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Dr. Otis encourages looking beyond the surface of religion and conflict

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Dr. Pauletta Otis presents a series of slides in her presentations on religion and conflict and her attempt is to explode common preconceptions and misconceptions. She points to the history of religion's role in war with an emphasis on how military members can use that information to better understand the nature of their enemy and tasks, but that there are limitations.

When it comes to understanding Islam and the brand practiced by radical terrorists, she stresses that it is important to know that there are many variations of Islam but that followers can be broken down into three main groups: Radicals, Fundamentalists and the Adherent.

While many might believe radicals, or even fundamentalists are the ones to worry about in conflict situations, Dr. Otis points out that this isn't necessarily the case.

Most radicals, she says, are vocal activists, who while loud, on the whole are not prone to commit acts of violence.

Fundamentalist, she notes, while strict and seemingly inflexible in their beliefs, often provide a stabilizing effect in conflict situations, pulling extremists who might be leaning toward violence back toward the center, threatening to shun them if they insist on being liberal in their interpretations of scripture to justify or condone violence.

Adherents to a religion generally are people who identify with a set of beliefs and can range from the devout to those who do not practice their religion.

Dr. Otis advises military members to be aware of the religions and practices of the people around them and the enemy but not to rely on it as a focal point in making tactical decisions. A loud radical may not being saying the kind of things a Soldier on the ground may want to be hearing in a war zone, but that doesn't mean he is a physical danger to troops or even capable of inspiring violence. Good intelligence and winning the support of the residents to root out the violent elements is the key.

"It's the quiet ones who are running drugs, money and guns and are willing to kill who you have to watch out for," said Dr. Otis, adding they are like any criminal who does not respect life or property.

Drilling down to the core of the problem of violent criminal-terrorists goes beyond religion and westerners must be careful not to make determinations about other cultures and religions from a western perspective, as the commonality required to make informed decisions just doesn't exist.

Even for those who dedicate themselves to studying other cultures, conflicts and religion, it is a difficult task. Dr. Otis admits she doesn't really know what terrorists like Osama Bin Laden want. She suspects in the case of Bin Laden it may about a power and creating a following. Making determinations is difficult, however, as the stated claims and demands of terrorists often are not what they appear to be.

While U.S. foreign policy and involvement in other countries often is cited as an evil that terrorists must battle, Dr. Otis said it might be convenient cover for terrorist leaders trying to cope with their own failed ideologies or a fear of the westernization of Middle Eastern cultures.

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