Terrorism and Religious Extremism:
A Mindful Approach
What are the psychological factors that are responsible for terrorism? What social conditions cause them to develop? And what can we, as individuals, do to influence them? The World-Trade Center disaster has provoked an intense U.S. led offensive against terrorism. Most people seem to think that this kind of war is something new. It’s not. Many other tragic conflicts in recent times fit the same model:
• Genocides that occurred in Kosovo and Bosnia
• Attempted extermination of the Kulak peasant class in Russia
• Actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
• Attempted extermination of the Intelligentsia in Communist China
• Hutus vs. the Tutsies in the Congo
• Turk’s genocidal massacre of the Armenians
• Holocaust of European Jews at the hands of the Nazi’s
• Similar conflicts within our own democratic borders (as will later
While on the surface, these may seem like completely unrelated events, they all embody a similar core philosophy. These conflicts are each characterized by having one group which sees itself as being tragically oppressed, and seeks freedom or prosperity through the annihilation of an ‘evil’ group of oppressors. Sound familiar? It should. The comparison between the scenarios mentioned above and the situation that prompted the September 11th attacks is obvious. America is the perceived oppressor at which Bin Laden directs all of his rage.
Some people seem to think that we can obliterate terrorism simply by obliterate terrorism simply by wiping Al Qaeda and its ‘evil leader’ off the face of the earth. Such a belief, however, is far from true. Even if we kill every single terrorist who lives on this earth today, the future would still remain uncertain. We do need military action, but we need to supplement it with psychological tactics. We must know why these situations occur, and act accordingly. The good news is that we have a basic understanding of how such conflicts emerge, and solid ideas as to how their development can be interrupted. Central to the creation of people like Bin Laden is a concept called totalism. For our purposes, totalism can be thought of as an exaggerated form of something that exists within each one of us: the tendency to see ourselves as wholly good and ‘the enemy’ as wholly bad.
To Contact Steven Barrie-Anthony, Email him at: [email protected]
Totalism – The Terrorists Mindset
We all have our enemies – from playground bullies and patronizing bosses to racists, to rapists and murderers. But there is a line that separates the more totalistic individual from regular people. Let’s say the playground bully of your youth was a short kid with black hair. Most of us won’t live the rest of our lives hating everybody who is short and has black hair.
The totalistic individual, however, has a hard time making that distinction. He tends, instead, to see whole groups as « evil », to use them as a scapegoat onto which he projects his rage at the unjust nature of the world. The totalistic individual tends to characterize himself as the tragically, even heroically oppressed, and to blame and vilify the defined oppressor.
What factors contribute to the development of the « totalistic identity »? Scholars such as Robert Lifton and his mentor Erik Erikson have suggested that totalism is a solution to various hardships in childhood, or to severe « identity confusion » in adolescence or young adulthood.
Simply put, being confused about who you are during these very important developmental stages may lead to the central question: Am I good? If the person in question sees fault within, he will see himself as totally bad, which he cannot afford. So he looks elsewhere to find an « evil » group (the oppressor), and is able to see himself (the oppressed) as wholly good when contrasted with the evil other. His fractured identity comes together similarly to the way a divided nation might come together when faced with an attack.
Whether you agree with this analysis or not, what seems clear is that when charismatic leaders express totalism as a solution to widespread suffering, people tend to listen. Hence the countless Nazi soldiers, who, under Hitler’s hand, murdered millions of fellow humans. Hence the terrorists who recently ploughed passenger-laden planes into crowded centers of government and commerce.
It’s also clear that there are specific psychological and sociological characteristics present in these, and in every situation where totalism has showed its face. These specific characteristics, if interrupted, would severely lessen the future effectiveness of charismatic leaders such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Bin Laden.
The Psychological Development of David Koresh
In order to understand these characteristics, however, it is helpful to understand the similarity between varying totalistic leaders and movements. Towards that end, let’s look at Bin Laden in relation to David Koresh, the leader of an infamous American « cult » called the Branch Davidians.
Koresh, born Wayne Howell, was isolated as a child, made fun of, and ridiculed. In conversations with FBI agents during the siege on his compound, he characterized his childhood as lonely. He said the other kids teased him and called him « Vernie ». He was dyslexic, a bad student, and dropped out of high school. He felt totally isolated, alone.
He found solace in the Bible – and by the time he was 12, he had memorized large tracts of it. When he was 20, Koresh began attending his mother’s church, the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists. He was, as correlates with his track record of rejection and ridicule, subsequently kicked out due to his « bad influence on the young people ». After failed attempts to « make it » in Hollywood as a rock star, Koresh returned to Waco in 1981, where he joined the Branch Davidians (which had about 1,400 members).
Koresh proceeded to have an affair with the then-leader Lois Roden, who was 60 at the time. The two traveled to Israel together on a spiritual pilgrimage.
When Roden died, a power struggle emerged between Koresh and Roden’s son. Koresh split from the group, taking some followers with him. He then returned to the compound in late 1987 with seven other armed men, and attacked the Davidian compound. During the conflict, Roden was shot multiple times (but wasn’t killed). Koresh and his followers were brought to trial, but the followers were acquitted, and a mistrial was declared in Koresh’s case.
By 1990 Koresh had changed his name from Wayne Howell, and characterized himself as the leader/prophet of the Branch Davidians. (« Koresh » is a Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus, the Persian King who allowed the persecuted Jews in Babylon to return to Israel.) As you can see, his dedication to the Bible was still present. Koresh proceeded to isolate the Davidians in their compound, stating that they were the chosen ones, the « good » ones, and the world was made up with forces that will spur the oncoming Armageddon, the day of atonement; and that when that day comes, God will spare the Davidians because of their dedication to His truth.
Osama Bin Laden – The Anatomy of a Mass Terrorist
Bin Laden, too, had a difficult childhood. Though he was wealthier than Koresh, he was one of 52 children in a strict, fundamentalist household, and his father died when he was young.
Bin Laden developed a close relationship early on with Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who played a major role in the reemergence of Islamic traditionalism. Azzam was the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which could have competed with the Davidians in terms of religious faith and zeal.
In 1979, when he was 22, Bin Laden joined countless other Muslims to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. (He saw the Soviets as waging war on Islam, the religion, on Allah the god, not just on Islamic peoples. Bin Laden undoubtedly viewed that battle, in which he did see combat, as part of the same jihad he has now launched against the US.) In 1980, Azzam founded an organization that later came to be known as al-Quaeda. Bin Laden rejoined his mentor, and served as his chief financer and a major recruiter. After Azzam was murdered by an assassin, Bin Laden stepped in to head al-Quaeda (similar to the way Koresh took Roden’s place).
Over the next few decades, Bin Laden became angrier with the world – with the Communists, with the Westerners who invaded Islamic territories with their weapons, not to mention their Christian and Jewish heritages and risqué women and rock ‘n roll, and even with conflicting Islamic groups who seemed unmotivated to join the jihad and defend god’s honor.
Bin Laden began to recruit heavily, while at the same time distancing al-Quaeda from everyone else by utilizing rhetoric similar to Koresh’s. « We fight the governments that are bent on attacking our religion and on stealing our wealth and on hurting our feelings. And as I have mentioned before, we fight them, and those who are part of their rule are judged in the same manner, » Bin Laden said in a 1998 interview with Frontline. « It is far better for anyone to kill a single American soldier than to squander his efforts on other activities, » he continued.
Bin Laden sees, and Koresh saw, the world composed of evil forces converging to rape them of their goodness, and both devised similar means to defend themselves.
Both isolated their organizations, cited multitudes of injustices and blamed them on the defined oppressor. Bin Laden thinks Allah is on his side – Koresh considered himself Christ’s emissary. Both have used their respective holy books to rationalize the totalistic ideology. And both viewed violence as inevitable.
In fact, it is widely believed that when the FBI first became involved with the Branch Davidians, Koresh had amassed a small arsenal of illegal weaponry within the compound. He believed that the forces of evil would soon march upon them, and he wanted them to be prepared to defend themselves in god’s name before they ascended to heaven.
The Makings of Totalism
But why in the world do people pay attention to such lunatics?
These variables, which I am borrowing from Lifton and reinterpreting, were present in Bin Laden’s case, in Koresh’s case, and in the background of every instance of totalistic violence committed in recorded history. They are:
1) Milieu control, the complete absence of civil liberties, total control of communication, etc.
2) Mystical manipulation, an overinterpretation of certain details of experience to induce a mystical belief in the correctness of the ideology.
3) The cult of confession, the emphasis on complete lack of privacy, the obligation to inform on yourself and repent any minor deviation.
4) The sacred science, the given ideology is considered objectively correct, there is no possibility of differing interpretation. It is considered persuasive to any reasonable person because it fits the facts of the world. So people who deviate from it are considered irrational, they’re going against what their own intellect (heart/soul/etc.) is telling them.
5) The demand for purity, people are expected to have an all or nothing attitude towards the ideology. They have to live their whole lives, down to every detail, in conformity with the ideology, and any deviation is regarded as equivalent to being evil.
6) Loading the language, the emphasis on thought-terminating clichés, i.e. communication only occurs with clichés and verbal formulas that discourage original thought. They talk in jargon and slogans.
7) Doctrine over person, the given doctrine applies to every situation—any time there’s an inconsistency between what a person thinks and what the doctrine says, the person should be sacrificed to the doctrine.
8) Dispensing of existence, the rights and claims of nonbelievers don’t merit consideration. If somebody is a nonbeliever, they’re considered in the grip of Satan and you can kill them without feeling any guilt — in fact, you’re obligated to do so. (This applies to all rights, from the lesser rights to the right to live.)
Notice the overlap in the variables, with the « Dumbing Down » characteristics of John Taylor Gatto, describing American education.
Totalism and the Taliban
Lifton’s variables lend themselves to understanding the current situation with the Taliban. It should be noted that in this case, the charismatic leader Bin Laden provides the doctrine (that is, his own extremist reading of the Qur’an).
There exists milieu control, the media is controlled by the state and there is a noted absence of civil liberties.
Mystical manipulation can be seen in Bin Laden’s bastardization of the Qur’an to provide impetus for the ideology.
There is a lack of privacy in the Taliban-controlled areas much like the lack of privacy in Nazi Germany – this cult of confession dictates that you inform on any faltering in your posture of belief.
Bin Laden’s doctrine is considered the sacred science in that it is objectively correct, persuasive to any « reasonable person »; America and the west is considered irrational (to say the least) because we differ in our interpretation of the world. The demand for purity is clear in that you are either for Bin Laden’s interpretation of God, or against God.
Any differing interpretations of the Qur’an are considered blasphemous to Bin Laden et al, thus there exists doctrine over person.
Perhaps most importantly, the terrorist actions perpetrated by Bin Laden demonstrate a clear tendency towards the dispensing of existence. Anybody who disagrees with his ideology deserves the death sentence, and he (and his followers) can dispense that penalty without feeling any guilt, because the doctrine says you’re obligated to do so.
The Prevention of Terrorism – Part One
We should do our best militarily to root out and eliminate the existing terrorist cells, and also disrupt these eight variable if and when we can.
We can interrupt milieu control by disseminating as much unbiased information as possible within Muslim nations. (Air dropping short wave radios along with food, as has been proposed, is a step in the right direction.)
The dissemination of various (peaceful) interpretations of the Qur’an, as expressed by well-known scholars knowledgeable of both the Qur’an and of current Muslim social structure, would help open up a dialogue to interrupt mystical manipulation. These efforts would contribute to the disproving of Bin Laden’s sacred science. (Once people are exposed to unbiased accounts of the world, to varying yet intelligent viewpoints, the unitary nature of the sacred science will tend to diminish in their minds.)
We should do our best to disrupt these, and the demand for purity as well. The dispensing of existence, perhaps the most serious of the variables, should be treated as such. The best way to disrupt such an ideological spin is to show the terrorists who they’re killing. Bin Laden is surely beyond this, as were the terrorists who lived in our society for a year before making their move.
But there are thousands of Muslims whose identities are still forming, who must now decide whether to follow Bin Laden’s rhetoric and « kill for God », or to deny Bin Laden’s solution and find their own. We should play into their ambivalence.
We need to show them that the people who died didn’t deserve to be killed. Through whatever means necessary, we need to show them that the American people aren’t evil, aren’t lined up against them.
Just as journalists try to put a « human face » on tragedy so that the readership can empathize, we need to provide that same service abroad. How much does it really affect you, deep inside, when you hear of a disaster in Africa or India? It’s hard to empathize without a human face. That’s the same situation for countless young people in Afghanistan, and in other Islamic nations.
The Prevention of Terrorism
Even when the Taliban falls, while the military efforts may diminish, this situation is far from over. We should continue to disrupt the variables.
We should only support a government that allows for individual thought and expression, which would decidedly end the cult of confession.
As it stands, the government feels it is entitled to complete power over the lives, minds and fortunes of its inhabitants.
Unless we take all this into account, we run the risk of creating a monster that will become increasingly more difficult to defeat using only force. It will rear its head repeatedly. We don’t want to extinguish the fire and then leave the coals smoldering.
In our military response, we need to make it clear that we’re attacking the people who attacked us – not the whole Islamic population. If that isn’t clear, our actions (combined with Bin Laden’s rhetoric) may engender so much sympathy for Bin Laden that the Islamic leaders can’t support us even if they’d like to. Faced with a united Islamic opposition, this war will become much bloodier.
Oversimplifying this situation is the simplest – and most dangerous – solution.
Our leaders need to make informed decisions based on the understanding of totalism in the present, and in the past. Given our current level of anger, it would be easy to vilify Bin Laden and those around him, vent our wrath and kill them, and then consider that the end of it. That, in itself, is totalistic thinking.
Lifton wrote that « totalism begets totalism, » and Miguel de Unanimo, a Spanish existentialist philosopher, wrote, « be careful in the pursuit of monsters that you yourself do not become a monster. »
These are wise words. Now the most pertinent question is this: Will America fall into the same trap as countless others, will we, as the current victim, become the equivalent to the « oppressed », exaggerate the qualities of the « oppressor » and rationalize indiscriminant violence in the name of « justice »? Will we become a « totalistic monster »?
I hope we take the high road.
Steven Barrie-Anthony has published on eastern and new religions, and has two upcoming articles focusing on the psychology of totalism in the journals Terrorism and Political Violence and Nova Religio. You can email him at [email protected].
United States Violence on Terrorism
By: Tan Nguyen
As the United States continues what it calls its “war against terrorism,” one can’t help but wonder if such a war is misguided. After all, if the United States is truly looking to eradicate terrorism, perhaps it should direct its attention to within its borders, or more specifically, within the confines of its government.
In 1986, the United States was found guilty by the World Court of “unlawful use of violence” (international terrorism) for its actions in Nicaragua. The United States then promptly vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states to adhere to international law.
Exactly how bad were the United State’s actions in Nicaragua? According to political scientist Noam Chomsky, “Nicaragua in the 1980’s was subjected to violent assault by the U.S. Tens of thousands of people died. The country was substantially destroyed; it may never recover. The international terrorist attack was accompanied by a devastating economic war, which a small country isolated by a vengeful and cruel superpower could scarcely sustain.” In the case of Nicaragua, we have the United States using violence to reach its goal of overthrowing the popular Sandinista movement, a coalition of Marxists, left-wing priests, and nationalists. Was the United States’ use of violence any different from Bin Laden’s?
The United States was using violence in an attempt to influence the policy of the government of Nicaragua by intimidation and coercion. The U.S. code defines terrorism in a variety of ways. One way terrorism is described is as “any activity that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Therefore, the United States, according to its own definition of terrorism, was guilty of this heinous act.
Some will argue that 1986 is now distant history. The government has learned from its egregious mistakes and surely has not repeated them since. If only this were true. One need to only look at the Clinton administration’s 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa plant in Sudan to find U.S. terrorism. The bombing of Sudan, a response to the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, was responsible for an imaginable amount of deaths. To measure the death toll, it is necessary to examine not only the amount of deaths produced by the bombings, but also those deaths directly related to the bombings, that is the deaths caused by the eradication of the Al-Shifa plant. In his investigation of the bombing, Jonathan Belke of the Boston Globe, regional program manager for the Near East Foundation, a respected development institution providing technical assistance to poor countries in the Middle East and Africa, found that a year after the attack, “without the lifesaving medicine [the destroyed facilities] produced, Sudan’s death toll from the bombing has continued, quietly, to rise… Thus, tens of thousands of people-many of them children-have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases… [Al-Shifa] provided affordable medicine for humans and all the locally available veterinary medicine in Sudan. It produced 90 percent of Sudan’s major pharmaceutical products… Sanctions against Sudan make it impossible to import adequate amounts of medicines required to cover the serious gap left by the plant’s destruction.”
Germany’s Ambassador to Sudan writes that “It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction of the Al-Shifa factory, but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess” (Werner Daum, “Universalism and the West,” Harvard International Review, Summer 2001). After all, Al-Shifa “provided 50 percent of Sudan’s medicines, and its destruction has left the country with no supplies of chloroquine, the standard treatment for malaria” (Patrick Wintour, Observer, December 20, 1998). Additionally, Al-Shifa was “the only one producing TB drugs-for more than 100,000 patients, at about 1 British pound a month. Costlier imported versions are not an option for most of them-or for their husbands, wives and children, who will have been infected since. Al-Shifa was also the only factory making veterinary drugs in this vast, mostly pastoralist, country. Its specialty was drugs to kill the parasites which pass from herds to herders, one of Sudan’s principal causes of infant mortality” (James Astill, Guardian, October 2, 2001).
The bombing of the Al-Shifa plant also resulted in the mass exodus of Sudan’s international organizations. Human Rights Watch observed that because of the bombing, “all UN agencies based in Khartoum have evacuated their American staff, as have many other relief organizations.” Because of this “many relief efforts have been postponed indefinitely, including a crucial one run by the U.S.- based International Rescue Committee are dying daily.” Additionally, “the UN estimates that 2.4 million people are at risk of starvation,” and the “disruption in assistance” for the “devastated population” may produce a “terrible crisis.”
Therefore, it is not so surprising that Osama Bin Laden’s popularity rose after the Al-Shifa bombing. Pointing to this horrible incident along with U.S. policy in Iraq in the past ten years which has devastated Iraq’s civilian population while strengthening Saddam Hussein, the same Saddam Hussein which the U.S. egregiously supported during his gassing of the Kurds in 1988 provided Bin Laden with a way to defend his irrational hatred of the United States. Perhaps the only way to counter the United States’ terrorism, is with terrorism of one’s own.
If the United States is to continue its war on terrorism, it should perhaps aim its war not at Osama Bin Laden or Iraq (what many predict is next on the U.S.’s list), but rather at itself. It is only by eradicating its status as the world’s leading terrorist state, that the U.S. can eradicate terrorism.
The Unfinished Fight for Freedom
One purpose of this site is to show you that terrorism is not simply a struggle between good guys and bad guys.
There are complex social forces that shape our lives – everyone’s life. That includes you and me. The more we understand about how these forces operate, the better we can make informed decisions.
One way to influence people in foreign countries, is to be a good role model. If we are going to help people change for the better, it makes sense to start with ourselves.
Child development relationship is altered by the influences of modern civilization, and also in developing countries that have been torn by war over periods of many years, such as Afghanistan.
Children are often damaged by neglect, control, abuse, and the false ideas that pervade their society. Fear, anger, bad memories, and a host of things that defy description, reside in their minds long after the circumstances that caused them. They are vulnerable and may fall prey to people that promise that if they give their time, energy, and money now, they will find happiness in the future.
Our modern society has fostered the development of institutions in government, education, health-care, and others. These have taken on a life of their own, just like people. They will fight to survive, and will lie if necessary, directly or indirectly. These institutions can be parasitic, and control our lives, if we allow them to. A successful parasite has « stealth » properties, which is to say that it does everything it can to look beneficial and wholesome. This is extremely deceptive.
A parasitic institution operates by leading people down a primrose path. It often has a way of dulling people’s minds by a variety of methods. One way involves keeping people very busy. Someone who is « snowed under, » doesn’t have time to think.
Many people have died before us in the quest for freedom. But the struggle is not over. It requires that you use your mind – thinking independently – reexamining long held belief systems. Things are not always as they appear.