By Erich Follath, Manfred Müller, Ulrich Schwarz and Stefan Simons
The orders handed to the suicide killers are brutally clear: "This is the hour in which you will meet God. Pray to God and ask him to help you carry out this act. Once you are on the plane, you should pray to God because you are doing this for God. As the almighty Prophet says, a deed for God is something better than the whole world."
Again and again: Pray, pray, pray so your faith doesn't waver and you don't abandon your mission out of fear. "Open your heart. Welcome death in the name of God." And, finally, when the deed is done, "angels will call your name and put on their most beautiful dresses just for you."
Considering that nearly 3,000 people perished in the events of September 11, 2001, the "spiritual guide" for the attack on the World Trade Center, retrieved by FBI agents from terrorist Mohammed Atta's luggage, reads like a document born of religious paranoia. Allah is portrayed as providing the moral justification for the most horrific terror attack in history, one in which many fellow Muslims were also killed.
This document may seem macabre, but it reflects a breed of fanaticism that infuses numerous faiths, certainly not just Islam. The Jewish extremist Jigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, also claimed he was merely carrying out God's will. And strict tutors at Jesuit colleges might use the same language as the "guide's" Islamic author when demanding absolute obedience to superiors and total dedication to God: witness the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola, the order's founder: "I believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical church so defines it."
Even in the "gentle faiths"
Religious fanaticism has existed in all ages and all religions. It is the sinister side of faith, and its explanation remains elusive. Such extremism - which is usually unleashed in spasms of violence against dissenters - can even be found in so-called "gentle" faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism.
It is most prolific in the three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam, i.e. the religions that trace their roots to Abraham (or Ibrahim, as he is called by the Muslims). Abraham's son Isaac is considered the progenitor of the Jews. The Arabs regard his half-brother Ismael (whom Abraham conceived with Hagar, a maidservant, and not his wife Sarah) as their progenitor.
Indeed, it all began with Abraham: the whole issue of violence ordered by divine missives. According to Jewish and Islamic religious history, the Almighty told Abraham, or Ibrahim, to sacrifice the thing most dear to him - his son - as a sign of his unconditional devotion. Abraham intended to obey, but at the last moment, an angel sent from heaven appeared and stopped him. Every year, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha in remembrance of this divine trial.
According to the three Abrahamic faiths, God only revealed the truth about Himself, humankind and the world to their respective religion; it is there- fore recorded separately in their holy scriptures: the Hebrew Bible (the Torah, or Old Testament to Christians), the Christian New Testament and the Islamic Koran.
Irresistible appeal for fanatics
These records contain countless contradictions. Both the Koran and the Bible's Old and New Testaments bear witness to a good and merciful God. They urge humans to live in peace and harmony. This is reflected most clearly in the instruction attributed to Jesus in the Hebrew Bible: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
But these messages of brotherhood clash with sentiments that condone intolerance and violence: "For I came to set a son against his father, a daughter against her mother ..."; "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me"; "Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword." The prophet Mohammed also delivered harsh threats from Allah: "Fear the fire prepared for the infidels."
Throughout history, the Abrahamic religions' claim of absolute authority has exerted an irresistible appeal on fanatics, encouraging them to impose their own faith on nonbelievers and dissidents alike - if need be by using fire and the sword. To this day, nearly all religions supply the kindling that fuels wars and acts of persecution, sparks torture and murder, and inflames ethnic hatred. Examples abound: the bloody wars between Hindus and Muslims in India, or the enmity between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia.
For centuries, it seemed that the Abrahamic religions had come to terms with - and discarded - extremism. In the case of Christianity, this dates back to the Enlightenment, when the symbiosis between church and state collapsed and a new system of ethics emerged - one that was independent of faith in God and derived solely from social consensus.
Completely lacking in legitimacy
But in the early 1990s, the French sociologist Gilles Kepel pointed out in his book The Revenge of God that extremism was once again surging among Muslims, Christians and Jews.
As diverse as their roots may be (and as hostile as they may be to one another), the new fundamentalist movements share a common conviction, according to Kepel: "The modern secular city is now completely lacking in legitimacy." Fundamentalists of every ilk - Muslims, Jews and Christians - aspire to rebuild a religious foundation for the world's godless societies, and impose divine will as the highest law of the land. Fundamentalist Christians, such as the American revivalist movements or Catholic charismatics, harbor dreams of a world that has been restored to the Christian fold. Muslims declare jihad against all evil - manifest, in their eyes, most blatantly in Western "infidels" - and fight to reinstate Islam in those countries where Mohammed's teachings for centuries dictated every aspect of society and the state.
Jewish fundamentalists are striving to reestablish Judaism in the largely secular state of Israel and to expel every last gentile. Citing biblical role models, self-appointed henchmen launch crusades against everything deemed an enemy of the Jewish state.
Yigal Amir, who assassinated former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, claimed that he had not committed a murder but carried out an execution. "Congratulations on the happy occasion," a sympathetic student mocked on the Internet after Rabin's death. "The evil sorcerer is dead."
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