What explains religious violence? Harvard's Stern attempts to offer a reply by weaving a compelling narrative that consists of her own analysis, drawn from first-hand interviews with extremists, which she conducted around the globe. The book is filled with her dialogues with militants from the "big three" monotheistic religions. Interestingly, Stern warns the reader to be "alert to possible lies." After all, one cannot always count on radical ideologues or convicted killers for honesty. Still, Stern's book provides valuable insight in understanding the complicated motivations of religious radicals and in assessing the various violent groups that have formed in recent years. These groups include the Christian American Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, the Palestinian Hamas, the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Israeli Temple Mount Faithful, among others.
There are, however, some pitfalls in Stern's work. For one, she assumes that there are commonalities across Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalism, but her attempts to link the ideologies are unconvincing. The chapter on Hamas is particularly deficient. Her assertion that "humiliation" is Hamas's major motivation for killing Israelis is very misleading. While humiliation may help fuel Hamas's hatred toward the Jewish state, the group's published ideological platform is based almost entirely upon "redeeming" every inch of Palestine, considered a waqf, or an endowment from God. In other words, destroying Israel is a holy undertaking for Hamas based on a historical Islamist narrative. This is why Hamas continues to oppose a peaceful settlement that would legally end Israel's presence in the disputed territories.
Stern's policy recommendations are also a mixed bag. The author correctly notes that the Islamic world "is particularly vulnerable" to religious violence, but she fails to explain that militant Islam is almost an epidemic. Indeed, she creates the impression that Christian, Jewish, and Islamic religious radicals pose equal threats. In reality, citing scholar Daniel Pipes's estimation, radicals comprise as much as 15 percent of the Islamic world. If there are one billion Muslims worldwide, that means well over 100 million radicals—a number that far out-shadows the paltry number of Christian and Jewish extremists.
Stern's assessment of Al-Qaeda, in contrast, ranks among the best available, and this despite her not having access to interviews with Al-Qaeda members. She correctly notes that Al-Qaeda is "sufficiently dispersed that the loss of a single leader will make minimal long-term difference." She also observes that Al-Qaeda is effective because it is "a network of networks of various types. It will include leaderless resisters, lone-wolf avengers, commanders, cadres, freelancers, and franchises."
Despite some glitches, Stern's work deserves praise. Most terror experts spend hours reading the tracts and communiqués of terrorists as a means to understand the radical mindset but never talk to terrorists directly. Stern has taken that next step; her interviews bring the reader one step closer to getting inside the radical mind.