Analysis: Violence in Abrahamic faiths

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Oct. 19, 2007 at 5:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- There are similarities between violent extremists of all the Abrahamic religious faiths, according to a new study of ultra-Zionist settlers in Israel, fundamentalist Muslims in Britain and white supremacist Christians in the United States.

The study found that extremists of all three religions shared a black-and-white, them-and-us mentality; saw themselves as victims; and tended to be drawn from alienated communities that were either culturally or geographically isolated from the mainstream of society.

The study, conducted by the East-West Institute, a non-partisan global think tank based in New York, Moscow and Brussels, started from the proposition that “there was something to be learned by looking at violent extremism across religious faiths,” institute Vice President Neville Bugwadia told United Press International.

“Religiously motivated violence exists across all of three of the Abrahamic faiths,” reads the study, which aimed “to better comprehend and confront recruitment and incitement to violence, regardless of which faith is claimed as ideological justification” by “focusing on what compels individuals to take violent action in the name of religion, and to recruit others to do likewise -- and in what manner religion plays a role in these decisions.”

Bugwadia said each of the three case studies was done by a researcher with relevant experience, and their work was reviewed at a major conference over the summer attended by religious leaders, officials from the U.S. and Middle Eastern governments, and academics.

He said the institute, which is supported by individual, corporate and charitable donations, as well as “a small amount” from several Scandinavian governments, received no special funding for the study -- which was part of its commitment to research tough problems threatening global stability.

“We are aiming to give policymakers and opinion formers conclusions they can use,” he said. Religious and other civil society leaders “can’t rely on governments to take the lead.”

The study’s authors write of a need to “engage more religious leaders in forcefully speaking out against extremist violence and its putative theological underpinnings.”

One similarity the study found between the different groups of violent extremists it examined was a way of seeing the world in absolute black-and-white terms, with no room for shades or subtleties; and in which those who disagree, even within the same religious group, are ostracized and can be marked for death.

“The foundation of the three movements on which this book focuses is a Manichean worldview,” reads the study. “Regardless of faith, culture, ethnicity, geography, or socio-economic status, for all of the cases (we) examined it is ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ where ‘them’ can be members of the same faith, and those willing to compromise pure beliefs are branded as apostates.”

In each of the case studies, the authors found, “religion was rarely the objective cause of violence. Instead, religion was distorted into a rationale and sanction for the commission of violent acts and to incite recruits to commit violence.”

The study’s authors stress that, even within extremist or fundamentalist groups, only a small proportion will actually commit violent acts -- but the way that minority is supported by and draws from a wider movement is another point of comparisons between extremists of different faiths.

“Across all three of our case examples, experts concur that moral support provided by like-minded activists is critically important,” reads the study, highlighting “the important role played by social movement structures and group activities to ideologically reinforce and build support for violent action.”

Such activities included Web sites supporting jailed Christian extremists like Eric Rudolph or members of the Aryan Nation, or lauding “martyrs” like the July 7, 2005, London transit suicide attackers.

The study quotes former FBI official Michael German as emphasizing the importance of the “above-ground group” that “helps sustain the political and ideological identity that participants in the violent underground deeply need. It also provides a vehicle for recruiting into the violent wing of the movement.”

In Israel, the study said, one settler group had produced a handbook on resisting interrogation, just as Islamic terror groups have done.

The foundational role of the wider movement leads the authors to re-evaluate the trend known as “self-radicalization” or “bottom-up” recruitment.

In Britain, for example, “Years of police work have disrupted most of the structured groups, radical mosques, and known extremist recruiters” who were the “nodes” of the old recruitment process. “Stricter enforcement against incitement and tighter surveillance of known groups with formal or informal links to violent extremism have driven actors underground, creating a new paradigm of recruitment which is more ad hoc.”

Looking across the three studies, the authors conclude: “It is increasingly the case that recruitment (into violent extremist networks) is neither entirely bottom-up nor top-down. Rather, it often appears that violent actors may initially recruit themselves and then seek out operational support from a wider movement.”

Such wider movements tend to be nurtured in communities that are geographically or culturally isolated to some extent, alienated and see themselves as under attack.

"It is … easier to be extreme in isolated, homogeneous societies like those” in which West Bank settlers live, says the chapter on Israel. “The more people feel alienated and distanced from the mainstream, the shorter the path is to committing violence.”

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