Return to home page

Parallels and divergences in religious terrorism

James Wimberley 18 September 2001

  1. Osama bin Laden and the Qaida network are terrorists whose ideology is rooted in religion and in particular in Islam. It would be a grave mistake, out of regard to the sensibilities of the mass of Moslems who reject his goals and methods, to deny the religious connection. The political problem of destroying his network lies precisely in the danger of strengthening Muslim hostility to Western democratic societies. It is essential to reach a better understanding of the way in which religion can lead to violence, in particular to revolutionary violence aimed at the transformation of society. Religion can of course also lead to or reinforce violence by the established order: crusades, persecutions, and “just wars”; but that is not the issue today.

  2. One promising approach to this vital understanding is comparative history. The religious terrorists on the scene today are Muslims (plus tiny freelance cults like the Branch Dravidians); but if we take a fuller historical canvas, we find major Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and syncretistic movements with equally extreme agendas and methods. Some of these are briefly sketched below. The survey makes no pretence at scholarship and is simply an outline to be completed and corrected by real experts. At the end, I offer some thoughts on the parallels and divergences that may be relevant to our problem.

  3. A comparative approach to religious extremism has the additional advantage of allowing a very sensitive subject to be discussed seriously with Muslims in a non-confrontational way. If the topic is pursued, there are a number of NGOs and interfaith commissions that could be involved. Of individual experts, two are mentioned below: Norman Cohn and Mark Tully.

The Assassins (out of Shia Islam)

The Hasshishiyun or Assassins were founded ca. AD 1190 by Hasan as-Sabah, an adherent of an esoteric variant of the Ismaili sect of Sh’ia Islam. The main foes of this élitist and disciplined religious order were the (Sunni) Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad and their various Seljuk protectors. The headquarters was the remote fortress of Alamut in Khorassan, with subsidiary eyries as far as the Nosairi mountains of Syria. The order developed to a fine art tactics of political blackmail enforced by assassinations; these were carried out by fanatically loyal adherents, allegedly drugged with hashish, fully ready to die. Prominent victims included, in 1092, the Vizier of Persia Nizam al-Mulk – according to legend a schoolmate of as-Sabah’s along with Omar Khayyam - , and in 1192 Conrad of Montferrat, a Crusader King of Jerusalem1. The Assassins forced the great Saladin into retreat in 1176. The murder of Jagatai, second son of the Mongol conqueror Genghiz Khan, proved a catastrophic error: in 1256-57 a Mongol army under Hulagu stormed Alamut and exterminated the sect in Persia. The Syrian branch survived for some years: in 1272 an unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of the future King Edward I of England by Assassin agents of the Mameluke Sultan Baibars2.

The long life of the Assassins is surprising given their small social base and violent methods. In part this must be attributed to the great skill with which they wielded the weapon they invented, and in part their limited practical objectives – removing obstructive individuals rather than installing a new régime. It is unclear to me what their religious objectives may have been, but a priori these must have been individual.

Millenarians (out of Christianity)

Messianic movements occurred quite regularly throughout the later Middle Ages in western Europe, particularly from the time of the First Crusade (ca. 1090). Socially, they drew on classes of he poor such as artisans created and disrupted by early modern capitalism. Theologically, they drew on apocalyptic themes and literature that were in themselves orthodox – the Second Coming, the Antichrist – but gave them a violent immediacy, combining themes of communistic social policy and mystical antinomianism.

One example is the Bohemian Adamites. The proto-Protestant Hussite movement in Bohemia created first a radical wing (the rather Cromwellian Taborites), and from this emerged an ultra movement, the Pikarti and then the communist Adamites. The latter installed themselves on an island in the Neretva, where they held naked rites (like Adam and Eve) and launched savage raids on the surrounding villages. “Blood, they declared, must flood the world to the depth of a horse’s head; and despite their small number they did their best to achieve this aim.”3 They were exterminated by the Taborite general John Žižka in October 1421.

In their turn, the Taborites and the moderate Utraquists were defeated in battle. The religious tradition of the radical Hussites survived as the pietist Moravian Brethren or Mennonites.

A century later – in 1534 - a group of radical Protestants known as Anabaptists seized power in the city of Münster in Westphalia. Two charismatic Anabaptist leaders, Jan Matthys and Jan Bockelson, transformed the city into a communist, and terroristic, New Jerusalem and eventually the latter proclaimed himself the Messiah. These developments provoked the princes of the Rhineland into armed alliance with the Bishop of Münster. After a siege, the starving Anabaptists surrendered in June 1535: they were massacred and Bockelson was tortured to death in the cathedral square.

The Anabaptists also turned into a pacific, though much persecuted, minority sect4.

Sicarii (out of Judaism)

The conflict between the polymorphous Greek, and later Greco-Roman, world and the prickly and exclusive Jews was an epic clash of cultures, in some ways reminiscent of that between conservative Islam and Western modernity. Jewish rulers – the Herodian dynasty - and élites were most exposed to the glamour as well as the power of the Greeks and Romans and often absorbed their values, to the extent of apostasy in the eyes of traditionalists. First-century Judaea seethed with Jewish renewal movements, drawing on the apocalyptic writings of Isaiah and Daniel to predict the imminent arrival of the Messiah to liberate the Jews from the Roman and apostate yoke. The Sadducees proposed a return to ritual rigour; the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus preached a more flexible personal righteousness; Essenes withdrew to the desert to await the imminent arrival of the Messiah in fortified monasteries. Physical resistance was advocated by the Zealots and their extreme wing, known to the Romans as the Sicarii for the daggers they carried for assassination. The Sicarii played a key role in the great revolt of AD 66-70, culminating in the destruction of the Temple and the first dispersion of the Jews (completed after the second revolt of Simon bar Kochba in AD 131-135). Before the siege of Jerusalem, the radicals who occupied the Temple destroyed the archives that recorded all civil debts, proof of an extreme social as well as political agenda5.

After bar-Kochba, the Judaism of the Diaspora and the ghetto, constantly under threat from host societies with a monopoly of force, was pacific and introverted. Even Messiahs like Sabbatai Zevi (1665-6) were entirely nonviolent. Zionism involved the Jews in political violence to make good their territorial claim in Palestine, by warfare and even the terrorism of the Irgun and Stern Gang at the end the British Mandate. For most of Israel’s short history, the most pious and orthodox Jews shunned involvement with the compromising and secular Zionist state. Violence rooted in religious belief has only recently entered the scene, through the rabble-rousing of Meir Kahane, the shooting spree of Baruch Goldstein and – it has been alleged – rabbinical complicity in the assassination of Itzhak Rabin; but these do not add up to a coherent movement with a political and religious programme.

Thugs (out of Hinduism)

Around 1831, a British officer, Captain William Sleeman, discovered the existence of a Hindu sect – indeed a hereditary caste - of professional highway robbers and murderers, devotees of the goddess Kali. The sect had allegedly been in existence for centuries. The Thugs infiltrated themselves into groups of travellers, then killed them by strangulation using a handkerchief (the rumal) weighted with a coin tucked into one corner. In a wide police campaign in central India, assisted by Indian princes, Sleeman’s organisation hanged over 400 Thugs and imprisoned over 3000 more for life. The sect disappeared without trace6.

There are problems with the evidentiary basis for this account: Sleeman had a professional interest as well as a cultural reason for exaggerating the religious, mad-cult aspect of Indian banditry; belonging to the sect was made a crime by itself, which facilitated convictions. The proposition that the sect was a caste of ancient origin is particularly tenuous; the collapse of Mughal authority in the 18th century created favourable social conditions for banditry. However, it has not been alleged that the British Raj used torture to extract the many confessions on which Sleeman’s account is based, and it is hard to believe there is no basis for it in fact.

The great later rebellion known misleadingly as the Indian Mutiny in 1857 was certainly sparked by a religious grievance (the alleged use of beef and pork fat to grease rifle cartridges, which had to be bitten open for loading), and probably responded to a wider resentment of British attempts to remake Indian society and challenge its religions, such as missionary work and the abolition of suttee. However it would be difficult to establish any connection with the crushing of the Thugs twenty years before, which was concentrated farther south than the centres of the Mutiny.

Jarnail Singh Bindranwale (out of Sikhism)

Sikhism, localised in the Indian Punjab, is like Islam a militant and egalitarian monotheistic religion guided by its sacred book. During the authoritarian personal rule of Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s, Hindu-Sikh tensions in the Punjab rose to new heights. A Sikh religious agitator, Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, took control with armed supporters of the most important Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. From this base he waged a campaign of terrorism against the Indian Government and also moderate Sikhs and Hindus. In a bloody assault in June 1984, government forces recaptured the Temple, with great loss of life – including that of Bindranwale - and symbolically important damage to the temple. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in November of the same year by Sikh bodyguards as an act of vengeance for this sacrilege7.

It is not known to me whether Bindranwale was simply pursuing a fairly standard Sikh political agenda by extreme methods (as with typical nationalist terrorists) or whether there was a radical religious vision as well. Turning the holiest place of his religion into an armed HQ suggests at the least personal hubris. Did he think of himself as the tenth Guru?

The Taiping Rebellion (out of Asiatic syncretism)

In the 1840s a Hakka peasant youth from near Canton, Hong Xiuquan, developed a messianic doctrine based on visions and misreading of Christian missionary tracts. He identified himself as the second son of God and brother to Jesus Christ, mandated to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and install a revolutionary regime, the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. Drawing support from traditional peasant frustrations and a breakdown of law in south China, the cult launched a vast insurrection in 1851 and set up a government in Nanking. The Taiping was of a strongly egalitarian character, and eventually forced the peasants into communal land ownership. With foreign help, the Manchu dynasty eventually crushed the Taiping in 1864. The total loss of life is estimated at 10 to 20 million8.

The Taiping contrasts with the numerous peasant revolts that have marked the history of China, often led by secret societies like the White Lotus. These appealed to traditional Confucian concepts of the Mandate of Heaven, and aimed at securing a straightforward change of régime rather than social revolution and personal transformation.

Aum Shinri Kyo (out of Asiatic syncretism)

This Japanese doomsday cult was founded in in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, the son of a tatami straw mat maker, after a trip to India. The name is a combination of Aum which is a sacred Hindu syllable, and Shinri Kyo which means "supreme truth". The doctrine combines elements from Buddhism and Christianity; Asahara is regarded as Christ by his followers, and claims miraculous powers like time travel. The cult aims at a world revolution and has pioneered the use of biological and chemical weapons, including the poison gas attack on the Tokyo metro in 1995. Several members have been convicted but the group survives.9


This very rough survey raises a number of salient questions.

  1. Why are Buddhism and Confucianism not represented? I suggest, for opposite reasons. The core of Buddhism is non-violence and detachment from the world. It seems to lack the social agenda that can be developed into political radicalism, whether peaceful or terroristic. Confucianism is all social agenda: it is an (intensely conservative) code of morals, lacking the supernatural elements and eschatology that are preconditions for the personal self-sacrifice of the fanatic. Buddhist and Confucian societies have of course known violent governments and rebels: but not, I think, ones where the violence sprang from the belief system.

  2. Can violent religious movements be suppressed without sparking a wider conflict with the mainstream of the same religion? The evidence strongly suggests that this can be done, by targeting all the membership not just the leaders. In the face of defeat, survivors turn pacific – they must have misunderstood the will of God. In most cases, the methods used to crush the movements were far too ruthless to be acceptable to us. However, Thuggee was suppressed by process of law, though imperfect.

  3. Are there systemic differences between the main religions in the types of violent radicalism they can lead to? One distinction may lie in the social agenda. Judaism and, even more, Christianity have an inbuilt social egalitarianism that creates reservations about private property. The moral duty of sharing leads to the ideal of “holding all things in common”, like the first Christians. This can readily lead to socialist and communist programmes. Islam was founded by a businessman, drawing on the legislative rather than the apocalyptic strand in Judaism. It has no qualms about private property and the sacredness of contract: in a sense, it should be the most compatible with capitalism of the great religions, and it is a mystery why the opposite is the case today10. Islamic radicals today do not propose communism; their social programme is limited to literal application of reactionary legal codes. The communistic aspects of the Taiping and the Aum Shinri Kyo seem to be drawn from their garbled imports from Christianity.

1Two assassins accosted Conrad in a street in Tyre. One presented him a letter, then the other stabbed him. There is a striking similarity with the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan last week, apparently by suicide bombers posing as TV journalists. .

2All data from Steven Runciman, History of the Crusades, Cambridge 1952, vols 2 and 3, various.

3Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, Paladin 1970, p.220. This fine book is a key document.


5Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, London 1987. All scholarship on this subject is highly controversial, from Josephus onwards.

6Source: various doubtfully reliable websites.

7Various websites of doubtful reliability. The best source would be Mark Tully, the distinguished BBC correspondent in India who reported on events at the time, and has now emigrated to London.

8Microsoft Encarta online encyclopaedia


10Muhammad’s economic programme – the market plus personal integrity plus a compulsory safety net – is pretty much what the World Bank and the IMF prescribe for the Third World.