How do religious fanatics become terrorists?

On four occasions from 1990 to 1991, including once on TV, I came face to face with Aum Shinrikyo founder Chizuo Matsumoto. On those occasions he appeared capable of rational judgment, and my impression of him was not necessarily negative.

Though he did get quite aggressive when insisting on his and Aum’s legitimacy, that in itself was no turnoff. This sort of pushiness is to be expected from anyone committed to some cause. I had seen it in student activists and also among members of the Kofukukai-Yamagishikai (Yamagishi Association for Happiness), an agricultural commune movement to which I used to belong.

My interest in Aum boiled down to this question: What is it about his cult that draws young people so powerfully to it?

I was a university professor when a series of Aum crimes came to light. I was figuratively stoned in public as an “Aum defender” and lost my job. I resolved to re-examine my own understanding of this cult in the light of the felonies of which it was being accused.

How Cult Apologists Defended AUM Shinrikyo

Gradually, Aum’s true image has since emerged from the trials, as well as from various Aum-related publications and Matsumoto’s own sermons. But looking into other “extracurricular” elements of the cult-its ties to organized crime and relations with Russia and North Korea, as well as the flow of money, weapons and chemicals-hardly any progress has been made to date.

Above all, we still have no answer to the most crucial question of Matsumoto’s ultimate motive in ordering the production of sarin gas.

For the obvious reason of avoiding incriminating himself, Matsumoto remained completely silent on this matter throughout the trials. But I also suspect he was unable to articulate his own motive and therefore withdrew into his self-induced realm of “meditation and mysticism.”

Many intelligent young people were drawn to Aum. For those who felt out of place in their own homes or society and had nowhere to go, Aum provided not only a cozy refuge, but also a chance for instant self-improvement through “mystical experience.”

Some of Matsumoto’s top lieutenants told the court they had “misgivings” about committing their crimes, but I would not take their statements at face value. I suspect they were ready and willing to commit the crimes, justifying their action as “a necessary part of training (maha-mudra).”

It is easy for them now to blame everything on Matsumoto. But I do not see them as innocent victims. On the contrary, I believe they actually took advantage of their guru in the sense that so long as they remained his faithful disciples, they could avoid all responsibility.

After the Cold War ended, young people who were previously drawn to leftist movements began to turn to spiritualism. There was something of a religious reawakening in the former Soviet republics, while the Islamic world saw a surge of fundamentalism.

Common to both these phenomena were anti-capitalist and anti-American sentiments, which eventually evolved into eschatological thoughts and perceptions of history in terms of the so-called conspiracy theory. And these thoughts found their practical expression in terrorism.

The world saw an explicit example of this in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But I would argue the pattern was already visible in the Aum acts of terrorism that culminated in the Tokyo subway sarin attack in March 1995.

There are similarities between 9/11 and the sarin attack, in that the perpetrators included a good number of frustrated members of the intelligentsia, and both attacks were directed at well-known targets that would draw instantaneous global attention.

Had Aum been accurately recognized and scrutinized as a terrorist organization, rather than just a lunatic-fringe cult, perhaps the world would have better understood the nature of the crisis that confronts it now.

It is not too late. In fact, to prevent any further terrorist attacks, I urge the Japanese government to take the lead in appointing an investigative committee to re-examine the above-mentioned unanswered questions about Aum and also to understand the “pathology” of those who channel their religious fanaticism into terrorism.

* * *

Born in 1953, Hiromi Shimada, a religious scholar, resigned his professorship at Japan Women’s University in 1995 after being falsely identified as a full-fledged Aum Shinrikyo follower by a sports newspaper. The paper later retracted the report, but Shimada has since turned to writing, including a book on why Aum evolved into a terrorist organization.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Asaha Shimbun, Japan
Feb. 26, 2004 Opinion
Hiromi Shamada

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This post was last updated: Nov. 17, 2014