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Are terrorists just too religious?

Exodus’ biblical terrorist? Artist’s depiction of the Angel of Death killing all Egyptian first- borns to terrify the Pharaoh to release the Israelites.

The Manila Times, April 28, 2013

Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/ /Imagine all the people / Living life in peace — “Imagine” by John Lennon

THERE is something deeply disturbing about terrorism, and it is not just the horrific killing of innocents, as in the death of an 8-year old boy and two other bystanders in the Boston bombing.

It is its nature that while it is a most gruesome deed, it is done not to satisfy the terrorist’s basest, selfish impulses—as ordinary crimes are— but for something he believes, or thinks he believes, is a noble cause, something that is bigger than his small self.

Bin Laden is most probably a megalomaniac mass murderer, but after all has been said, there is still that lingering question why a scion of a Saudi Arabian clan would devote his life and probably his billions of dollars to what he believed was a holy war against the US infidel that he even reveled in the killing of 5,000 human beings in the World Trade Center carnage.

The suspected Boston bombers—especially the 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tarnaev— could have lived a comfortable life in the US. They instead believed that they had to risk their lives to kill people for what they thought is some higher good. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 of his fellow Americans in his bombing of an Oklahoma building in his belief that this would spark a revolt against what he believed was a tyrannical US state. Terrorism seems to arise from some deep human impulse, albeit in a perverted version: Man’s need to transcend himself, to become part of bigger whole. Yes, quite ironically, it’s the same impulse responsible for much of humanity’s achievements and its religions.

You would be surprised that a defining mythic episode of Judaism and Christianity would fall under most definitions of terrorism.

In the Exodus, because plagues and infestation weren’t enough, it was the killing by the Angel of Death of all Egyptians’ first-born that convinced the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. If that were true, it was terrorism on a genocidal scale. With an estimated Egyptian population of 3.5 million at that time, that would have meant the killing of about a million innocent firstborns, from those in the cradle to the elderly nearing the grave—in order to terrify the Pharaoh.

The Old Testament indeed relates many episodes of terrorism, an indication that such atrocities were not rare in ancient times. When some Israelites began to worship other gods, Numbers 25: 3-4 narrates that Yahweh ordered Moses, to terrify them: “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun.”

Could all these Biblical accounts of an angry God killing innocents for His higher purpose been etched in humanity’s collective consciousness that the notion that to murder for such lofty aims is all right? Indeed, this justification was obviously that of the Spanish Inquisition, which ordered thousands of “heretics” burned to the stake. Even (St.) Thomas More, a lawyer, social philosopher, and Renaissance humanist had six “heretics”— actually the first Protestants—executed when he was Lord Chancellor.

It isn’t terrorism but a heinous crime when a gang kidnaps a tycoon’s and demand millions of pesos in ransom. It was terrorism though when the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped tourists in Dos Palmas and demanded ransom, and claim that they did it as part of their jihad to establish an Islamic state. It seems there has to be a broader, even higher purpose for a violent act to be classified as “terrorist.”

But the religious would point out that the most horrific episodes of terrorism—to broaden the use o—f the term —are those committed by atheists—Hitler most especially, if one believes he rejected his childhood Catholicism, as well as the communist megalomaniacs Stalin, Mao, and even Khmer Rouge Pol Pot.

But these mass murderers also didn’t kill for fun, or to amass fortunes. In the same manner that the faithful believe in some higher (Divine) purpose, these mass terrorists believed in something bigger than themselves (defined by what they thought by history and “rationality”), the achievement of which for them justified the killing of millions of innocents.

For Hitler, it was the Nietzchean idea of a Superman, which he believed the “Aryan” race of Germans was destined create in this world, and along the way to eradicate from the earth the Jewish pestilence. Communism on the other hand is a secularized religion without God, in which conceptual constructs as God and Heaven were simply substituted for History and the Classless Society.

However, what we often miss about the likes of Stalin and Mao, Bin Laden, and for that matter about Christian preachers like “Brother” Eddie and “Brother” Mike as well as most do-gooders, is that their purported dedication to a higher cause—whether it is God’s will or for a non-exploitative system —is an elaborate ego trip of immense proportions. Theirs isn’t really a real concern for people, but an ego-feeding enterprise to be God’s representatives on earth or Humanity’s “vanguards.”

While terrorism has obviously not been an exclusively Islamic phenomenon, most of the terrorist episodes in the modern world and the most horrific (i.e., 9-11) were perpetrated as part of fundamentalists’ jihad, or holy war.

But this is due not to Islam as a religion per se. It could simply to the fact that the people Western colonizers oppressed in the Middle East, and helped expel in Palestine to create the Jewish state of Israel, were for some quirk of history, Christian. That is, if Western colonizers were instead Muslims, and people in the Middle East Christians, would the predominant religion of terrorists be Christianity?

However, based on his database of every documented suicide bombing from 19802003, political scientist Robert Pape claimed that “there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions.” He concluded that that “suicide bombers’ actions stem from political conflict, not religion.”

The reality may be a mix of the secular and the “sacred.” A member of an oppressed community can muster the audacity to undertake such an extraordinary political action as terrorism only if he can block his “hard-wiring” as a human being who can vicariously feel the suffering of others. It is only religion that can do that. And one would have to have an inflated, overdeveloped sense of ego to think of embarking on such a project.

Terrorists may be simply just too religious. John Lennon in his Imagine was right.