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Religious Extremism

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Love and compassion are central themes to most of the world’s religions. While subscribing to this philosophy, they also share another more sinister philosophy – that of extremism. We would like to look into the three major religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity (including cults) and how that they all have a history of extremism and also extremist activity today. We would like to study why extremists believe what they do so we can better prepare for them.

Islam Extremism

Islamic history has been a product of culture and conflict. One strong root of this conflict comes from Jihad, which in its original and basic meaning translates to the struggle to be a good Muslim or the struggle to live by the codes of Islam. The Greater Jihad, which is the more prominent form in Islamic culture, is the internal struggle to improve one’s soul. Then there is the Lesser Jihad which is the external and physical struggle of Islam. Under Lesser Jihad, Muslims would have the right and responsibility to physically defend the faith.

“Permission to take up arms is hereby granted to those who are attacked, they have suffered injustice, God has all the power to give them victory” (22:39, Qur’an). This form of Lesser Jihad would show one of its first faces during the period of the Crusades which began in the 11th century. It was only later in history during the 18th century that a radical interpretation of the Qur’an soon took hold of many Muslims. One such radical extremist is Seyyid Qutb, who wrote the book Milestones. In it he justified the armed struggle for Islam against those who stood in its way and he used the Qur’an to legitimize the struggle by saying that the world has changed and Muslim governments are no longer defending the world of Islam against incursions. He argued that each individual Muslim would have to take the responsibility of Military Jihad on his own shoulders (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2006).

Current examples of radical Muslim extremism are synonymous around the world today because of the vast amounts of violence that are taking place. Extremism today evokes images of suicide bombers, hijackings, kidnappings, and other various forms of terrorism. The attacks on September 11th, 2001 in New York which killed over 3000 innocent people proved to be the greatest act of terrorism ever acted upon when it comes to radical extremism. On one of the planes that crashed on that day, it was the terrorists’ last words that were heard repeatedly as a chant on the flight voice recorder, “Allah Akhbar!” which means “God is Great.” The group responsible for that tragedy was Al-Qaeda which is an international terrorist organization whose founder is Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden has even justified the act by quoting the Qur’an, “Fight and slay the pagans, wherever you find them, seize them, and take them captive and lie in wait for them in ever stratagem of war” (9:5, Qur’an). Al-Qaeda is the largest terrorist extremist group today.

Other significant Al-Qaeda operations include the 1998 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the maritime suicide attack in 2000 on an American warship, the USS Cole, anchored in Aden, Yemen; and the commuter train bombings in Madrid, Spain, in March 2004 that killed more than 190 people and wounded more than 1,400.

Another example would be the bombing on October 12th, 2002 on the Indonesian island of Bali which killed many tourists. The group responsible for that act was the militant Islamic terrorist organization known as Jemaah Islamiyah which is dedicated to the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Southeast Asia.

Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamic group founded in 1982 to fight the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. Even though many people in Arab and Muslim societies consider the group as a legitimate resistance movement, the U.S. and various other governments regard it as a terrorist organization. They are also responsible for acts of extremism which include kidnappings, suicide bombings and hijackings.

Extremism in Judaism

Judaism is one of the older religions still in practice today. Judaism is a religion that is based upon the teachings of the Tanakh, which is the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is the equivalent to the Old Testament for the Christian faith. Jews are monotheistic and believe that God is one and only God. The Jewish faith also teaches that the Jews were the only people in the world to answer Gods call and made a covenant with the Jewish people. Jewish people believe that the site of the Temple of David and other sites of temples are Jewish religious locations and should be treated with the highest of respect. Many believe that the Messiah will not come to earth to save them until the temples are rebuilt. The temples are currently in a geographical location that is controlled by Muslims.

Some Jews believe that Israel should stop at nothing to reclaim this land from the Muslims. This ideal has led to the foundation of many Jewish extremist groups. One such group was the Kach group. Led by Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Kach believe that all Arabs are enemies of Israel and that the state of Israel should include the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and some areas of Jordan (Wikipedia, 2006 Kahanism). In 1985 Israel outlawed any group that practiced the ideals of the Kach. To demonstrate their point the Kach has used violence against the Arab community. In 1994 a Kach member killed 29 Arabs at the cave of the Patriarchs. Roadside shootings and bombings have been carried out by Kach support groups such as “The Sword of David.”

The “Bloc of the Faithful” is another Jewish extremist group that believes that the Messiah wants to have his temple rebuilt before he comes to earth. The “Bloc of the Faithful” tried to blow up the Islamic Mosque that resides on the temple of the mount.

Most recently the Jewish extremists have been exchanging terrorist activities with the Palestinians. Eden Natan-Zada, who was an Israeli solder shot and killed four and wounded 13 Palestinians in August of 2005. Eden was outraged at the coexistence of Arabs and Jews in Israel. Terror against Terror massacred innocent Arabs in the West Bank for the same reason. The future looks grim for the violence to end between Israel and Palestine. The terrorist extremist party called Hamas won Palestine’s election in early 2006. Hamas believes that Israel should not exist and wants to wipe them off the map. Extremism is an everyday part of life for the Jews who live in

Christian Extremism

Unlike Islam, which has become synonymous with violence due to the events of September 11, 2001, Christianity is seen as a peaceful religion. That has not always been the case, nor is it now; but to find evidence of violent extremism in this faith we must look back to the times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

The Crusades, which started in the year 1095, were billed by Pope Urban II as a charge by God to push back the heretics led by Muhammad. His charismatic call to arms swelled the ranks of crusaders with all classes, nobility and commoner alike. This was the beginnings of one of the bloodiest wars in the name of Christianity. What had begun as an effort to push back invading “Mohammadeans” (Knight) quickly turned into a concerted effort to seize land and wealth by the crusaders. City after city was sacked in the trek toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself was taken and a bloodbath occurred with all inhabitants of the city slaughtered by the invading Christians. The Crusades lasted almost two hundred years and approximately 1.5 million deaths occurred in the name of God.

The Spanish Inquisition was a sadistic time during which all manner of torture was inflicted upon people who were suspected to be undermining the Catholic Church. The fact that both Muslims and Jews believed in the same God was irrelevant as they too were tortured and generally murdered. Those who were not killed were exiled, their money and property seized. Led by Tomas de Torquemada it is estimated that nearly 135,000 people were killed as a result of the Inquisition. While debate exists about the number of people actually tortured, the fact remains that many people were tortured and murdered because they did not believe or were suspected to be non-believers.

The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were horrendous examples of violence toward people who did not believe in Christianity. Modern day Christian extremism is far smaller in scale than those historical events with respect to violence and the number of deaths. Two examples of modern day Christian extremism are the snake handlers in rural Appalachia and certain segments of the anti-abortion movement.

Appalachian snake handlers believe that God will protect them from the snakes that they handle. Even if they are bit, they believe that they will be healed by God through prayer. This belief stems from Mark 16:17-18 of the Bible which states, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” It is not simply the interaction with snakes that makes this segment of the Christian population appear to be extreme. Their belief in divine healing influences their decision not to seek modern medical treatment for any ailments, snake bites aside. In some cases where children are included this has resulted in neglect charges from social workers. This has at times sparked debate between freedom of religion and the parent’s responsibility to get medical care for a child.

Anti-abortion groups are largely vocal, yet peaceful. However, extremists within the movement have gone so far as to assassinate abortion providers. James C. Kopp, an anti-abortionist, murdered Dr. Barnett Slepian in his home in 1998. Dr. Slepian is one of many doctors slain for their participation in providing abortions. Anti-abortion extremists believe it is God’s will to protect human life that cannot defend itself. Therefore, they have taken it upon themselves to murder those who provide abortions.

Cult Extremism

The word “Cult” is believed by some to be a distinct group that is harmful to themselves or others. Some use the term cult to recognize untraditional belief, or views that stray away from well known historical religions such as Christianity. Others describe cults as intense faith groups because of the dedication from their members.

Cults focus on religious beliefs instead of political, so they are not considered terrorists. The term “destructive” cult is used because there have been mass suicides within some cult organizations. The leaders are believed to have “brainwashed” the members, or have exposed them to mind control techniques (Robinson, 2003). The members will follow any order given by their leader, even if it is harmful, for the “good of the group.” There are some mental health experts and cult theorists who believe the cult phenomenon is due to a “sustained, calculated, and ruthless program of psychological coercion” according to the author of “Free will, or Thought Control?” (Monmaney, 1997).

Some cult groups create their own rules and just keep to themselves without causing any trouble. They are labeled extremists when they become dangerous to themselves or others. Some signs to look for are:

* They promote freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

* They believe in impending world doom and that they are expected to play a role in end time happenings.

* Suicide is considered a form of escape from this life.

* Leadership is generally a single male leader who dominates and controls physically, emotionally, and sexually.

* They are socially isolated and all contact with the outside is controlled by the leader.

* They hoard weapons for potential defensive measures.

* They usually follow Christianity but with deviations in end time theories that are unique to the group.

(Robinson, 1996).

One example of a destructive cult is “The Family” led by Charles Manson in the early 1970’s. This particular cult was against the public. Manson believed himself to be the reincarnate Jesus Christ. He orchestrated the murders of innocent people in three separate incidents. His victims were chosen randomly from the entertainment industry in which he had been shunned previously. Manson was enthused with death, and believed Armageddon was near in the form of a race war and he was to receive an inheritance from it. “The Family” lived in a commune stocking up supplies for the war in which Blacks would win and would have Manson as their leader. He gathered his information from the famous Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and from the book of The Revelation in the Bible. Manson believed the murders would trigger the “Race War” and start the “final days” conflict. (Robinson, 2003).

Suicides have occurred within cult groups as well. One example is the Branch Dravidians from Waco, Texas. This group was a split from the Seventh Day Adventists under the leader David Koresh. Most of its member died during a standoff with Federal agents. Koresh believed he was a messenger of God who was sent to “cleanse a small number of Christians” so that Christ could return to the earth and a new kingdom of David would be formed. Their beliefs are also from the book of Revelation, and they believed the second coming of Christ would occur at their compound. The group stored ammunition and arms as they waited for Armageddon.


Whether it is Islam, Judaism, Christianity or the cults, the common theme is that they sincerely believe they are doing God’s will and that they will somehow be rewarded. While some extremist groups simply use religion as their reasoning others believe so completely that they risk death through inaction. Since they are convinced what they are doing is for God, they will act while being blinded by reason or consequences to the rest of the world. This is why it is so difficult to control or stop them. Hopefully, by studying their past actions, we can become aware of the warning signs and be more prepared to deal with them.


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Kingsport Times. (2004). Should snake handlers be subject to prosecution? Retrieved on April 14, 2006 from http://www.sullivan-county.com/nf0/ep/snake_bite.htm

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Knox, E.L. (2005). History of the Crusades. Retrieved on April 13, 2006 from http://crusades.boisestate.edu/1st/

Monmaney, T. (1997). Free Will or Thought Control? Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1997. Retrieved from the World Wide Web April 12, 2006 at http: www.rickross.com/reference/heavensgate/gate39.html

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Robinson, B.A. (1996). Destructive Cults. Ontario Group Consultants for Religious Tolerance. Retrieved from the World Wide Web April 11, 2006 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/detruct.htm

Ross, R. (2003). Snake Handlers Hang on in Appalachian Churches. Retrieved on April 14, 2006 from www.rickross.com/reference/snake/snake5.html

Shakir, M.H. (2000). Electronic version of The Holy Qur’an, Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc. Retrieved April 12, 2006 from: www.hti.umich.edu/k/koran/

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2006, Columbia University Press

White, M. (2005). Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century. Retrieved on April 14, 2006 from http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat0.htm

Wikipedia. (2006) Kahanism. Retrieved on April 12, 20006 from


Wikipedia. (2006). Spanish Inquisition. Retrieved on April 14, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish Inquisition

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