Jewish Terrorism, Christian Terrorism, Hindu Terrorism

In the twenty-first century, not only because of the hideous crime of September 11 but also because of several other incidents of especially Arab Muslim violence, terrorism has, in the eyes of many, become a crime associated with Muslims and Arabs. Muslims ostensibly motivated in part by religion were behind the September 11 attacks, the March 11 bombing of trains in Madrid, the 2005 London bombings of buses and trains and the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombs. Terrorism is of course, however, not the sole domain of Muslims–people of all faiths have been guilty of heinous acts against civilians, in order to terrorize, often in the name of religion. In this post, a reminder of (in part) religion-motivated terrorist acts throughout history by non-Muslims.

Jewish Terrorism

It is said by some that the first terrorists in history were a first century Jewish group opposing Roman rule called the Sicarii (“dagger men”), who directed attacks and assassinations of Jews, including priests, who were collaborating with Roman authorities.

Some of the most active and notorious terrorist groups in the 20th century were Jewish Zionist groups in now Israel: Irgun and Lehi.

Irgun was formed in the 1930s by Zionist Jews who believed that Jews had to be more aggressive in their self-defense in order to support the Jewish Zionist enterprise. In the 1930s, most Irgun actions were retaliatory–conducting “eye for an eye” type campaigns in response to Arab violence against Jews–but by the end of World War II Irgun had begun engaging in actions against the British authorities, who they believed were managing Palestine against Zionist interests, including by limiting Jewish immigration. Irgun attacks included bombings of British government buildings, such as the immigration, tax and police offices, the bombing of the British Embassy in Rome and a car bombing of a British officers’ club.

The three most infamous terrorist attacks by Irgun were the 1946 King David Hotel bombing, the 1947 Sergeants affair and the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. On July 22, 1946, Irgun operatives bombed the King David Hotel, a luxury hotel in Jerusalem used by the British authorities as a headquarters, resulting in 91 deaths. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the 20th century, allegedly in part because warnings to evacuate the buliding were unheeded. In 1947, in retaliation for recent executions of Irgun operatives by the British administration, Irgun kidnapped and hanged two British sergeants. Their bodies were then booby-trapped with IEDs and hung up in trees, and a third British soldier was injured trying to recover the bodies.

The deadliest of the three, however, was the Deir Yassin massacre, an attack against an Arab Palestinian village. The attack was so heinous that prominent Jews in the west (including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt) wrote a letter to the New York Times condeming Irgun as a “terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization” and described how “terrorist bands attacked [the] peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants – 240 men, women and children – and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.” Orphans were left at Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Deir Yassin massacre was conducted by Irgun in coordination with a second Jewish terrorist group called the Lehi. Lehi’s politics were so confused that it actually proposed joining the Nazi cause in World War II in order to weaken British control of Palestine. A Lehi newsletter defended its acts thus:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

Just as some Palestinian organizations have taken an ethno-national cause–the cessation of the occupation of Arab Palestine–and turned it into a religious conflict, with violence activated by faith, Lehi justified violence in the nationalist Zionist agenda with a virulent reading of Jewish religious texts. Lehi was also responsible for the assassination of a British minister in Cairo and a UN mediator in Jerusalem.

Leaders of Irgun and Lehi went on to powerful positions in the State of Israel. Menachem Begin, the sixth Prime Minister of Israel, was head of the Irgun from 1943 to 1948. Seventh Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was among Lehi’s leaders. Although both Irgun and Lehi have been labeled terrorist organizations by the State of Israel, in 2006, Natanyahu and former Irgun members celebrated the King David Hotel bombing’s 60th anniversary, and Lehi members have been honored by the Israeli government as martyrs of the state.

Christian Terrorism

There have been many Christian terrorists of various stripes, but the two groups that come to mind are anti-abortion terrorists in the United States and Serbian troops and their assistors in Bosnia.

Anti-abortion terrorists in the U.S., angry with the constitutionally protected (though circumscribed) right to abortion, have waged a terrorist campaign for decades against abortion clinics and doctors, justified by their own religious beliefs. Since 1977 in the U.S. and Canada, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders and hundreds of death threats, as well as hundreds of bombings, arsons and bomb threats.

The Bosnian War was to a large extent an ethnic war among the different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia, but it took a decidedly religion-based terrorist slant in the massacres of Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica, where about 8000 defenseless Bosnians were slaughtered by Serbians and other Christian “volunteers” from countries such as Russia and Greece.

Hindu Terrorism

The most widely publicized terrorist attacks in India have been those in Bombay by Muslim groups, but there has also been substantial violence by Hindus against Muslims, as in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which almost 800 Muslim Indians (and 200 Hindu Indians) were killed, aided by local Hindu authorities and political leaders. (Hindu-on-Muslim violence was memorialized in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.) Some Muslim-targeted bombs have also been attributed by some to Hindu “Saffron terror.”

Although the Tamil Tigers primarily represented an ethnic struggle rather than a religious one–the Tamils were both ethnically and religiously distinctive from the majority Sinhalese–some of the attacks of the Tamil Tigers against Tamil-speaking Muslims could be said to be religious terrorism perpetrated by the Hindu Tamils. As far as I am aware, however, the attacks were not justified on religious grounds.

Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)


In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)



The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).




Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).




But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Faces of Muslim Balkans

Just a few pictures from our few days among Muslims in the Balkans. The first picture below is of the Albanian-ethnic attendant of a mosque in Belgrade, Serbia; the rest are of Bosnians in Sarajevo. At an “ethnic” level, the story of Bosnia and Hercegovina is remarkably similar to the story of Cyprus (see posts of 10.27 and 10.28). Before the recent conflict, we were told, Muslim and Christian Bosnians thought of each other as people of the same “nationality” but merely different religions. Since the disintegration of the Yugoslav Republic and the subsequent conflicts, Christian Bosnians have been restyled as Serbs or Croats, with the “Serbian” Bosnians in particular identifying themselves with the Serbs of Serbia (even flying the Serbian flag within their semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska) rather than the Muslim Bosnians, or Bosniaks, with whom they had lived together for hundreds of years. We were told that it is not possible to tell Christian and Muslim Bosnians apart, just as with Christian and Muslim Cypriots, but as all of the pictures of Bosnians below were taken within the city of Sarajevo, the subjects are most likely Muslim. As you can see, Muslims Bosnians look typically Slavic–they are genetically no different from their Christian neighbors. Few Bosnian women wear headscarves and few Bosnian men beards.





Islam in the Balkans

We didn’t really set out to travel at all in the Balkans. Outside of southern Spain, for its historical importance as a major outpost of Islamic culture, Europe was not to play a big role in our trip. But as it turned out, the cheapest flight from Europe to Dakar departed from Milan, and we figured, what better way to get from Istanbul to Milan than by train? And so, through Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Venice (Italy) we traveled to Milan, mostly on overnight trains.

In keeping with the theme of our year’s travels, we thought that we would use this opportunity to seek out historical and current Islam and Islamic culture in the Balkans. I knew that some of the countries in the Balkans had substantial Muslim populations (and detoured to Sarajevo to visit Bosnia in particular, post to come), but did not know how much Islamic influence we would see generally in the region. Given how extremely brief and superficial our travels in the region were, I was surprised to so easily find substantial remnants of Islam in the Balkans.

Islam came to the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire’s advances in the 15th century. From then until the 19th century, much of the Balkan peninsula was a part of that Turkish Muslim empire, and therefore subject to Turkish cultural and religious influence, as well as Turkish migration. We first saw evidence of the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans before we even left Turkey, at the Balkan Turks Foundation on Istanbul’s Divan Yolu (the sort of “main street” of the historical part of Istanbul), a cultural foundation similar to the East Turkistan Foundation for western China (see post of 11.05). It is unclear to me how many Turkish speakers remain in the Balkan countries now–given that some seem to have moved to Turkey–but in the period of Turkish advance before and during Ottoman rule, Turks must have moved into the Balkan peninsula just as they moved into Cyprus (see post of 10.27). Ataturk himself (see post of 11.02) was born in now Greece.

But Islam in the Balkans was not just a matter of Turkish-speaking Muslim migrants into the region, which seems to have been the primary phenomenon in Cyprus, but also of the gradual conversion of local populations. Just as there may not be any “Mughals” left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent. As in other regions controlled by Islamic rulers, there was to some extent conversion in the local, originally non-Muslim population. There is one question, I have, however, about the spread of Islam in the Balkans, and that is why the Muslim populations seem so geographically concentrated today, in the more heavily Muslim republics of the Western Balkans (further from Turkey than the overwhelmingly Christian Eastern Balkans). I know that some of this has been exaggerated by recent conflicts, but it seems that the penetration of Islam was in fact greater in the west, perhaps due to greater/more direct/longer imperial presence/control in those regions. I would certainly appreciate clarification on this point from my readers!

Some photos and thoughts tracing Islam in the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Slovenia.

Ottoman-era mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. The Banya Bashi Mosque, located a couple blocks away from the Sofia Synagogue, was built by none other than Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, in the 16th century. Bulgaria is one of two European countries bordering Turkey, but it is, as is Greece (and, to the north, Romania), overwhelmingly Christian, despite nearly five centuries under Ottoman rule. The mosque seemed primarily for use by the Turkish minority (around 10% of the total population of Bulgaria) and perhaps Turks in transit, as it had Turkish language signs and prayer timetables in Turkish.

Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbs, who have pride of place as a nation that engaged in a horrific ethnic cleansing campaign in such recent history (though some of the glory should be shared with Greek volunteers who took part in some of the worst atrocities), destroyed most of Belgrade’s at one time many mosques during the 1990s conflicts. Perhaps the current authorities believe that there is still a possibility of anti-Muslim mob violence, as this mosque had its own police box. The only other conspicuously Ottoman building we saw in Belgrade was a tomb of a pasha inside Kalemegdan Citadel. Much more so, modern Serbia identifies itself as a part of the Slavic world, with two of downtown’s most prominent landmarks being the Moscow Hotel and the Russian Tsar Restaurant (see Derek’s post of 11.12).

Bosnia and Hercegovina, despite very significant Christian populations (particularly in the semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska), is very much a part of the Islamic world, and the most significant and northwesternmost bastion of Islam (if one does not count the large Muslim minorities within Western Europe). I will cover our visit to Sarajevo in a separate post to come.

Slovenia. Once you head into Croatia and Slovenia you leave the former Ottoman Empire for the former Austro-Hungarian, and traces of Islam disappear quickly. One small and depressing anecdote, however. Slovenia is by far the most financially successful of the former Yugoslav republics, now not only a member of the European Union but within the Eurozone as well. Slovenes are wealthy enough to be members of the international backpacker fraternity (we’ve run into them in Ethiopia and Kenya), and Ljubljana has a first world sheen that, say, Sarajevo does not. I asked a Slovene in Ljubljana what accounted for his nation’s success, and was told that the area that is now Slovenia has always been economically more developed than the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and as a sovereign state Slovenia was able to take better advantage of this lead. Another factor, I was told, was that the “southern people” of the other Yugoslav republics had a different mentality, in part because there were “many Muslims” and they “think differently” and were lazy and didn’t want to work. I had thought that Slovenes deserved credit for somehow staying out of the fray of the wars that entangled the other former Yugoslav republics, that Slovenes were perhaps less likely to think the sort of dangerous ethnic nationalism that their neighbors to the south seemed enamored with. Perhaps I was wrong.o