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."
Part II: Butchering Jews and other Carnage
Killing in the name of the Lord? Look no further than the Crusades and the Inquisition. Deus lo vult ("It is God's will") was the Crusaders' battle cry. Popes had called upon Christendom to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Beyond the prospect of rich plunder, the Crusaders could expect forgiveness for all their crimes.
The Christian armies weren't content to pillage Palestine during at least six crusades between 1096 and 1291. En route to the Holy Land, they laid waste to Christian Constantinople (1204). At home, they butchered Jews who got in their way. All for the glory of their God.
When conquering Jerusalem in 1099, the Crusaders embarked on a ruthless rampage on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif). "Our men waded in blood up to their ankles," one witness reported. All told, an estimated 5 million Muslims, Jews, Christians from the Byzantine Church and Christian invaders died in the Crusades.
And these unholy campaigns were no exception. For five centuries, various popes joined forces with bishops, emperors, kings and dukes to persecute anyone who deviated from the prescribed methods of worship. From the 13th century until after the Enlightenment, the Inquisition left a trail of carnage across Europe. At least 1 million are thought to have died at the hands of its tribunals.
Slaughtered for refusing
The bloodletting was particularly horrendous in Spain. The Spanish Inquisition, which started around 1570, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity, and Moors.
The Spanish conquistadors meted out similar treatment to the "heathens" they encountered in the New World. Millions of indigenous Central and South Americans were slaughtered for refusing to accept the conquerors' God.
The burning of witches marked another dark chapter in the history of the Inquisition. Persisting for half a millennium, these killings had twin roots: medieval thought with its array of magicians and evil spirits, and the deep-rooted Christian fear of female "charms."
The first witch was killed in Toulouse in 1275. Even according to conservative estimates, some 50,000-80,000 European women were burned at the stake, including the peasant girl Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, in 1431. Witch hunts also reached epidemic proportions in Germany.
The Protestants were no better than the Catholics. Just as many women died in Protestant countries as in Catholic areas.
Yet the Catholic Church probably incurred its greatest burden of guilt through its treatment of the Jews. Even in early Christendom, anti-Jewish sentiment against the "murderers of Christ" was widespread, and the Church adhered to this course until well into the 20th century. "Hep!" the mobs shouted 1,000 years ago as they fought their way into the Jewish quarters. "Hep!" (Hierosolyma est perdita, "Jerusalem is destroyed") remained the call to arms in pogroms through Germany's Nazi era. The Holocaust might never have happened, had it not been for this Christian legacy of anti-Semitism.
First suicide attack
When people think of violent religious extremism today, Islamic suicide killers often spring to mind. But the first suicide attack in the history of the Abrahamic religions occurred about 1200 B.C.E., and its perpetrator was a Jew: Samson.
At that time, the Israelites were smarting under the yoke of their Philistine oppressors. Their leading resistance fighter was a bear of a man named Samson, who reportedly could rip apart a lion barehanded. But after his mistress Delilah betrayed the secret of his strength, the Philistines succeeded in overpowering him. They gouged out his eyes and paraded their prisoner through the streets to entertain the crowds.
On one such occasion, Samson asked to be taken to the central pillars of the Philistine's mighty temple. He prayed - "O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once" - and then he pushed against the building's two main supports with all his might. "Let me die with the Philistines," he reportedly said before the roof came crashing down, burying both him and his tormentors. According to the Book of Judges, 3,000 men and women lost their lives.
The Hashshashin, an extremist Shiite group, figures prominently among the historical models for today's Islamist suicide killers. Active between 1090 and 1260, the sect was led by the mysterious Hassan bin al-Sabah, "the old man from the mountain." He commanded his forces - never more than a few thousand men - in an underground war against the Crusaders, and above all against the corrupt and autocratic Muslim rulers.
His was an unusual strategy: Rather than assembling an army, he dispatched suicide attackers to murder his adversaries and their leaders. These "sleepers" infiltrated the enemy ranks and then carried out their orders where they were least expected. After killing their designated targets, the murderers made no attempt to escape. "On the contrary," Islam expert Bernard Lewis has noted. "To have survived a mission was seen as a disgrace."
Alibi for dictators
As Westerners hold life so precious, they insinuated that the sect members had spent too much time in opium dens or drunk in brothels, and dubbed the sect "The Hashshashin" - giving us the modern-day word "assassin."
A chronicle describing the spread of Islam bears the words: "See, I was sent with the sword (by God) to bring debasement and dishonor to those who oppose his word." When he died in 632, Mohammed controlled nearly the whole of the Arab peninsula. Twenty years later, the entire Middle East was under Islamic rule.
In its early days, Islam was a bellicose religion - and an incredibly progressive one. While populations were being decimated in medieval Europe by plagues and famines, public hospitals and libraries were being built in the Middle East.
The decline began with the orgy of violence inflicted by Christian crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099, accompanied by the onset of a certain decadence. While Europe flourished during the Reformation and the Renaissance, Islam - whose Prophet had promised social justice for all - degenerated into an alibi for unscrupulous Ottoman dictators.
Today's Islamist zealots believe that their religion can only reclaim the respect it deserves by casting off its chains. Hassan al-Banna was the first Islamist of recent times; he fought the "modern crusaders," the colonialists. This fanatically pious man advocated an escape "toward the light" by urging a return to an Islamic Golden Age. In 1928, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and it soon drew thousands of supporters. Like the Taliban, he demanded the "closure of ballrooms, prohibition of dancing" and "healthy values among the press." During the upbringing of women, everything possible should be done, he exhorted, "to prevent flirtatious and vain behavior."
Killed by the secret police
Al-Banna made no mention of murder or suicide attacks targeting infidels or religious renegades. Still, Egypt's King Faruk considered the agitator such a threat that he had him killed by the secret police in 1949.
It was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual, who successfully transformed the Muslim Brotherhood into the model for all Islamist organizations. Outraged by American "godlessness" after spending two years in the United States, he returned home and wrote Milestones. German theologian Andreas Meier is not alone in terming this work the "Islamic revolution's equivalent to Mao's Little Red Book."
Just as Mohammed himself once battled his heathen compatriots and their ignorance, it is Qutb's goal to take up arms against all infidel regimes - whether they call themselves Islamic or not. Using every means available, even terrorism. For, according to Qutb, the "heathen" enemy has crossed the red line to barbarism. He now frames the conflict as "them against us."
Jihad? Islamic law only permits holy war under extreme circumstances, for instance when a person needs to defend him- or herself, or when the Islamic world is under attack and its very existence threatened. But the Koran also says: "So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush!"