Religioscope – You have emphasized the emergence or re-emergence of religious motivations for terrorist activities over the past 20 years. But there were already terrorist groups that were involved in actions justified in part by religious background. Were people in the IRA religious people or rather non-practicing members of their faith community, using their religious affiliation as a kind of ethnic, political divide? Do we have indication that religious factors had been playing a role in some contemporary terrorist groups before the 1980s?
Bruce Hoffman – I think the main question is really what role does religion play in the justification and legitimization of violence. Even when terrorists are religious, the fact that they may worship in churches, may have been devout in their practices, is almost immaterial. The key is whether they are using liturgy or religious texts to justify or explain the violence or attract recruits and whether there is some sort of clerical figures involved in some leadership roles.
That often struck me as the main difference. Virtually the entirety of the IRA are Catholics. And it is about the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. That is the problem in Northern Ireland as it is a case of two minorities. The Protestants are a minority in the island as a whole and the Catholics a minority in the province. Two peoples are striving to maintain majority status. First of all, they do not refer to themselves as terrorists. They call themselves paramilitaries. Secondly, they do not call themselves Catholic and Protestant. They call themselves nationalist, loyalist or unionist paramilitary. They consciously do not make a religious connection. Even if they go to church, they do not use liturgy or the Bible to justify their violence, they are not involving clerics in its justification or legitimization. I think it is very different from the contemporary religious terrorism we see today.
Religion’s importance in contemporary terrorism is as a means of communication. It really shows how religion is being twisted. Bin Laden himself does not have any theological credentials, yet he issues fatwas because he knows people will listen to them, that it is an enormously helpful means to enhance his message to attract new support – and truly is a perversion of religion. Now you do of course have clerical figures in Islam, in Judaism, in white supremacist Christian Churches in the United States, using liturgy to justify violence, including Bin Laden citing the Quran again, a perverse interpretation of it.
You do see clerical militants in their own right using religion, but more and more I think that, in a world that is increasingly devoid of ideology, religion is being used artificially to fill that void. I think Bin Laden himself is very cynical about that. Despite the efforts of the United States and the West to say this is not a clash between civilisations, he constantly says that it is. He also says it is a matter of ideology based on religion, because even he knows his more abstract political demands were too narrow to attract a very wide following and he is consciously trying to broaden his potential constituency. It is significant in that he is not a clerical person, he doesn’t have any theological credentials yet he peddles this message. The message is bought by people as there is an ideological void he cynically and manipulatively is filling.
Religioscope – According to your research and to your long observation of the evolving terrorist scene, modern religious terrorism surfaced around 1980, while the previous decades had seen groups with secular motivations, either Marxist or ethno-nationalist. That was a year after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. How far is there a link between both? The Islamic Revolution was widely seen as the sign of a comeback of militant religion on the international scene, and this impressed people far beyond the world of Islam.
Bruce Hoffman – There is a direct causality. We know that Iran in the 1980s sponsored terrorist movements in many countries that sought to establish the same Islamic sytsem that existed in Iran. The revolution in Iran in 1979 and 1980 held up the possibility of what could be achieved. It clearly demonstrated what an enormously powerful motivating force religion can be, and again it was at a time of the decline of ideologies. Now we see the ideological void. But in the 80s, people were beginning to question the clash between communism and capitalism. In the 1990s both of those secular gods had failed newly democratised, newly free market countries. The conspicuous void in secular ideology became profound. The problem that societies everywhere face is very much this gap in an intellectual centre of gravity. In what do we believe has become the question? Demagogues are very adroit, very clever in filling this gap and telling us what to believe and manufacturing it, no matter which religion they really belong to, but packaging messages of hate and intolerance in very seductive ways, because there is this vacuum.
The struggle against Bin Laden is one of secular humanism against a very reactionary, retrograde interpretation of religion, of religious tradition. Bin Laden senses the importance of ideology and has very effectively married ideology to religion and this is the message that he peddles. He has tied it up on one anti-US and anti-Western view that holds that the U.S. and the West are hegemonic powers. His message is not necessarily religious, but he is using religion to communicate it.
Religioscope – The terrorist scene is ever evolving. If we look at the Rand-St. Andrew’s Chronology of International Terrorism, there were twenty-six religious international terrorist groups active in 1995, out of fifty-six international terrorist groups, but in 1996, thirteen out of forty-six. How can we explain such huge changes from one year to another? Does it mean that there were some groups no longer active, that did no longer signal their presence, or that the groups are somewhat ephemeral, dissolving and reorganising themselves?
Bruce Hoffman – Very much the later. The whole process is a dynamic one. An element of social d,arwinism that affects terrorist groups where the strongest and fittest either survive by reinventing themselves, by appealing to more diverse constituencies, but also by learning from the mistakes of others, resurrecting and continuing themselves. One sees this in Islamic Kashmiri, which have undergone several name changes and even changes in leadership, yet emerge more militant and stronger to constantly carry on the struggle. The weaker groups are left by the wayside, but unfortunately the ones that are able to continue are usually more formidable adversaries and they are also particularly adept at spreading their messages beyond their own countries.
This is another role that religion has played. Many terrorist groups believe that broadening the constituency gives them more strength, as in Bin Laden’s trajectory. Pakistani groups are branching out and helping like-minded Muslims in Indonesia. Using religion, they are trying deliberately to spread their revolution beyond their borders in order to create something in which the sum is greater that the parts. This is part of their strategy right now.
Religioscope – Someone claiming affiliation with an ethnic group cannot expect to get a lot of support beyond the limits of that ethnic group, but claiming an affiliation with a major religion creates indeed a much wider potential constituency.
Bruce Hoffman – Wider potential constituency, yes. And much more extensive communications vehicles, because you have the mosques. Where do you have a set number of people gather at a regular time each day, at various points in the day? This is why religion is so attractive for demagogues and for people seeking to use religion to further their causes: because you’ve got an easy way to communicate with a ready-made audience, and if you can tailor your message in exactly the right way, then you can communicate very effectively with this audience, and that’s really the cart driving the horse. It is not so much religion that is driving the terrorism, but people manipulating and exploiting religion in this world devoid of another system of strong beliefs and using it for wrong purposes.
Religioscope – Following the tragedies of September 11th, everybody is paying attention to radical groups from the Muslim world, but you have repeatedly emphasized that no major religious tradition is immune to terrorism. Where do you see a high potential of danger at this point?
Bruce Hoffman – The trouble with September 11th was that it raised the bar, the way the criteria for judging terrorism all of the sudden went from a record of 440 victims to seven times as many. It almost created two different categories of terrorists.
Any number of religious traditions that have produced terrorist groups have all aspired to do what Ben Laden did on September 11th He wasn’t unique in his aspirations and his grandiose ambitions. Where he was unique is in actually putting thought into action. He was the first one to use and manipulate religion to justify higher levels of lethality. He achieved it, and that of course means our focus now is very much on the radical Islamic threat. If I had said in August that basically four guys with box cutters would lay the World Trade Centre to waste, nobody would have believed me. It was sophisticated yet was clever in its simplicity. Other groups that are like-minded, if they are clever enough, can at least attempt to emulate Bin Laden. They were unique because they produced September 11th, but I do not think they were unique to any one group or movement, and that is worrisome.
Religioscope – In your book ‘Inside Terrorism’ and in your articles, you have emphasized that religious terrorism leads to more intense forms of violence, and you have been proved right by the recent developments. It seems that religious terrorists see themselves as actors in a metaphysical, cosmic war between good and evil. Their violence can been seen as highly symbolic too, not necessarily meant to reach immediate political goals. In several articles as well as in his book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), Mark Juergensmeyer spoke of “performance violence”. Do you agree with that observation? After all, all terrorists are very conscious of their audience and the impact their actions will have upon it, aren’t they?
Bruce Hoffman – The religious terrorists don’t have to overcome the hurdle to mass murder that other, secular terrorists do. They all use violence for its symbolic or demonstrative value. The IRA’s success against the British government in the 1990s was non lethal terrorism: they issued warnings, in some cases they disrupted mass transit, they had big bombs in downtown areas, they pulled in on Saturday morning. That is opposed to religious terrorists that hit the World Trade Center exactly when everybody was arriving for work or explode a bomb outside of Oklahoma City Murrah building exactly when people were arriving for work, or attack at Luxor exactly when it was most filled with tourists. Two very different mindsets. Once they have made the commitment to violence, religious terrorists have less compunction about inflicting mass violence compared to secular terrorists. I think it is because of the legitimization and justification of liturgy that creates a mentality out of religious order where anybody is fair target. Muslims were killed in Kenya and Tanzania, Muslims were killed in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon attacks. Bin Laden has made a distinction between good and bad Muslims. With secular groups, you still have some hesitation in inflicting casualties amongst members of their own ethnic group. We now see a twisted use of logic and justification of religion, saying there are good or bad Muslims, the bad ones are therefore fair game.
Religioscope – What makes some religious terrorists look even more ruthless is their willingness to sacrifice not only the lives of many victims, but their own lives as well. However, there are secular groups involved in suicide attacks as well. For example the Tamil Tigers. What are your observations about the issue of suicide attacks in relation to secular and religious terrorism?
Bruce Hoffman – This comes in the category of demonstration terrorism, or terrorism that is designed to really send a very powerful message in addition to the act. A lot is made of suicide terrorism. Historically, it has been extremely infrequent. Nonetheless, there are now signs that it is indeed increasing: especially in Palestine and Israel; but it has also spread among and beyond entirely secular groups like the Tamil Tigers to others like the Kurdish PKK. It is difficult to know if this trend will be sustained, but already suicide terrorism is increasing at a disturbing rate. Also, there is an intimate connection between terrorism’s overall increasing levels of lethality and the growing incidence of suicide bombings.
What makes September 11th unique is that you had nineteen individuals, so many at one place at one time doing it, but even Al-Qaida has not been able to sustain on any systematic basis mass suicide attacks. I don’t know if that will change in the wake of September 11th, but at the same time I think we have to be careful about having our attention diverted. What the terrorists try to do is to convince us that there are brigades, battalions, even companies of suicide terrorist, when in fact there are only platoons. They are also trying to use this violence to say there is no way you can stop us, this is a kind of act there is no defence against. That is part of the psychological weapon that they are trying to wield.
Religioscope – While it is obvious that religious beliefs can offer high rewards to people for convincing them to risk their own lives, there are also people sceptical of the role played by the religious motivations. Obviously, it is impossible to divide neatly religious beliefs from other factors in a person’s or group’s motivations. However, if we refer to the recent events, supposing the reports about a meeting between Muhammad Atta last summer and an Iraqi intelligence official less than three months before the events are accurate, it would shed a strange light upon the alleged role of strict doctrinal beliefs in the case of Al-Qaeda. Maybe, even with religious terrorist groups, there is a stage from which operational goals and efficiency take precedence upon cherished beliefs?
Bruce Hoffman – One of the appeals of using religion in terrorism is to create a mass movement, the more mass movement, the less control and the less purity and depth of commitment of all individuals. As a movement broadens, that is always a risk. It is alliances of convenience. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is this kind of rationale.
Religioscope – So this applies to religious terrorists as well, according to your knowledge of such groups?
Bruce Hoffman – In Bin Laden’s case, he’s been one of the few terrorist leaders very successful in bringing together Shiite and Sunni terrorists, which in some respect is a bigger gulf than Islamic terrorists with secular Arab regimes. So it is very much alliances of convenience. My point is that religion is the medium more than anything else. I think his fundamental message is one of revolution and change against what many people regard as an increasing hegemonic West seeking to impose its values. That’s where he gets his greatest attraction, Religions is the mean through which he communicates that and rallies people.
Religioscope – You have also paid attention to possible ways of countering religious terrorism. You have emphasized that one should take into consideration the sense of alienation of many of those groups, but also, in the case of Muslim groups from the Middle East, the problem of anti-U.S. sentiment in those parts of the world. Following the attacks of September 11th, the USA obviously had to act, but this does not lessen anti-U.S. sentiment, on the contrary! How does one counter terrorism efficiently?
Bruce Hoffman – Education in the form of public diplomacy. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ public diplomacy, United States’ cultural activities throughout the world have been vastly scaled back, which gave the playing field over to militants of various stripes. I am not saying it is an easy process now or that the United States doesn’t have to catch up a lot.
It also means avoiding labelling people “fundamentalists”. I have always thought that was a huge mistake. People who are very devout, who have a very literal interpretation of Scripture, are labelled somehow as undesirable. There is a pejorative kind of connotation. We have done a good job in recognising that. What good that can come from September 11 is the importance of recognising Islam and the Muslim peoples. It would have been unheard of in years past that President Bush would give a feast in celebration of the breaking of the fast during the Ramadan period, that the United States Postal Service would introduce a beautiful stamp with Arabic calligraphy on it. This shows greater perception, greater awareness of the world beyond America’s borders. All that is entirely positive, but at the same time we are really playing catch-up. The curve has gotten very far ahead of us and that is why there are firstly these terrorist attacks against the United States and vehemence directed against the U.S. I am optimistic that we can make up for lost time, but it will require tremendous patience. In that period we may just have to prepare for more terrorist attacks in some incidences because the alienation has already taken hold. It will be a slow process to counter it.
Religioscope – So basically you think we shouldn’t overestimate an anti-U.S. rhetoric which is still current in some parts of the Muslim world, that it might still be overcome?
Bruce Hoffman – The U.S. also defended Muslims in Kosovo, in Bosnia and in Kuwait as well, and we communicate that very poorly. People forget that the most secular regime in the Middle East is Saddam Hussein’s. The U.S. went to war on behalf of the people of Kuwait and also Saudi Arabia. Obviously there were national interests in that as well. The U.S. is not good in communicating these things. You talk about root causes of terrorism: alienation is the most profound one and mitigating that alienation is extremely important
The interview with Dr. Bruce Hoffman took place in Washington on 21 November 2001. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.