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Face-to-Face with Terror: Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, by Jessica Stern. HarperCollins, August 2003. $27.95

The American people came face-to-face with the realities of worldwide terrorism following September 11. Although the United States only a few years before had been shocked by our own homegrown terrorists who perpetrated the Oklahoma City bombing, we never realized the extent to which religious militancy has come to replace Communism as the primary threat to our security. Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism, has written an indispensable book which attempts to explain the phenomenon of terrorism and the causes that help explain its attraction not only in the non-Western world but also in the United States. For four years Stern traveled extensively around the world to interview Christians, Jews, and Muslim extremists who were willing to enact horrendous terrorist acts in the name of God. Her conclusions, unsurprisingly, found that religious extremists, ranging from the Islamic jihadi in Pakistan to suicide bombers in Gaza and the West Bank, have much in common with our own Christian militants, who have committed murder against physicians who performed abortions, and followers of Christian Identity, the church of the white supremacist Aryan Nation, which spawned Timothy McVeigh.

Stern defines terrorism as an act of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, causing intimidation, or otherwise influencing an audience, all in the name of purifying the world. Religious terrorists, Stern discovered, view themselves as God’s people, and consequently their targets become God’s enemies. The zeal of their commitment to sacred causes leads to the dehumanization of their adversaries to the degree that they justify murderous acts in the name of the Lord. In her interview with a leader of Hamas, Stern is told that “martyrdom operations” are sacred acts, worthy of earthly and heavenly rewards. When asked who are the combatants in the dispute with Israel, a Hamas leader responds that “there are no civilians in Israel because every citizen is required to serve in the army. We are at war with Israel… .” This includes children, who, the Hamas spokesman pointed out, eventually grow up and serve in the military. In an interview with Paul Hill, who was subsequently executed for the murder of a physician performing abortions, Stern asked him why he did not simply wound the doctor. The reply was that wounds heal and the physician would eventually return to performing abortions. This same Paul Hill also called for Supreme Court judges who upheld abortion laws to be killed, and for the use of chemical and biological weapons in the fight to save unborn babies. Stern’s chapters on Christian anti-abortion groups reveal that they, like their jihadi counterparts in the Muslim world, believe that terrorism against what they perceive as evil is not murder but enacting God’s will. Hill, on the eve of his execution, stated that he expected to be rewarded in heaven for his murderous deed.

Similarly, Stern found that if the fear of the New World Order, abortion, and the Zionist Occupation Government, or ZOG—the acronym for the Aryan Nation belief that Jews control the U.S. government—justifies acts of terrorism, in the Islamic world the hatred of Israel and jihadi opposition to globalization spark the same kind of terrorist response. The spread of globalization in the Muslim world is viewed as a new colonial system wherein the United States, along with the Jews, is perceived as attempting to dominate the rest of the world economically and thus worsening the gap between the rich and the poor. As for Israel, Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist groups state that even if Israel withdrew from the 1967 war, they “would consider that a truce, not the end of the war.”

Although in the wake of September 11, America’s homegrown extremists have been overshadowed by their Muslim counterparts, this does not mean that they are no longer a threat. Stern notes that American extremist groups, such as white supremacists and the Aryan Nation, applauded al Qaeda’s objectives in attacking the United States. She warns of the possibility that Americans may well eventually take action on the jihadi’s behalf as freelancers or lone-wolf operatives. The late William Pierce, the author of The Turner Diaries, which inspired the Oklahoma City bombing, commended the September 11 bombers and disseminated on his website flyers with a photograph of bin Laden and the World Trade Center with the caption, “Let’s stop being human shields for Israel.” Elsewhere, Matt Hale, the leader of the neo-Nazi World Church of the Creator, has disseminated a book that “exposes” the “sinister machinations” that led to September 11, including the involvement of Jews and the Israeli Mossad in the plot to destroy the Twin Towers. It is clear from Stern’s research that although the focus of the Justice Department after September 11 was to uproot Muslim “sleeper” cells in the United States, the coalition of white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups has used the tragedy of September 11 to insidiously promote its own hate agenda as well as display sympathy for jihadi terrorism. Stern concludes that although the threat from our own radical Right is nowhere near as significant as that posed by the current members of the al Qaeda alliance, nevertheless, some of its members may well become a new source of Western recruits for bin Laden.

Stern’s most provocative chapters deal, however, with her revelation that in some parts of the Muslim world, jihad, or holy war, is a big business. In the context of her effort to comprehend the ongoing crisis between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir, one of Stern’s Muslim sources reveals how he became disillusioned with the leadership of the jihadi organization he belonged to: “At first I thought that they are serving a religious cause, but now I feel they are running a business. They are … suppliers of human beings. They use poor and illiterate boys for their own private cause and call it jihad.” Stern reports that in the war over Kashmir, large salaries are paid to the jihadi leadership, much of it coming from the Pakistani government, and for many in the terrorist organizations, cash payments serve as their only source of income. As a leader of one of the terrorist organizations discloses to Stern, “operatives do jihad for a spiritual reward, while those in managerial positions are working for a material reward.” Stern concludes that no one really cares about Kashmiris and that both sides are determined to retain the entire disputed territory. Although the conflict may have started as a religious one in order to manipulate young volunteers, it is no longer about religion, but about real estate, political power, and profits. In line with recent scholarship which has investigated the business side of terrorism, such as Loretta Napoleoni’s Modern Jihad (Pluto, 2003) and Funding Evil by Rachel Ehrenfeld (Bonus Books, 2003), Stern’s discloses the manner in which al Qaeda raises money for its cause. Although Osama bin Laden invokes the Koran to gather support for his war against the West, the reality is that one of al Qaeda’s sources of income is criminal activity. Stern informs us that “bin Laden attempted to develop a more potent strain of heroin export to the United States and Western Europe in retaliation for the 1988 air strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan.” He also, according to Stern, provided protection to processing plants and transport for the Taliban drug businesses, which financed training camps and supported extremists in neighboring countries. Indeed, according to Loretta Napoleoni, three-quarters of the world’s opium trade output is produced in the so-called Golden Crescent of Central Asia and is a major source of revenue for terrorist groups ranging from al Qaeda to the Palestinian Authority, or what the author calls the “terrorist state- shell,” that is, an economy that allows terrorist organizations to become independent from state-supported benefactors.

Elsewhere, Stern explores the motivation for martyrdom. In Pakistan, Stern interviewed the parents of one suicide bomber who martyred himself in the struggle against India over Kashmir. The father revealed to Stern that he is happy to have donated his son to the cause of jihad: “Everyone treats me with more respect now that I have a martyred son. And when there is a martyr in the village, it encourages more children to join the jihad.” Later in the interview, the mother admits to Stern that she was happy to send her son to fight in the jihad and would be happy “if all seven sons should be martyred … it is their Islamic duty to be martyred.” One Pakistani official informs Stern that when students enter the madrassahs, or Islamic religious schools, they receive free food and lodging. For poor families, the schools relieve the parents of feeding and sheltering their children. The child, in turn, is “donated to God.” Stern is told, ” All over the world, it is common for poor families to donate one child to the priesthood. Poor people love religion. The rich love their wealth instead of God.” Stern observes that these poor people often donate their children not as priests but as cannon fodder in Pakistan’s war with India over Kashmir, or to fight in other purported jihads, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is clear from Stern’s interviews that from Kashmir to Pakistan to the West Bank and Gaza, Muslim youth are indoctrinated to accept the belief that this world is only a temporary preparation for the reality of eternity, where the martyr will instantly enter Paradise and be greeted by, among other pleasures, 72 black-eyed virgins.

It is apparent from many of Stern’s interviews that throughout the Muslim world the next generation is being educated to carry on the work of jihad without any alternative view of what they have been taught. This is strikingly clarified in an exchange between Stern and a Pakistani government official who is also the head of a set of madrassahs and, therefore, in a position to indoctrinate his students. He informs Stern:

    I believe that a clash of civilizations is inevitable, and in this clash the fittest will survive. We are much more cultured than America and the West. The West is bereft of the strength that comes from families. Plus, the West is run by Jews. Americans and the Jews have begun a new crusade, which is known as globalization. Because Islamic thought is far more modern and scientific than the system adopted by the West, Islam is bound to win this unavoidable Jihad against the Jews.

The author concludes that the West must counter the slogans and indoctrination used by terrorists to mobilize recruits, so as to remove the obstacles that allow our enemies to propagandize against us. Her suggestions include that we take public relations and public education as seriously as do the terrorists. She notes that the West is reviled because of our staunch support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, and Stern calls for a more even-handed approach to the confrontation, including denouncing the Jewish state’s settlement policy, which, she contends, is inconsistent with the peace process. The United States should also promote our role in behalf of the Muslims in Kosovo, which she contends is well known among Muslim youth in the Balkans but almost entirely unknown in the rest of the Islamic world. This is also true in regard to our role in helping the mujahedin defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Stern is also critical of the ease with which terrorists gain access to arms, including weapons of mass destruction, as well as the security at vulnerable nuclear sites, especially in Russia.

Stern doubts whether the jihadis will win but contends that the victory over terrorism requires that we first get our house in order. She argues that we should change policies that no longer serve our interests or are inconsistent with our values, even if those happen to be policies that the terrorists demand, although we should not delude ourselves into believing that changing our Middle East approach or removing American troops from Saudi Arabia will make al Qaeda or the Islamist Palestinian terrorist groups disappear. Finally, Stern concludes that “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.” Stern’s important book, shorn of sentimentality or sensationalism, brings the reader face-to-face with the realities of global terror and the dangers which it represents to our way of life. Stern’s work is essential reading for understanding the nature of the adversary that we encountered after September 11.


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