IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Battling cosmic wars in the minds of terrorists

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 31, 2014

"MR MARK, you just don't get it. All of you are like sheep!

"There's a war going on, a battle between good and evil. You just don't see it. Your government will not let you see it."

It was 1997, and the speaker was red-haired Egyptian terrorist Mahmud Abouhalima.

Mahmud had been sentenced to 240 years in jail for his role in masterminding the February 1993 explosion at New York's World Trade Centre, which killed six people and injured about 1,000.

Surrounded by a dozen heavily armed prison officers, the unrepentant terrorist was being interviewed in the United States by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, an American expert in the study of religious violence, who is now 72.

The soft-spoken, silver-haired professor had just asked Mahmud why he resorted to terrorism in the name of religion.

Mahmud then leaned over to the don, a move that prompted prison officers to dive in to protect the visitor.

Mahmud sneered: "Mr Mark, we need to make you see. We need to take you by the shoulders and shake you until you are awake."

The professor then asked if that was why terrorists carried out bombings.

The convict leaned back, and gave a blood-curdling reply: "Well, now you know, Mr Mark. Now you know."

Terrorists, Prof Juergensmeyer explained recently in an interview with The Straits Times, see themselves as soldiers in a cosmic war who use terror tactics, including blowing up buildings and people, to draw people into the battle.

The problem is that the war is an imaginary one. It exists only in their minds.

This is why terrorists commit their acts: to make the war in their minds come real for others.

At the time of the interview, Mahmud was regarded as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.

He had also been linked to the plot to kill Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the murder of the militant Zionist rabbi Meir Kahane.

"He has blood on his hands," says the academic.

An odd relationship

PROF Juergensmeyer, who is the director of the Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies, has criss-crossed the world for over 30 years, studying religious violence.

His work combines sociology, politics and theology. He is also an affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Included in a long list of 20 books he has written is one titled Terror In The Mind Of God.

It contains interviews with Mahmud and others, including abortion clinic bombers in the United States.

The professor explains that in times of transition like today, people feel uneasy about issues such as who they are; who is responsible for the state of the world; and how safe they feel.

These issues of identity, security and accountability are the driving forces that propel a minority into terrorism.

The big change in people's lives now is globalisation, a development that has caused many people to ask questions about their own identity and responsibilities.

Such uneasiness provides fertile ground for religious extremists to plant their ideas about violence, says the professor.

A terrorist declares a cosmic war against those who stand in his way.

When his enemy fails to see his imaginary war, he goes berserk.

"It drives them nuts when we, and others from their own faith, do not see this war," Prof Juergensmeyer discloses.

Terrorists thus use terror attacks as a signal that the war they are waging has begun.

This happened when Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult members launched a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995. Thirteen people died.

The attack rattled the Japanese public who had ignored warnings by the cult's leader that the world was coming to an end. It also signalled to cult members that they were heading towards Armageddon, says the don.

A vexing problem

PROF Juergensmeyer was in Singapore last week as a distinguished visiting fellow at a seminar on religious extremism and violence, organised by the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS).

The centre studies closely the growing number of religiously motivated incidents of violence in South-east Asia.

CENS chief Kumar Ramakrishna says religious extremist leaders like Myanmar's Wirathu and Indonesia's Abu Bakar Bashir also exploit nationalist sentiments to get their followers to commit violent acts.

For example, Wirathu has exploited the fear of Buddhists who believe that economically well-off Muslims, a minority group, will replace Buddhism with Islam in Myanmar.

"The case of Wirathu highlights the vexing nexus between non-violent extremist rhetoric and real-world violence," states Prof Kumar.

He says that some who study religious conflicts in the region downplay the role of religion in these struggles, in favour of placing more emphasis on what they see as essentially nationalist issues.

He argues that the issue of religion should be brought to the fore and dealt with by the authorities.

That is why the empirical findings of academics like himself on the issue are important, he says.

The visiting professor adds that terrorists who resort to violence are performing a form of street theatre, albeit a violent one.

"A good drama draws the audience into the play, and that is exactly what terrorists do each time," he says.

But one must never buy into their message, he warns.

Terror wars will end

THE professor, an optimist, predicts that the problem of terrorism will vanish one day.

Warriors in previous epic wars waged battle in the name of God to protect their land and people.

Since today's terror wars are imaginary ones, the battle can be won, provided countries do not play into the hands of terrorists, he cautions.

"Don't go for military solutions. Leave it to the police to hunt down the terrorists and the courts to pass judgment. When you don't exaggerate the problem, the problem will go away.

"Religiously motivated terrorism will one day dissipate as quickly as it was created, just like a summer storm.

"An image of cosmic war is like that. We must not get caught up in this imagined war," he says.

mnirmala@sph.com.sg

This is a weekly series featuring people in the fight against terror.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 31, 2014

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