps I am the victim of watching/reading too many political thrillers, or having too many angry Muslim friends, but to me the idea that what Stern refers to as “religious terrorism”—violent political radicalism justified through religion—emerges from a set of social, political, and economic conditions isn’t very new. It seems pretty logical to me that poorly educated, lower class, and otherwise ostracized individuals find outlets in movements which promise them glory, vengeance on the perceived origins of their situation, and perhaps a better afterlife. To the extent that Jessica Stern points this out, I guess she makes sense of the phenomenon, but beyond that, I am not convinced of the unifying theme amongst members of “terrorist” (I am still confused about that word) organizations.

I would also like to comment that I am disappointed with the close-minded attitude my classmates demonstrated in thinking about “terrorism” before, and even after, reading the text and I think this observation can be linked to one of Stern’s arguments. It saddens me that Berkeley students buy into the “CNN ideology” (although I’m not even sure CNN is that rash) that terrorists are all Muslim extremists who have an irrational hatred of the United States. Like I said, I personally find the word confusing in the first place, but if you were to ask me what a terrorist is, I would say that terrorists include not only Muslims, and people of other religions, as Stern points out, but also people like “ecoterrorists”, whose radical political cause is secular as well.

This observation got me thinking about the role of technology and mass communication in the spread of terrorism. Stern pointed to the internet as a source of the spread of extremist ideology, and I would also think that an increase in global communication would have an even larger effect on the spread of terrorism than just leading to its spread. I would hypothesize that potential “terrorist”s' ability to gain access to information about the condition of the “Other” is something that greatly contributes to their behavior. For example, because of an increase in communication technology, a person who may be socially, economically, and politically predisposed to terrorist behavior might be able to actually see how much better the “Other” is living through the internet or television, information which could push them over the edge. Perhaps technology does have a large role in terrorist thought, just as the media has a large role in UC Berkeley students’ conception of terrorism.

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