Extremism—The Fundamentals

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Extremism—The Fundamentals

The Conflict

The word "extremism" is used to identify people, ideologies, or organizations that differ radically from mainstream society to such an extent that they are seen as existing on the margins of that society. This term, however, is applied by those in the mainstream. "Extremists" today usually inhabit cultural worlds in which they are the center, not the margins. Disaffected, frustrated, and feeling under attack for their religion, culture, ethnicity, or other attribute, extremists may respond with violence in an attempt to change the situation or gain attention for their cause.


  • Extremists, once geographically isolated from one another, have used the Internet to connect physically separate communities of activists, disperse news, information, and in-group rhetoric. This both increases their interconnectedness with other extremist groups and increases their isolation from the mainstream.
  • Suffering, be it human rights violations, ethnic or religious discrimination, or economic or other repression, is often a contributing factor to the formation of "extremist" groups.


• Radical views, when joined with religion, often cast the universe in terms of a cosmic battle that depends on the actions of individuals who otherwise feel themselves a part of a faceless, meaningless society. When cosmic salvation is at stake, what does the death of one or more lives mean?


  • When a small peripheral population takes on the might of a major regional power, the small group is likely to suffer great casualties. With such odds, martyrdom, or dying for one's cause, may itself become a goal for many people.
  • If governments push extremist groups outside the circle of potential dialogue, it isolates them entirely, ensuring no possible interchange other than a deadly one.

When we use the word "extremism," we identify persons, ideologies, or organizations, which differ so radically from mainstream society that they are seen as existing in the margins or peripheries of normalcy. This term, however, is applied by those—like most of the readers of this volume—that exist in that mainstream. Emile Durkheim, a classic theorist of sociology, proposed that every society labels some portion of its members as deviants of one sort or other, suggesting this recognition functions to keep the generally followed norms of society well-defined and strong. In this broadest level of analysis, understanding the phenomenon of terrorism today can benefit from interpretations of other extreme social institutions and responses to them from the mainstream in other times and places.

Durkheim did note, however, that under normal conditions the "extremes" a society can tolerate remain within certain proportional parameters. Durkheim also lived in a world that was relatively geographically contained, as compared with today's world in which the boundaries of "societies" cannot be drawn on a map in convenient cookie-cutter fashion. As we know, that is precisely the problem with many contemporary questions of extremism; organizations extend their reach globally, and the definition of mainstream and periphery cannot be made with Dukheimian certainty any longer. What is "extreme" to middle America may be quite the norm to another, transnationally-defined, culture. We live now in a global community of criss-crossing boundaries and overlapping units that demands far different modes of analysis.

"Extremists" today usually inhabit cultural worlds in which they are at the center, not at the margins. This is a key psychological shift one must make when attempting to understand how groups like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the Khalistan Commando Force in India, or Aryan Nations in the United States, actually function. The social autonomy of the extraordinary worlds extremists inhabit is extended by technologies such as the Internet, which connects physically separated communities of activists and disperses news, information and in-group rhetoric instantaneously. Anthropologists who study these cultures note the "hothouse" atmosphere of life as a member of one of these groups; whether one lives geographically amidst "average" people or not, one can mentally and spiritually be enmeshed in a cosmic battle whose dimensions one's neighbors cannot even imagine. Likewise, desktop publishing allows an abundance of literature that previously would have been prohibitively expensive to produce; video cameras and duplication possibilities mean that cassettes featuring charismatic leaders, traumatic or victorious community events can replace conventional television just as community-produced books replace the trade market novels the rest of us read. Technology allows both unprecedented interconnectedness and unprecedented isolation, and we are seeing the advantages and disadvantages of each in the likewise unprecedented meteoric rise of extremist organizations.

Durkheim, were he alive today, would have to revise his ideas to account for these new and staggering realities. Meanwhile the cultures that flourish in pluralist democracies we have appropriately created in his time also have to cope with one other, less fortunate, reality: the availability of weapons, and the readiness of many groups to use them.

Historical Background

Aum Shinrikyo

On March 20, 1995 the world experienced its first (and so far, only) successful, large-scale terrorist attack in which chemical weapons were used. The attack took place during the morning commute on a Tokyo subway when three young men carrying sharpened umbrellas punctured plastic bags containing liquid chemicals that released poisonous sarin gas into the crowded trains. Twelve people eventually died from the episode and thousands were affected, many suffering from permanent eye and throat disorders.

Convicted of masterminding the Tokyo attack was Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto), the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, a religious movement combining elements of Buddhism with millennial expectations about the end of the world and an agenda for group survival. Despite the leader's conviction to prison and the world's condemnation of the sarin gas attack, Aum Shinrikyo is continuing to grow not only in Japan but also in Russia and several other areas. One must therefore ask what it is about this organization that is appealing—particularly against the backdrop of a society typically thought to be among the best-regulated and safest in the world.

The name Aum Shinrikyo comes from the Hindu mantra om, followed by shinri meaning "supreme truth," and kyo or "teaching." Its founder was a charismatic individual (born in 1955) who grew up, blind in one eye, in a school in which all the other children were sightless. Failing his college entrance examinations, Asahara began a spiritual journey into the Agonshu movement, which drew from various mystic and yogic practices and focused on the prophecy of future events. By 1984 he decided to leave the group and journeyed to India and the Himalayas, where he claimed to receive mystic visions from Hindu masters. He returned to Japan in 1987 to start his own organization, called the Teaching of the Supreme Truth, "Aum Shinrikyo."

Part of Asahara's truth was the idea of an Armageddon to come, a notion he drew from the Christian Bible as well as from Nostradamus. He predicted a violent conflagration of radioactivity (far worse than the Japanese had already experienced at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), poison gas, and epidemics. Notably, there was an anti-American slant to the prophecy as well: the notion that the conflagration would begin in Tokyo, with the United States taking over the Japanese government. Ashara specifically told his members that the United States was the only military power that possessed chemical weapons, and sarin gas was named in a book of his prophecies that came out a few months before the subway attack. When the attack occurred, in trains nearing the station directly beneath Japan's parliament building, the Diet, Aum group members left in the dark about the planning assumed, when they heard the news, that Asahara's prophecy was being fulfilled. Armageddon was beginning, with an American chemical attack on the heart of the Japanese government.

Even after it became clear that Asahara and his inner circle of leaders in Aum Shinrikyo had indeed carried out the March 20 sarin gas attack, loyal members of the group found ways to understand this action consonant with their belief in the leaders' infallibility. According to scholars who have carefully studied Asahara's writings, the guru interpreted certain principles of Tibetan Buddhism to mean that a spiritually advanced individual such as himself could kill people caught in cycles of evil as an act of mercy to allow them to move on to a higher plane. They also apparently came to accept the notion that Asahara himself existed on a plane of existence not accessible to ordinary mortals, so that although he may, for example, appear to be conspiring to commit an act of terrorism and later being jailed by Japanese authorities, in reality this appearance was but the surface manifestation of some far deeper plan whose ultimate purpose most of us cannot begin to understand.

Cult scholars point out that one attraction of the Aum might be its relatively egalitarian and familial atmosphere, compared with the formal and hierarchical structure of the wider Japanese society. Like many small and communally-oriented groups, it may offer individuals a sense of "home," a place where people know one's name and face in a rapidly changing world in which the ground seems to be shifting beneath one's very feet. Yet Aum can in no way be considered anti-modern; it contained and contains among its members educated scientists and makes use of all the technology available to a technically advanced society like Japan. This presents a paradox for those who would try to dismiss these kinds of movements as nothing more than cults of the backward or ignorant. They are born of fully modern conditions. Their presence may be an indicator of wider discontents, however buried, in the societies from which they emerge.

Khalistan Commando Force

A very different sort of group is represented by separatists in the state of Punjab in India who are fighting for an independent homeland to be called Khalistan or "land of the pure." The movement for Khalistan is one of a concert of centrifugal movements in India, which is a state comprising many ethnic, linguistic, racial, and religious groups. The Kashmiris in the north, the Nagas in the east, the Tamils in the south, and the Punjabis who are agitating for a separate Khalistan, are but a sampling of the "extremists" the central government in New Delhi has had to deal with since the country's independence in 1947.

During the 1960s a movement arose in the northwestern part of India seeking a new state in which the Punjabi language would be the mother tongue of the majority. The movement succeeded, resulting by 1966 in what is today Punjab state, consisting of a Sikh majority and a Hindu minority in terms of religion. In the 1970s this state was a focus of Green Revolution technology and it became "the breadbasket of India," producing bumper crops of wheat and other agricultural products each year. Dependent on irrigation, however, Punjabi farmers grew resentful when plans were drawn up to divert river waters to less successful neighboring states, as well as when agricultural prices were held down by a centrally regulated economy to keep Punjab's grains and vegetables accessible to the rest of poverty-stricken India. Hydroelectricity, as well, which could have helped to nourish Punjab's underdeveloped industrial sector, was distributed to other regions. Meanwhile, newly-educated youth who had grown beyond their rural origins remained unemployed, their options in Punjab limited by the largely agricultural economy.

During the Emergency (1977-78), or period of dictatorship declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the latter part of the 1970s there were extensive nonviolent protests launched in Punjab's cities. People were arrested by the thousands and herded into jails. A resolution calling for the decentralization of authority was supported by various states that agreed that New Delhi had become overbearing in its regulation of India, but it led nowhere. By the beginning of the 1980s there was a significant upsurge of religious activity among the Sikhs who form the bulk of the rural agricultural sector of Punjab. Baptisms into the Sikh faith increased dramatically and there were calls for returns to the more orthodox or rigorous forms of Sikh tradition. Several strands of militant Sikhism emerged, a major one coalesced around the charismatic preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and a second one called the Babbar Khalsa. Both of these began to equate discrimination against Punjabis with discrimination against the Sikh faith, and to predict that if Sikhism were not revitalized it might be in danger of disappearing into the Indian secular state. These militant groups began to engage in acts of violence in the early 1980s, claiming they fought in defense of Sikhism and were in line with Sikhism's command that "when all peaceful means have failed it is justified to turn to the hilt of the sword."

In June 1984 the Indian Army launched an assault on the militants, who had taken refuge at the Golden Temple Complex in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. In the battle that ensued, several thousand innocent civilians were killed and many of the sacred and historic buildings were destroyed. This apparent overreaction to the threat to national security posed by a small band of militants sparked an overwhelming turn in popular sentiment. People all across Punjab who previously had been only mildly interested in the grievances relating to economics and politics or who had been only somewhat concerned about Sikh-Hindu religious questions, now became utterly inflamed by the Indian government's actions in Amritsar. Pictures of tanks rolling across the pavements of the Golden Temple Complex and of women and children bleeding on the sidewalks were passed from hand to hand. Later that year, two Sikhs—her own body-guards—assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the assault. Although across the globe people mourned her passing, in Punjab's countryside the mood was more akin to a sense of satisfaction. Had "normal" people become "extremists?"

On April 29, 1986 a Declaration of Independence of Khalistan was promulgated from Amritsar, setting out the terms of existence of what was hoped would become a new and separate nation. Of course, it is easier to declare a nation than to actually acquire one, and a decades-long period of civil unrest immediately broke out. There were several guerilla forces which made up the Khalistani insurgency, with the Khalistan Commando Force named in the Declaration of Khalistan as the core of what was envisioned as the eventual defense force of the nation of Khalistan. A brutal—and in the long term successful—counterinsurgency was launched by the Indian government, carried out by police and paramilitary forces and drawing on an extensive repertoire of legal and extralegal means of repression.

What was it actually like to be a member of the Khalistan Commando Force? Most of the participants were young, male, and Sikh. Although there is no doubt that the attractions of "heroism" and romantic dash played some role in the appeal the movement exerted on village youth, a more widespread reason for recruitment was the suffering endured by the rural population at the hands of an increasingly ruthless police force. Human rights abuses criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other monitoring organizations include torture, extrajudicial execution, custodial rape, and "disappearance." It was often in response to such abuses that young people would join the Khalistan Commando Force or some other guerilla group like the Khalistan Liberation Force, the Bhindranwale Tiger Force, the Sikh Students Federation, or the Babbar Khalsa.

Once in the group, young men lived as "brothers," usually sheltering with families, on the run from house to house, village to village, field to field. Depending on the period when they entered "the struggle," life expectancy for an individual joining the Commando Force could be just a few weeks or a few months in length. Martyrdom—death in struggle—was the expected outcome of a decision to join the Khalistani freedom fighters. The freedom fighters were, of course, known as "terrorists" in all of India, whose population could not imagine what prompted well-bred young men to throw their lives away for a cause like that of Khalistan. In the popular imagination, "the Sikh terrorist" became a dreaded figure, a likely psychopathic killer.

By the end of the 1980s many people involved in the movement for Khalistan had fled India for countries like England, Canada, or the United States, who gave them political asylum. This created a new situation for communities like that of the Khalistanis, who now found themselves scattered across several continents. Khalistanis were able to use this leverage to their advantage by creating lobbying offices in London, Ottawa, and Washington, by putting out newspapers and starting up radio stations in situations in which more freedom is allowed than in India. They also started their own "Khalsa schools" and summer camps to teach their young. Today it may well be said that the Khalistan movement is as much centered in the diaspora as in the homeland, where decades of suppression as well as disillusionment with the violence of the militants has led to a quieting of the struggle.

Aryan Nations

Aryan Nations is one among a set of white supremacist organizations in North America that came upon the scene in the 1970s. Calling for a "whites only" homeland, Richard Butler preached that the white race was in danger of being swamped by Jews, blacks, and other "mudpeople." He drew together neo-Nazis, former Klansmen, tax protesters, militiamen, and Christian Identity followers into annual Aryan Worlds Congresses, giving the white supremacist movement a unity and strength it had never seen before. In 1983 an affiliated white supremacist group known as "the Order" went on a publicized crime spree ending in a shoot-out with federal agents.

With fresh input from the youth Skinhead movement, concerts of "white power" music, media blitzes, and heavy use of electronic resources were employed to gain new supporters. Aryan Nations grew to new levels of strength in the 1990s, establishing branches in many states and in several European countries. They claim that their official website receives five hundred hits a day.

Although groups with racist ideologies often act in coalition with groups on the right-wing of the North American political spectrum, there is a special relationship between racialist thinking and the specific theology known as "Christian Identity." According to Christian Identity thinking, the people who today call themselves Jews are in fact agents of the devil, and those who would help them—such as communists or liberal democracts—are his allies. A (spurious) document titled Protocols of the Elders of Zion, supposed to have been produced as the result of a Jewish Congress held at Basel in 1897, is frequently cited by Christian Identity theorists as proof of a Jewish left-wing conspiracy to take over the world. To forestall this threat, militias must therefore be organized, arms collected, and white Christians trained in guerilla warfare.

The Turner Diaries, by William Pierce (writing under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald), has now become famous as another key text of the white supremacist, ring-wing movement. It became known outside of militia circles after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building according to almost precisely the specifications laid out in the fictional account of a revolution against U.S. government control. The Turner Diaries was one of Timothy McVeigh's favorite books. Not only does it detail the notion of a hero blowing up a federal building with a truckload of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil, but it goes on to blame the failings of American society that made such an act necessary on a grand conspiracy between Jews and liberals.

Since September 11, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has become interested in potential links between white supremacist organizations in the United States and radical Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda. Unlikely as such ties may seem on the surface, exploring the web-sites of hate groups and similar organizations reveals a fascination with Osama bin Laden, HAMAS, Saddam Hussein, and other diverse individuals and groups from around the extremist Islamic world. "Remember," one quote admonishes the visitor to an Aryan Nations website, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." The quote refers to the Jews of Israel, in combination with the government of the United States with which they are seen to be in collusion.

Are men and women who seek membership in a group like Aryan Nations to be characterized as deviants? While most Americans may disapprove of racism, it is likely that they would not find anything particularly noteworthy about the individual pasts of people who become involved in white supremacist organizations. Even those who engage in extreme or criminal acts often turn out to be persons about whom neighbors say, "he was such a nice boy." Many have served their country in the armed forces and were in fact once noted for patriotism and valor. As one might expect of groups linked to religion, many grew up as churchgoers. They do not typically have "shady" or alienated pasts. From their point of view, it is the wider North American society that has become extreme, in its secularism and its tolerance of contaminating diversity. From the point of view of those who believe they carry "the seed of Adam," it is they who are the norm, and the standard bearers.

The Pull of Radicalism

The three groups examined above differ in important ways. Aum Shinrikyo has its primary origins in religious mysticism, though the group developed social and political overtones to its message. The movement for Khalistan is at its heart an ethnic or national liberation movement, but has become nearly completely identified with the religion of Sikhism. Aryan Nations is defined around a racialist understanding of meaning and destiny, with links to Christian Identity teachings. All three examples illustrate organizations viewed by the governments of Japan, India, and the United States respectively as "extremist;" all three contain members who have resorted to dramatic acts of violence to achieve their aims.

As Mark Juergensmeyer notes in his book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2000), it is not surprising that religion is often implicated where extremism flourishes. There is an inherent appeal, he believes, in the way in which radical views cast the universe in terms of a cosmic battle that must be won at all costs—often depending on the actions of individuals who otherwise feel themselves but cogs in a nameless, faceless, meaningless society. Each encounter becomes the axial encounter on which the redemption of the world could turn; what does one life more or less mean, if cosmic salvation is at stake? Perhaps more to the point, what do secular laws mean, if one is planning one's strategy around Armageddon, or around the fulfillment of a biblically defined racial destiny?

This psychological dynamic accounts for the fact that secondary enemies of extremist movements are always secular or civil governments—whether of Japan, of India, or of the United States. Targets include moderates from among one's own community who have "sold out" to the enemy. When the stakes are so high, the danger posed by such individuals is easily magnified. Indeed, part of the attraction of an extreme view is the ease with with one can attach a label to all other positions on the sociopolitical spectrum. Complexity is eliminated when the landscape is illuminated from a single direction. Hence we find manhunts such as the Aryan Nations' focus on Southern Poverty Law Center's Morris Dees as its nemesis. (As we will note, campaigns by governments against "extremists" also tend to extreme personalization in this regard.)

Among Khalistani Sikhs, early calls for greater autonomy for Punjab within the Indian state were quickly eclipsed by the radical demand for total sovereignty. Additionally, the notion of the citizen-soldier, the population which resists as a whole, was replaced by the more theologically driven conception of the saint-soldier, the fighter in a state of grace, fighter in the holy war. The odds being as uneven as they are when a small peripheral population takes on the might of a major regional power, the Khalistani insurgency suffered enormous casualties right from the beginning. Thus the saint-soldiers evolved into martyrs. Eventually, martyrdom became itself a kind of goal of fighting for many young people who, in desperation, joined the guerilla organizations. We have witnessed virtually the same evolution among some of the Palestinian organizations, perhaps more widely known to Western audiences.

The combination of apocalyptic rhetoric with a rational political platform is what makes today's extremist movements difficult to pigeonhole. Gun control, for example, is one rational-level political issue in which many right-wing groups in the United States are heavily invested. One may find lucid discussions of the constitutionality of the right to bear arms side-by-side with quotations from Mein Kampf and imaginative reconstructions of Biblical genealogies. Aum Shinrikyo's end-ofthe-world scenario was, to members, piece with its otherwise viable critique of U.S. military presence in Japan. These combinations should be kept in mind as we consider the common tendency to dismiss any individual or group engaging in apocalyptic rhetoric as irrational or essentially nonpolitical. Very many groups are both; they often draw people in on the political side and turn toward the cosmic as the struggle intensifies.

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have often been portrayed as beyond any rational political agenda, primarily because of similar rhetoric. Analysis of documents and speeches of bin Laden and his top aides, however, reveals a distinctive political viewpoint. The fact that the battle he sees himself as fighting is couched in cosmic terms, with governments and world leaders as mere actors on a bigger stage, places him not outside of, but well within our understanding of political extremism. It is therefore possible to draw on what we have learned from attempts to grapple with other such movements—however smaller in scale—in the current crisis of "the war on terrorism."

Extreme Acts

It is not only ideologies, however, but also actions that we label as "extreme." Although some attempts to define what "terrorism" is rely solely on the issue of whether noncombatants are targeted, or not, or whether the perpetrator of the violence is a legitimately constituted authority or not, many scholars of the subject note the clearly performative and symbolic quality of many of the actions we call "terrorism." To take the most obvious example, flying two passenger airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, was not the only or even the most efficient way to kill three thousand people. Nor was it the only or probably the most efficient way to scare or "terrorize" a wide swathe of the U.S. public, who could potentially be more frightened by an authentic bioterror or even realistic-seeming nuclear threat. For sheer drama, however, it could hardly be topped. Indeed, the episode had a cinematic quality remarked on by virtually everyone who watched the televised coverage—that is, virtually everyone in the industrialized world.

Joseba Zulaika and William Douglas, two anthropologists who co-authored an insightful study of terrorist violence called Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables and Faces of Terrorism, elaborate on the nonstrategic, ritual quality of many acts of violence. These acts are better grasped as elements of expression than in terms of means-toward-end military instrumentality. Sikh militants knew well, for example, that setting off bombs in crowded Hindu neighborhoods would win them the tag "communalist," discredit any legitimacy their movement may have had as a form of resistance against state oppression, and would draw criticism from human rights groups worldwide. Yet the bombings went on, and few condemned the militants who committed them. Why not? Because the supporting population by that time saw such blasts as affirmations of Khalistani pride, despite the fact that they had no military target and were part of no rational or strategic plan of action. From their view-point—which they saw as one of extreme humiliation and extreme desperation—the expressive value of the action alone made it worthy of praise.

Franz Fanon and other anticolonial theorists of guerilla violence in fact celebrated such violence because they saw in it the capacity to jolt the silent masses into an awareness of their power. We know that although the wide majority of Muslims throughout the world thoroughly condemned the attacks of September 11, some sections felt empowered by them in precisely that manner. The linking of a violent act with masculine imagery, by its supporters, and with the language of cowardice and effeminacy by its detractors, is indicative of the widespread recognition of this empowering quality.

The novelist Don DeLillo commented in Mao II that terrorism was the language of being noticed. The Unabomber was perhaps the clearest U.S. case in which an individual used dramatic acts of violence in order to have his voice heard in the public domain. In that case, Theodore Kaczynski was an educated man who coerced the The New York Times into publishing his 35,000-word manifesto in exchange for ceasing his pattern of sending package bombs through the mail. Two Sikhs who assassinated a general in the Indian armed forces involved in the attack on the Golden Temple used the opportunity of their own hanging to issue a flowery statement about national liberation and martyrdom, which became staple revolutionary fare for Khalistanis to follow. Today, although the United States does not air Osama bin Laden's videotapes for fear of encoded messages, he reaches an audience of millions through the al-Jazeera television network and other media that follow him avidly.

Just as it would be misleading to suppose that only social misfits are attracted to movements that the mainstream regards as "extremist," it is not the case that people who engage in horrific acts of violence are necessarily psychopaths. The extraordinary culture inhabited by, for example, a recruit to al-Qaeda, frames a way of thinking in which actions previously unthinkable come to seem normative and even heroic relatively quickly. "Brain-washing" is not the correct word to describe the process of socialization that takes place when one enters the relatively isolated social world of a guerilla group, a militia, or an underground organization. Initiations, group exercises, and the interdependency that develops rapidly in the "cosmic war" situation perpetuated by extremist organizations all make one's new comrades seem like family within a short period. The violence in which one may have to engage in this new group may be performed with the same moral distaste—but with the same sense of duty—as others would fulfill an obligation to their country's military service during wartime.

Though everything about the discourse of terrorism and counterterrorism attempts to place these two phenomena on utterly different planes of existence, independent scholars who study them intimately find a certain mimesis, or imitation, about the way the two spheres function. Just as the dramatic violent acts of terrorism are often an over-response to real grievances like poverty, inequality, and indignity, campaigns of counterterrorism risk prompting further extremism if they in turn over-reach in their response to the real threat posed by the terrorists. Recognizing the self-perpetuating quality of cycles of extreme violence, it is critical to find ways to break out of the potentially dangerous escalation it can represent.

Recent History and the Future

The Importance of Measured Response

In hindsight, it appears that the Indian government's handling of the threat posed by the small band of Sikh militants in the Golden Temple Complex in 1984 exacerbated rather than muted the real danger of Sikh separatism. Indeed, it may well be that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, one of the key militant leaders, sought to bring down the might of the Indian military specfiically to provoke a wider uprising. "If the Indian army attacks the Golden Temple," he had said, "the foundations of Khalistan will be laid." That is precisely what happened. A massacre occurred, the sacred buildings were desecrated, and an entire population was alienated from "the largest democracy in the world." Compounding this initial debacle was the subsequent period of counterinsurgency, during which "dirty war" tactics used against the population at large persuaded average citizens that the government and its agents were as "extreme" as the "extremists" they said they were fighting. People felt they were caught in between two sets of terrorizing militias.

Timothy McVeigh specifically referred to the U.S. government's handling of the Ruby Ridge shoot-out and the seige at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, as reasons for his mistrust of the United States government. Despite extensive public inquiries into the matter, the perception that government agencies acted in an overaggressive and inappropriate manner is one that is shared among a certain sector of the population. Were there to be a less than scrupulous attention to civil rights, this population could easily turn the way of the Sikhs. Another way of saying this is that in the face of an extreme threat, a government has to resist the temptation to respond in an extreme way lest it further encourage a dangerous and growing polarization. Evenhandedness is critical. In a new country like India, born only in 1947 and facing challenges to its integrity from multiple sides, the confidence of evenhandedness is much more difficult to maintain than in a stable country like the United States.

When we turn to the case of Japan, we can begin to understand why the Japanese government has declined to outlaw Aum Shinrikyo even though its top personnel have been convicted for committing the heinous act of the only chemical terrorist attack yet known in world history. It does not want to risk a backlash by repressing the many Aum supporters and others concerned about religious and social freedoms. The Japanese government is taking the calculated risk of allowing Aum to flourish, within legal bounds, in the public sphere where it can be monitored—rather than pushing it to an isolated underground realm where it may grow to yet more dangerous proportions.

Do the histories of these limited case studies provide any insights with regard to the current "war on terrorism?" It may be difficult to draw the appropriate analogies because the three cases we have looked at here are essentially domestic (despite the involvement of diasporan communities), while the "war on terrorism" is a virtually global phenomenon. There is no question, however, that the dramatic attacks of September 11, in addition to being intended to impress and frighten, must have had the explicit intent of provoking an extreme response. Although the World Trade Center tragedy has gotten more public attention, the attack on the Pentagon was at least as important, if not more so. No one can imagine attacking the military headquarters of the sole superpower of the world without provoking an extreme response. One may question the degree to which this was part of an explicit calculation on the part of the attackers: to prompt a wider uprising in response then to U.S. military assaults on (presumably) the Arab and Muslim world. It remains a challenge to planners of the U.S. response to September 11 to ensure that this does not become the long-term result of the current campaign.

The sociologist Robert Bellah coined the term "civil religion" to describe patriotism in the United States, complete with its rituals like the pledge of allegiance, its symbols like the stars and stripes, and its outrage at desecrations like flag burnings. He pointed out that no other industrialized democracies have such a flourishing culture of patriotism as does the United States, save countries at war such as Japan or Germany during World War II. This is an important insight given our previous discussion of the quasi-religious quality of extreme ideologies. United States culture is fertile soil for apocalyptic rhetoric of its own; U.S. citizens turn easily to grand narratives of "freedom and honor," "good versus evil," "with us or against us," and the like. These should be warning signs that the United States can easily fall into the trap of polarization that empowers the extremists who would threaten it.

The policy of nonnegotiation with those defined as terrorists is the other side of the calculated risk that Japan takes in allowing a group like Aum Shinrikyo to exist. On one hand, the United States does not want to lend any legitimacy to those it defines as terrorists by recognizing them as partners in dialogue. On the other hand, by pushing them outside the circle of potential dialogue it isolates them entirely, ensuring no possible interchange other than a deadly one. This stance is one that can be taken only by a power confident of its ultimate victory against all challengers. Others have to consider more measured and dialogical responses.


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Reader, Ian. Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Roediger, David R. Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

Zulaika, Joseba and William Douglas. Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables and Faces of Terrorism. London: Rout-ledge, 1996.

Cynthia Keppley Mahmood


1960s A movement in northwest India supports the establishment of a new state in which the Punjabi language would be the language of the majority.

1966 The Punjab state is established in India. It has aSikh religious majority and a Hindu minority.

1970s India's Green Revolution results in Punjab becoming "the breadbasket of India." The Indian government diverts river waters through Punjab, lowers Punjabi crop prices for sale to the rest of India, and distributes hydroelectricity to other regions over the objections and growing frustration of Punjabi farmers.

Late 1970s Nonviolent protests break out in manyPunjabi cities.

1980s Sikhs in Punjab, India, experience an upsurge in religious activity. Several militant strands of Sikhism emerge. Two leaders from these militants, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Babbar Khalsa, relate discrimination against Punjabis with discrimination against the Sikh faith and raise fears that Sikhism may disappear within the Indian secular state.

June 1884 The Indian army launches an assault againstSikh militants, who take refuge in the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, Punjab.

November 1984 Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

April 1986 A Declaration of Independence of Khalistan is distributed from Amritsar, Punjab, setting out terms for the establishment of a new nation.

Late 1980s By the end of the 1980s many people involved in the movement for an independent Khalistan have fled the country. From their new homes, they develop an active community, in which they set up Khalsa schools and lobbying foreign offices for the Khalistan movement.

The National Alliance

Founded by William Pierce in 1974, the National Alliance is the largest and most active racist, neo Nazi organization active in the United States. With at least 1,500 hundred members across the United States, the organization has ties to neo Nazi, racist, and other neo fascist organizations throughout the world, including the British National Party, the German National Democratic Party, and David Duke's European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO).

In recent years the National Alliance has flourished when other right-wing, racist hate groups have diminished. Under the direction of William Pierce the organization has recruited new members through publications, music, use of the Internet, and other mass media tools. The National Alliance publishes numerous books and magazines, including Resistance, National Alliance Bulletin, and The Saga of White Will!, an anti-Semitic comic book distributed on college and university campuses. William Pierce and the National Alliance also own and operate National Vanguard Books, and the white power music company Resistance Records, which is estimated to gross more than $1 million a year with hate music record sales. Promoting its neo Nazi, anti-Semitic views, the website for Resistance Records sells a wide variety of hate related paraphernalia, including music CDs, magazines, clothing, and a video game entitled Ethnic Cleansing, "the most politically incorrect video game ever made." Pierce also owns shares in Cymophane Records, a National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) music company.

Through the use of mass media, the publication of books and magazines, and the sales of white power music, the National Alliance is thriving, enticing disaffected individuals throughout the world to subscribe to its hate based ideologies, influencing a brand of extremism that is not well accepted by the mainstream.

Islamic Extremism

"Islamic extremism" is a term usually used by people opposed to radical, anti-Western and politicized forms of Islam. For those within movements labeled "extremist," they define themselves simply as true Muslims or as those who are standing up to anti-Islamic currents in the world.

After the defeat of the Ottoman empire at the turn of the twentieth century, the world of Islam fell into a period in which Islam became not the dominant, but the subordinate religion in many countries. The humiliation of colonization by European powers was overthrown when the predominately Muslim nations of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia became independent after the World War II (1939-45). This prompted a renaissance of Islamic spirit in many regions.

Palestine was one location where Muslims remained unable to reclaim their homeland after the global sweep of de-colonization, and that is one reason why the conflict there remains central to Islamic political movements today. In other areas, the new spirit of renewal combined with global communications to forge a new, transnational identity.

Economic imbalances across the globe and the growing hegemony of Western secular culture led some in the Muslim world to feel that a new type of colonialism would lead to the ultimate decay and decline of Islamic civilization. Ideologues emerging at the end of the century held the United States—as the military, economic, and cultural superpower—responsible for this state of affairs.

Although the great majority of the world's Muslims today reject any sort of violence as a remedy to the problems they face, there is a wide sense of grievance concerning the place of Islamic civilization in world history.