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Religious Terrorism as Symbol, Ritual & Performance Violence

Is Religious Violence a Type of Religious Ritual in a Cosmic Drama?

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Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence

The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, right? Terrorism is designed to frighten people into submitting to some group's desires which have not been achieved through the normal political process, right? Those are the most common assumptions about terrorism, but when it comes to religious terrorism there can be far more involved. For religious terrorists, one of the goals isn't so much to terrorize people but to create symbols of a larger, grander, even cosmic struggle of God against Evil.

In Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Mark Juergensmeyer explains:

Whether or not one uses "terrorist" to describe violent acts depends on whether one thinks that the acts are warranted. To a large extent the use of the term depends on one's world view: if the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict. ...

By calling acts of religious terrorism "symbolic," I mean that they are intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye. ...Such explosive scenarios are not tactics directed toward an immediate, earthly, or strategic goal, but as dramatic events intended to impress for their symbolic significance.

Tactics designed to achieve a goal can be approached in a rational, reasonable manner — one can, for example, offer to negotiate and suggest a partial goal as part of a larger, compromise settlement. Dramatic events that are part of a grand, cosmic drama, however, are different. How can you negotiate with someone who believes they are playing a role in a drama where God has written the lines, created the plot, and decided on the events of each act? How can you compromise with someone who believes that they are acting on instructions from God — instructions which they dare not disobey?

The very adjectives used to describe acts of religious terrorism — symbolic, dramatic, theatrical — suggest that we look at them not as tactics but as performance violence. In speaking of terrorism as "performance violence," I am not suggesting that such acts are undertaken lightly or capriciously. Rather, like religious ritual or street theater, they are dramas designed to have an impact on the several audiences that they affect. Those who witness the violence — even at a distance, via the news media — are therefore a part of what occurs. ...Terrorist acts, then, can be both performance events, in that they make a symbolic statement, and performative acts, insofar as they try to change things. ...

Public ritual has traditionally been the province of religion, and this is one of the reasons that performance violence comes so naturally to activists from religious backgrounds. ...The victims of terrorism are targeted not because they are threatening to the perpetrators ...but because they are "symbols, tools, animals or corrupt beings" that tie into "a special picture of the world, a specific consciousness" that the activist possesses.

The use of the term "ritual" might be seen by some as an attempt to minimize terrorist acts, but quite the opposite is the case. As rituals, terrorist acts of violence are timed, scripted and specially staged for all involved: activists, victims, and audiences. As ritual, the acts of violence are given symbolic meaning which goes far beyond the immediate targets. Religion thus transforms the brutality and bloodshed into something transcendent and holy.

Without the sanctifying effect of ritual, terrorist acts would be mere thuggery. That is what many critics of religious terrorism see, and why they so often fail to fully grasp what is going on.

Consider something similar reported by Aidan Delgado, an Army Reservist in the 320th Military Police Company who witnessed brutality at Abu Ghraib:

The prisoners were protesting nightly because of their living conditions. ...The guards asked permission to use lethal force. They got it. They opened fire on the prisoners with the machine guns. They shot twelve and killed three. I know because I talked to the guy who did the killing. He showed me these grisly photographs, and he bragged about the results.

"Oh," he said, "I shot this guy in the face. See, his head is split open." He talked like the Terminator. He shot this guy in the groin, he took three days to bleed to death." I was shocked. This was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. He was a family man, a really courteous guy, a devout Christian. I was stunned and said to him: "You shot an unarmed man behind barbed wire for throwing a stone." He said, "Well, I knelt down. I said a prayer, stood up and gunned them all down." There was a complete disconnect between what he had done and his own morality. [emphasis added]

This should make it clear how difficult it will be to end cultures of religious violence. Religious terrorists believe that they are in a cosmic struggle of good vs. evil: compromising with evil is not an option, and allies who try will become new enemies. Religious terrorists take a very long-term view of things and do not feel the need to "win" this year or next year — if it takes a hundred years to achieve their aims, they will pursue the violence for that long.

This should also make clear why religious terrorism can be worse and more difficult to end than non-religious terrorism. It's not impossible that terrorists motivated by something other than religion could see themselves involved in a cosmic drama, but it's also not likely. This makes it more likely for non-religious terrorists to be willing to come to the table and agree to a negotiated, compromise settlement. It's also not impossible for non-religious terrorists to see their violent acts as rituals, but again it's also not likely. For non-religious terrorists, their violence likely to remain a tactic rather than holy or transcendent.

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