Messianism and Political Action
Terror has an unfortunately venerable history, and so does terrorism. In the times through which we are living, the spectre of terrorism haunts all too many aspects of our daily existence, even though the risk of a given individual becoming enmeshed in a terrorist act remains, in most countries, very low. But this is not true of all countries. In some parts of the world, the threat of terrorist violence is a good deal more concrete – witness the December 13, 2001 attack on India’s Parliament – and this presses us as scholars and analysts to reflect on the complex circumstances which generate a resort to terrorism, and on the short-term and long-term measures that might be adopted to provide protection from its scourge.
Terrorism’s roots are diverse, and it is impossible in a single article to do justice to the diverse factors that drive it. The focus in this paper is therefore limited: I am concerned specifically with religious terrorism of a messianic variety. Furthermore, I am concerned not with short-term policing measures to deal with the immediate threat of groups which have taken concrete shape and embarked on a campaign of terror, but with a longer-term contextual question: are there institutional mechanisms which militate against the development of terrorism? The conclusion which I offer is on the whole a dispiriting one: there are indeed institutional forms which offer protection against the flourishing of messianic political violence, but they work as part of an evolved landscape which offers little fertile soil for terrorist activity. Where terror and terrorism are common political tactics, such institutions cannot simply be decreed as a magic solution to the problem of political disorder, for they will not be underpinned by the behavioural dispositions which are part of the secret of their success when they have taken shape over time. This is not to say that they are not worth promoting, but rather that one should not entertain unrealistic hopes of what they can deliver.
The paper is divided into four sections. In the first, I offer some definitions and elaborations of a number of key terms, which help delineate my topic: terrorism, religion, messianism and fundamentalism. I also highlight the ways in which these phenomena may be deployed both by the state to mobilise its subjects, and by counter-systemic actors to promote a challenge to some prevailing order. In the second, I explore some of the operational dynamics of messianic groups, and identify factors that can trigger their employment of terrorist tactics. Here, there are two that seem particularly worthy of attention: one is a situation of state delegitimation, to which terrorism can be a contributor but also a response. The other is the development of a group Weltanschauung, which mixes religious inspiration with cognitive dissonance, conspiracy theorising, and denial of social and political realities, and which terrorist group leaders can exploit. In the third, I examine the ways in which certain types of political institution are associated with high levels of efficacy, anonymous trust, and toleration, and develop a robust life of their own through processes of socialisation. In the fourth, I advance some conclusions about the ways in which one might move forward. The paper offers reflections rather than comprehensive analysis, but hopefully they will serve to illuminate what remains an exceptionally elusive sphere. Indeed, given the events of recent times, the need to reflect on where we stand has never been greater.
Violence is the oldest tool of politics. It is no wonder that Max Weber defined the state in terms of the exercise of a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. The exercise or threat of physical force by one individual against another can compel compliance, and is a constituent element of power. While the paralysing fear which one associates with the word ‘terror’ long preceded the rise of the Westphalian state – the Mongol conquests, for example, inspired just such sentiments amongst their hapless victims – the notion of terror as a distinct political tool is more recent, and dates from the French Revolution of 1789. Revolutionary terror served to make resistance unthinkable: it could be driven by a perceived need to save a revolution from its enemies, by an ideological drive, or by the perverse psychology of revolutionary leaders.1 It certainly had its defenders, from the Jacobins to Sorel to Dzerzhinskii. Terror in this sense was itself a practice of the state. Or perhaps we should say is, since recent events in places as different as Rwanda and East Timor drive home how terror’s modern variants, such as repression, orchestrated mayhem, or even genocide continue to afflict people who have done nothing to deserve their fate. The days of tyrannical, sultanistic, totalitarian, and authoritarian, regimes have not yet passed.2
Terrorism is a more modern offshoot, both a challenge to the state’s monopoly of violence, and an assertion of a new repository of legitimacy. Of course, assassination as a political tactic is hardly new: in ancient Athens, there was a certain respect accorded to tyrant-slayers such as Harmodius and Aristogiton; and in modern times, such diverse individuals as British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, US President Abraham Lincoln, and even Empress Elizabeth of Austria were to fall victim to the assassin’s weapon. But it was in Russia in the nineteenth century that the most direct ancestors of modern terrorism were to be found: in the revolutionary populism which gave birth to terrorist groups such as the Narodnaia volia (People’s Will), which succeeded in assassinating Tsar Aleksandr II in 1881.
What are the distinct features of terrorism? Discussing its international variety, Badey has suggested that international terrorism is the "repeated use of politically motivated violence with coercive intent, by non-state actors, that affects more than one state."3 This is useful as far as it goes, but it de-emphasises one element, which in this writer’s view is crucial: the intended psychological impact of an act. Raymond Aron wisely defined as terrorist "an action of violence of which the psychological effects are out of proportion to the purely physical results." 4Badey’s definition also puts too much emphasis on repetition. A single act of assassination, such as the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, can of course be categorised as a crime, but when the assassin has been nurtured by a wider cultural and political milieu, which sanctions political violence5, then a richer terminology is required.
When that milieu is religious, particular problems arise. Religion is a term that is almost impossible to pin down in any simple sense, 6not least because religious labels such as ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Jewish’ can be attached to individuals of atheistic or agnostic disposition, and to communities with no interest in the sacred. My concern is with a particular type of religious milieu, namely that in which religious faith is alive and potent. Religion is potent because it offers an alternative source of legitimacy to that on which secular powers rely, and in certain circumstances a ‘higher law’ than that which human societies generate through political processes. "We do not", remarked Taliban leader Mullah Omar in December 1997, "accept something which somebody imposes on us under the name of human rights which is contrary to the holy Koranic law." The Holy Koran, he went on, "cannot adjust itself to other people’s requirements; people should adjust themselves to the requirements of the holy Koran."7 The religious experience is littered with examples of terrorism: as Rapoport notes, "In Islam and Judaism, the potentialities for radical attacks on institutions are inherent in the ambiguity of unfulfilled divine promises, which no existing establishment can reconcile fully with its own dominance", and Mullah Omar’s comments illustrate this perfectly.8
But messianism and fundamentalism go further still. Messianism has been defined by Rapoport in terms of "faith that there will be a day in which history of life on this earth will be transformed totally and irreversibly from the condition of perpetual strife which we have all experienced to one of perfect harmony that many dream about." 9Some see this as imminent, others as the cause towards which one should work. Eric Hobsbawm has argued, I believe rightly, that in its religious dimension, this is a product of Judeo-Christian propaganda, 10but understood as including Islamic groups as well. The significance of messianism is that, like Marxism, it offers a telos towards which political action can be directed. At its extreme, such a telos can be used to justify the most ferocious acts of destruction in order to advance the goals of purification. However, it is the alliance of messianism with fundamentalism that creates a political force. Fundamentalists deny the legitimacy of separating religion from politics, as well as the force of interpretive traditions, and instead posit the authority of a single sacred text. But since sacred texts cannot interpret themselves, fundamentalist movements typically depend upon an authoritative leader to play such a role, with either genuine or synthesised charisma lying at the heart of the leader’s appeal.
If they succeed in securing state power, the leaders of fundamentalist groups are often faced with the challenge of reconciling their messianic goals with hard realities. In some cases, the result is a process of deradicalisation, and of the routinisation of charisma, reflecting in part the weakness of fundamentalist political theory.11 This seems to have been the fate of the Iranian Revolution. In Iran, this process began even before the death in 1989 of Ayatollah Khomeini, and has continued since: what we now witness in Iran is a relatively straightforward struggle for power between different groups with different policy platforms and support bases. In some ways, this is a result of the need for those controlling the state to undertake concrete administrative tasks: the alternative to deradicalisation is either an attack on state power, somewhat similar to the assault on the Chinese Communist Party which Mao carried out during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or an attack on society, such as the Khmer Rouge mounted in Cambodia. But in other cases, such as that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the notion of ‘state power’ is itself elusive, since the state in Afghanistan became little more than a set of symbols rather than an administrative apparatus. In a case such as this, religion becomes an indispensable device for symbolic legitimation of power. It is unsurprising that Mullah Omar assumed the title of Amir-al-Momineen (‘Commander of the Faithful’) and associated himself with one of Afghanistan’s holiest relics, the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad (Khirqa-i-mubarak), in order to consolidate his authority. Nor is it surprising that, as the position of the Taliban regime became more embattled, attacks on other religions began, in the form of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the arrests of Christian aid workers.
However, where messianic fundamentalism is most challenging to political order is when it takes a counter-systemic form, for it is at this point that terror becomes its natural weapon. The state’s claimed monopoly on the exercise of violence carries no particular weight with such groups, for their leaders motivate their followers by conjuring up the dictates of a higher authority. Mark Juergensmeyer has painted a rich picture of the ‘cultures of violence’ that have flourished in diverse fundamentalist circles. He argues that "it takes a community of support, and in many cases a large organizational network for an act of terrorism to succeed." 13This points to a wider question which sets the scene for the discussion in the remainder of this paper—the question of how to solve the political problem of deep divisions between communities which to some degree must coexist. This is at one level a complex question of normative political philosophy, to which a number of different responses have been crafted in recent years.14 My intention is to address it at a more mundane level of concrete institutional responses. However, before doing so, it is necessary to explore in a little more detail what the triggers for terrorist activities might be, since by no means, do all messianic groups resort to terror.15
Messianic groups are bound together by religious doctrine and, in their fundamentalist form, by the sway of a leader as well. But within such groups, there can also develop complex norms that bind the members to each other. These norms of solidarity arise in circumstances of shared adversity. One analyst has suggested that one reason why soldiers fight ‘is the social cohesion of the face-to-face group forged on the anvil of combat: it produces fraternity."16 Robert Axelrod has discussed the foundations of such norms in some detail:17
Contracts, treaties, alliances, and memberships in social groups all carry with them some power to impose obligations upon individuals. The power of the membership works in three ways. First, it directly affects the individual’s utility function, making a defection less attractive because to defect against a voluntarily accepted commitment would tend to lower one’s self-esteem. Second, group membership allows like-minded people to interact with each other, and this self-selection tends to make it much easier for the members to enforce the norm implicit in the agreement to form or join a group. Finally, the very agreement to form a group helps define what is expected of the participants, thereby clarifying when a defection occurs and when a punishment is called for.
What is perhaps most arresting about the circumstances surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 is that, despite the large number of people involved – in at least four separate groups – not a word leaked about what was planned. One suspects that bonds of fraternity, within groups deliberately kept quite intimate, may have had some role to play in this remarkable achievement, for at least some of the killers in this case seemed to differ from the typical socially-marginal ‘Islamikaze’ with poor self-esteem.18
But nearly as striking is the distinctive character of the moral universe that such people can inhabit. First, it is a universe that, in its essential features, is collectivist rather than individualist. Rather than each person being a unique and valuable being, the individual becomes part of a wider jigsaw, to be despatched without compunction to serve the demands of some greater cause. Even those who share the terrorist’s religion need not be exempt: after all, large numbers of Muslims perished in the ruin of the World Trade Center. Second, it is a universe with boundaries beyond the mere physical world: messianic groups characteristically have apocalyptic conceptions of the world, and can rationalise the slaughter of innocents in this world by reference to their bliss or salvation in some other. Third, it is a universe of moral absolutes, in which some are entirely pure and others irredeemably evil. The complexities of human psychology and human character, the shades of grey which surround so many questions, are utterly perplexing to those of this orientation. The inhabitants of this moral universe are eminently suited to the perpetration of horrendous acts: the slogan Befehl 19ist Befehl, much deployed during the Nuremberg Trials and still not altogether discredited, accurately describes the foot soldier’s unreflective psychological disposition. Here, there are significant parallels with the secular totalitarian ideologies: both Marxism-Leninism and Nazism depended upon banal persons who accepted that ends justified means, no matter how horrific those means actually were.
Some messianic groups deal with the world through a strategy of isolation: the Jonestown commune in Guyana is a good example.20 But those that seek to exist in a wider world are a potential danger if two conditions are met. The first is delegitimation of the state, and the second is the crystallisation of a particular view of the world. The combination of the two is always potent, and may prove lethal.
What do we mean by delegitimation of the state? A state that enjoys generalised normative support is likely to be more stable in the long run than one that needs resources to fund either bribery or coercion. But, the legitimacy of the state can be compromised in a number of different ways. One is through processes of state decay. States can be overly dependent on foreign aid, or on rentier income at levels which are not sustainable External shocks can massively disappoint the expectations of those who expected an easy flow of resources to last forever – a problem which some have called the ‘resource curse’. States can be victims of a creeping invasion, or of the spread of ethnic conflict from neighbouring states, and governmental efficiency may be compromised by imbalances between military and social spending or by corruption and nepotism. When states decay in this respect, individuals suffer, and their disappointment and despair can drive them into the arms of radical groups, sometimes of secular revolutionaries, but sometimes of messianic activists. States can also be delegitimated in the eyes of at least some groups if leaderships take those states in directions that depart from what constitute the key legitimating mythologies for the groups in question. "The fundamentalist goal of transforming society into a simpler one based on religious ideals", writes Fox, "is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with some of the basic ideals of western democracies, including religious freedom and individual liberty."21 Israel is a good example of this tension, with some parts of its population giving primary emphasis to extreme interpretations of its Jewish identity, and others valuing its democratic credentials. It is worth noting that such tensions can be inactive for prolonged periods of time, to be activated only by unpredictable political shifts: the Six Day War, for example, created new ground realities in the Middle East, and in turn opened the door to activism on the part of those Jewish groups which regarded the newly-occupied West Bank of the Jordan as the Biblical Judea and Samaria to which the Jewish people had claims as of right. Ever since, the politics of Israel has been detrimentally affected by the varying conceptions not just of what is necessary to ensure Israel’s security, but of what is legitimately the territory of the state of Israel itself. The rhetoric of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the murders of Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, and above all the assassination of Rabin, are testaments to the emergence of a fundamental rift over state identity.22
The view of the world that sustains terrorist activities, is one of a world populated by enemies.23 The expression shaitan-e-bozorg (‘Great Satan’), employed by the Iranian revolutionaries, is a good example of this, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. In the quest for enemies, of course, we find abundant parallels outside the sphere of religious terrorism: in the genocidal mentality which led to the Holocaust and the Rwandan slaughters; in the hunt for the ‘enemy of the people’ (vrag naroda) in Stalin’s Russia during the Ezhovshchina of the 1930s; even in the persistence of stereotypical images of those on the ‘wrong’ side of an interstate conflict. The terrorist Weltanschauung is typically based on an explosive mixture of fact and fantasy. Jalaluddin Rumi’s cautionary tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant cuts no ice with them. And conspiracy theories mixed with denial play a prominent role in their thinking.24 Denial is a complex notion, but the dimension that matters the most here is denial of the complex causation of events. This kind of reductionism aids the social construction of the enemy, and is probably an essential component of the terrorist’s makeup: the psychological costs of doing what terrorists do might otherwise be unmanageable. The struggle in which messianic terrorists engage is not one in which terror predominantly plays an instrumental role, in contrast to the activities of Palestinian terrorist groups in the late 1960s and 1970s, which were directed at putting a particular set of political concerns on the global political agenda. The messianic terrorist undertakes actions for what they symbolise. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were not means to an end, but ends in themselves.
Ultimately, the resort to terror of this kind is likely to be a leader’s choice. Sometimes an individual such as Dr. Goldstein will run amok, or a Timothy McVeigh will be driven by his own dreams to carry out some atrocity, but co-ordination of terrorist action is most likely to be by decree. This takes us back to the psychology of the individual leader as a causal factor, something that is almost impossible to address by policy measures. The cellular structure of terrorist networks can insulate them against a decapitating strike, and they may survive the loss of a key leader. Such a strike can also lead to a loss of focus, and erosion of energy. But to address the problem of messianic terrorism as a phenomenon, something deeper is required.
Consolidated democracies have experienced their share of terrorism: the IRA in the United Kingdom, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Japanese Red Army faction, provide painful reminders of this history. However, the roots of these groups’ activities have been specifically political or ideological, and their messianic dimension is negligible. Yet the lessons here are encouraging. With the possible exception of the IRA, these groups have left the stage of contemporary terrorism: their ideological inspirations (or organisational supporters) have withered, and their activists have grown elderly. The institutions of consolidated democracy have proved more than sufficient to withstand their onslaughts, and this has proved the case also in Spain, a much younger democracy, where Basque separatist terrorism has not fractured the foundations of the polity. We cannot be confident that the threat of messianic terrorism will be thwarted with similar success. But the achievements in confronting these ideological and ethnic strands of terrorism at least raise the question of whether a properly-structured institutional framework for governance might not be the best protection against messianic terrorism as well, in terms either of preventing domestic terrorists groups from finding a niche, or denying international terrorist groups an operational base. The position of Afghanistan, a disrupted state, dominated territorially until recently by a religious-extremist group providing space for terrorism to flourish, comes to mind. 25On this issue, there are five key points that need to be made.
The first is that there are critical issues of timing at work. Institutions can be created overnight, but they cannot so readily be institutionalised. Institutions take root through complex interactions of often-antagonistic groups or individuals within the framework that these institutions create. Sometimes antagonisms run so deep that breakdown occurs even in well-designed institutions. Institutions are also reinforced by processes of socialisation that expose the young to an appreciation of the benefits of a particular institutional framework, so that attempting by violence to move to another would, for most people, be unthinkable. This is not the inculcation of ‘false consciousness’,26 but an essential feature of political learning in any stable system. Here there are interesting differences between India and Pakistan. While India has had more than its share of terrorism, and questions have occasionally been raised about governability issues, the Indian political system has proved exceedingly vigorous, and survived the 1975-1977 ‘Emergency’. One suspects that this owes much to the considerable power of socialisation. Pakistan, by contrast, has had considerable difficulty in this sphere, partly because of tensions over the substance of national identity, and partly because of the weakness of the education system and mass media which have provided opportunities for sectarianism to develop.27On occasion, elite settlements can short-circuit the process of institutionalisation through interaction and socialisation, but these are, on the whole, quite rare.
The second is that different institutions are appropriate to different situations. One significant consideration is the cultural context within which institutions are to be employed. There are good reasons to believe that institutions that resonate with pre-existing cultural practices and experiences may enjoy certain advantages over those, which do not. And that those which do not will run the risk of becoming mere curtains behind which politics will be played out informally in quite different ways. Sometimes, it is sufficient if institutions resonate with the cultures of political elites, which to some extent happened in India in 1947; but there are many cases, for example in post-colonial Africa, where even this degree of resonance proved impossible to achieve.
The third is that religious fundamentalism tends to produce an erosion of trust in those who do not share the fundamentalist’s beliefs. Even in the United States there is evidence that "fundamentalists are substantially less likely to say that they trust other people than other believers". 28Trust is one of the most important types of relationship that holds a society together, and there is much to be said in favour of policies which reconstitute venues in which trust can be shared. In certain circumstances, superordinate political goals can bind people together in such relationships: much anecdotal evidence speaks to the bonds of solidarity that can unite not just small groups but entire peoples if the threat to their way of life is great enough. However, this is not a good approach where the divisions between peoples are either the product of, or accentuated by, political issues. More promising is sport: while George Orwell somewhat ominously paraphrased Clausewitz to suggest that sport is war by other means, Juergensmeyer identifies sport as a neutral plane beyond politics, and cites some anecdotal evidence in support of the thesis.29 Sport establishes what may seem a contradictory structure, namely a community of competitors, but it may offer the chance of luring people away from more destructive forms of action.
The fourth is that institutions of ‘democracy’, crudely interpreted, are not necessarily the most useful institutions in surmounting the discontents on which terrorism can build. As a system that allows ordinary people to change their rulers without bloodshed, democracy in the general sense has very strong arguments to commend it. But there are dangers in thinking that elections on their own necessarily lay the foundations for stability. Elections can inflame issues which are better left dormant, and depend upon a pre-existing consensus that the will of the majority should prevail – an especially problematical assumption when one is discussing the orientations of messianic groups.30 More seriously, democratic choice at what may be relatively infrequent elections need not mute dissatisfaction on the part of those who feel marginalised in the intervening periods, especially if the constraints on elected rulers prove to be feeble. This type of situation, which some have called ‘delegative democracy’ and others ‘illiberal democracy’,31 can lead to a crisis of frustrated expectations, and the drifting of the disappointed into more radical circles.
The fifth, and perhaps most important, is that institutions of justice deserve priority. The appeal of messianic movements, which often promise the advent of a just society, is greatly heightened in societies in which justice manifestly cannot be obtained through public instrumentalities. Constitutionalism is at the heart of a just society, because of the emphasis that it places on the separation of powers and the rule of law. Where power is in practice divided between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, state repression becomes harder to orchestrate, and a truly civil society can more readily function. This opens the scope for a multiplicity of overt social attachments for the individual, and avoids the situation in which the only possible networks of social engagement are familial, state-orchestrated, or uncivil. The rule of law is equally important. In a situation in which law functions as an instrument of state domination, rather than as a constraint on state power, its legitimacy will be compromised, and what is depicted as divine law is likely to be more appealing.
Terrorists in the strict sense make up a minuscule fraction of the world’s population, and far more people die each year in automobile accidents than in terrorist attacks. The power of terrorists arises from the uncertainty which they inject into everyday life, and from their capacity to act as spoilers in politics more generally. The terrorist need only be in the right place at the right time, once, in order to change the history of the world, possibly with devastating consequences. From the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, the history of our times has been irremediably altered by the terrorist’s blow. For this reason, the threat of the terrorist is one that we cannot afford to ignore.
If a mad dog invades one’s house, it is rarely an adequate response to write out a cheque for rabies research. For that reason, it is vital that those confronted by messianic terrorism have an adequate range of response mechanisms available to them: policing, military backup, intelligence gathering, forensic assets, mechanisms to manage the consequences of a terrorist strike, security for appropriate targets, appropriate penalties, and judicial procedures which – while consonant with the rule of law and the rights of the subject – do not prevent relevant evidence from being put before courts when suspected terrorists are being held to account. It is also important to work with authority figures from the same religious traditions as the terrorists, with a view to undermining the legitimacy of those who would set messianic terror in motion. However, this is potentially quite difficult, for believers form communities, and even those who wish to see evil expunged from their midst may shrink from co-operating with non-believers to achieve that aim. It is easy to mistake a killer for a wayward sheep.
Yet for all of that, the long run should not be neglected. As I have suggested in this paper, there are no ‘quick-fix’ solutions to the conditions that nurture messianic terrorism. The problems of state disruption and socio-cultural disarray on which terrorist leaders build are typically complex and deep-rooted, and require prolonged, steady, and well-resourced commitments to overcome. The rewards from such commitments are also counterfactual, at least as far as terrorism is concerned: one may have nothing to celebrate but the dog that did nothing in the night. But given the mayhem that can result if bleeding wounds are left to become infected, even this may be no mean achievement.