Op-Ed Piece from the New Orleans Times-Picayune [October 10, 2001]

Bin Laden and Revolutionary Millennialism

If the goal of Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues is to pit the United States against the Muslim world, and in so doing to foment a revolution of fundamentalist Muslims against current Muslim governments (considered apostate) in order to create a unified, "true" Islamic state, then we are witnessing the most dangerous form of apocalypticism in action. I term this religious pattern "revolutionary millennialism." Revolutionary millennialists can cause huge amounts of suffering and death in their quest to actualize what they regard as the perfect society. Their violence does not originate in a vacuum, however. It arises from a sense of being persecuted.

In my reference above to Osama Bin LadenŐs worldview, I used two terms, "fundamentalism" and "millennialism," that originate in Christianity, but which scholars of religions use as general terms to illuminate dynamics found also in other movements. A range of behaviors is associated with both fundamentalism and millennialism, with the extreme being revolutionary violence.

"Fundamentalism" is the belief that one has access to an infallible source of authority. That source of authority may be a text, a tradition, a leader, or a combination of these. The fundamentalist, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist is certain that he or she knows the "Truth," and that truth resides in an idealized earlier way of religious life. There is no openness to alternative points of view. Fundamentalism involves the belief that pure Good is battling pure Evil. This dualistic perspective pits believers against unbelievers, us versus them. For religious fundamentalists, it may be spiritual warfare that is waged with prayer and faith as weapons. The battles may be confined to political activism. Revolutionary fundamentalists resort to violence to destroy enemies and establish the righteous kingdom. Those designated the "other" are demonized, and thus it may become acceptable, even praiseworthy, to kill them.

"Millennialism" is not necessarily tied to specific dates, although certain dates have the power to stimulate religious imaginations. Millennialism entails belief in an imminent transition to a collective salvation which can be earthly or heavenly or both. Secular millennialists such as Communists, who do not believe in a spiritual world, focus on building the perfect society on Earth. Many religious millennialists rely on conversion, faith, and worship to create GodŐs kingdom. Many believers await GodŐs intervention to destroy and/or transform the world as we know it. Numerous religious millennialists believe that they work to improve society according to GodŐs plan. Revolutionary millennialists use violence to overthrow the current order so that the righteous order can be created; they believe that they are carrying out GodŐs will. As seen on September 11, 2001, revolutionary millennialists are particularly dangerous when they are confident that by dying for their cause they are assured of heavenly salvation; they have everything to gain by their martyrdom.

Revolutionary millennialism is fueled by a strong sense of grievance and persecution. The revolutionary fervor will persist and spread as long as believers have evidence that they are persecuted by enemies. It is important, therefore, to address constructively the sources of the feeling of persecution. Osama Bin LadenŐs videotaped statement broadcast after the United States began bombing Afghanistan articulates the reasons that numerous Muslims feel persecuted by the U.S.

When attempting to enforce the rule of law in relation to apocalyptic groups, it is important not to act in ways that confirm the believersŐ worst prophecies and expectations. The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan has confirmed for many Muslims that the United States is evil. The United States has responded exactly the way that Bin Laden wantedŃhe has been given fuel for his revolution.

The revolutionary millennial movements treated in my edited book, Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, are the German Nazis, Nichiren Buddhists involved in Japanese militarism in World War II, Maoist Communists, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Taiping Revolution in nineteenth-century China, Russian Old Believers, and a Euro-American nativist movement in the United States that, thankfully, has not become socially dominant. The latter is an uncoordinated movement consisting of Neo-Nazis, Identity Christians, Odinists, and secular warriors against the federal government such as Timothy McVeigh. When revolutionary millennial movements capture the allegiance of large numbers of people, they can be extremely difficult to stop.

Revolutionary millennial movements have the potential to engulf nations and ignite world wars. We need to oppose violence, bring criminals to justice, stop terrorism, but to do so effectively we must be vigilant against becoming like the terroristsŃresorting to violence because of perceiving the situation in simplistic us versus them terms. When the common dualistic perspective is dominant, the underlying causes of religious violence are perpetuated, and populations become embroiled in ongoing cycles of attack and retaliation. To address the problem of religious terrorism skillfully, we need to understand the religious, social, and psychological dynamics inherent in the revolutionary millennial pattern. It is a pattern of human behavior as old as the desire for salvation.

Catherine Wessinger, Professor of Religious Studies, Loyola University New Orleans.

Dr. Catherine Wessinger is editor of Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (2000) and author of How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to HeavenŐs Gate (2000).

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