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November 16, 2007


Christine Wang

"How can it be that the same faith in God that inspired Michelangelo, Mozart, Simone Weil, and Sister Miriam Therese also inspires such vicious crimes? Why, when they read religious texts, do these terrorists find justification for killing innocents, where others find inspiration for charity?"

I must confess that these questions that Stern asked resonate strongly in me as well. I share her puzzlement that faith can lead to evil... I feel sometimes that non-religious students of history take for granted that religion spawns violent mass killings of anyone considered a heretic. But, speaking as a Christian who has read in the Bible that God is one of love and that Jesus set the greatest example of turning the other cheek by willingly dying on the cross for those he loves, I think Stern's puzzlement is very valid. I am a Christian and I desire to know God more and live my life according to His will. I have many close friends who feel the same way; I'm used to hearing how God has called a person into a certain field or to do a specific thing for someone else.. So it's really frightening to hear how people like Noble and Ellison who also want to hear God's call turn to violent acts and racist hatred and justify doing so by being sincerely deluded that they are obeying God.

At least in the case of Ellison, I can see that it wasn't Christianity that led him to crazy notions like killing blacks and Jews. Where he got the ridiculous notion that the chosen land is America and the righteous state is all-white, I don't know, but at least I can rest assured that whoever he was serving, it wasn't God, and he would have known it if he had simply read his Bible. And I don't know the details of other religions well enough to be certain, but I think I'm safe in assuming that a lot of the thought process of a lot of the terrorists Stern spoke to demonstrate severe deviations from the religions from which they draw their legitimacy and claim to represent as well.

It's the way terrorists manipulate small things in the mind to make evils sound right that really scares me. A Palestinian terrorist equates suicide bombings with self-defense. He argues that it is not murder; it is killing to defend his country. "All religions allow people the right to kill in self-defense, or to defend their lad. Land has been taken from us with violence, and we have the right to take it back." Jewish terrorists who wanted to stop Rabin from giving away Jewish lands to Moslems took justice into their own hands by assassinating him. "When a thief is stealing from you, you don't have to bring him to court. If you can catch up with him, you take your property back by force. Rabin was stealing Jewish property."

It's subtle things like this that draw so many into terrorist ranks, beyond those whose personal experiences drive them to hate and revenge. Desperate times pull at people and weaken peace and stability, but it is these redefinitions of what is orally permissible that dislodges ordinary people from society and makes them into killers. I think that Stern's approach to understanding this phenomenon is exactly the one needed: personal interviews to put a face on the people in each terrorist organization so that the subtleties and tricks of thought that motivate many who profess to faith can be illuminated. (So yes, I do think that Stern has helped us make sense of the conceptual world of Al Qaeda and the like!) Thus, she is able to recommend a new dimension we must add in our fight against terrorists besides the more commonly acknowledged ones (military, economic): a dimension of psychological warfare.

I found her ideas of how to begin such actions very interesting. I'll be interested to see if the IS takes up her idea and develops psychological tools to break the link between terrorists and their sympathizers... It seems to me to be a whole new approach at dealing with terrorism. Could it possibly be the thing we've been missing in our efforts? Or is this a battle that we can never win and shouldn't even be fighting..?

Alex Zaman

While it is nearly impossible to conceptualize the actions and rationale behind terrorist organizations and the individuals who perpetuate their beliefs, Jessica Stern does a nice job of attempting to crack the surface by taking a firsthand look at the motives that drive such terror. There is no uniform route that leads to terrorism, and Stern elucidates this in emphasizing that opposition to external policies, dire social conditions, envy, monetary need, addiction, stark religious differences, and the byproduct of transcendence all contribute to the intentions of terrorists. Stern gives a compelling argument, as Glory notes, that fanaticism is often appealing to those seeking psychological or economic stability. However, as Helen points out, the recommendations that she gives on how the United States should approach terrorism are redundant and somewhat unclear. The U.S. and the Western world walk a fine line when focusing their anti-terrorism goals. It is very easy to say that we should covertly attack groups and factions, and that “just as Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front have emphasized penetrating us, we need to penetrate them” (290). But this in turn multiplies the angst already harbored against the United States- would not secret infiltration ultimately cause a more severe backlash, especially given the expansive nature of terrorist organizations and the very same communication tools that terrorists are using to interconnect and mobilize their causes? One of her most ideal solutions involves United States assistance with regard to developing schools in terrorist-oriented countries to educate youth as to the merits of modern society- but then again, is this an appropriate solution when the quality of education our own children receive is falling precipitously? The issue at hand is how much of our own domestic social and infrastructural interests and international economic interests we are willing to sacrifice in order to combat terrorism. I think at this stage, it is too late to attempt to completely eradicate the vast network of terrorist organizations that currently exist, or even try to change the collective social consciousness and mentality that terrorists adopt. From a national perspective, it is necessary to improve our current knowledge (CIA, FBI, etc.) as much as possible, and utilize the media to show the Muslim world that America truly stands for freedom of religion and of the individual (citing examples such as America’s intervention in Kosovo to help Muslims).

Vladislav Andreyev

I think that Jessica Stern did a wonderful job diving into the world of Terrorism. She looked at terrorists as people, trying to understand what really motivates them to do what they do. All aspects are taken into consideration, such as the economics, politics, and demographics. Stern therefore says that terrorism is an extremely complicated phenomenon that cannot be explained easily by one factor. There are multiple factors and multiple reasons.
As far as reaching conclusions, I think that it served the book well that Stern decided not to offer any solution or conclusions. Her brilliance is to describe the problem; it is the job of our political officials to actually create a good policy. Also, by not offering many solutions, Stern makes a point that this problem started centuries ago and that it is not that easy to solve it. Indeed, cultural differences and misunderstandings go way back to the times of Crusades and it took generations upon generations to instill mistrust in both cultures.
It is also a very important point that terrorists can develop anywhere. As long as most or all of the factors she mentions (alienation, humiliation, etc) are present, even the U.S. can be a breeding ground for terrorists. Terrorism, therefore, does not have a nationality – it can come about in any country with the necessary conditions. Therefore, we need to look at terrorists as what they are – people, so that we understand their motives and work hard to make sure that others do not follow their footsteps.

Miles P

Jessica Sterns’ “Terror in the Name of God: why Religious Militants Kill” book takes a look at terrorism in a different light. It looks at terrorism from the perspective of the terrorist. She interviewed extremist members of the three big religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. She found reasons in which these members joined radical movements and what made these organizations tick. I feel very strongly about this subject and agree totally with Christine Wang, in that there is so much suffering for a cause that strives to end suffering. I guess that this book was supposed to answer my questions, but I feel as though the single concept of turning the other cheek should negate any other actions. This immediately makes me think that religion and education are not available. Maybe this is obvious, but could be looked at as a possible concern for us striving for peace. I guess awareness of what they are joining concerns me. These terrorists groups are really formed by opportunistic leaders recruiting searching soles, using religion as motivation and justification.

I agree for the most part with Sterns about a way to alleviate the situation, less United States involvement with those actions around the world. I think that we meddle in other peoples lives way to much and basically add fuel to the fire by giving people reasons to fight the west and our philosophies. That puts my views on an awkward position as I do think that we should try, as the most powerful nation, to help those in need and fight for justice. Whether we are doing this or not, is left up to debate, but as of right now we are making the wrong decisions.

Lastly I agree with most that these are extremists. Its not everyone. If you take a statistic of those that do the right thing and those who are going out and killing others, the ladder is very small. But this small percentage is making a huge statement and that is all we hear. The rest of us need to make more noise for peace.

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