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Religion and violence

Sept. 11 attacks focus attention on growing phenomenon

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WASHINGTON — From bloodshed in the Bible and the combat of the Crusades to today's terrorist attacks in the United States and suicide bombings in the Mideast, violence in the name of religion has a long history.

Sept. 11 has focused new attention on the phenomenon, however, with experts citing a greater need for understanding the forces behind it. "Religion is the ideology of protest," said Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of "Terror in the Mind of God."

In the book, Juergensmeyer found that the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War helped create new grounds for conflicts around the world. And fighting in the name of religion has replaced battles pitting the capitalist West versus the communist bloc.

"People are sanctioned to kill in defense of country and defense of religion," Juergensmeyer said. "For some entities, the fight is no longer my form of government against yours. It is my religion and my beliefs against yours."

Just 20 years ago, he noted, the U.S. State Department listing of international terrorist groups included only a handful of religious groups. But by 1998, he said, more than half of terror organizations listed by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were religious in nature.

While some of these groups commit terror in the name of Islamic fundamentalism, that is just one type of religious-based violence — alongside Protestant-Roman Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, cult attacks on Tokyo's subway system in 1995 and the targeting of abortion clinics and their doctors in the United States.

"Every religion in the world has violence committed in its name," Juergensmeyer said.

Researchers who have studied those who carry out such attacks say the victimizers often see themselves as victims.

"People who get into this usually feel deprived in some way — politically, financially or psychologically. They have the feeling something is missing from their lives and others have it," said Jessica Stern, a Harvard researcher who has profiled terrorists in prison.

"Extremists have certain things in common across religious lines, but it seems that Islamic extremists are more successful in mobilizing their young men to their cause than other faiths," Stern said. "I think part of that is because they seem to be as much or more focused on the next life as they are on the present life."

Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said enormous anger is a driving force behind religious violence. "Add to that a sense of moral righteousness and a sense of having a monopoly on truth. What I'm basically describing is a fanatic."

People who use violence for religious ends often carry a sense of righteous indignation, even if they do not voice those strong opinions to others, said Rona Fields, a Washington-based psychologist who has studied terrorists and their organizations since 1970.

"They see their role in life as an avenging angel," Fields said.

Political goals are also a crucial catalyst when violence and religion mix. Said Afsaruddin: "It's the perceived political injustices that fuel the spiral of violence."

Small groups of extremists who use violence in the name of religion are usually led by people with strong personalities and excellent communication skills, said Jay Demerath, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts.

"It's a tight circle of social support where they get someone to be so dedicated to a cause it becomes all-consuming," said Demerath, author of the book "Crossing the Gods — World Religions and Worldly Politics."

Fitting these patterns, he said, are Osama bin Laden and leaders of the hijackers blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks, and members of Hamas, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for some recent deadly suicide bombings in Israel.

Demerath agreed that a political goal — a desire "to change the state structure" — is often a factor for those committing violence in the name of religion.

But there's more, he said. "In most of the cases, the bombers are recruited and they find that gratifying. For the first time, they are very important people. They are given responsibility and are a hero in the name of a cause.

"Suicide bombers are told of all the gifts that await them in the afterlife, but they are also venerated before they go. They see themselves receiving otherworldly rewards, but they are also getting important psychological benefits as well."