Religious and Non-Religious Extremism
I thank Professors Guiora and Cliteur for their thoughtful interventions. As I see it, the basic distinction Prof. Guiora draws is between terrorism motivated by religious convictions – “religious terrorism” – and terrorism motivated by non-religious convictions – “non-religious terrorism.” Despite their arguments, though, I fear I am still not persuaded that this distinction is very helpful.
For instance, Prof. Guiora asserts that we should focus on religious terrorism for a practical reason: although non-religious terrorism was important in the past, terrorism today is of the religious variety. He’s right that much contemporary terrorism is religious in nature, maybe even most. But he minimizes the endurance of non-religious terrorism. I’ve already mentioned the Shining Path in Peru. Other examples include ETA in Spain, N17 and its splinter groups in Greece, the New People’s Army in the Philippines and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. None of these groups fits within the category of “religious terrorism,” and, while they are not as effective as they were, one can’t dismiss them as unimportant or merely relics. The Tamil Tigers, the group that invented suicide bombing, were defeated by the Sri Lankan military only last year.
As I understand him, Prof. Cliteur agrees with Prof. Guiora that religious terrorism is distinct from non-religious terrorism – and distinctly dangerous – because religion motivates violence in a way non-religion does not. Although important elements of the three monotheistic faiths encourage violence, he writes, atheism and secularism, in themselves, do not. It’s certainly true that some religious ideologies encourage violence, as I said in my last post. But some non-religious ideologies encourage violence as well, at least if one is to judge by the understanding of the movements that espouse them. Besides, does it really make a difference, practically speaking, if a group believes it must eliminate its opponents in order to instantiate God’s rule on earth rather than to achieve a workers’ paradise or a “homeland for our own kind”? In each case, the group is a threat to civil society that must be contained. For this reason, I would prefer a treatment of extremism full-stop, rather than extremism in the name of religion.
Finally, about extreme religious expression. Prof. Guiora gives the chilling example of the rabbis who incited the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by reciting a pulsa denura outside his home. Prof. Guiora knows much more about the Israeli context than I, but let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose, instead of conducting a religious ritual, a group of ultra-nationalist Israelis gathered outside Rabin’s house with signs depicting him as a traitor and calling for his death. Isn’t it possible that some impressionable person could have been incited by these signs to murder the prime minister? Would that have been any less chilling? Again, what does the religious motive really add?
Perhaps we can discuss Prof. Guiora’s policy prescriptions in more detail in the next go-round. For now, I should just point out that any attempt to single out extreme religious expression, rather than extreme expression itself, would face serious problems under the American Constitution.