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Why We Need to Understand the Apocalyptic Worldview of a Small Group of Radical Muslims

If we want to understand the genesis of much Islamic terrorism by a small handful of Muslims, a speculative tour of their apocalyptic worldview may help us design a more effective response.

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Furthermore, fundamentalist religious movements seldom turn to violence, even when they are wound up tighter than a clock spring with apocalyptic excitement and anticipation. The response to apocalyptic belief systems anticipating the End of Days can be passive, defensive, or aggressive.

Professor Lee Quinby takes a dim view of apocalypticism. In her book Anti–Apocalypse, Quinby argues that “Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic,” and that “this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level.” What makes apocalypse so compelling,” argues Quinby,” is its promise of future perfection, eternal happiness, and godlike understanding of life, but it is that very will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression.” {9} Quinby also published a study titled “Coercive Purity: The Dangerous Promise of Apocalyptic Masculinity.” Scholar Carol Mason has written in Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics of the religious justifications used by those who murder abortion provider in the United States.

Sociologist of religion Brenda Brasher argues that apocalypticism “is potentially beneficent or potentially destructive. A crucial distinction,” she says is, “in the definition of the status of the 'Other' in the anticipated confrontation. If the 'Other' is constructed as wholly evil, then the ramifications are really horrendous. In this form, apocalypticism leaves no room for ambiguity in the stories told about the 'Other.' There is a real hardening of sides. We are good, they are evil. This is not a disagreement, but a struggle with evil incarnate, so there is no structure for a peaceful reconciliation.” In this scenario, Brasher says that people “are cast in their roles as either enemy or friend and there is no such thing as middle ground. In the battle with evil, can you really say you are neutral?”

On the other hand, Brasher points out that “apocalyptic themes have been drawn upon by people who are in distress”:

…people faced with horrific conditions and who are trying to sustain themselves, provide dignity, and preserve a sense of community. An example would be the role of apocalyptic Christianity among African slaves brought to the United States. This is also true of the anti-slavery abolition movements and the Civil Rights movement. In this beneficent form apocalyptic belief provides a moral framework that resists the effects of chaos and provides a means by which communities can survive and endure.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For those whose lives were tragically altered forever on April 15, 2013 in Boston, none of this really matters. Yet if we are to fight terrorism, it best be on the basis of understanding what motivates terrorism. Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University, has found through extensive research that the single most common aspect of terrorists is a deep sense of having been humiliated. What then is the effectiveness of a “War on Terrorism” using bombs and drones? This need to punish our enemies in acts of revenge only adds fuel to the flames that return home to engulf us in terrorist acts.

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