Saturday, September 6, 2008
Three Social-historical Preconditions for the Rise of Religious Terrorism
2:18 pm edt
are at least three social-historical preconditions that are necessary for the rise of movements of religiously motivated terrorism.
Each one deserves a discussion on its own, which they will receive here in the future.
The first precondition is a group that experiences itself as shamed and humiliated. Forensic psychologists have long
emphasized the significance of shame and humiliation as precursors for violent acts. Feelings of humiliation are also cited
as a major cause of the turn to religious fanaticism and violence on the part of groups around the world. A fine introduction
to this research and discussion can be found in the book Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict by
Evelin Lindner and on the website www.humiliationstudies.org.
The second precondition
is a community of violence: a group knowledgeable about the production of violent acts, that knows how to procure and/or manufacture
weapons, train agents in their use, and to think and plan tactically about their deployment. The contemporary variation on
this theme is the question of the extent to which the recruitment, training, and deployment of such agents can be carried
on entirely over the Internet.
The third precondition is a religious leadership that articulates an appealing and convincing rationale for committing
violent actions: a theology that frames violent acts as God’s will or sacred duty, that endows violence with a transcendent
meaning, that dichotomizes the human race into two absolutely opposed camps of the totally pure and righteous eternally at
war with those who are totally impure and demonic, that teaches a God of anger and vengeance, that ties redemption and purification
to the shedding of blood.
All three are necessary and work synergistically. Without an alienated or humiliated group, there would be few potential
recruits. Without a community of violence, those predisposed to violence would have little ability to act on a large scale.
At most there would be a few lone wolves carrying out simple, small-scale acts. Without a transcendental rational there would
be difficulty recruiting and motivating large numbers to engage in horrific actions.
In addition to these social-historical preconditions, there is also the individual-psychological precondition of persons
whose psychological make-up predisposes them to respond to humiliation with rage, to be fascinated with violence, and to resonate
to a theology of terror and vengeance. Without individuals predisposed in those ways, the most compelling message of terror
would gather few followers. All three of these social-historical conditions will receive more detailed
analysis here in the coming weeks.
May 30, 2008 - "Understanding"
James W. Jones, Psy.D., Ph.D., Th.D.
much do we really know about terrorism? The short answer is "a lot" and "a very little." "Terrorism"
- as the cliché about one person’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter suggests - is more often used
as an epithet or a bit of propaganda than a category useful for understanding. There is general agreement that terrorism is
not an end in itself or a motivation in itself (except perhaps for a few genuinely psychotic individual lone wolves). No movement
is only a terrorist movement; its primary character is more likely political, economic, or religious. Terrorism is a tactic,
not a basic type of group.
The first step in clarifying this topic of "understanding terrorism"
is to become clear about the purpose of our attempts to understand terrorism. Part of the confusion over the understanding
of terrorism results from the more basic confusion of not knowing what we want our explanations of terrorism to do for us.
Before we undertake to "explain" terrorism, we should be clear as to what we want this "explanation" to
accomplish? Many hope that understanding terrorism will help predict future terrorist actions. Others hope that it will help
devise effective counter-terrorism strategies. Will a psychological, or political, or military, or religious understanding
of religious terrorism aid in those goals?
I know from my work in forensic psychology that predicting violent behavior
in any specific case is very, very complicated and very rarely successful. And dramatic acts of violence that change the course
of history - the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that lit the match on the conflagration of World War I, the taking
hostage of the American Embassy in the Iranian revolution, the 9/11 attack - are rarely predictable. We can list some of the
characteristics of religious groups that turn to violence and terror. I have studied some of the themes common to Muslim,
Christian, and Buddhist groups that have turned to terror. We can also outline the steps that individuals and groups often
go through in becoming committed to violent actions. The NYPD has done exactly that in a recent study. But I remain skeptical
that any model will enable us to predict with any certainty when specific individuals or groups may turn to terrorism. There
are warning signs we should be aware of. But these are signs, not determinants or predictors.
As for counter-terrorism,
it is an important strategic principal that one should know one's enemy. We succeeded in containing the expansiveness
of the former Soviet Union in part because we had a detailed and nuanced understanding of the Soviet system. Understanding
some of what is at stake religiously and spiritually for religious groups that engage in terrorism can help devise ways of
countering them. So a religious-psychological understanding of religious terrorists' motivations can be an important part
of the response to them.
In the months following 9/11 I often heard demagogues on the radio say that psychologists
(like me) who seek to understand the psychology behind religiously motivated violence simply want to "offer the terrorists
therapy." The idea that one must choose either understanding or action - that one cannot do both - is an idea that itself
borders on the pathological and represents the kind of dichotomizing that is itself a part of the terrorist mindset. Such
dichotomized thinking, wherever it occurs, is a part of the problem and not part of the solution. I worked for two years in
the psychology department at a hardcore, maximum security prison. But I never thought of that as a substitute for just and
vigorous law enforcement. Understanding an action in no way means excusing it; explaining an action in no way means condoning
There is, however, a deeper issue here. Understanding others (even those who will your destruction)
can make them more human. It can break down the demonization of the other that some politicians and policy makers feel is
necessary in order to combat terrorists. The demonization of the other is a major weapon in the arsenal of the religiously
motivated terrorist. Must we resort to the same tactic - which is so costly psychologically and spiritually – in order
to oppose terrorism? Or can we counter religiously motivated terrorists without becoming like them?