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November 16, 2003, Sunday
BOOK REVIEW DESK
Everybody Hates Somebody Somewhere
By Isabel Hilton
TERROR IN THE NAME OF GOD
Why Religious Militants Kill.
By Jessica Stern.
368 pp. New York:
Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.95.
SHORTLY after the 9/11 attacks, I was invited to dinner by a middle-class professional family in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. It was an educated household and I was warmly entertained. It was the kind of home in which I expected to encounter a shared perspective, but I was wrong: my host was convinced that 9/11 was a conspiracy between the Jews and the Pentagon to give a pretext for attacking the Muslim world, and shared at length his suspicion that Freemasons had pulled the West's strings for a millennium. None of that family, as far as I knew, supported acts of terror. But mistrust of the Other and a sense of persecution -- preconditions common to all the terrorists that Jessica Stern encounters -- are worryingly widespread.
In ''Terror in the Name of God,'' Stern recounts her four-year odyssey into the hearts and minds of religious terrorists. She talks to Christian, Jewish and Muslim extremists, violent anti-abortion warriors and admirers of Timothy McVeigh, and discovers how much they have in common. Nothing she finds leads the reader to suppose that any of the religious faiths is inherently more prone to violence than the other: the problem is not the words on the page, but how they are read.
A rough social template can be extrapolated from Stern's account: the leaders of such groups tend to have much younger, attractive and submissive wives who support their views; long hair, robes, veils and conspicuous deference are popular in all three faiths. The leaders tend to live in comfortable houses and enjoy the trappings of their power: large cars, acolytes and bodyguards. They talk in generalities about the justice of their cause and the Almighty's firm support. Those who serve as cannon fodder, on the other hand, are likely to be young, vulnerable, socially disadvantaged and poorly educated, and to have a sense of personal or collective humiliation. Violence for the cause gives them a feeling of purpose, dignity and the transcendent experience of serving, and perhaps dying for, ideals that they regard as pure. With faith, the weak become strong, the selfish become altruistic, and rage turns to conviction.
If some of this sounds predictable, it is not to diminish the interest of Stern's account. A leading expert on terrorism and a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, she has tracked down and interviewed an impressive range of activists in a variety of causes from Florida to Kashmir. On a subject that tends to be richer in rhetoric than in detail, a writer able and willing to get this close is hard to find.
These are not always profoundly penetrating encounters: there is an implicit bargain -- which Stern readily acknowledges -- that if you are allowed across the threshold it is because your interlocutor has an agenda that he imagines will be furthered. Terrorists need people to notice what they do and, for reasons of fund-raising and recruitment, want to convince a wider circle that the cause is just. Perhaps Stern's critics would deem this a reason to stay away, but they would be wrong. She is a levelheaded investigator whose knowledge of the background of groups like these adds perspective to her interviews.
A feeling of complete certainty, let alone absolute purity, is hard to come by in the examined life. To foster the conviction that God supports the murder of innocents requires a tightknit group and a settled hatred of the Other: in these circles, whites hate blacks and Jews; Jews and Christians hate Muslims and vice versa; anti-abortion crusaders hate gynecologists. All of them seem to have it in for homosexuals and most, even the Americans, hate contemporary America. Tolerance and women's rights, as Stern observes, are irritating to those left behind by modernity.
Consider this passage, part of a conversation with one religious extremist: American culture, he tells her, ''is absolutely destroyed by Afro-Americanism. The lowest of the low.'' And: ''America is also causing terrible damage . . . by exporting its culture. American culture should be treated the same as we treat drugs . . . as a poison. . . . In America, people have no education, no religion. They play with computers, television, pop music. These people have no values to fight for.''
Is it a Muslim, raging at the evils of Osama's Great Satan? Is it a Christian in the United States, plotting to blow up another Federal building? It is, in fact, Avigdor Eskin, a millenarian Jew who believes, rather against the evidence, that the United States is conspiring to destroy Israel. To meet him, Stern, who is careful to share this kind of detail, dressed in a long skirt, long sleeves and a scarf that covered her hair, neck and shoulders completely -- an outfit that would have been equally de rigueur for a meeting with a strict Muslim. And as Eskin himself volunteers, they resemble each other in more than their dress code: ''Here in Israel, we don't like to say this very loudly, but the radical right Jewish groups have a lot in common with Hamas.'' Both, Stern adds, have twin political and religious objectives and both use selective readings of religious texts and of history to justify violence over territory.
If to the outsider the manners are similar, each group believes itself to be uniquely favored by the Almighty, and each individual follows his own trajectory. A Palestinian suicide bomber might be suffering from what Stern describes as the epidemic of despair that afflicts his people. An American Identity Christian who was sickly as a child still burns with the humiliation of being made to join a girls' gym class at school. A young madrassah student in Pakistan says that the day he came to the religious school was the first time in his life he had enough food to eat or clothes to wear; two of his fellow pupils tell her that education and wealth are the two greatest threats to their cause.
The argument is often a fight about land and resources expressed through the powerful ideologies of identity. Some groups -- the mujaheddin who fought in Afghanistan or the Muslim warriors in Indonesia -- were created by state security services but have now escaped from control. Most enjoy ample funds and money has become, for many, a reason for continuing the war.
In between her interviews, Stern offers a cogent analysis of methodologies and structures: she distinguishes between lone-wolf avengers and organizations with hierarchies of command, between networks, franchises and freelancers, between inspirational leaders and leaderless resistance. She lays out the impact of the post-9/11 war on terror on organizations like Al Qaeda and confirmed my suspicion that both the rhetoric and the reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have boosted their numbers without crippling their capacity to harm. To fight today's terrorism with an army is like trying to shoot a cloud of mosquitoes with a machine gun.
The hard part, of course, is what to do instead. Stern describes how winner-take-all globalization provokes powerful resentment in a wide range of communities. Failed states, weak or tyrannical governments, social deprivation, arbitrary use of power and a perception of injustice -- all help generate recruits. The Internet and the easy availability of weapons helps empower the discontented. On an individual level, though, why one true believer in search of a transcendent experience should become a saint and another a terrorist seems to be chance: it can come down to the wrong company at the vulnerable moment. On a global scale, Stern ventures some general policy advice, without claiming to offer a solution. As a description of the problem, though, this is a serious and provocative beginning.
Isabel Hilton is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of ''The Search for the Panchen Lama.''
Published: 11 - 16 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 50