Extremism fills intellectual void?

Traditional-modern culture rift seen causing identity loss

The profiles of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States remind scholar Hiromi Shimada of senior Aum Shinrikyo members.

The 48-year-old expert in religious studies explained it cannot be overlooked that many of those who carried out the attacks in the U.S. were highly educated, just like top Aum figures involved in the cult's heinous crimes in the early to mid-1990s.

"Those elite intellectuals committed atrocious crimes because of what they thought were their religious beliefs," the former professor at Japan Women's University in Tokyo said. "This symbolizes the troubles brought by the rapid development of global capitalism in recent decades."

Shimada, a specialist in cults and new religious movements that mushroomed in the 1980s and 1990s, found Aum an interesting subject because its doctrine appeared to him to be a form of Buddhist fundamentalism.

Also interesting for the scholar was Aum's reclusive communal lifestyle, which is unique among Japan's religious groups.

But his academic inquiry took a heavy toll -- he was forced to resign from the university in 1995 due to false media reports that he was a staunch supporter of the cult. Such reports included claims that he was given a "holy name" by cult founder Shoko Asahara and had urged one of his students to join Aum.

Shimada recently published a book titled "Aum -- Why a Religion Led to Terrorism." In the book, which took three years to complete, he examines how the cult developed a hatred toward society so deep that it led to the crimes, including the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured over 5,000.

Shimada said he believes the Sept. 11 attacks are different from past terrorist acts in the sense that it was a symbolic attack against Western civilization, while having almost no political aim comprehensible by those other than the perpetrators.

"The attacks appeared to be more of a message that expresses the terrorists' antagonistic feelings toward what the U.S. symbolizes culturally, rather than how the U.S. has involved itself in Mideast affairs," Shimada reckoned.

The scholar said that the attacks reflect the dramatic socioeconomic changes in the Middle East over the past decades and the trend toward globalization, which likely caused a sense of loss of traditions and identity among people in the region.

"In an era of dynamic social changes, people, especially serious students with ideals, tend to be concerned about their country's future. They worry whether their countries are heading in the right direction," he said.

"For the (Sept. 11) terrorists, I think economic growth and globalization appeared to be a threat to their traditions. Then, the U.S. -- an icon of capitalism -- became their target," he observed, adding that Aum also had strong antipathy toward the U.S.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when Japan experienced rapid economic growth, students actively engaged in political radicalism, possibly out of similar frustration that something was wrong with the country, he said.

"With the collapse of the Soviet Union, religious fundamentalism and other forms of extremism replaced political idealism in the minds of some students," he said.

One of the highly educated men reported as being responsible for the terror attacks is Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian-born architect who is believed to have flown American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center.

Osama bin Laden and other top members of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization accused of sponsoring the attacks, are also said to be elite intellectuals from relatively developed countries in the Middle East.

Likewise, many of Aum's top figures, who played active roles in the cult's criminal acts, received high-level education in Japan.

But why lean toward religion?

Shimada said one reason is the diversification of values that occurs as society loses a single, absolute identity.

"It has become increasingly rare for material success to be embraced by intellectuals as their prime objective in life," he said.

"Likewise, a country's economic development, in which the young elite often play a central role, no longer seems to be everything, given the many social problems that surface when striving for economic growth."

That in turn generates profound apathy toward society, a sort of identity crisis that can often turn people's eyes to the spiritual world, including religion, Shimada said.

"For those who joined Aum or al-Qaeda, religious fundamentalism, which encourages an opposite lifestyle from that of mainstream society, most effectively filled the void in their minds," he said.

He pointed out that increasing interest in occultism and the spiritual world among the younger generation in Japan also symbolizes their dissatisfaction with materialism.

Islamic fundamentalists and Aum members also have in common their material and sexual stoicism, claimed Shimada, which he explained is naturally embraced after stoking their hatred toward a mainstream culture that encourages materialistic values.

"The key to understanding the violent nature of terrorists is such stoicism. It justifies the hatred, and even violence, they direct at what they think is a 'rotten' society," he said, noting stoicism alone can aggravate their frustration to a level that might spark violent action.

Shimada believes today's society has failed to establish a new paradigm that effectively connects traditional values and modern culture.

"An effort to establish systematic thought, for instance, to tell good from evil, lags behind the ongoing dynamic social changes brought about by global capitalism," he figured.

"This leaves apathy or a sense of identity loss among people, which can easily be replaced by religious and other forms of extremism."