The human reasoning behind religious extremists

“Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization” by Reza Aslan

On 4 November 1995, a Jewish man called Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin after the prime minister signed the Oslo Peace Accord, which promised to return lands seized in 1967 to the Palestinians as the first step towards a long lasting peace.

Yigal Amir has since been branded a radical, a zealot, a madman, and even a terrorist. But in his mind he’s only trying to safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of biblical Israel. And Rabin’s move, in his view, regressed the utopian dream of the totality of the Promised Land, because Israel needs to occupy all off the lands to ensure the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Indeed, Judaism and Christian Evangelist believe that the Kingdom of Heaven will finally come, and Jesus Christ will come down to Earth once again, when the 3rd rebuilding of the Temple Mount occur in the religious quarter in Jerusalem (the First Temple Mount was built in 957 BC but destroyed in 587 BC, and the Second Temple was built in 516 BC before destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD).

But the problem is, in the exact location where the Temple should be now resides the Dome of Rock, which is sacred for Muslims as it is the spot from where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ascended to heaven (the Dome of Rock was built more than 600 years later after the Second Temple was destroyed, in the year 692, which then collapsed in 1015, before being rebuilt in 1023 that lasts until today).

To fundamentalist Jews and Christians, this coming of Kingdom of Heaven prophecy somehow justifies Israel government’s awful treatment on the Palestinians, which became the basis of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s style of leadership. And in response, in their first free election in 2006 the Palestinians decided to ditch the pacifist Fatah and voted to give the leadership role to Hamas, which often resort to retaliate violence with violence that often associated with terror attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian relationship, with extremists in both sides, becomes regressively worse since then.

This is by far the most comprehensive book on the history of extremism. It shows the government policies that triggered extremists to react in a dramatic fashion, or terror attacks that in turn prompted governments to impose dramatic measures. It explains the philosophical and theological roots of some of the most notorious extremists in history from multiple religions, which actually shows that religious fundamentalists are not as “crazy” as they are portrayed to be. Instead, they are surprisingly rational, calculated, and also championing social justice although for a very different indoctrinated justifications.

Central to the fundamentalists’ world view is the idea of cosmic war. As the author Reza Aslan puts it, “[t]he concept of cosmic war which in its simplest expression refers to the belief that God is actively engaged in human conflicts on behalf of one side against the other.” It is also the belief that it is not humans that are fighting on behalf of God, but instead God who fights on behalf of humans and using us as a some kind of pawn or soldier.

This is not a new phenomenon, however, because “[w]hen the Babylonians conquered Mesopotamia, they did so not in the name of their king but in the name of their god, Marduk, who was believed to have sanctioned, initiated, and commanded each battle. The same holds true for the Egyptians and their god Amun-Re; the Assyrians and their god, Ashur; the Canaanites and their god, Baal; and, most especially, the Israelites and their god, Yahweh.”

Or in a more recent history, it is what fueled the spirit of the Christian soldiers when in 1099 they launched the First Crusade to slaughter Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem to “take back” the city, with the Crusaders rallied to the cause with the justification of Holy War in God’s name. It is the same justification used by Salah al-Din who then recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, and eventually the Zionists in 1948 who captured the Palestinian land and created the state of Israel. It is also the same justification used by Al Qaeda when launching their terror attacks, George W. Bush on his “crusade” in Afghanistan and again in Iraq using false WMD claims, the counter-attack by Iraqis on fighting the invaders, and the many ISIS and ISIS-affiliate attacks across the world.

Instrumental to this cosmic war view is the role of framing. As Aslan commented, “[s]uccessful framing has the power to translate vague feelings of anger and resentment into tangible, easy-to-define grievances. It can also connect local and global grievances that may have little or nothing to do with one another under a “master frame” that allows a movement’s leaders to encompass the wider interests and diverse aspirations of their members.”

“These so-called “frame alignment techniques””, Aslan continues, “allow social movements like Jihadism to more easily create in-groups and out-groups. They help identify and, more important, vilify the enemy. They can even assist movement leaders in marking neutral bystanders as either sympathetic or antagonistic to the movement’s cause, all with the aim of compelling people to join the movement and do something about their grievances.”

In other words, framing helps converting the collective identity into collective action. And one of the easiest manifestation of collective action is violence, which transforms many complicated conflicts into a simple black-and-white view of us versus them. This is applicable in the Jihadist doctrine as well as the War on Terror that kills more casualties and destroys more countries than the Jihadists could ever wish for.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book for me is the realisation that there is not much difference between the marginalised extremists throwing rocks in the street or using amateur suicide bombing as its mean to attacks, and those extremists who can have access to world leaders and much better weaponry, better media influence, and better diplomacy at international levels. It shows the gravest problem that the world is currently facing, with its ego and greed, but it also provides with perhaps the simple (but never easy) solution from Aslan himself: strip down all the religious jargons and justifications and address the real human problems and grievances that lie at their very roots, from their economic to social to political struggles.

Because, as they say, there cannot be peace without justice. But as you can tell from the 1 example from the book on the cosmic battle to control Jerusalem, justice is a highly complicated matter.