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  Religious Fanaticism As A Factor

In Political Violence


Professor Dr. Bernard Schechterman

University of Miami

Schechterman is a professor, consultant & former chairperson in the Department of Politics and Public Affairs at the University of Miami. He is Chief Editor of the Political Chronicle, an editor with The Journal of Political Science, and an editorial consultant with The Middle East Review. In 1987 co-authored Multidimensional Terrorism. Dr. Schechterman is MECRA's special profile guest for this issue. 


"Within the time frame of this course (Political Terrorism)

there will be a major terrorist event some where in the world."

Professor Dr. Bernard Schechterman




The growth in worldwide violence has had a direct impact on the prevalence and persistence of humane and civil behavior amongst peoples within and between states. There are numerous forms of violent behavior---political terrorism, racial, ethnic, and religious warfare, sexual abuse, athletic brutality, moral perversions, etc.---all excesses that abound at the local, regional, and world levels of human activities. The growing interdependence of peoples and governments engenders overlapping forms of violent behavior; i.e., drug trade warfare aimed at wealth accumulation to finance political terrorism or outright military activities. The capabilities of the current communication and transportation technologies not only facilitates the practice and application of violent modes of behavior, i.e., skyjacking, kidnapping, but has intensified its prospects now and into the future.

Religious fanaticism, one expression of Eric Hoffer's True Believer outlook, is neither new nor likely to disappear from history. It is currently in a high cycle of intensive activity everywhere we look. Aside from the obvious fact that such beliefs are extreme forms of thinking and frightening in their rhetoric, what other concerns should be our focus of attention? The mere espousal of ideas is not the most disturbing element in religious fanaticism, in view of the fact that many systems in the past have been relegated to the pile heap of historical irrelevancies.

The key concern is the (re) emergence of fanatical viewpoints among the long established and widely adhered to world religions of the past and current world scene. The major religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., their variations, plus "cultist movements" have recently been in the throes of "revivalist" and "fratricidal conflict" tendencies that affect all religious believers, and even the non-believers of this world.

The most immediate ramification in not whether, but to what extent religious fanaticism produces violent behavior. Those idea or value systems that stress or exaggerate their exclusivity or totality of wisdom do more than differentiate themselves from other. Deprecation by comparison with others, when emphasized and propagandized regularly, is often a contributing cause of violence. The most negative and ultimate implication of such behavior is its legitimization of the use of force, coercion and even terrorism against your own or other peoples.

The word "genocide" was coined to characterize the deliberate and systematic liquidation activities used by any fanatics as the ultimate form of violence against those that are different. In more fortunate circumstances, relatively speaking, the religious fanatics may be content simply to impose their views on the "others."

This form of willful behavior is no less a violent act than the formal physical brutalization of a person It is a violence committed against the critical underpinnings of the substantive human being, their deepest and personal held beliefs.

The broadest ramification of religious fanaticism is its perversion of the normative civic and social restraints necessary to its stability and continuity of a particular pluralistic social system or worldwide diversities. Since there are no completely homogeneous societies, the dependency of social order and peaceful growth on the functional unity and tolerance among people is widely understood and acknowledged by thoughtful people. Religious fanaticism, by virtue of its divisive impact, wreaks havoc on an established stability or may even preclude its achievement, especially among the newer independence and less developed nations of the world.


The Context of This Phenomenon

It is not surprising that in recent years we have seen a universal tendency towards religious revivalism. Americans tend to focus on the phenomenon of "Christian fundamentalism," in both its Evangelical and Pentecostal variations, with their stress on "born-again Christianity." Middle East and foreign policy specialists focus on the current cycle of "Islamic fundamentalism, " range from Pakistan to Morocco, with the greatest emphasis on Khomeinism, Qadafi's "third way," and the Muslim Brotherhoods. Israelis and Judaica experts have identified and been debating the "ultra-orthodoxy" trend among some Jews linked to both the American and Israeli scene, although the former aspect has been less studied or understood. Western specialists from three continents, Latin America, North America and Europe, have been high-lighting the phenomenon called "liberation theology," found especially among many of the Catholic Church clergy. The African continent, not to be outdone, has been the focus of analogous Protestant ministries' "third world radical social conscious movement, "much of it emanating from western clergy, but also found among indigenous church leaders. Recent events in India confirm both the willingness of Sikhs and Hindus to espouse as well as act out extreme versions of their religious views. All of this is capped by a generation-long dynamic of "cult or fringe movements" coming to the forefront as a further expression of extremist commitments. Some of the "cults" reflect newly emergent groups while others have long, established histories but a new attentiveness as part of the broad religious revival. All of the above examples, separately, but especially together, beg an obvious question--- are we looking at a set of coincidental, but unique factors at work or are there some common threads of circumstances that underlie and help as to examine these events?

Examining the overall picture, certain common denominator factors seem to have been at work throughout the world. World War II, like its predecessor universal conflagrations, World War I, Napoleonic Wars, etc., represented a critical juncture point in the existent and perceived relationships between peoples and between governments. War serves to destabilize prevalent patterns, norms and continuities in behavior as well as opening up opportunities for new developments and mobilities. Following the War, Europe centric politics gave way to two peripheral superpowers preeminence plus the emergence of newer potential power centers in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This basic change in the equilibrium of relations of several hundred years of European domination, itself a successor to hundreds of years of Islamic rule, has brought forth many questions and troubled times. In Europe the decline failed to go unchallenged, as witnessed by the chauvinistic reassertiveness of DeGaulle's France and Eden's Great Britain. After their efforts failed, most Europeans sought revival by secular identification with either of the superpowers. Others reacted by identifying with escapist "third world radicalism." Disenchantment with the unproductive and dissatisfactory secularism has led to the revival of traditional values---family, ethnicity and religion. For some Europeans, exporting their religious commitment to Africa and Asia is supposed to be the fulfillment of their own religious orientation and proof of its viability in the solution of troubling problems.

In the newer world regions, the great trauma of the independent nations has been associated with the post-war crisis of self-determination, whether granted or obtained by force from previous. The problem began with the disturbing and obvious fact that the West served as the intellectual and political source for the ideas of "freedom and independence." Elites, who have in most instances led their peoples to independence based on these ideas, were confronted by the anachronistic circumstances of traditional societies beholden to completely different value systems. Though not always understood and appreciated, the attempt to introduce or impose external values on status quo or highly conservative population has had explosive ramifications*. In developing countries, the trauma of change, remains the most fundamental threat to a populace accustomed to established norms for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In the less developed nations, the people have reacted negatively to either one or two attempted changes....

1. elites making new demands by subtracting additional resources (taxes, good and services) in contrast to what had been the accepted relationship,

2. Failure to carry out or alter by the rulers the largesse agreed to and paid out to the populace over previous eras. Attempts to change the traditional way of doing things produces uncertainty, concern and eventually severe reactions intended to retain or reconstitute the status quo ante.

The uncertainties associated with the new complexities of independence have produced for some peoples, in the short run, "a revolution of rising expectations." In the long run, the failure at sufficient progress or fulfillment of these expectations leads to a rejection of the new ideas. This is usually followed by a reactive pattern of return to the past certainties of family, ethnicity, and especially the catchall value system, religion.

For a post-war emergent superpower like the United States, some people react to the brevity of the era of Pax Americana. If we have gone into eclipse, and a search ensues for the meaning of events, some people believe that by reverting to the traditional values of family, ethnicity (patriotism), and religious values, America may resume her greatness. An analogy is often made in intellectual circles with Europe's post-war decline The lack of international understanding and uncertainties among substantial segments of the American public, many identified with the era of a simple rural past, opens them up to both religious revivalism and extremism. All of the above overlooks the traditional religious revulsion in American society to great power status or activism in world affairs usually expressed by "pacifism" and "isolationism."

The other significant thread of explanation of our era lies in another universal phenomenon, the rise of the post-war "technetronic age."

Quantum/qualitative leaps forward are extremely distressing because they are either misunderstood or cause havoc among substantial segments of every population, whether a less developed or developed nation. Many people simply cannot cope with the momentous transformation requirements embodied in a challenging technological revolution with all its social, economic and political ramifications. Throughout history, rather than accept fundamental change, opposition, and resistance have been the reactive pattern of behavior; i.e., the Luddites in England. This reaction is usually paired with the reassertion of old certainties and the older social system. As the new materialist forces' intrusion progresses, the frightened and traumatized ultimately opt for a religious revival (viewed as fundamental and totalistic). "Cults" are often a variation of this phenomenon, identified with introspective and self-contained "communalism," or the retreating "return to the land;" i.e., Reverend Jones and Guyana, various Indian Gurus, etc. As specific efforts they represent an attempt to recapture the world of agrarian simplicity in the distant past. This phenomenon is as true for both developed and the less developed countries. In all societies, moving from one stage of history to another is a shattering experience for everyone, but especially for those least prepared intellectually and emotionally.


Surveying the World--The Middle East Region

The cycle of "Islamic fundamentalism" we are currently observing was first identified in the United States in an article by Bernard Lewis in Commentary magazine (1972). Since this occurred before the rise of Khomeini in Iran, it directs our attention to a wider regional phenomenon.

The Islamic world had been in a state of decline for several hundred years before the Napoleonic (Western World) intrusion at the end of the 18th Century. The intrusion served as a new concern as well as an additional catalyst for questioning and seeking a response to the decline. Different secular value system challenged and threatened basic doctrines and institutions. Liberal nationalism focused on the central ideas of both individual man and the positive state as opposed to the overpowering Creator and His universe. Socialist ideologies promised paradise on this earth and not salvation in the other world. The all-encompassing sense of religion was being downgraded into a single variable in human relations, and not even the critical one at that. Behind all this change stood an overwhelming triumph of military, technological and economic might identified with Europe. How could one explain and defend the Islamic umma's failure to the community of believers. After centuries of successful growth and predominance in all human endeavors, the Islamic world was not only stagnant, but actually in decline. Thus the origin of the term "the sick man of Europe" for the last Islamic (Ottoman Turkey) Empire. Instead of events having confirmed the path and endorsement of God, something had gone terribly wrong with the Islamic enterprise.

Confronted by these distracting historical circumstances, the Islamic world, especially between Morocco and Pakistan, developed several explanations and responses. Direct contacts with Western values led various elites to adopt and put into operation external ideas, hoping to make their region competitive with the Western power centers. This explains the significance and roles of the American University at Beirut, American University at Cairo, and Roberts College in Turkey as indigenous transfer centers for Western values. The specific outcome in many instances was the Christianization of the elites, their advocacy of political nationalism and Western institutions, and attempts to introduce the economic practices and military technologies of the West.

All of this was largely rejected a alien to the norms and traditional of Islamic world and the traditional public's lifestyle. The "Crusader Syndrome," which reflected deep animosity to the infidel European, strongly supported this rejection. What must be understood is the nature of an Islamic system, its totalism and linkage of all facets of human relationships. Thinker with any one aspect and you threaten the whole concept and the community as well. The 20th Century versions of perverse Western secularism, totalitarianism of the right and left, gave Islamic critics even more ammunition to condemn the West as an inapplicable model.

The Islamic elements (neo-Islamists) responded to the threat by suggesting a synthesis of Western technology with their own value system. True synthesizers have also been rejected, but coopers on a selective idea basis have been more tolerated. For most Islamists the real alternative responses have been either to reform the value system by modernization or to resurrect the pure belief system and original practices of the religion. As a result, "the purists" have carried the day by simply calling for a return to past greatness. According to them, the failures of the past are not due to lack of adaptation to new ideas, but to the initial errors of having departed from the Prophet's ideas. Directly and by inference, Islam purports to have the answers to all the current and future problems. Muamer Qaddafi's "third way" in world and regional politics assumes all positive wisdom, even including the idea of "socialism" originated with Islam. Islam is viewed as an alternative developmental m, but o"true o." It is not surprising that Libya was fertile soil for Qaddafi's fundamentalism, since one of the earliest purification movements, the Sanussi Brotherhoods, began here and dominated this and adjacent areas. A paralled "fundamentalist movement" Mahdism ( a form of misoneism), occurred in the 19th century in neighboring Sudan and was likewise directed against an external threat, Great Britain.

One of the logical imperatives that flow from this kind of circumstance is the resort to violence in behalf of the perfect cause and against the imperfect challenges. 

Even the most secular-type regimes, military dictatorships in places like Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and to certain extent, Libya, have recently accepted the need to legitimize their rule by invoking Islamic principles. In seeking to retain power, Islam has been used to justify repressive, violent behavior against segments of the population. The reverse is equally true--Islamic fundamentalists resort to violence against civil rule for insufficient devotion to theocratic precepts while in power. This latter viewpoint has long been identified with the original and spin-off versions of the Muslim Brethren in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab World (Jordan, Syria, etc.). However, the view seems just as prevalent in non-Arab but Islamic areas such as Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Khomeini's revolution against the Shah of Iran was not only a revulsion against westernization, but an attack on excessive national (Persian) consciousness at the expense of theocratic precepts (in this case Shi's Islam).Khomeinism and its legitimization of violence has been a regional revolt against all the anti-Islamic tendencies found in the Middle East, and whether intended or not, has served as an inspiration for the Arab (and Sunni Islam) areas. The characterization of the representative United States as The Great Satan embodies a total assault on Western values and ideals and the desire to expunge them from influencing the Islamic World by whatever means. Nowhere was this made clearer than in Khomeini's own writings and preaching. His declared war (Jihad) against the outside infidel remains highly disputed as to both ends and means in the Islamic scholarship world. Khomeinism and other Islamic extremists represent a particular interpretation of Koranic and Muslim principles, but unfortunately very influential in practical political terms in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf region. The result is gross endorsement of violent behavior.

Additional explanations and rationalizations of violence as a means towards achieving political objectives can also be found in the Middle East.  

In the struggle for succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, political assassination is quickly established as a legitimate pattern of behavior. 

The reference is to the early beginnings that produced the split between Shii's and Sunni leaderships.

Sectarian conflicts in the Islamic world, by virtue of the indistinguishable secular and religious spheres, are too often resolved by violent behavior using secular institutions. Especially, is this true for minority groups within and outside Islam. Lebanon is an unfortunate example with its 19 officially recognized religious sects. The Druze have basically sought their religious survival in Syria and Lebanon by resort to or threat of violence. Only in Israel have they foregone this mode of behavior to guarantee survival. The Alawite minority's ascension to power in Syria has become a protective mantle against Sunni majority persecution of the past, aside from a means to attain and sustain political power. Coptic Christians in Egypt have once again been resorting to violence as a mode of self-defense as well as political assertiveness. The Maronite Christians have been engaged in the same tactic throughout Lebanese history. The list is limitless because the circumstances are that diverse in the region and the history of attacks and retaliations have been endless. Islam on the one hand respects pluralism but not the equality of diverse sects within its domain. It encourages fanaticism both ways--by its adherents and by dissenters.


Christian Fundamentalism

Although the Middle East region has provided the most recent overt Christian examples of religious views translating into violent behavior for political objectives, i.e., Maronites, Copts, Southern Sudanese tribes, Southern Chad, etc., the explosive potential is much greater at home in America. Both European and American societies have had a long history of the "Christian fundamentalists syndrome" that has invoked either threats or acted in behalf of their "true believer" values. The British-American term "puritan"refers to a narrowness of views and intolerance derived from a totalistic and exclusivistic religious orientation. Though fundamentalism need not express itself in coercive or violent forms of behavior, nor in the political realm, in practice this has been a reoccurring pattern of behavior.

Beginning with America's "theocratic colonies" at its inception stage that used force against dissenters or disbelievers, societal behavior moved on to a vicious anti-Catholicism played out violently in the urban streets an through racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Often times Protestant fundamentalism was joined by European versions of Catholic thinking against the Jewish population in terrible and subtle anti-Semitic outbursts, most especially in the 20th Century. Ministers during the latter half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century expressed a "prosletyzing zeal" for the uninformed and backward abroad, centering their activities on the newly acquired post-Spanish-American War Empire. Often times imbued with the superiority doctrines derived from "Social Darwinism" and economic take-off, violence was condoned as part of the imperial pattern and the implementation of the fundamentalist message; i.e., the Philippines.

One variant of past fundamentalism has been identified as "millenialism," with it focus on momentary expectations of salvation by the Creator. These people opted for a withdrawalist approach to society, awaiting passively the inevitable. They clearly demonstrated both a fear and lack of understanding of the economic and technological boom era surrounding them. Unfortunately, in the post-World War era, although the fundamentalist has evidenced similar concerns as those challenged by dynamic changes, the response pattern has been quite different. Instead of passivity, they have chosen to be active politically, using both legitimate and violent means to express their views. Given the fact that the ballot box is readily available to express differences of viewpoints, it is disturbing to see bombings of abortion clinics and pornographic stores. Threats against libraries, school boards, their staff and public officials or private citizens, with whom they disagree, has become an easy pattern of coercive behavior. The late Herman Khan likened the split between the traditionalists and the exurbanites as akin to class warfare . The division, however, reflects value warfare between the past and its certainties versus the new technetronic era with its uncertainties. The potential for violent explosions has increased as a result of the traditionalist, especially religionist's desire, to sustain or revert back to simplistic and past values, and hold back the future.

Richard Hofstadter has identified another attribute of American fundamentalism. He has subsumed it historically as part of an "anti-intellectual tradition" that despises and resists ideas, especially those that focus on or favor change. "The paranoia syndrome" characterization of this phenomenon indicates the potential as well as ease by which this thought pattern can shift to violent responses. Unfortunately, in personality behavior, violence is the other side of the passive coin.

Another variant of Christian fundamentalism is identified with "liberation theology," found among radicalized Protestant ministers and segments of the Catholic clergy. In a literal sense they claim to be expressing a social coconcern anguiltfor the lesfoin the less developed areas of the world, namely Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, the basic question about this assertiveness does not really revolve around social consciousness, as these advocates often times seem to identify as exclusively their concern. As the Holy Father, the Pope, indicated, the issue is really a question of means. Are the only alternatives to injustice the adoption of Marxist-Leninist, guerrilla warfare, or terrorist approaches? Common to the pattern of secular radicalism, extremist priests and ministers have used, coopted, acquiesced or rationalized violent behavior n these less developed arenas. Must the clergy become political functionaries out and out, as in Nicaragua, too often using their religious positions to disguise secular behavior? Catholicism and Protestantism have positive traditions of concern for "social justice" which represent alternatives modes of influence and for achieving change. It certainly is tactically clever to wrap oneself in the religious cloth and morality position, but the peaceful (reform) approach in the British-American tradition of the 19th-20th Centuries also provided moral and effective means to achieve change and equity. Why not the Martin Luther Kings and Bishop Tutus? The pulpit no longer seems to be a satisfying or complete experience for religious trained leaders. However, here we have a classic example where idealism has led to zealotry.


Jewish Fundamentalism

Orthodox viewpoints in Judaism have usually expressed themselves in a cloistered atmosphere of the Yeshivot (learning centers) or the synagogue itself.  

The intensification of the debate over what kind of Israel (who is a Jew?). And the tension of the Arab-Israeli conflict have produced a politicalization of religious-oriented and committed people. 

Most of the behavioral patterns identified with other fundamentalist movements in the other major religions are apparent here too. Ultra-orthodoxy usually denotes resistance to new ideas, upholding the sanctity and certainly of the past, an attack on secularism as a threat and the advocacy of theocratic models of social and political order. The most extreme version of this view found in Israel, the Naturei Kartd, rejects the State of Israel, and continues to insist on "messianic (divine) delivery a the only means to achieve the prophetic rebirth.

Joining or parallel with lesser orthodoxies, they are given to stone-throwing and physical assault on disbelievers. Of course the sectarian tendencies among the orthodox (fanatic) groups leads to continuous violence among them as to correctness of beliefs and who is more pious. Unfortunately, their adherents have carried their violence into orthodox community settings in the United States (Boro Park, Brooklyn). The lesser orthodoxies have made their accommodation with the existence of a secular state. But this has not foreclosed their political assertiveness through political parties and interest groups. The problem is the Kahane-type extremist that goes beyond the ballot box to violent means directed against Jewish and Arab opponents during and after Israeli elections.

The more liberal segments of American Jewry often resemble their counter-parts in Christianity by supporting and advocating "liberation theology." Reform rabbis reflect the tendency to use the pulpit and the cloth to engage in political activities, failing to distinguish them from religious functions. Moralism has, at times, become a cloak for outright secularism. It has also been a protective mantle for justifying or rationalizing third world radical violence like their Christian counterparts.



In this survey we have only touched superficially upon a burgeoning and frightening problem evident throughout today's world. Unfortunately, the conditions and circumstances that have engendered this phenomenon in the first place continue to prevail and are intensifying for most regions in the world. Fanaticism always represents a simplistic approach to a complex world--past, present, or future. The resort to violent means is also consistent in its simplicity as the response pattern. Demanding thought and action patterns for difficult social, economic and political problems have always been at a disadvantage in individual, state, or world affairs.



"Education Is the Torch of Knowledge!"

Dr. Jamal A. Shurdom


This Issue Profile

Professor Dr. Bernard Schechterman