« Peacock Students: Web Assignment 11: Is Francis Fukuyama Insane? | Main | Web Assignment 12: Taliban Studies: Peacock Students »

November 16, 2007


Glory Liu

Jessica Stern’s book on terrorism provides us with crucial inside into the hearts and minds of so-called terrorists, whether individuals or organizations. I think the strongest aspect of Stern’s writing is her ability to “put a face” on terrorism. I believe she was able to achieve one of the goals of her book, which was to understand how religion becomes a tool of terrorism; her very personal interviews with subjects show an incredible level of emotional and spiritual dedication to the cause. I think it is a rather praiseworthy feat which Stern has accomplished in speaking on a very difficult and controversial topic.

One question I would like to address is the question DeLong brought up in lecture that Ben Peacock brought up to him: “Is Jessica Stern naïve?” And my answer would be both yes and no. To address the “no” part first, I think the organization of her book is a very well-thought out, logical progression. She doesn’t begin immediately jumping into the Taliban camps or immersing herself in Kashmir or making huge generalizations about Islam and terrorism. Instead, she starts off with home-grown terrorism in the United States and through the life of Kerry Noble, Stern draws one paradigm of a life shaped by humiliation, alienation and what I’ll call “radicalization.” She dispels the myth that all terrorists are impoverished loners looking for help, but she does build up an argument that religious fanaticism is especially appealing to those looking for acceptance, guidance, and security (whether emotional or financial). On one hand, these “converts” seem completely egotistical and yet completely selfless at the same time. There may be suicide bombers eager to receive their hoarde of virgins in heaven, but there may also be suicide bombers who secure their endowment with their families to ensure they can survive. Finally, Stern’s style is a blend of anecdotes and hard-line facts. Though I think it can be confusing at times to tell whether she is actually making a statement or just expressing her thoughts at the time, I believe her intent is to reach a wide audience so that more people can understand the minds of people involved in terrorist acts.

However, I do think she is slightly too carried off by the idea of “Us versus Them.” Stern does state in the beginning that her focus is going to be on the three main religious groups (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), but I think she focuses too much on the international scope: Islam versus Christianity, Islam versus Judaism, Christianity versus the world. Something I would have liked to have seen would have been an interview with non-radical Muslims, Christians, or Jews to see what their opinion of the “lunatic fringe” is. Stern’s argument could have swung in two very different directions if “ordinary” people of religious faith showed some kind of evidence of an “Us versus Them” attitude.

Miranda Huey

I agree with Glory that Stern does make a lot of sense of religious extremist violence. Although it seems like sheer naïveté that she didn't think that religious people were violent, she has a certain point. Today people only focus on religious extremist violence, and some have the bigotry to associate the religion itself with that violence. However, at least in the modern age, there have been many, many more people who died in the name of freedom, counting only the wars of the United States.

Of course, it is true that, especially in European history, most wars started and most people were killed under the name of God, this is less likely due to the religious fanaticism Stern describes in her book and much more has to do with Scott's imagined communities. Since the start of the medieval era, the political legitimacy of kings had been derived from God, otherwise known as the divine right of kings. Pretty much everyone within that state was expected to be the same religion, and the term “religious tolerance” hadn't even been invented. Therefore, any competing religions between states were mutually exclusive of each other in the same way that the ideologies (capitalism, communism, democracy, etc.) of modern states are considered threats to one another. Although today we call people who fight in the name of God “fanatics”, for better or worse, we continue to kill many more people under the name of freedom and democracy.

This is not to equate modern religious extremism with fighting for freedom. Religious violence is today much less accepted, since the success of the religion is not tied to the well-being of the state. It takes a much more powerful psychological process, which ties the empowerment of the individual, and away from the rest of society, to the success of the religious violence.

Carolina Merizalde

Jessica Stern’s “Terror in the Name of God: why Religious Militants Kill” introduces an informative and innovative strategy to enter the radical mind of terrorists and extremist groups. Stern has taken one step further in relation to her colleagues in the field of terrorism and approached the actual terrorists to interview them and gather enough data for writing this book. In doing so, she allows the reader to have a clearer and more profound understanding of what goes on in the minds of these individuals and what their real motivations are.
In the first part of her book, Stern attempts to explain why people join terrorist organization and once they join them, why do they stay. Her response consists of the combination of five grievances -alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory, each one is a chapter- that encourages the affiliation to such organizations.
In the first chapter, Stern analyzes the domestic case of the extremist group CSA (the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord) and exposes how the new members go through a process of alienation in which the leader and the other cult members are his/her only reality. In this manner, they renounce to their pre-cult identities to be defined by their cause.
In the second chapter, Stern introduces the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a source of military, cultural, and economic humiliation that keeps on providing Palestine suicide bombers. In the following chapter, she refers to the demographic issues that arise with the migration of Muslim population to underpopulated Christian areas. Muslim arrival stirs Christian violence and hostility towards them which in turn has led to the formation of Islamic terrorist associations in Indonesia that attack Christians.
In the last two chapters, Stern addresses the rivalry caused by history and territory. The Jewish quest for destroying Muslim holy sites, restoring the Solomon Temple, and expanding the Israeli borders are employed as historical reasoning to explain the animosities between the two religions. Finally, when looking at the Indian-Pakistani Kashmir conflict, land transcends its condition of natural resource to be perceived as an element filled with sacredness and nationalism where supporters can be recruited.
Stern without a doubt offers an insightful analysis of the situation and events that have prompted the formation of extremist alliances; yet, I do not agree with the way how she makes it seem as of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic extremists pose an equal threat. Moreover, I feel that there are some pieces of information still missing given that her five grievances are affecting everyone involved, but only a small percentage of the population decides to become terrorists. To a lesser or greater extent, the people in the communities discussed have all experienced alienation and humiliation and have faced confrontations with other groups due to demographical, historical, or territorial rivalries.
In addition, in chapter two, Stern alleges that humiliation is the main reason for Hamas to kill Israelis; however, I would like to point out that the destruction of Israel is a holy mission for the Hamas according to historical Islamic narrative. Notwithstanding, Stern’s book is a potential window into the mind of radical leaders and their way of thinking that could be the first step in deciphering them and later containing them.
The reality is that the widening disparities fostered by globalization, leaving a huge portion of the world behind; the negligence on the part of the industrialized world of the pleas of developing nations; and the continuous and arbitrary intervention of the US abroad have motivated the creation and expansion of terrorist and extremist networks seeking to fight against these evils in the name of God.
In fighting the war, the US is only creating more resistance and proving some of the arguments that extremist leaders utilize to persuade people to join their cause. And the situation only exacerbates as we are now dealing with "a network of networks of various types. It will include leaderless resisters, lone-wolf avengers, commanders, cadres, freelancers, and franchises." Even when these leaderless cells could be dismantled, we could not be eradicating this evil; we would not be cutting the head of the snake, just hurting it, enraging it and provoking retaliation.
Clearly there is no immediate solution to this exacerbating situation, but a good start could include understanding that others may think differently and accept them instead of trying to impose one’s ideals and values on them. The US should adopt a more diplomatic stance in which it would not intervene so overtly in the political and economic affairs of the rest of the world, or take sides in foreign battles, or station its troops in foreign land in the name of freedom and democracy when that may not be the course of action that the inhabitants of this territory desire. War and political impositions on the part of the US only feed the anti-American sentiment and hatred that the extremist organizations are trying to diffuse and that with globalization is becoming easier to spread to every inch of the globe.

Aditya Gandranata

I think Miranda made a good point about how centuries ago most people were killed under the name of God more because of King’s authority as a divine ruler whose power were supposedly “given” by God. I would like to add, however, that the people, who were killed because of their differing religion, were persecuted by the country itself rather than by certain religious extremist terrorist group. This makes a whole lot of difference because usually the country did this in order to prevent political uprising or a possible coup d’etat instead of wanting everybody to convert. This happened across the Roman Empire when they were under the ruling of Nero, etc.
In today’s world, religious extremist group such as Taliban, Al-Qaeda, etc. are doing the same thing but they are doing it by using the act of terrorism which also implicates civilians and innocent people around the area of the attack. These organizations justify their doings in the name of God and use it just as an excuse to kill the people that they want to target and because of this, they bring a very negative connotation towards their religion. It is not the religion that teaches them to kill (this depends hugely on each individuals interpretation) but in fact it was the people behind it who teach them such action.
I think Jessica Stern makes a lot of sense of the conceptual world of religious terrorist organization because she explains thoroughly about what the organization does, how they do it, and why they do it, etc. especially since she got it from a very close source. Is she naïve? I would think she is a little bit naïve; however her information is very logical and it makes us understand more about the reason why these people do what they did, especially in the name of God.

Megan Roberto

Terrorism is a fear that many people around the world face on a day to day basis. As terrorist groups' violent actions become more pervasive and their leadership more elusive; and with individuals capable of weakening international powers such as the United States, and in-depth analysis is necessary in analyzing a significant problem that today's modern political economy must consider.

As other authors have done during the semester, Stern adds a complexity to strategies dangerously hindered by generalizations and binary points of view. Stern reviews the problem of terrorism on the individual level. By choosing to address the individual, I believe Stern effectively communicates "the conceptual world of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their ilk." One example is when she describes the objectives of terrorists as "promoting a mixture of religious and material objectives, for example, acquiring political power to impose a particular interpretation of religious laws or appealing to religious texts to justify acquisition of contested territory." Strikingly similar to nationalism, I believe this a well stated point summarizes the motive and mentality that convinces humans to commit such heinous acts.

Another remarkable aspect of this book is her ability as a woman and involved member of the government to go and interview terrorists. Even if the terrorists were using her as a vehicle for communication, it is still extraordinary that she was capable of speaking with such leaders that are part of such a male dominated society. Overall her book is a necessary tool that should be reviewed by all heads of state.

Helen Louie

In her book, Jessica Stern provides its readers an alternative perspective to the views of the religious extremists, such as the Christian, Jewish and Islamic, by relating the reader to the extremist individuals and groups. Therefore, I agree with Glory that Stern did a good job in achieving her goal in understanding the source of terrorism from religion and in convincing the reader of the alternative point of view. In addition, I also agree that Stern’s arguments are one-sided and it would have been more convincing and more informative if she interviewed both parties of the conflicts. A more balanced variety of interviews would give the reader an unbiased perspective on the situations. This would also help Stern in her prescriptions. I believe that Stern has a lot of good policy recommendations; however, a lot of them are not feasible or redundant.

I agree with Stern that the United States needs another strategy in its intervention in these affairs, besides crushing terrorist, but they are difficult to execute. For example, she recommends the United States to conduct policies that serve our interests and are consistent with our beliefs (such as the hypocrisy with the death penalty and interrogation by torture), to fight for our interest and not fight our oppositions. This is a good policy and it is very obvious, but we still have not enforced it. In addition, I believe that our interests and oppositions are linked. Stern also recommends policies that will be very costly, such as policies to show the Muslim youth that the United States is helping Muslims in Kosovo. She has a lot of good recommendations, but does not recommend how to go about executing them.

In addition, I agree with Miranda and Aditya that Stern is naïve because of her belief that religious people are not violent. As the world has shown us today, people become violent in times of crisis and stress. She recognizes the importance of human psychology because of the effects of humiliation, alienation and religion. Therefore, she is less naïve than before her book; however, I still believe that there is a lot more that she does not know and does not consider because she does not have the views of the non-extremist and the opposing sides.

Stephen Yang

Just a note. If the number of posts on this forum seem few, it's because the link from the web assignment under "Durham students" actually links to "Peacock students". I realized this after I posted on there.

Anyway, I find myself equally as shocked, if not more, as some other classmates (that posted on Peacock's page) 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.

Nicholas DeGroot

I agree with Jessica Stern, who says we must seek to understand the origins of terrorism in order to successfully combat the problem. She says we must emphasize with the terrorists, and this is not the same as to sympathize with them. This is a nuanced perspective that the mainstream US media completely ignored in the aftermath of 9/11. I think her analysis breaks down in the murky definition of what terrorism is. She allows any actor, state or non-state to partake and says that their violence is aimed at noncombatants with the purpose of exacting revenge and inspiring fear. Stern says it evil to target innocent noncombatants, yet admits it can be difficult to differentiate what exactly a non-combatant is. She brings up Hanna Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, which is to say that it is evil to follow orders that are morally wrong. If the government commits morally corrupt acts in the name of its people, do not the people become complicit in the government’s evil? She mentions that the terrorists of 9/11 were pure deliberate methodically evil terrorists, which I do agree with, but I do not agree upon the identity of the planners. I believe the jury is still out on the actual circumstances of the 9/11 attacks on the US and I believe that there remains a shadow of guilt and involvement upon the US government. The lack of certainty complicates our analysis of anti-US terrorists.

Terrorism is a response to political and economic circumstances. Stern does well to identify many of the causes that have lead people to join terrorist causes. My biggest beef with Stern’s argument is her self contradiction as to if changing US policy would impact the situation. She says we need to clean up our side of the street by adhering to international law and avoiding double standards like our support of Israel. Then she says we would be delusional to think this would help. I believe this is the first step America must take and is essential to our ability to be successful in implementing any of her other suggestions. We must become a credible nation before we can be an arbiter of foreign conditions.

What I believe Stern is most dearly missing from her argument is the informed position of indigenous Middle East scholars. I attended a lecture at the start of the semester by visiting scholars on this topic. The gentlemen said that radical international terrorist elements are a fringe of Muslim society. They espoused that the deference to Islamic law was a result of governments struggling with the backlash to colonialism. They said the best strategy to suppress terrorism is to support the authority of the moderate Muslim leadership. It is clear that the US drum-beat against a false idea of Islamo-fascist terrorism and increased military measures has lead to the ongoing failures and could never be a way toward genuine peace and security.


Jessica Stern book is fascinating. The question Professor De long posed to us has more than meets the eye.
In chapter 8 Stern has a conversation with this Mujeeb-ur-Rehman Inqalabi, who explains to her how the murdressas work and how young children are indoctrinated to want to become Mujahideens. She ends the chapter, by breaking down the simple facts that the heads of these terrorist organizations exploit the poor to keep these battles going, so that the leaders of these groups can exploit the benefits that come from being a leader i.e. the mansions, the power, etc.
If you think about it, which person in there right mind would want their children to be martyrs? Yet Stern gives many examples throughout her book. Yet, there is a common theme that many of these people who are recruited live in terrible conditions and that the after life seems like a much better place than their current situation. Furthermore, like Stern describes in chapter 2, families gain a lot from their children’s death, so there is some notion of logic behind this thinking.
Had these people been living materailly better lives, maybe they would not resort to terrorism as a way to escape the system. The question of killing for religion is camouflaged in poverty. The scary part of Stern’s book was all the educated people who became terrorists. Stern gives an example of an engineer, a man who studies history and even a doctor, who were all terrorists. I am going to make the assumption that these people are intellects or at least have the opportunity to think about things through an academic perspective, yet violence seems like a just action to them.
I don’t know. I am just happy that Stern found examples of terrorists in other religions such as the right wing Christians who were racist and wanted another civil war in America to lone wolf killers. It’s not only Muslims who are terrorists. Sometimes being a Muslim, I feel that we clump Islam and terrorism into one. Its not!

Salman Ahmed

Terrorism; the weapon of the weaponless, the very word generates uneasy feelings and sentiments in the stomachs of all peace loving people of the world; especially post 9/11. Stern discusses in depth how terrorism in many cases is the endgame for inescapable frustration with the status quo. She states that it is important for us not to simply label these people as demons and not give them the status of a human being, but that we attempt at least to understand that they are similar to us in some ways and that we can understand their psychology. As has been mentioned so eloquently by my colleagues, she analyzes the situations of terrorists within the three world religions and concludes that they are similar in more ways than they are different. With these arguments I can agree. As Stern states, terror recruiting is an art of seduction. The idea of having purpose that transcends this world and the feeling that they are helping the greater cause of their people become points of attraction for young disenfranchised men.
I do agree also with her notion that we must combat terrorism in other ways besides actual combat. Terrorism is an ideal and the “War on Terror” is not a conventional war in any sense of the word. You cannot crush terrorism with the use of tanks, cruise missiles and infantry. The problem is perhaps best addressed economically and politically through the adherence of international law and the respecting of the sovereignty of independent nations. Of course, like the battle against racism, there is no way to completely wipe out terrorism but significant reductions are what we can hope for. Perhaps Stern’s proposed indoctrination programs for Muslim youths are not the best way to go about solving this problem but if we keep turning our heads away and our guns toward the problem, it will proliferate beyond our ability to comprehend.

The comments to this entry are closed.

From Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong's Schedule

Search Brad DeLong's Website


About Brad DeLong