Small Wars Journal

The Enemy Within and Without: Historical Examples of Islamic and Buddhist Fundamentalism

Tue, 07/06/2021 - 11:42am

The Enemy Within and Without: Historical Examples of Islamic and Buddhist Fundamentalism

By Major Andy Phillips

Author’s Note: In light of extremist threats found both inside and outside the ranks of the US Military, it may prove useful to review the theory of fundamentalism and how it can help us to understand the motivations for acts of violence committed by other principled and dutiful groups throughout history.

The Enemy Within and Without

            Encirclement, or the understanding that one is “surrounded by enemies,” can have a dramatic effect on the human psyche akin to that of a cornered animal who submits to its primal instincts in order to preserve its life. Reaction to an all-encompassing threat will almost certainly be violent. What the uncertainty is: who or what will be the target of this violence. A narrative of group disenfranchisement paired with individualistic sense of divine purpose are primary aspects of this psychological condition that can be used to understand the violence committed by religious groups such as the Nizari Ismailis sect of Islam and the Theravadin Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The theory of Fundamentalism can provide a useful lens in which to view and explain the escalation of such violence in groups with seemingly non-violent tenants.

The Theory of Fundamentalism

The theory of Fundamentalism applies to those with the belief that only select individuals, closely connected to the true meaning of the faith, can prevent its imminent destruction or disappearance. This devout group believes that it must band together to defend its religious traditions against threats that can be both internal and external to its religion or cause. However, defense is not inherent to group membership, as it requires active participation in fighting against those who would seek to destroy the faith. Those who lead such groups often invoke, what appears to be, sacred approval for their actions. These group characteristics can arise as a response to an inter-faith shift or societal change that signals the end of important traditions. As explained by theorists Gabriel Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan (2003), fundamentalist movements are “militant, mobilized, defensive reactions to modernity” (p. 99).

Reaction to World Events

Secularization and modernization can have profound and divisive effects on nations with deeply rooted religious traditions. To fundamentalists, the idea of removing God from the government delegitimizes both institutions and must be opposed at all costs. Whether it is the purpose of nations to limit the influence of religion on its people or not, the consequences of such actions can create severe distinctions in society between ‘in and out groups.’ These distinctions can be exploited by leaders who seek to restore what they feel is religion’s proper role in the world through the use of dire rhetoric (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan, 2003 p. 99).

“Moral Manichaeism,” a concept presented by Almond, Appleby, and Sivan (2003) that frames the struggle in terms of “light” and “darkness,” helps craft the message that the faithful are fighting against evil (p. 95). Essentially, they become the light beset on all sides by an overwhelming darkness. This narrative appeals to the individual’s ego and has the potential to be manipulated to a great degree. Allowing initiated fundamentalists to accept the inevitability of casualties, including both innocent bystanders and their own principles, for what they believe to be a “greater good” that is divinely ordained and translated through a charismatic leader.

Divinely Appointed Leadership

Fundamentalist leadership, both individuals and small groups, can be said to have greater access to and understanding of the world and the will of the divine entity. The perception of this ability or gift allows these individuals to provide selected others with the inerrant truth as if God himself deemed it. In most cases, leadership is derived from those already embedded within a hierarchical structure of religion and are performing the duties of their position. In other words, there is already a familiarity and respect amongst those who share the same ideals before the movement gains momentum (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan, 2003 pp. 101-104).

Using their supposed gift of theological interpretation, fundamentalist leaders propagate what is to be the group’s creed and code of conduct. It is not enough to simply follow the faith and adhere to its rules; fundamentalist groups require that their members actively participate in defending it. For “good” to triumph over “evil” members must unflinchingly implement the leader’s decisions. The rewards for this behavior may not be known in the physical world or in the individual’s lifetime, but they are nothing short of miraculous. Fundamentalist leadership often uses themes of “messianism” or “millennialism,” the idea or belief that their actions could usher in the return of a messiah figure or a golden age, to motivate followers (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan, 2003, p. 104). With the understanding that the conflict transcends the temporal world, the principles of the established religion or cause may be manipulated to achieve the desired end state.

Men of the Mountain: Nizari Ismailis Strike from Exile

            For example: Alamut, the eagle’s nest, a hidden castle high in the Elburz Mountains of Persia was a safe haven and base of operations for the Nizari Ismailis, a minority sect of Shiite Islam. Its secrecy and isolation served as much of a practical purpose as it did a symbolic one to both initiate and attract followers seeking a higher purpose. The only way to travel to Alamut was by way of a single narrow track through treacherous mountain terrain. Those few who were allowed to enter did so as converts to the Ismaili cause and those permitted to leave were designated as missionaries (da’is), who would seek to recruit and spread the word or as self-sacrificers (Fedayeen) armed with the sole purpose of eliminating specific Muslim “heretics” (Boot, 2013, p. 206).

The Nizari Ismailis found themselves at Alamut after being excommunicated by both the Shiite and Sunni leadership. A minority within the smaller sect of Shiite Islam, the Ismailis practices and teachings were extremely unpopular amongst the wealthy and ruling class who regarded them as threatening to their existence. Eliminating the Ismailis was a way for the wealthy leaders of the Sunni establishment to preserve their way of life unhindered by the moral scruples of the small group. In many cases, the exile of the Ismailis was violent and fed into their narrative of being a persecuted group forced into exile after espousing the true nature of Islam.

Hasan-I Sabbah led the exiled group and provided them with a safe haven at Alamut. From there he crafted what he referred to as the “new preaching” that justified the use of terror and assassination as tools to strike back at those who persecuted them and those who were believed to be leading Islam astray; namely the Sunni establishment. At the core of his teachings was the belief that “to shed the blood of a heretic is more meritorious than to kill seventy infidels” (Lewis, 1967, p. 48).

The Nizari Ismailis became feared and widely known as the “assassins” which was derived from the Arabic word “hashish,” a plant that when prepared and ingested, can cause hallucinations. It is believed that Sabbah used hashish as a hallucinogenic supplement to his teachings in order to show his followers the rewards of eternal salvation and to gain their unfailing service and unquestioning loyalty when choosing targets (Lewis, 1967, pp.11-12).  The term “assassination” and the act of killing for political reasons became synonymous with the group’s ethos. Their first recorded target was Nizam al-Mulk, a scholar and vizier of the Seljuk Empire. Deemed a “devil” by Sabbah, he easily convinced one of his willing followers to strike the killing blow that would end in his own martyrdom and supposed passage to eternal bliss (Lewis, 1967, p. 47).

According to historian Bernard Lewis (1967) the Ismailis violence was aimed at the Sunni leadership, “their murders were designed to frighten, to weaken, and ultimately overthrow it” (p. 134).  The attacks were both specific, purposeful, and rarely harmed civilians. The vast majority of the attacks were made against Sunnis and rarely targeted Christians, Jews, or Shiites. During the Crusades, the Ismailis’ reputation became widespread due to choosing targets with propagandist motives to make examples and spread fear (Lewis, 1967, p. 134).

The Crusades (1095-1291), a holy war between Christians and Muslims, provided the conditions for the Ismaili cause to gain momentum but ultimately lead to its undoing. After Sabbah’s death, Rashid ad-Din Sinan stepped into the leadership role, also known as “The Old Man of the Mountain,” who saw a target of opportunity in Saladin, the leader of the Muslim opposition to the European Crusaders. Saladin prioritized the destruction of the Ismailis, second to defeating the Crusaders, because of their heretical and dangerous ways. However, after two extremely close calls with the assassins and after many threats, Saladin decided to use the Ismailis rather than destroy them, by paying for their services. This newfound partnership resulted in the assassination of the Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, the King of Jerusalem, in Tyre (Lewis, 1967, p. 117).

Once the Ismailis became a “murder for hire” organization it seemed to dilute the strength of their original intentions and gave way to their willingness to accept contracts based on the will of their leader rather than the righteousness of their cause. At this point, they were regarded as an isolated, devout, and murderous group of contract killers that was too dangerous to be left alone, and in the thirteenth century were wiped out by the Mongols (Boot, 2013, p.208).

Using the theory of fundamentalism to view the Nizari Ismailis’ struggle, it is clear how important the characteristics of reaction, Moral Manichaeism, and leadership were to them. The Nizari Ismailis grasped onto a persecution narrative that forced them into exile and to turn to charismatic leaders who would selectively use the tenants of Shia Islam to mobilize its members and enact a violent vengeance. The threat they faced was internal to their faith and directed at those who they believed were leading Islam astray.

The Honeybee’s Dilemma: Buddhist Violence in Sri Lanka

The honeybee lives to build and protect the hive. It serves as a member of a community without ambition for conquest, attachment to material things, or excessive behavior. This becomes most evident when the community is under attack. The honeybee, without hesitation, defends the hive: a selfless and suicidal act. To defend what it holds dear, even a pacifist may resort to violent measures.

‘War for the sake of peace’ may seem like an obvious contradiction, but this justification has become common rhetoric in explaining many of today’s ideological wars. Theravada Buddhists, professing to follow a path of non-violence and compassion for all living things, have not avoided waging war or finding rationalizations for the hypocrisy inherent to human nature. Through the loose interpretation and the shaping of ancient precepts, Buddhist monks have justified violence against those they regarded as aliens in Sri Lanka. They believed that to preserve their community, protect the holy land, and return to a state of peace they had no choice but to shun the laws of man and follow a path that advocated for violent self-defense. How a Buddhist decides to go to war can be understood using the theory of Fundamentalism.

            Perhaps, the most commonly recognized dimension of Buddhism is that of non-violence or Ahimsa. It is the first of the ten precepts of ethical behavior and it is based on the belief that all living things are connected by the same life force and to harm any living creature would be to harm oneself (Hopfe, 1976, p. 89). As it is the first precept mentioned it is also the first precept to be bent to suit the objectives of fundamentalist leadership.  The violence perpetrated by Buddhists in Sri Lanka finds its foundations in the smaller and more conservative branch of Theravada Buddhism, which is believed to be the closest interpretation of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings (Dharma). The monastic order, or Sangha, is the center of Buddhist authority for Theravadins and it is given a symbolic authority that even has had a legitimizing effect on political power (Bartholomeusz, 2002, p.30). These select monks have taken on the responsibility of safeguarding their traditions and determining the methods used to provide this protection. Theravada Buddhists profess that there is justification for violence, committed with righteous intent, found in the Mahavamsa, the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as religious scholar Tessa Bartholomeusz (2002) explains, “we find that the criterion must be understood within the context of an “act of truth,” satyakriya, an ancient form of acting with righteous intent” (p. 145). Violence committed in defense of the Dharma is therefore permitted.

            The defense of Sinhalese (native) Buddhism has an ancient context, but in regards to the more recent conflict, it can be traced back to the period of British rule 1796-1948 that sought to convert Buddhists to Catholicism, secularize the government, and marginalize Sinhalese culture. This resulted in a “Buddhist Revival” led by “the homeless guardian of the Dharma” Anagarika Dharmapala who laid down the rhetoric which would cause the divide between Sinhalese Buddhists and essentially everyone else. What started as a reaction to thwarting British influence became a way to mobilize Buddhists against the minority Muslim Tamils. Dharmapala explained to his followers that the Muslims were “an alien people” and that the Buddhists were “sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free of alien invaders” (Little, 1984, p. 34).

This perspective seemed to give Sinhalese Buddhists permission to violently attack Christians, Muslims, and anyone recognized as “alien” in defense of the Dharma. This resulted in the disenfranchisement of the Tamils and the eruption of a bloody civil war that cost the lives of nearly 100,000 people. Despite the defeat of the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2011, many still recognize that the Tamils have a legitimate cause for their grievances (Mohan, 2015).

            There is no justification, in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, for Buddhists to commit acts of violence. However, the Buddhist is still a human being and therefore subject to the flaws inherent in human nature. These failings can be amplified by the circumstances of the changing world and manipulated by fundamentalists willing to interpret and translate the purest teachings with ill intent. Like the honeybee, which gives its life in defense of the hive, the Sinhalese Buddhist has been convinced to sacrifice his foremost principle in the defense of symbols and ideas.


            The theory of fundamentalism provides an excellent lens to view and make sense of the acts of violence committed by religious groups directed both inward and outward. The key factors of reacting adversely to the changing world, providing the last bastion of hope for their religion, and divinely anointed leadership who is willing to interpret the teachings in order to accept violent measures can be found in many examples of fundamentalist groups. In the case of the Nizari Ismailis, the violence was precise and directed at those within the faith, other Muslims who were believed to be heretics to the true faith. Sri Lankan Buddhists used violence to defend their traditions against outsiders of the faith that they perceive as trying to destroy their foundations. The implications are that the perception of threat can have a powerful effect on religious groups and that their long-standing principles may be discarded when self-preservation is at stake.





Almond, G., Appleby, R., Sivan, E. (2003). Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism Around the World. Chicago, IL. The University of Chicago Press.

Bartholomeusz, T. (2002). In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. New York, NY. Routledge Curzon.

Boot, M. (2013). Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York, NY. Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Hopfe, L. (1976). Religions of the World. London, UK. Collier Macmillan Publishers.

Lewis, B. (1967). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. New York, NY. Basic Books.

Little, D. (1984). Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity. Washington, D.C. United States Institute of Peace Press.

Mohan, R. (2015). Sri Lanka’s Violent Buddhists. Retrieved from website:

Categories: ideology

About the Author(s)

Major Andy Phillips is a Psychological Operations (PSYOP) officer currently serving as a planner for the XVIII Airborne Corps. His previous assignments include: Military Advisor to the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; Battalion Executive Officer and Alpha Company Commander, 8th PSYOP Battalion (Airborne); PSYOP Representative to the Tribal Engagement Coordination Cell (Iraq); Military Information Support Team-Afghanistan (MIST-AF) Director; and Afghan Information Dissemination Operations (AIDO) Detachment Commander. Major Phillips holds a Master of Science in Information Strategy and Political Warfare from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Seton Hall University.