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November 16, 2007


nadia barhoum

I am going to use this space to respond to the question posed by DeLong and to the use of the word terrorist by Stern, and more broadly to its use in the US public. Although my response does not speak to the reading as much, I feel that both of these points have been sidelined in the course of this discussion and are crucial to gaining a deeper understanding of this topic.

Professor DeLong, in his question prompt purports that the age of “religious wars,” if you will, has died and died centuries ago. Before even addressing Stern’s work on Islamic* resistance groups, I would like to complicate the idea of war and resistance in the name of religion: the use of religion as a tool for resistance, power and appeal never did die and continues to be used all over the world.
If we look at the US and its perpetual invocation of religious doctrine to rally around the flag during times of war, both domestic and abroad, we can see that religion, by name, is used to win certain strategic battles. For example, during the civil rights movement, many segregationist leaders used Biblical terminology and passages to resist the civil rights movement which spread across the southern Bible Belt and helped maintain the racist status quo found in many US cities. And more obviously, the current US administration never fails to use divine diction within many public addresses when discussing the current war in Iraq, therein implying a crusader-like element to the current actions within this region.
Religion, like other commonly held beliefs, is often used both as a tool for resistance and as a means to usurp power. In calling for a religious movement rather than a political resistance or social movement, the movement can gain wider support (think about the 1 billion Muslims in the world—not to mention that it is the fastest growing religion) and the use of religion also allows the movement to reach an untouchable level—as if it is divinely created and deserves no criticism.
I put the * by Islamic in my second sentence to allow many believers in Islam an escape from culpability for the actions taken by a fellow Muslim brother by the name of Osama bin Laden in 2001. There is no question that not all one billion Muslim peoples support or condone his rhetoric, actions, and beliefs. There is a wide array of interpretations and beliefs within Islam and the US oftentimes pigeonholes all Muslims into the “terrorist” box—which is first and foremost the problem I have with contemporary writers in their use and exploitation of the word terrorist.
A terrorist in other environments and conflicts might be translated into guerrilla in Colombia, freedom fighter in the Jim Crow south, martyr in Palestine, and Islamofascist in Berkeley. Stern does attempt to define her use of the word terrorist, but I think this label, given today’s heated political climate, really works to mask and undermine a discourse which needs to focus more on the historical catalysts for such “religious” movements i.e. look at the US involvement in Iran circa 1950 and its resultant Islamic Revolution which tremendously influenced the Islamic movement around the world. This highly charged word should therefore be reconsidered in its use as it holds an extremely negative meaning that has recent historical resonance in the US.

Stephanie Loville

I found it quite notable that Stern actually took the time to explore first hand the motivations behind religious terrorism by going out to talk with them. I think this is an important component to our understanding of it and the first step toward dealing with the evil at hand. As the introduction begins with a quote from Kathleen Norris “Any creative encounter with evil requires that we not distance ourselves from it by simply demonizing those who commit evil acts. In order to write about evil, a writer has to try to comprehend it, from the inside out;” This is just what Jessica Stern does. However are her efforts really helpful in making sense of the conceptual world of the Talilban?
Stern states that “religious terrorism attempts to destroy moral ambiguities “ However we live out lives as if these are not ambiguities at all. These ambiguities are prevalent in our daily lives through the media and to some extent define our lives so intrinsically that to destroy the ambiguity would be chaos. I fail to acknowledge the problems with capitalism and materialism that they see because it is a system that I have been raised with, am constantly bombarded with, and am learning to succeed and thrive in. I have no desire to destroy this moral ambiguity or greed versus subsistence because it has been favorable to my lifestyle. I understand that this is not the reality for everyone in the world and it seems quite obvious that these religious terrorists kill in the name of something higher than just a personal desire to see pain and suffering. They see “themselves as saints and martyrs”.
If the realization of this is “conceptual sense” then Stern has more than achieved her goal and I can answer yes to this question. By I think a more difficult and practical question would be where do we go from here? This is the central question that I think Stern fails to provide much of an answer to. Like several have said before, her policy recommendations offer a very weak and unrealistic answer to what to do with these religious terrorists present in our world. Or perhaps this work in itself illustrates and sheds light to the very flaw of our American way of thinking that it is our job to correct those who do not follow the Western liberal pattern of thought. Perhaps we should just as Stern does so thoroughly, try to understand and empathize with these religious terrorists. But once we have understood these ideologies to the best of our ability what do we do with this understanding that is just polar opposite? Where does that leave us on matters of national security? Stern does not provide the clearest answer. Perhaps although Fukyama would have argues this impossible, we are on the brink of the next big ideological change.

Sam Iverson

Continuing upon something we had discussed earlier today, I would agree that much of what we regard as terrorist activity through Islamic Fundamentalism is really a sociological argument. In putting oneself in the perspective of an ordinary citizen outside of the West, it is easy to recognize how mass, aggressive resentment can develop against the West and its capitalist ideology. These citizens, who live under much poorer standards of living, can judge the imperialist encroachment of the liberal-democratic ideology upon their states as an attack on their own way of life, as an act of intolerance and forced western assimilation, and respond in what seems to be the only effective way, “violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience.” It is nearly impossible to regard such an internationally powerful political-economic force as capitalism and not make an enemy out of every citizen of that contributes to their economy. In this way, these extremists can target an entire population of people working for the capitalist system as an enemy to their own ideology and thus justify an attack against them. Even though the system is controlled for the most part by a small minority of “symbolic analysts,” extremists make no differentiation between these people and the ordinary, working citizen.

Here is the struggle that arises between the two warring ideologies. While citizens of liberal-democracies can make the mistake of judging all people of Islam-based states (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan…) as Muslim extremists, so too can these countries’ people judge us as imperial capitalists. However, this is where Stern attempts to reach a solution. While it seems that the main goal of her work is simply to give a perspective to us about the social context of terrorist organizations, of how they are established and self-justified, she also offers a path to reconciling differences that often lead to terrorist violence. In educating the general public of the way in which resentment towards the West originates, we can learn to become more tolerant of their ways of living and try not to force our liberal-democratic ideology upon them. By recognizing the sociological source of their resentment and empathizing with their frustrations, we can seek to deter the force of our capitalist system upon their countries and relax tensions between our different ways of life.

David Guarino

A point upon which there seems to be some kind of consensus is that while Stern's micro-analysis (of the individual psychology of terrorism) is strong, this kind of micro-analysis has brought her to relatively weak policy prescriptions (Vera, Anthony, et al make this point). I will argue that a weakness in prescriptive analysis stems from the nature of Stern's methodology as well as the nature of the problem.

Interviews by their very nature are a micro-level, individual approach, and so we certainly get a good sense of the psychological roots of terror. I feel that Stern's analysis of the material and structural roots of this are weaker. The five broad categories she lists indeed seem to me the bringing of a micro-level approach to macro-level phenomena, and the necessary generalizations that go along with such a jump. Sure, the concept ("terrorism") she is analyzing is sufficiently broad that it is difficult to yield concrete results and prescriptions, but I feel it is far too vague to be useful. As others have pointed out, the value of the book may not be in the prescriptions on broad, policy levels but rather on the individual analysis which might allow those of us in the West to have some degree of empathy for the individuals who turn to terrorism. This is implicitly a prescription -- or perhaps even an actual act to combat terrorism itself -- but one can't help but wonder how policymakers are to deal with the issue.

Most troubling to me is that Stern seems not to address many of the questions of the construction of a modernity, and how the enactment through policy of discourses of development and modernization may implode even when rooted in the most empathetic of Western views. Individual empathy may be an important piece of the puzzle, but if we accept (which Stern seems to) that macro-political and economic processes -- territorial expansion, income inequality, job availability -- play a big role in incubating the individual-psychological "terrorism" which Stern so aptly analyzes, then what is to be done?

We arrive once again at the root dilemma of this course from a a different perspective: how can the winners of the liberal order compensate the losers such that a more extreme and destructive societal logic does not have appeal? Bigger question: is liberalism intrinsically opposed (through its primacy given to the hedonistic individual) to the communitarian, social emphases of many different logics, namely religious communities?

Tough questions. The only thing I can definitively say for now is that Sam Huntington is dead wrong. I'll leave it to more astute observers to make a bigger statement.

Brendan Gluck

Although Stern’s suggestions concerning counter-terrorism are not the most innovative or flashy, I believe there is much to learn by reading her novel. While her conclusions may be lacking substance, the rest of the book is key in understanding the workings of terrorist organizations and cults. I found myself extremely surprised many a times while reading “Terror in the Name of God.” For example the racial prejudices towards African Americans by Israeli extremists and the fact that Islam explicitly forbids suicide in the Koran were quite new ideas to me. Although many parts of this novel are obvious, like the fact that humiliation leads to rage and that alienated and hopeless people are more likely to join cults or violent religious fundamentalist groups, Stern’s dealings with terrorists and cult leaders display interesting insight that is unknown to the general public. As a result of 9/11 and the increased hostilities with the Middle East, most Americans associate Islam with violent Islamic Fundamentalism. Stern’s book clearly shows this to be untrue and instead, defines a rigorous line between ordinary religious groups and fundamentalist ones. For example, her description of fundamentalist groups as those who take selected excerpts from religious texts in order to formulate their ideology is generally not covered in Western media. Her ability to show the shocking similarity between American cults and religious fundamentalist groups allows the reader to rid themselves of their initial stereotypes of these religious fundamentalist groups as being representative of their respective religions as a whole. Instead, as most people already know is the case with cults, we are made to understand the trickery and deception that allow these extremist groups to brainwash their members into committing violent acts and sacrificing themselves for the sake of their supposedly undoubted ideology. Better understanding terrorism and their associated groups will allow us to work to stop their increasing prevalence.

Ada Tso

As many have already pointed out, Jessica Stern’s “Terror in the Name of God” takes an extremely micro view of terrorism and its causes. Stern takes an interesting approach to understanding terrorism by really going on the ground and talking to terrorists, rather than simply sitting in an office and weaving theories. She points out alienation and humiliation as major reasons that cause some to join such organizations, and I think she makes a very good point when she writes, “Modernity introduces a world where the potential future paths are so varied, so unknown, and the lack of authority is so great that individuals seek assurance and comfort in the elimination of unsettling possibilities. Too much choice, especially regarding identity, can be overwhelming and even frightening.”

While her focus on psychology is a valuable contribution to all the current perspectives on terrorism, Stern unfortunately examines (almost exclusively) the ‘foot soldiers’ of the movement without looking too much at the leaders of these movements. Moreover, she acknowledges that readers must take what her interviewees say with a grain of salt. The fact is that all her interviewees, by allowing her to talk to them, are pursuing some sort of agenda in every response they give. Therefore, I feel like her research is limited in its ability to provide new policy recommendations or key analysis, and that shouldn’t be the expectation for this book.

Lisa Xu

“Terror in the Name of God”, as many previous posters have pointed out, focuses more on the psychological and sociological motivations behind terrorism, rather than the broader political and economic trends which we’ve been examining in this class. This focus can be highly illustrative, however, in showing specific reasons for why terrorists rebel against the established, usually liberal and secular order. The chapter which fascinated me the most was the first one, titled “Alienation”, about apocalyptical Christian cults in the United States. The litany of grievances cited by Islamic fundamentalists against the dominant Western powers became familiar enough after September 11, but domestic terrorist groups seem to have shed the limelight in recent years. We like to believe that our political and economic system, while producing inequality, ultimately guarantees a baseline level of political freedom and economic security that most people would be happy with, and that these are desirable things (although we might argue that political freedom or basic human rights are systematically undermined for a small segment of the population, and that economic security is more precarious for a much larger segment).

However, it usually doesn’t cross our minds that some *Americans* might not enjoy or even accept the fruits of this system. This is the unmistakable role of ideology. I think Stern does a good job of telling the stories of how individuals came to believe in the ideologies they adopted, which do seem so bizarre and unnecessary to most of the rest of us. The American extremists she describes don’t seem to be tapping into a movement anywhere as widespread as that of Islamic fundamentalism (which I’m using as sort of a catch-all phrase for terrorism inspired by views of Islam, and which might be inaccurate), whose fringe, the terrorists, are applauded by ordinary civilians. So in that sense, as Fukuyama puts it, they have all the influence of crackpot prophets, which is an image they actually epitomize in American society. But because they have committed extraordinary acts of terrorism, they obviously need to be taken seriously as a phenomenon, rather than simply dismissed. A way to start would be to recognize that the most fundamental aspects of our society, our laws and our economic system (and accompanying social attitudes), sit very poorly with some people, and that empathy *would* be the advised approach in dealing with them, as well as listening to their legitimate concerns. As with international terrorism, however, the US is doing a bad job of winning the ideological war, due to the way it is conducting political and economic forms of warfare.

Chun Chung Chan

Stern is a story teller. She tells a brave story of how a female American economist went into the life of terrorists, interviewed them and tried to understand the psychology behind their action. I agree with her that some of the terrorists are finding meaning and purpose through the organization. Globalization left out a lot of people in poverty and disgrace. Terrorists, with religious faith, can make themselves fulfilling a more useful life, namely religious fanaticism. But she more importantly points out that what other reasons for being terrorists, like providing education, day-caring, food and shelter. Through Stern’s narration, I can feel sympathy towards the terrorists’ living condition, they are definitely not living an enjoyable life while I am fortune enough to study oversea. I am still naïve enough to wish that every single one on the Earth can live happily. I know this is not a simple goal, but at least we should have a hope to make a better world. Stern did not provide us a solution for the terrorism, however, her information can be a reference to drafting policy. Reading Stern’s book brings me back to the beginning of why I want to major in PEIS, it is because I want to know more about the world and I want to make it better.

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