Rel370: Religious Extremism Wofford College, Spring 2009

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REL370: Religious Extremism

Wofford College, Spring 2009

TTh, 2:30-3:50

Main, 206

Dr. Dan Mathewson

Office: Main 207

Phone Extension: 4560

Ever since 9/11, when Muslim terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Americans seem to have developed a newly sharpened awareness and corresponding concern over Muslim extremists, in particular, and religiously motivated acts of violence, in general. This interest, however, isn't exactly new -- witness the media swirl surrounding the Branch Davidians/FBI standoff and the first Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center (both in 1993), and, before that, such events as the Black September kidnappings at the 1976 Olympics, for example. What is new, post-9/11, is the unparalleled level of anxiety that seems to exist among average Americans about religiously motivated acts of violence. President Bush even declared war on terror, an unprecedented and unconventional declaration that has led directly to military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to complicated relations with Iran, Pakistan, and Middle Eastern nations, in general. Hundreds of thousands have died since the start of the war – Arab, Afghani, American, Muslim, Christian, and Jew – and even with a new President in the White House, there is no end in sight.

Though Muslim extremists currently dominate the airwaves, every religion has had, and continues to have, its own extremists, both high profile and relatively unknown. Over the last couple decades, Jewish extremists, for example, have been responsible for the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin; the massacre of dozens of Muslim worshippers at the Mosque of Ibrahim in Hebron; and the planned, but thwarted attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Christian extremists have been responsible for the bombing of abortion clinics, gay nightclubs, a Jewish day-care center, the Olympic Park at the 1996 Atlanta games, and the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. Buddhists extremists perpetrated the 1995 nerve gas attack on commuters in the Tokyo subway system, and have had a key role in the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and Tamils. Hindu extremists have been responsible for the mass killings of Muslims in the state of Gujarat, India; for the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India; and for numerous instances of caste violence. Sikh extremists have been responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Secretariate Building in the state capital in Chandigarh, India; and for the 1984 assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Certainly many more examples could be cited.

The fundamental premise of this course is that in order to understand fully many of the violent conflicts that flood the airwaves today, one must first of all be conversant in the language of religion and be cognizant of religion's role in these conflicts. With this premise forming the backdrop of the course, the following are some of the course’s main objectives:

  1. To gain a fuller understanding of some of the recent instances of violence/terror/militancy promulgated by religious groups associated with one of the three Western religions;

  2. To examine the reasons that otherwise normal, ethical, and even good religious people view violence as an acceptable and oftentimes necessary course of action;

  3. To develop the vocabulary and theoretical categories necessary in order to discuss the issue of whether religions are inherently violent; whether religions are inherently peaceful, but often corrupted by wrong-minded adherents and used for violent means; whether religions are inherently both peaceful and violent at the same time; or whether there is another alternative;

  4. To monitor the media for news concerning ongoing religious conflict throughout the world.

With these objectives in mind, the course is divided up into three parts. First, we will examine some introductory matters concerning religion, violence, extremism, and terror. Second, we will familiarize ourselves with some of the more high profile instances of recent religiously motivated acts of violence among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Third, we will examine the theories of several notable scholars about what drives religious people to commit horrific acts of violence.



Mark Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, From Christian Militias to Al Qaeda

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence

Many other readings to be distributed or read online.


Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World

Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing

Hector Avalos, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence

Richard T. Antoun, Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Movements

Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount

Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs

Oliver McTernan, Violence in God's Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict

Bryan Rennie and Philip L. Tite, Religion, Terror and Violence

Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

Christoph Reuter, My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing

Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder

Class Attendance and Participation:

Class participation is vital to the success of this course. You must be prepared to discuss the readings assigned for each class session. I will grade your participation for each class on a scale of 0-10. In assigning this grade I am looking for several things: level of enthusiasm demonstrated; quality of class participation; readiness to answer questions; demonstration that you completed the assigned readings and have monitored the news (see below). If you do not come to class, you will receive a grade of 0 (though you are permitted one unexcused absence). If you come to class but do not participate and are obviously not interested, you will receive a grade of 6. An average level of class participation will yield a grade of 8.5.

Attendance and participation comprise 22% of your final grade.
Media Watch

Throughout the semester I want you to monitor the media for stories that pertain to religious extremist activity. Each class will begin with a discussion of these stories. Your participation in this discussion will be factored into your attendance and participation grade.

Reflection Papers

At several points throughout the semester short papers (4 pages, approximately) will be due. I will discuss the topics of these papers in class, but in every case, no extra research need be done before writing these papers. These papers ought to involve your own thoughts and ideas about the assigned topic, which in each case will involve the topic under consideration in the assigned readings.

The reflection papers will be worth 22% of your final grade.
Group Presentations

You will work in groups of two or three to research and then give a short, 7-10 minute presentation about a religious extremist group. You are not limited to extremist groups connected to Western religions. You may select either a contemporary group (like Hamas or the Khalistan Commando Force) or a memorable group from the past few decades (like Aum Shinrikyo or the Branch Davidians). Your presentation should provide a basic introduction to the extremist group, including the following:

  1. General information: You should answer questions such as: Who is this group? Where did it come from? What religious tradition is it affiliated with? What sets it apart from other groups within its religious tradition?

  2. Extremist activities: You should provide a description of the extremist activity of this group. Have there been recent and/or notable violent episodes involving this group? Is there an ongoing, protracted conflict involving this group?

  3. Analysis: You should offer your own analysis on the cause(s) of religiously motivated violence, and especially, the explicit role that religion plays in the conflict.

Group Presentations will be worth 12% of your final grade.

Class Project:

Five class sessions toward the end of the semester will be devoted to a group analysis of a current crisis involving religious extremists. As a class we will decide which group to examine, and collectively we will decide exactly what we need to educate ourselves about. We will divvy up work (research, short presentations, collection of documentaries, audio clips, and so forth), but at the end of the three weeks, we should have produced a collective body of work that will have allowed us to become much more informed and attuned to the complexities (especially of the religious variety) of whatever crisis we choose. Throughout the three weeks, and likely in the weeks leading up to these, we will, as a group, monitor the major media outlets (especially newspapers) for news about the crisis, and we will discuss current world events in class.

Your contributions to the class project will comprise 22% of your final grade.
Final Exam

There will be a final, take-home exam worth 22% of your final grade.

Grading Breakdown:

Attendance/Participation 22%

Reflection Papers 22%

Presentation 12%

Class Project 22%

Final Exam 22%


Feb 3

Course Introduction

Feb 5

Terminology & Key Concepts

  • Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God, xiii-xxxi.

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 3-15

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 1-8

Fed 10

Commonplace Perspectives on Religion and Violence

  • Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, chap. 2 (“Religion Kills”)

  • Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, 1-9

  • George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People

  • Andrew Sullivan, "This is a Religious War" (New York Times Magazine)

Feb 12

Religious Extremism and Fundamentalism

  • Gabriel Almond, et al., Strong Religion, 1-5; 14-21; 90-115

Feb 17

Religious Extremism and Secular Nationalism

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 9-38


Feb 19

Judaism: Recent Examples of Religiously Motivated Violence

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 45-60

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 39-41; 54-62

Feb 24

Jewish Extremists: Religious Zionists
Viewing: Israel's Next War?

  • Jeffrey Goldberg, "Among the Settlers: Will They Destroy Israel?" (New Yorker)

Feb 26

Group Presentations

Mar 3

Jewish Extremism: Discussion

  • Hector Avalos, Fighting Words, 159-74

Due: Reflection Paper on Jewish Extremism

Mar 5

Christianity: Recent Examples of Religiously Motivated Violence

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 19-43

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 151-63; 165-67; 176-78; 182-92

Mar 10

Christian Extremists: Christian Identity
Film: Crimes in the Name of God

  • Carolyn Tuft and Joe Holleman, "Inside the Christian Identity Movement" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 5, 2000)

Mar 12

Christian Extremism: Discussion

  • Hector Avalos, Fighting Words, 178-205

Due: Reflection Paper on Christian Extremism

Mar 17

Islam: Recent Examples of Religiously Motivated Violence in the Middle East, Gulf States, and Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 70-81

  • Juergesnmeyer, GR, 39-54; 63-83

Mar 19

Islam: Recent Examples of Religiously Motivated Violence in South, Central and Southeast Asia, and in Europe

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 85-103; 146-50; 167-76

Mar 24

Islam: Global Jihad

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 61-70; 80-84

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 193-21

  • Jonathan E. Brockopp, “Jihad and Islamic History”

  • Transcript of an interview with Osama bin-Laden (by John Miller of ABC)

Mar 26

Muslim Extremists: Al Qaeda
Film: Al Qaeda’s New Front

Mar 31

Spring Break

Apr 2

Spring Break

Apr 7

Muslim Extremism: Discussion

  • Hector HAvalos, Fighting Words, 283-99

Due: Reflection Paper on Muslim Extremism


Apr 9

Almond, et at.: Structure, Chance, Choice

  • Almond, et al., Strong Religion, 116-35; 140-44

Apr 14

Juergensmeyer: Symbolic Acts, Cosmic War

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 121-66

Apr 16

Juergensmeyer: Satanization; Empowering the Alienated

  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 167-218

Apr 21

Class Project: Case Study

Apr 23

Class Project: Case Study

Apr 28

Class Project: Case Study

Apr 30

Class Project: Case Study

May 5

Class Project: Case Study

May 7


  • Juergensmeyer, TMG, 219-49

  • Juergensmeyer, GR, 244-63

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