Here at GetReligion we've protested when writers draw glib connections between religious belief and heinous behavior. "Follow the Mullahs," Stephen Grey's report in the latest Atlantic, is a refreshing exception to that pattern. Writing about efforts to authenticate a message attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Grey introduces the phrase forensic theology:
Authenticating terrorist documents is just one of its uses. It can also help identify perpetrators, and targets for surveillance, sometimes far more effectively than conventional intelligence practices. Its greatest potential, however, may be strategic: with theologians at the center of the battle, forensic theology may help us pinpoint the groups that present the greatest threat.
Grey, who formerly led an investigation team for the Sunday Times of London, Yigal Carmon of MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) as a pioneer in the field. (On this page of specialists who can comment on this year's presidential campaign, Washington University in St. Louis lists Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies, as a consultant in forensic theology.)
Here is a central warning from Grey's report:
According to Alastair Crooke, the former European Union negotiator with Hamas and other radical Islamic groups, who is now working on a project to increase Western policymakers' understanding of Islam, many such groups, including Hamas and Hizbollah, are utterly opposed to the activities of bin Laden and Zarqawi -- indeed, to any form of jihad outside what they regard as occupied territory. Yet the U.S. government classifies Hamas and Hizbollah in the same terrorist category as al-Qaeda. "The biggest mistake the West makes is to disregard these differences and to demonize almost the entire spectrum of political Islam," Crooke says.