- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Al Qaeda and its myriad affiliates — whether as organized groups or self-radicalized “wannabes” — pose a grave threat to international security because they believe themselves to be divinely inspired to carry out mass destruction against their “apostate” adversaries all over the world.

The threat radical Islamists pose is not merely terrorist warfare but cultural warfare, as well. What makes their cultural aggression dangerous is that it is directed against Western values as well as mainstream Muslim tendencies. Salafi Islam, their primary religious identity, is anti-modern and nihilistic (which is why they turn to terrorist tactics to strike at their adversaries), so it is important to understand why their adherents opt for a violent form of religious extremism rather than more constructive and progressive religious ideologies.

These are the central issues facing the counterterrorism community as it searches for solutions to the kind of terrorist activities that threaten the survival of our civilization.

In “Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism,” Neil J. Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Paterson University, incisively addresses these issues.

What is religious extremism? To Mr. Kressel, whose previous books include “Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror,” religious extremists are “those persons who — for reasons they themselves deem religious — commit, promote or support purposely hurtful, violent, or destructive acts toward those who don’t practice their faith.”

It is not only Islam that fosters religious extremism, Mr. Kressel points out. Christianity and Judaism have their share of anti-secularists who elevate sacred religious texts, such as the Bible or Koran, to a position of supreme authority in a state. However, fundamentalist believers in these three religions adhere to “widely divergent perspectives.”

What sets Islamic extremism apart from extremism in Christianity and Judaism, in the modern world, is that their fundamentalist believers form a larger percentage in the Muslim world, their ideology is filled with hatred and “the consequences [and destruction] they have produced are worlds apart.” In other words, today’s Islamic extremists are far more dangerous than other religious fundamentalists.

What are the characteristics of religious beliefs that lead to extremist militancy and terrorism? According to Mr. Kressel, such beliefs assert that non-believers are destined for eternal damnation, non-believers are hated by God, non-believers must not blaspheme against God, faith should be spread by military means, people cannot freely convert out of their religion, non-believers are not allowed to live in geographical locations controlled by members of the dominant religion, any method is justified if it is used to implement God’s will, and God prefers men to women, with women living in a subjugated role.

While many of these beliefs characterize elements in mainstream religions (Orthodox Judaism, for example, opposes the ordination of women as rabbis and imposes sanctions on inter-marriage), Mr. Kressel argues that “the danger is greatest when individuals and ideologies embrace four tendencies: 1) opposition to compromise with those who see things differently; 2) acceptance of religious ends as justification for any means; 3) willingness to assume the role of defender of God’s honor by punishing all those who show disrespect; and 4) a drive to obtain heavenly rewards without regard for the earthly consequences of behavior.” The latter tendency, in particular, is responsible for influencing the practice of suicide “martyrdom” operations by Islamic terrorists.

While Mr. Kressel is critical of religious extremism, this is emphatically not an anti-religion treatise. He recommends that once a religiously extremist minority within a religion begins to act violently, then mainstream leaders must immediately identify and “self-police” such outbreaks. In this way, constructive elements have the best chance of overtaking destructive ones.

As Mr. Kressel concludes, “only Muslims can delegitimize and root out Muslim extremists in a lasting way. The struggle must come from within and, despite the West’s vast resources, good intentions, and occasionally important support, this must, ultimately, be a battle waged by Muslims for the heart of their culture.”

All those in the counterterrorism community who wish to understand and respond to the characteristics of religious extremism that lead to terrorism will greatly benefit from reading Mr. Kressel’s important book.

Joshua Sinai is a program manager for counterterrorism studies at the Analysis Corp.

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