The militant mind
By Jonathan Schanzer
Jerusalem Post - Jan. 8, 2004

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill
By Jessica Stern.
Ecco Press.
368 pp. $27.95

How to explain religious violence? Jessica Stern's most recent book, Terror in the Name of God: Why
Religious Militants Kill
, attempts to explain.

At first, the task seems impossible. After all, there are a multitude of reasons why religious fundamentalists kill,
and a plethora of groups to do the killing. Stern, however, wisely boils the grievances of religious militants down to
five broad rubrics: alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory. Using primary source interviews
with terrorists (both in jail and on the loose), she explains these grievances through the personal stories of self-professed American Christian fundamentalists,
Palestinian Hamasniks, Indonesian Islamists, Jewish redemptionists, and Kashmiri mujahadin.

The book is fascinating because it allows the reader to eavesdrop on a plethora of interviews with extremists
from the far corners of the earth. Even more interesting
is that these radicals actually feel comfortable pouring
their hearts out to a curious Harvard professor. One
wonders what it must have been like for a Jewish-
American woman from Harvard to meet with radical
Islamists from Indonesia, Kashmir, and Gaza. This
partially explains why Stern's study is a page-turner.

Stern shares one rousing letter from the wife of an Indonesian radical, who could clearly be characterized
as a radical herself.

"Don't ever think that we're afraid of death in defending
our religion," she writes. "Even death is our goal to
reach the true glory. Victory in this world is God's promise
for us in our every war..."

A Kashmiri radical, who tries to persuade Stern to convert
to Islam, believes that Allah "looks at those who sacrifice their lives in the Jihad with love. The love is 70 times stronger. I feel this love."

How Stern was able to arrange these interviews is not explained. It makes one wonder what the terrorists
hoped to achieve by granting them. Stern herself warns
the reader to be "alert to possible lies." To be sure, the testimony of career killers may not be chock full of
honesty. Still, one cannot stress enough the importance
of trying to understand religious radicals by getting their stories from the source.

What may be Stern's crowning achievement, however, is
her discussion of al-Qaida. While her descriptions of the group, its structure, and its leaders do not answer the question "why religious militants kill," they are among
the best explanations of Osama bin Laden's network in
print. She correctly points out that al-Qaida thrives "in
states that are poorly governed," and that al-Qaida is "sufficiently dispersed that the loss of a single leader
will make minimal long-term difference."

More importantly, she notes that the most effective
terror group, using al-Qaida as her prototype, is "a
network of networks of various types. It will include leaderless resisters, lone-wolf avengers, commanders,
cadres, freelancers and franchises."

Terror in the Name of God also does a good job of highlighting one of Washington's next major challenges: democratization in the Middle East. It is widely
understood that domestic crackdowns by repressive
Middle East regimes have forced terrorists to "shift their sights to more vulnerable targets." Those targets are increasingly soft targets found abroad. But the big
question now is how to democratize, especially when
the "transition to democracy has been found to be an especially vulnerable period for states across the board."

THERE ARE, however, a number of pitfalls in Stern's
work. While she clearly worked hard to gain interviews
with Jewish fundamentalists from Gush Emunim and
other groups, her work adds precious little to the late
Ehud Sprinzak's 1999 hallmark study of the Israeli
religious Right, Brother Against Brother. The chapter on Hamas is similarly lacking. To begin with, two
of Stern's interviewees, the recently assassinated Ismail
Abu Shanab and current Hamas political leader Abdel
Aziz Rantisi, are not religious killers. Rather, the two are
the political fat cats who have enjoyed the media
spotlight while their underlings explode on Israeli
buses. The foot soldiers that do their bidding are
much harder to track down, and are presumably much
more dangerous to approach.

Stern's assertion that "humiliation" is Hamas's major motivation for killing Israelis is also very misleading.
While humiliation may help fuel Hamas hatred for the
Jewish state, the group's published ideological platform
is based almost entirely on "redeeming" land that they consider wakf, or an endowment from Allah. In other
words, destroying Israel is a holy undertaking for
Hamas, based on a historical Islamist narrative. Even if
there were no "humiliation," Hamas would still seek to destroy Israel. This is why Hamas continues to reject
the peace process that would legally end Israel's
presence in the disputed territories.

Stern's policy recommendations are a mixed bag. The
author correctly notes that the Islamic world "is
particularly vulnerable to religious violence," but fails
to explain that the majority of religious radicals hail
from the Islamic faith. Not making this distinction could
leave the reader with the impression that Christian,
Jewish, and Islamic religious radicals pose equal threats
to the modern world. In reality, citing scholar Daniel
Pipes's figures, radicals may make up as much as 15
percent of the Islamic world. Thus, out of an estimated
1.3 billion Muslims, there may be more than 190 million radicals - far out-shadowing the thousands of Christians
and Jews that would kill for their beliefs.

In short, some of Stern's analyses are so conspicuously balanced that they miss the point, and her work on
Hamas may require some new thinking. Nevertheless,
Stern should be commended; her research makes a
profound contribution to the field.

The writer is a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy.

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