Review: Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern

By Kevin Eckstrom

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill
Jessica Stern
ecco/Harper Collins, $27.95, 368 pages

One of the most unsettling aspects of the September 11 terrorist hijackers was their ability to morph easily into American life. Suddenly, the Muslim extremists who wanted us dead were no longer just screaming caricatures waving AK-47s in the streets of Tehran; they were living among us. From anti-government separatists in Arkansas to militant Jerusalem Zionists to an executed killer of an abortion provider, Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God describes a new breed of religious terrorists who defy conventional labels. Religious violence, she says, is anything but a Muslim phenomenon.

Her key question is what would make an otherwise God-fearing man or woman take up arms in a perverted expression of religious devotion. What is it that so motivates—and justifies—a war against the infidels? Stern finds her answers in her one-on-one visits with terrorists in Palestinian refugee camps, in the militarized valleys of Kashmir, and at a banquet of the “save-the-babies” movement against abortion. Religious terrorism, at its heart, is an ends-justify-the-means attempt to purify a polluted culture of any number of dangerous influences. “Holy war intensifies the boundaries between Us and Them,” Stern writes, and lays out in strict black and white a world that is increasingly gray. While some—like Paul Hill, who was executed last year for the 1994 murder of an abortion doctor—sentence only the truly “guilty” to death, others, like Osama bin Laden, target entire civilizations. Innocents (even Muslims) caught in the crossfire are treated as “collateral damage.”

Terrorist leaders exploit the grievances of poverty, dispossessed land, historical wrongs, and perceived cultural ills to recruit foot soldiers in their holy wars, Stern writes. Often the recruits are emasculated, frequently humiliated, drifters whose search for purpose and mission finds hope in the promises of eternal rewards. “People join religious terrorist groups partly to transform themselves and to simplify life,” writes Stern, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly of the National Security Council and the Council on Foreign Relations. “They start out feeling humiliated, enraged that they are viewed by some Other as second class. They take on new identities as martyrs on behalf of a purported spiritual cause. The spiritually perplexed learn to focus on action….Uncertainty and ambivalence, always painful to experience, are banished.”

Terror in the Name of God is not billed as a theological treatise on the abuse of religious faith in the name of terrorism. Indeed, much of the book is a platform for Stern’s exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—expertise on terrorism in all its forms. She devotes little time or space to finding ways for religion to correct its own internal compass, beyond saying that society must not succumb to the “spiritual dread” sewn by terrorists. But, in a subtle yet stunning rebuke of U.S. foreign policy, Stern proposes that Americans can no longer ignore the conditions that help fuel the terrorism virus. We can no longer look the other way at the sight of conditions such as despotic governments, rampant poverty, gratuitous sex and violence in American entertainment, or Israeli “double standards” in their treatment of the Palestinians, she believes. We must combat the growing perception that only what is good for Washington is good for the rest of the world.

In her final analysis, Stern unearths why the war on terrorism is fundamentally a fight over irreconcilable values, not religion, culture, or territory. Americans, she said, embrace the idea that “every human being is inestimably valuable, whatever his race, gender or religion. Another is our commitment to freedom of religion, but not freedom to murder for religious reasons. These, alas, are values that put us fundamentally at odds with our foes.”

Kevin Eckstrom covers Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and politics for Religion News Service. He lives in Washington, D.C.