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

by Mark Juergensmeyer
Reviewed date: 2007 Sep 17
243 pages
cover art

In his 2000 book Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer explores the relationship between religion and violence. He begins by examining a number of case studies, including

  • Radical right-wing Christianity in America
  • Protestant-Catholic issues in Northern Ireland
  • Jewish terrorists and assassinations in Israel
  • Islamic terrorism
  • Sikh violence in India
  • The Tokyo subway nerve gas attack

In all these cases, Juergensmeyer notes that the sects that turn to violence are marginal, and are not accepted by the mainstream religions to which they claim affinity. On the other hand, the mainstream religious community can often understand the motivations of the terrorists, if not approve of the methods.

Juergensmeyer identifies several key qualities that tend to lead to religiously-motivated violence:

  • A worldview that interprets history as a cosmic war between good and evil. The struggle is not against earthly institutions, but against heavenly powers. Often this happens when a culture fears for its existence, like the Sikhs fear becoming subsumed into India's dominant Hindu culture.
  • The unavailability of other options, such as the democratic process, to achieve one's goals.
  • The satanization and dehumanization of enemies, as when Islamic fanatics paint America and all Americans as evil, or when radical right-wing groups in America refer to all non-Aryans as mudpeople.

As for the terrorist acts themselves, Juergensmeyer interprets them as performance violence. They are not intended to directly achieve one's goals. They are symbols of a culture war. When Paul Hill murdered an abortion doctor, he wasn't expecting to significantly reduce the number of abortions performed in America; rather, he felt compelled to act to send a message that abortion is murder, and that deadly force is justified to defend the unborn.

The weakest part of Juergensmeyer's book is when he tries to interpret terrorism as a form of male sexual aggression. That, and his continual attempts to paint Timothy McVeigh as a religiously-motivated terrorist. I have just read two McVeigh biographies, and Juergensmeyer is deliberately misrepresenting McVeigh's motives for the Oklahoma City bombing. It is true McVeigh had contact with the radical Christian militia groups--notably the Christian Identity movement--but Juergensmeyer does not distinguish between contact and motivation. He sprinkles his book with unspecified comments about McVeigh's associations and links to Christian Identity--links which are often nothing more than an innocuous phone call, but you wouldn't know that from Juergensmeyer's insinuations. Then he goes into detail about Christian Identity's stated motivations for religious violence, and makes the unwarranted assumption that McVeigh shared those motivations.

I don't know why Juergensmeyer felt he needed to stretch the truth about McVeigh. Not all terrorism is religiously motivated, a point which Juergensmeyer admits more than once. There are plenty of other terrorist incidents that can be legitimately tied to Christian Identity groups, so there is no need to conjure up a fictional version of McVeigh. It calls Juergensmeyer's credibility into account. Even worse, in his public speeches Juergensmeyer is now apparently using McVeigh as a counterpoint to Osama bin Laden, claiming that McVeigh is as "Christian" as bin Laden is "Muslim." That's a lie, of course. McVeigh's motivations were wholly secular (although his crime was enabled and encouraged by a fringe group of Christian lunatics), whereas bin Laden's fatwa against America specifically uses religion to justify violence.

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