Terrorists – How to respond to them?

Celebrating a terrorist’s death

Bin Laden’s death after a decade on the run unloosed a national wave of euphoria in the USA mixed with memory of the thousands who died in the Sept. 11th 2001, from attacks by terrorists. Crowds celebrated throughout the night outside the White House and at ground zero in Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of students in many college towns spilled into the streets and set off firecrackers to mark the moment.

Killing unarmed terrorists

Although details of the raid remain sketchy, one can’t help wondering if the US could have tried harder to capture bin Laden alive and put him on trial rather than carrying out a summary execution. We don’t know to what extent if any there was any danger to the attacking forces bursting in on bin Laden of him detonating a hidden explosive device. The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Williams, said: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.” Few pundits have resisted the opportunity to ridicule him for this. Were they right to do this or was he right in what he said?

Just how should we react to terrorists? How should we deal with those who murder or incite murder?

Punishing terrorists

We all need to live and work without fear in a fair and peaceful society. Those in authority must protect us from violence. The ideal of course is to prosecute such people in the courts of justice with a view to secure custody for all our protection. Many people believe that the threat of punishment sometimes deters violence and murder. Even if crimes of passion cannot always be deterred, as perhaps is the case with some terrorists, at least punishment teaches the rest what is unacceptable behaviour.

But punishment is also viewed as ‘them getting what they deserve’ – in other words, retribution. I can’t help wondering if the motive for the Americans trespassing on another country’s sovereign territory and engaging in assassination was rather like an act of revenge – a natural response but hardly a spiritual one. It smacks of getting one’s own back for wounded pride and asserting one’s dominance.

Hatred for terrorists

Spiritually speaking, hatred is not a healthy emotion – it burns up relationships, families and communities. And so it might be argued that responding to violence with violence just feeds violence and that Bin Laden is more dangerous dead than alive. After all Al-Qa’eda is no longer a mere organisation but a global franchise that now has a martyr helping recruitment to its cause. He will become a murdered unarmed hero in the eyes of those in the Middle East experiencing deep rage against the West.

Many justify assassination as ‘rough justice’ when the alternative of arrest and prosecution is not available – as a justifiable act of ‘war on evil’. But terrorists justify their violence as an act of war on the evil of the West.

Judging actions and character of terrorists

Are both sides not making a mistake? Is it not simplistic to see human behaviour only in terms of good and evil? According to this view we can say terrorism is evil but not conclude that a specific terrorist is evil. Why not? Well if we think about it, we realise that there are people who do not seem to believe that acts of terror are wrong. Mind you, they must realise nearly everybody believes this to be true. However, knowing what society says is wrong is different from understanding why it is wrong and acknowledging one should not do it. It is different again from wanting in one’s heart to turn away from wrongdoing. If a young person has grown up among adults who habitually fight members of other tribes and are proud of their warrior status, we can hardly expect him or her to realise that such behaviour is really bad even if one is not caught.

If we brand someone as evil, we neglect our own faults. We get so taken up with condemnation that we neglect what it is about our own behaviour that requires examination, like the decadence in parts of Western culture, our uncritical support for Israel against the Palestinians, and our support of Arab autocrats for the sake of oil.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-LacyAuthor of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

IS – How to see Islamic State fighters?

ISSelf-named IS (Islamic State) fighters partly formed out of al-Qaeda in 2013. They were responsible for a humanitarian crisis: an estimated 1.2 million terrified and homeless Iraqis, having fled from them to the mountains, were exposed to soaring heat, often without anything to eat or drink.

Most Muslims are completely blameless. But the extremists behave barbarically. One historian has pointed out that many centuries ago Islam was:

“born into a world that (already) took for granted the right of conquerors to extort tribute from the conquered; to capture and keep slaves; to maim and execute rebels.” (Historian Tom Holland)

Nevertheless many of us are bewildered that anyone would be willing in this day and age to cause such suffering. How can we understand the mind-set of Islamic militants committing atrocities?

What inspires young men to join IS?

It seems that one factor is the thrill and excitement of combat: something that will appeal more to those young men who are bored, and frustrated in their everyday lives.

Another possible factor is the chance to find an alternative identity through belonging to a new movement: possibly an appealing prospect for those, wherever they live, who are not accepting or assimilated into the Western world culture with its values of consumerism, individualism, feminism, and democracy.

However, a major factor appears to be an increase in social status. Such people correctly or incorrectly feel applauded by friends and others in the wider Islamic world as IS tries to reassert the importance of Islamic society following the end of the Ottoman Empire and to emulate the history of Islamic ascendancy.

Many centuries ago, the Prophet Mohammed led military campaigns in present-day Saudi Arabia to unite disparate Arabian tribes under Islamic rule. Since then Islam had made very successful and rapid military expansions into the Middle East, northern Africa, Central Asia and even into parts of Europe.

There seems to be a yearning for a regained dominance among some of the young Muslims who are disaffected by the current prevalence everywhere of Western influence. They believe all Muslims should be joined together in one glorious political state, ruled by Islamic law rather than by a secular democratic system, and stronger than the Western powers that have long invaded it.

So is religion to blame for this mess?

There is consensus amongst Islamic scholars, reported by for example Javed Ghamidid, that the concept of jihad includes armed struggle against persecution and oppression. Whether the Koran sanctions defensive warfare only or commands an all out war against non-Muslims is said to depend on the interpretation of the relevant passages. Today, some Muslim authors only recognize wars with the aim of territorial defence as well as the defence of religious freedom as legitimate. According to polls, in Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, the majority use the term to mean “duty toward God”, a “divine duty”, or a “worship of God”, with no militaristic connotations

However, it seems that when they do pay any attention to their scripture, the IS fighters tend to take the Koran literally rather than perceive any deeper humane message within its text and wish to compel people to follow the law to the letter.

A Koranic verse grants Christians tolerance in exchange for acknowledging their submission and paying a tax, and this has been interpreted as justifying the stealing of their churches and stripping them of their belongings. The result is homelessness and risk of starvation. Because the Koran makes no mention of the faith followed by the Yazidis, the men of that religion have been condemned as pagans and targeted for slaughter and their women and children taken into slavery. And Muslims deemed to be inadequately Islamic (such as Shia Muslims) have been crucified, beheaded or shot.

Religious belief without any charitable heart

Emanuel Swedenborg has always been known for criticising what has been called a ‘faith alone’ Christian theology: the doctrine that as long as you believe in Christ as your Saviour then you are justified in what you do no matter whether or not you have a charitable heart. In other words Swedenborg maintained that religious belief without love for other people and doing what is good is of no use: such a belief amounts to hypocrisy. For him

“All religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good” (Emanuel Swedenborg, theologian)

He wrote about what he termed ‘persuasive faith’ as an imitation of true faith. People are persuaded of something when it suits them; when it gives them personal position, honour or gain. Religious knowledge with them:

“goes no further than through the ears into the memory, and from the memory passes out on to the lips. It does not enter the heart and from there into a confession of it.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

I would suggest that the IS fighters have this kind of religiosity. It sounds as though they persuade themselves of their version of Islamic teaching: and that they believe in it if they see it as colluding with their dream of absolute power rather than for the sake of truth, or for the sake of what is good in life.

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.

I strongly suspect that men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric. Taking the Koran literally they believe they have a licence to maim, enslave and kill. They completely fail to understand the spiritual communication from God which is supremely compassionate and wise.

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems