DETROIT – In the post-Sept. 11 world, everyone knows that religion and violence are an explosive mixture. Last Thursday, when the lights went out around the Northeast, suspicions shot through million of minds that a terrorist may have struck.
Even though anxiety about terrorism is so widespread, few scholars had systematically studied the interplay of faith and fury until Harvard’s Jessica Stern set out to interview dozens of terrorists in 1998. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida, her work took on a new urgency.
Wednesday, Stern is scheduled to appear on TV news shows, talking about the release of a book summarizing her research, “Terror in the Name of God.”
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As she describes what makes religious terrorists tick, Stern offers a remarkable conclusion: Violent, frustrated people can use almost any religion to fuel their explosive wrath, to dehumanize their victims and, ultimately, to justify shocking crimes.
No faith is immune to such abuse. Stern studied Muslim, Christian and Jewish terrorists as well as exotic sects, such as the deadly Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo, whose beliefs are a blend of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism that was used to justify sending poison gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995.
“We need to be aware that religion contains elements that can be misused,” Stern said in an interview last week. She is a Harvard lecturer in public policy and has worked with several national think tanks, including the Council on Foreign Relations.
Now, she wants to spread this warning: “We need to be very careful if we start hearing these arguments being made in religious groups that suggest the end justifies the means. That’s the argument terrorists make.”
She points to other warning signs. Explosive passions tend to brew when people who feel humiliated and alienated pull themselves from mainstream religious groups and form isolated circles of believers.
“Religion is good at making people focus on an us-versus-them view of the world,” Stern said. “It’s a problematic aspect of religion that bad people take advantage of and use.”
Another tip off: Violent religious leaders often manipulate their followers with claims of special insights they have discovered within traditional scriptures. Stern calls this “spiritualizing” sacred texts. “These people probably started out wanting to find support for violence. But – lo and behold! – what happens when they spiritualize the sacred texts? They find support for violence.”
As a result, “some of the people I talked to seemed to be religiously intoxicated,” Stern said. What’s worse is that cynical commanders of terrorist networks “use this spiritual intoxication because it’s a good way to mobilize men.”
Understanding this process, she argues in her book, suggests that new strategies beyond police and military action are needed to combat terrorism. And the faithful need to monitor their own religious groups for signs of extremism.
“People need to ask themselves: Am I being told that the end justifies the means? And: Is what I’m being asked to do consistent with the fundamental precepts of religion, which are compassion and protection of life?”
In parts of the world where extremist schools produce terrorists, she said, the United States should invest in free schools with a balanced education.
“Perhaps the most truly evil aspect of religious terrorism is that it aims at destroying moral distinctions themselves … ,” Stern wrote. “In the end, what counts is what we fight for, not what we oppose. We need to avoid giving in to spiritual dread, and to hold fast to the best of our principles, by emphasizing tolerance, empathy and courage.”