Book Review - Religion and Political Violence

International Journal of Cultic Studies, 2, 2011, 82-86.

Book Review - Religion and Political Violence: Sacred Protest in the Modern World

By Jennifer L. Jefferis

Reviewed by Janja Lalich, PhD

New York, NY: Routledge. 2010. ISBN10: 0415550386; ISBN13: 978-0415550383 (hardcover) $130 ($114.94 224 pages; 0-203-86918-4 (eBook). $115 (Kindle, $92). 498KB.

In the introduction to her book, Jennifer Jefferis points out that over time peaceful religion has flourished, yet so has religiously motivated violence, especially in the 1990s and on into the 21st century. Even though, as scholars of religion have predicted, secularization has advanced in many parts of the world, this development has not brought about the waning of religion. In fact, Jefferis argues that the very phenomenon of secularization may in fact have led to the rise of violence because some religiously based organizations may feel that their access to the political process has been threatened and constrained by secularism. In this intriguing book, Jefferis explores three religious opposition movements: the antiabortion movement in the United States, the pursuit of Sharia (Muslim law) in Egypt, and the settlers’ movement in Israel. In each case, she describes how the rhetoric, structure, and ideology of the organizations she studied “interact to produce unique methods of protest” (p. 2). This new study closes a gap readily apparent in other scholarly work on the subject, which tends to have a single focus: either religion or the sociopolitical environment. Jefferis, Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Regent University, is well equipped to add her voice to the literature on religion and violence, not only because of her impeccable research, but also because of her familiarity with this territory, having spent time living in Egypt and having conducted personal interviews with antiabortionists and Islamist activists. This is not a study from afar, but one done by a young scholar with enthusiasm for her subject matter and a comprehensive and thoughtful approach. In response to the aforementioned gap in the literature, Jefferis stresses the need to examine both aspects (religion and environment) and their interdependence; she uses (and critiques) well-known theoretical models to help us better understand the role of religion in the justification of political violence. Although this is not a book about cults per se—as is normally the subject of book reviews in this journal—readers with an interest in cults can learn much from Jefferis’s work. It is significant in its holistic approach (which can be used in examining cults as well), and the cultic aspects of several of the organizations presented here are readily apparent to the trained eye, as well.

Using a dual focus that consists of applying political-opportunity process theory and examining ideological frameworks, Jefferis explains how the political and social transformations of secularization in the United States and Egypt caused some religious organizations to feel left out of the political arena, and as a result they adopted an oppositional stance. While the ideologies of the nonviolent movements (i.e., the Christian Coalition in the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) were similar to that of their violence-prone counterparts (i.e., the Army of God in the United States and al Jama’a al Islamiyya in Egypt), each organization used categorically different rhetorical styles to implement its strategies and bring life to its beliefs. According to Jefferis, “the severity of the religious rhetoric serves to quicken the closing of the window of opportunity, forcing organizations either closer to the mainline secular center or further to the fringe of society” (p. 4).

The value of comparative studies is evident here: The differing paradigms of violent and nonviolent organizations shed light on the internal processes and outward actions. Understanding these differences helps to explain why some turn to violence, while others resort to more peaceful actions and solutions in moving toward their political goals. The narrower and more dualistic the ideology, the more urgent the cause—pushing extremist organizations further toward the fringe. The methodological approach Jefferis uses includes surveys completed by and personal interviews with movement participants, source documents published by each group, past interviews conducted by other researchers, and historical accounts of the groups’ actions and behaviors. By examining the sociohistorical developments—globally and within each society—of secularization and religious-based political activism, in conjunction with her specific attention to ideology, rhetoric, and structure, Jefferis reveals how a movement’s beliefs interact with the environmental conditions in which it operates, resulting in a particular political outcome.

In defending her unique approach, Jefferis rather deftly argues that previous studies have been severely limited, either by their solely religious focus to explain the behavior of adherents, or by the researchers’ reliance on sociopsychological factors (e.g., isolation, feelings of inadequacy, social alienation, deprivation, fear of modernity, social dislocation) as the impetus for religiopolitical activism. Those who look specifically at the influence of religion on politics have also missed the mark, according to Jefferis. Some, for example, contend that religion is inherently violent. In such studies, critical external elements are often overlooked.

In chapters 2 and 3, the author uses political process theory to explain the rise of religious movements in the latter half of the 20th century in Egypt and in the United States. This is where she argues that the movements arose, not despite increasing secularization, but because of it. Her initial focus in chapter 2 is on changes in the American political landscape that led to the rise of religious-based social movements. Jefferis provides an illuminating history of the U.S. anti-abortion movement, going as far back as Olasky’s research on documents from the 1600s that indicate there were trials of women who “murdered” an “unborn child” (p. 27). In the latter half of the 19th century, legislation limited the practice of abortion, and by 1910 such laws were in place in every state in the nation. Challenges to this restriction began in earnest in the 1960s when abortion reform (reproductive rights) became a cause of the feminist movement and the issue itself became a larger part of American social consciousness. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade declared that “no state had the right to prohibit a woman from obtaining an abortion in the first six months of pregnancy” (p. 30). In reaction to this, an opposition movement formed—first by Catholic activists calling for peaceful civil protest; then Christian fundamentalists took the fight to the next level. Before long, Randal Terry’s Operation Rescue (OR) was launched, committed to stopping abortion by physically preventing its occurrence. Although OR’s tactics were controversial, activists managed to avoid outright violence. Nonetheless, Jefferis identifies OR as the bridge between peaceful protests and acts of violence perpetrated by the adamantly antiabortionist Army of God. In 1988 a number of forces came together under the leadership of Pat Robertson to establish the Christian Coalition (CC). Although the years leading up to this founding included many victories for conservatives (such as the election of Ronald Reagan), the CC’s strategy of gradualism angered the more radical antiabortionists, some of whom were led to found and/or affiliate with the Army of God—an organization that, among other violent acts, believed it was justifiable to kill abortion providers.

Chapter 3 discusses developments in the Islamist movement in Egypt, with a special focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. In her recounting of Egypt’s changing political landscape, Jefferis argues that, until the 20th century, a careful balance of political power and religious legitimacy was a stabilizing force in Egyptian politics. But events such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, increasing foreign dependence, and the Free Officers revolt put political power in opposition to religious legitimacy. By the 1970s, members of the Islamist movement saw their window of opportunity closing, and so they banded together. Jefferis makes clear that the Islamic view of the state is vital to an understanding of the relationship between Islam and politics. In contrast to the Western view that the state exists to ensure social stability and individual freedom, in Islam the state exists to promote life according to God’s will, stated in the precepts of Sharia law. The state is not meant to ensure individual rights; rather, its responsibility is to promote obedient living, and Sharia is the means by which to do so. Over time, national and international developments brought about the ascension of political power, which came to dominate Egyptian life. As a result, regard for Islamic doctrine declined. Out of this sociopolitical milieu and shifting relationship between Islam and politics emerged the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in 1928. Opposed to the advancing Westernization, the MB offered its adherents “the ability to protest Western imperialism and embrace their Islamic culture” (p. 45). Initially a peaceful organization, the MB faced turbulent times in the 1940s and so formed a “secret apparatus” within the organization, leading to accusations from the outside of violent attacks and assassinations. Some were arrested. As Egypt became more and more secularized under successive leaders (e.g., Nasser, Sadat), and with the consistent repression of opposition movements, religiously motivated violence increased. Similar to what occurred in the United States, movement leaders’ rhetoric expressed an urgency that incited their supporters to engage in protest. In both cases, members of the religious communities perceived that the state was ignoring (and undermining, even working directly against) the values and norms of religion; these organizations felt violated and compelled to act.

In Part II, Jefferis tackles the conundrum of why movements with similar ideologies choose or do not choose violent means of action. Her argument is built around the idea that an organization’s rhetoric changes the group’s political process. She illustrates this through careful analysis of the four movements in the two countries. As her detailed exposition shows, both the CC and the MB moved closer to the center “by adopting rhetoric that allowed for a varied political base” (p. 57), whereas the rhetoric of the Army of God and of al Jama’a al Islamiyya (which emerged out of but broke off from the MB) emphasized the urgency of their respective cause and thrust each organization to the fringe of the political process. Jefferis understands rhetoric as “reflective of ideology, but also influenced by (and influential on) political circumstance” (p. 64). The heart of her argument is that organizations use rhetoric to express their understanding of the sense of urgency inherent in their cause: “the more urgent they perceive their cause to be; the more radical the rhetoric an organization is willing to use” (p. 64). This evolves into an ever more urgent necessity as the radical rhetoric tends to cut off options for actions as the opportunity for political access diminishes. With ample quotes and examples, the author illustrates her thesis by showing first how the CC under Ralph Reed’s leadership ensured that idealism did not outweigh pragmatism and thereby maintained political access—even at the expense of ideological clarity. Army of God, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. The Army of God Manual encourages a wide range of illegal activities, including the assassination of abortion doctors and clinic workers. Army of God followers and its Website laud murderers, such as Paul Hill (who killed Dr. James Britton in Pensacola, Florida), abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolf, and others as “heroes of the faith.” Spokespersons for the Army of God criticized the nonviolent approach of other antiabortion groups as “aimless in their purpose” (p. 72); for the Army of God, murderous violence is a moral duty. This exposition of the American movements is followed by Jefferis’s equally careful examination of the rhetoric in two Islamist organizations.

The MB’s leader Al-Banna imparted a clear ideology for the MB, along with an extensive social program meant to address Egyptian social problems inadequately attended to by the government. Al-Banna saw Islam as the solution, while stressing the importance of the MB maintaining a noncontroversial stance. However, during the tension-filled 1950s and ’60s (and especially after the assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954 and the attempted revolution in 1965), a more radical organization emerged in the universities: al Jama’a al Islamiyya. The two organizations formally split shortly thereafter. Regarded as accommodationist, the MB continued to work within the existing political system. Similar to how the CC operated, the MB retains its access to the political system, even winning seats in the Parliament. Meanwhile, al Jama’a al Islamiyya took a more radical, hard-line Islamist stance, touting the universality of Islam as its goal. In statements akin to those used by the Army of God, al Jama’a al Islamiyya “ratcheted up the intensity of their rhetoric” (p. 84) and placed itself as the moral authority, going so far as to denounce the Egyptian state as “infidel” (p. 86). Radical claims and boasts of strength by al Jama’a al Islamiyya leaders led the then-current Mubarak regime to clamp down and quickly close the window of opportunity through which opposition movements could act.

As radical groups are pushed to the fringe, organizational structure necessarily must adapt, as well. The result tends to be more secretive methods of operation. Here Jefferis argues that the location of a movement (mainline or fringe) influences organizational structure. When limitations tend to decrease ties between members, organizations compensate with even stronger (and more restrictive) ideological frames. After a summary of social-behavioral (e.g., Arendt, Lifton, Milgram, Zimbardo) and social movement (e.g., Oberschall, Tilly, Zald, and McCarthy) explanations regarding the relationship between hierarchy and violence, Jefferis brings readers to the present-day cell structure that is so prevalent among today’s terrorist organizations. She points out that the cell model has proven quite efficacious in the use of violence. For example, Louis Beam, a radical American seditionist, opposed hierarchy in oppositional movements, arguing that “hierarchical organizations are dangerous for insurgents” because of potential for infiltration all the way to the top (p. 97). Beam’s strategy of “leaderless resistance” has been adopted by many “lone” actors on today’s global political scene. Here we learn that lack of structure allows for greater flexibility, more certain secrecy, rapid organizational growth, and strong personal commitment. The weak-willed are quickly weeded out, leaving only the true believers to carry out actions. Each individual militant’s moral outrage is left in his or her own hands to resolve, in effect lessening whatever moral hopelessness the person may have felt before joining the cell. “The implication is that the more dangerous (violent) the action, the greater the blessing on the individual committing it” (p. 99). Clearly, this suits organizations such as the Army of God and al Jama’a al Islamiyya. The organizational ties between members are not so much social as based on a shared understanding of the value of the action committed by each devotee. Certainly, calls to violence may generate states of cognitive dissonance among adherents; yet Jefferis argues that those organizations at the fringe that have become more secretive compensate by using their powerful rhetoric to resolve any moments of dissonance among their adherents.

Jefferis counters the inevitable political consequences of the cell structure with an analysis of the structure of the CC and the MB. She explains how the CC’s overall organization control of its state and local chapters led to the CC being a powerful force in the Republicans’ successful efforts in the 1990s. A similarly highly organized and highly hierarchical structure in the MB after 1931 enabled that organization to respond quickly and effectively to rising political issues in Egypt. Meanwhile, the cell structure of the Army of God and al Jama’a al Islamiyya, respectively, called for the solidarity and ensuing violent actions of their members. Al Jama’a al Islamiyya was in one way different: It actually established an official armed wing, as did its local cells.

In her examination of ideological frames, Jefferis points out that because of the strength of their beliefs, religious social-movement organizations have a wide range of choices, based on their interpretation of the Almighty’s commands. The author demonstrates that “when belief is framed so as to make violent action not only a right, but a responsibility, movement participants will endure severe resistance without turning from their cause” (p. 108). This is the same type of bounded choice that is evident in many cult members whose indoctrination and subsequent internalized devotion often leads them to extremist behavior and actions. This section is perhaps one of the most interesting in the book.

In Part III, Jefferis extends her argument to an exploration of the religious-settlers movement in Israel, with its many similarities to the organizations she examines earlier. The author offers a clear explanation of why in the Israeli case a split into distinctly violent and nonviolent organizations has not yet occurred (as it had in the prior cases)—and she draws some noteworthy conclusions about future developments. One of her points is that the Israeli society has not secularized to the same extent as in the United States and Egypt. Given that the settlers movement works so compatibly with the Israeli government, and vice versa, more direct and/or violent confrontations have been a rarity (here the author is speaking of confrontations between settlers and the government, not between Palestinians, settlers, and the government). Jefferis contends that if this symbiotic arrangement alters, the consequences may mirror the developments seen in the American and Egyptian movements. Gush Emunim (or Bloc of the Faithful), established in 1973 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War by the Zionist Rabbi Kook, is the organization dissected and analyzed here, using the same aspects of rhetoric, structure, and ideology. Jefferis explains how the symbiotic relationship between the settlers’ movement and the government is beneficial to both, thereby enhancing each—at least for the moment.

Religion and Political Violence: Sacred Protest in the Modern World is an important and groundbreaking book, enhanced by the author’s meticulous research and sharp writing style. Anyone interested in the processes that lead organizations to extremism and violence would do well to read it. If the price is beyond your budget, then encourage your local or university library to order it. This is also an excellent book for college course in many disciplines: political science, sociology, international relations, religious studies, history, social psychology. Highly recommended.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 2, 2011