“These are radical Islamic terrorists, and she won’t even mention the word, and nor will President Obama. He won’t use the term radical Islamic terrorism. Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name.”
So said Donald Trump back in his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. Leaving aside the fact that Clinton had publicly used the terms radical jihadism and radical Islamism four months earlier, is the larger point valid? To solve a problem, do we have to be able to state what the problem is? It seems logical.
Candidate Trump is now President Trump, and he is transforming his campaign promises into executive orders. Remarks that may have seemed offhand or exaggerated during the campaign have now been revealed as literal statements of intent.
Also, the president doesn’t seem to be able to leave the campaign behind, either psychologically or politically. He continues to hold campaign-style rallies and to attack both Clinton and Obama on Twitter. The issues of Russian interference in the campaign and Trump’s complicity in the meddling continue to grow and multiply.
Furthermore, terrorism continues to be a major issue in the United States. Not necessarily the committing of terror attacks, but the fear that they will be committed drives much of our domestic and foreign policy. Isn’t that what terrorism does? It creates fear and lets the fear do the work.
So, let’s take the president at his word and follow where his words lead.
Resolved: In order to solve the problem of radical religious terrorism, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name.
What is terrorism?
The federal government of the United States has several definitions of terrorism currently in use, but they largely agree on the concept.
The U.S Code of Federal regulations is straightforward, stating that terrorism is “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The USA PATRIOT Act states that domestic terrorism consists of “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.”
Since Mr. Trump was specifically speaking of terrorism in connection to a religion – and since he continues to do so on a regular basis – let’s look at two definitions that specifically mention faith.
The U.S. Department of Defense definition of terrorism states that it “is often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.” The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center definition of a terrorist act includes the idea that it is “politically motivated, potentially including religious, philosophical, or culturally symbolic motivations.”
We can combine all of the above and state a definition like this:
Terrorism is (1) an illegal use of violence against persons and/or property that is (2) intended to intimidate civilians and/or coerce government to (3) effect social and/or political goals and is (4) driven by political, philosophical, and/or religious motivations.
What is radicalization?
The FBI defines radicalization as “the process by which individuals come to believe their engagement in or facilitation of nonstate violence to achieve social and political change is necessary and justified.” Javed Ali, Senior Intelligence Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, defines it as “the process of adopting an extremist belief system, including the willingness to use, support or facilitate violence as a method to effect societal change.”
The philosopher Julian Baggini added a clear moral stance to his definition, writing that radicalization is “a process by which people come to freely choose a dangerously and wickedly misguided path that they nonetheless perceive to be a virtuous calling.”
We can combine these statements and define the term like this:
Radicalization is (1) the process of freely choosing a belief system that (2) accepts the use of violence as a justified and/or virtuous means to (3) effect social and/or political goals.
What is radical religious terrorism?
We are now able to state what the problem is or at least say the name. The synthetic definitions of terrorism and radicalization above clearly have much in common. We simply need to combine them and emphasize the religious element.
Radical religious terrorism is (1) an illegal use of violence against persons and/or property that is (2) intended to intimidate civilians and/or coerce government and is (3) driven by a freely chosen religious belief system that (4) accepts the use of violence as a justified and/or virtuous means to (5) effect social and/or political goals.
We’ve now stated the problem and said the name. Since the goal is to solve the problem of terrorism, let’s examine the incidents in the United States that fit the definition of radical religious terrorism.
Who commits acts of radical religious terrorism?
To make the data manageable, let’s limit ourselves to events (1) in the twenty-first century consisting of (2) completed attacks (3) in the United States that led to (4) injury and/or death and/or (5) property damage by (6) known perpetrators with (7) stated religious motives and/or allegiances.
Due to extended and repeated coverage by the media, we all know about the attacks by Muslims. We know about the perpetrators, their backgrounds, their beliefs, their connections, and their investigation by local and federal authorities. If we admit only those attacks that fit both the stated definition of radical religious terrorism and the data limitations just stated, there have been eleven instances of radical religious terrorism connected to Islam.
In 2001, the massive attacks on 9/11 were part of al-Qaeda’s declared holy war on the United States. Similarly, the perpetrators of the shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle (2006), Little Rock’s military recruiting office (2009), and the Fort Hood military post (2009) all declared that their religious beliefs and allegiances motivated their violent actions. In 2013, the Boston Marathon bombers said that they wanted to defend Islam, and the man who committed the beheading at Vaughan Foods (2014) claimed that “Sharia law is coming” to the United State. He had posted a sign online stating “Islam will dominate the world.”
Then, in 2015, the perpetrator of the Chattanooga shootings declared he wanted to become a Muslim martyr; the man who committed the University of California, Merced stabbing attack possessed ISIL propaganda and visited extremist websites in the days leading up to the attack. Similarly, the married couple behind the San Bernadino shooting were, according to FBI Director James Comey, “talking to each other about jihad and martyrdom” before ISIL referred to them as “soldiers of the caliphate.” The next year, in 2016, the shooter in the Orlando nightclub pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIL during that attack, and the shooter at Ohio University was also inspired by ISIL and the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
I give none of the names of the criminals, because I believe we should not give these murderers the glory they so fervently sought. However, their names are well known through the in-depth and long-term coverage by U.S.mainstream media. The stories of these atrocities have been played and replayed for our consumption – not merely by the media, but by the politicians who seek to use them to further their own ends.
Who else commits acts of radical religious terrorism?
If we apply the same parameters, but broaden our search beyond acts committed by Muslims, there have been seven instances of radical religious terrorism connected to Christianity. Almost all of them were attacks on health clinics that provided abortion services.
In 2000, a Catholic priest drove his car into the Northern Illinois Health Clinic, then chopped at the building with an ax. Similarly, after watching a video of abortions on a Catholic television channel, a man drove a truck into the St. Paul Planned Parenthood clinic on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling in 2009. He then waited for police while holding a crucifix and shouting verses from the Bible. Also in that year, physician George Tiller – who performed late-term abortions – was murdered by a writer for Prayer & Action News who considered himself a member of the Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization involved in crimes ranging from property damage to murder.
In 2013, a deacon of the evangelical Clearnote Church used an ax to smash windows, doors, and computers at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bloomington, Indiana – an act he attributed to his religious beliefs. In the following year, the perpetrator of the Overland Park Jewish Community Center shooting spree had a long history of anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic statements driven by his reported belief that “White Christians represent the best of our Race” and his desire for “a White Christian state of our own.”
The 2015 mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was by a self-proclaimed “warrior for the babies” who was an outspoken poster of online religious screeds and who claimed that attacking abortion providers was doing “God’s work.” In 2016, yet another Planned Parenthood clinic was attacked, this time in Columbus by a woman who vandalized the building with an over-sized text reading “SATAN DEN OF BABY KILLERS GOD SEE ALL – MARK 9:42.”Seven is obviously less than eleven, but the number of acts is noteworthy. If Mr. Trump is a man of integrity, shouldn’t he be calling for politicians to say the words radical Christian terrorism?
The number of these incidents has been greatly restricted by the limitation to incidents by known perpetrators. When searching for terrorist acts connected to Islam, it became clear to me that the perpetrators were known, their motives were investigated, and they were either killed or apprehended by police. This was not always the case when turning to records of attacks on abortion providers – the target of 86% of the Christian-connected cases discussed above.
Since 2000, there have been four unsolved incidents of arson and two unsolved bombings. Given the clear connection between radical Christian beliefs and the incidents that have been solved, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that these may also have been acts of radical Christian terrorism. If they are, the number of incidents would be thirteen.
The amount of victims can’t compare to the mass amount of murdered individuals on 9/11 alone, but the number of incidents is not insignificant. Is this number telling the whole story?
Looking at the wider picture
The National Abortion Federation has published statistics on “incidents of violence & disruption against abortion providers in the U.S. & Canada.” We are now clearly moving beyond the data limitations set above, but the numbers should give us some sense of the wider issue of radical Christian terrorism, given the fact that – according to religioustolerance.org – “most of the violence [against abortion providers] appears to be mainly criminal activities by individual religiously-motivated individuals acting alone” but also shows “a degree of organization and conspiracy” since the 1990s.
According to the NAF, between 2000 and March 2008 (the end point of their statistics) there were 14 acts of arson, 56 cases of assault and battery, and 494 cases of vandalism, in addition to very high numbers of acts that don’t rise to our definition of terrorism like anthrax threats, stalking, and trespassing. In total, there were 3,080 incidents during the years reported.
Not all of these incidents were in the United States, and not all fit our definition of terrorism. However, even if we only count arson and assault and battery, we still have 70 cases. Since the NAF report doesn’t distinguish between Canada and the United States, let’s assume only half were in the United States (which is probably overly fair, given the American religious scene). We still have 35 incidents, which is far greater than the number of Islam-related attacks for the same period.
The fudge, you say
At this point, the thinking reader will point out that I’ve fudged what sort of data I’m discussing. The thinking reader is, as always, absolutely correct.
We started with a clear definition of radical religious terrorism and found examples connected to both Islam and Christianity. The problem is that there is a great difference between how Islam- and Christian-related acts are viewed in American society.
In general, right-leaning media outlets and politicians are comfortable using the term radical Islamic terrorism but never use the term radical Christian terrorism. It was reported last month that the Trump administration sought to change the “Countering Violent Extremism” program to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” therefore removing non-Muslim extremists as forces to be countered. Reuters pointed out that this change “would reflect Trump’s election campaign rhetoric and criticism of former President Barack Obama for being weak in the fight against Islamic State and for refusing to use the phrase ‘radical Islam’ in describing it” – exactly the campaign issue addressed at the opening of this article. The problem is being stated and named, but only in regards to one religion. The other religion is being actively erased.
In contrast, left-leaning media outlets and politicians are uncomfortable using either the term radical Islamic terrorism or the term radical Christian terrorism – unless the latter is brought up to criticize the hypocrisy of right-wing obsession with the extremists of one religion and simultaneous disavowal that the other religion can have extremists at all.
And there is the nub of the problem. Many before me have pointed out that, when a Muslim commits an act of violence, the media and politicians are quick to point to Islam as the motivating factor. When a Christian commits a parallel crime, the same pundits refuse to even entertain the idea of belief as motivator and immediately turn to the tropes of the mentally ill loan wolf.
Yet there may be a locus of mental illness and lone-wolfishness that makes one particularly susceptible to radicalization by the extreme ends of any religion. Despite our current national dialogue, the fact that someone is struggling with personal issues in no way negates the influence of radical religion on their chosen actions.
The problem is that, in the case of Islam, mental illness is almost portrayed as part of the religion itself – someone like Trump talks about the religion as if the faith itself were a sickness, and that is exactly why the term radical Islamic terrorism can be so inflammatory and divisive; it tends to be heard as an indictment of all practitioners.
The reason I widened the scope when discussing radical Christian terrorism is that we are faced with a lack of journalistic and political will to address the issue in the same way we face incidents involving Muslim criminals. Beyond that, we are faced with what seems to be a lack of will of law enforcement to devote the same forces and attention to tracking down those who commit crimes against abortion providers as they do to, for example, those who commit crimes against military recruitment offices.
Almost every case involving Islam results in death or arrest of the perpetrator, everything about the incident is covered in detail by the media, and national-level politicians speak out to condemn the violence. In the cases involving violence against abortion providers – clearly the central target of Christian violence – we find many crimes that go unsolved, are only reported at the local level, and receive no comment from major politicians.
Without this attention, it is difficult to say for certain whether the incidents were motivated by Christian beliefs. So, we are left to examine statistics provided by advocacy groups and wonder what’s really going on.
What can we do about all this?
The old argument by all religionists is that no true Muslim or Christian would commit these violent acts. The fact remains that the specific incidents detailed above were all committed by people who were very open about their religious beliefs as the motivation for their actions.
The dictum in religious studies is that we can never truly know what another person believes; we can only go by what they do and what they say. So, if an individual blows up an abortion clinic and says he did it because God wants him to save the babies and scare women away from visiting the clinic, that’s all we have to go on. That means that the person who committed the act is a radical Christian terrorist. It doesn’t mean that all Christians are terrorists or that all Christians believe in violence as a means of expressing their beliefs. It simply means that this person committed this act and stated that his religious beliefs were a motivating force.
So, we all need to be honest and fair. We need to be able to say that religion plays a role in violence, and not always run to the excuse of mental illness. We need to be willing to say this, regardless of which religion is involved in a specific case.
But we can’t do this alone. We need our media and our politicians to focus on all cases where religion may be involved, and to report and talk about and prosecute them equally. Specifically, since abortion providers are the preferred target of Christian violence, we need to shine a light on these crimes and bring them to the same national attention and level of investigation that we do for other terrorist activities. Only then can we know what’s really going on.
Religion can be a wonderful solace to the individual in need. A religious community can provide support for the person who would otherwise suffer alone.
Religion can also be a dangerous enabler for the individual looking for a violent outlet. A religious community can enable the worst instincts of the person who might otherwise never take up a weapon.
All of us need to face the dark corners of our wider religious communities, rather than simply declare that the extremists have nothing to do with us. We must examine what we ourselves are putting out into the world with our own rhetoric, personal conversations, and public statements. We all must ask if we are sending messages that can be picked up and interpreted – rightly or wrongly – as calls to violence.
If we are not willing to do any of this, our own loved ones may be the next ones taken away in body bags.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.