What is the Relationship between Attachment to (the idea of) God and the Proclivity Toward Violence?
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
Richard Koenigsberg received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He is Director of the Library of Social Science.
“Koenigsberg’s ideas cut trenchantly through conventional, rationalized notions about culture, the nation, and war, and enable us to see through the psychic machinations of human institutions in utterly new ways.” —Ruth Stein, New York University, author of For Love of the Father
In her paper, Evil as Love and Liberation, Ruth Stein suggested that the violence of Mohammed Atta and the suicide bombers grew out of a form of love based on their profound attachment to their God, Allah. Acts of terroristic violence, according to Stein’s hypothesis, were undertaken in a spirit of devotion.
Violent acts constitute a way in which one proves one’s love for God. One demonstrates one’s devotion by killing the infidels, that is, people who refuse to honor one’s God and to submit to his will. The term “martyr” derives from a word meaning to “bear witness.” The martyr bears witness to his love for God by performing sacrificial acts in his name.
We forget that the bodies of the suicide bombers also were buried in the rubble of the world trade center. The suicide bombers killed many other human beings, but first of all they sacrificed or martyred themselves—in the name of Allah. Before the Other becomes a sacrificial victim, the self is a sacrificial victim.
As one sacrifices oneself in the name of one’s God, so does one sacrifice the Other. The suicide bombers turned Americans into sacrificial victims who were obligated to die for their God. When the airplane plunged into the ground in Pennsylvania, the last words of the suicide bombers were, “God is great.” Violence or killing was performed in the name of God, testifying his greatness.
In the minds of the suicide bombers, they were executing God’s will, that is, his will to punish infidels, to destroy those who refused to believe in him. Terroristic killing means “death to the non-believers.” Those who do not worship one’s God will be destroyed in the name of one’s God. The very act of destruction testifies to the power of one’s God to punish disbelievers.
Donald Moss at a meeting of the Fundamentalist Study Group introduced the term “fungible.” This term refers to the capacity of one object to replace another object. We may apply this concept to objects that people worship. Some people worship Allah, some Christ, and others their own nation. The idea of “Fungibility” suggests that while the objects people worship vary, there may be a fundamental dynamic governing the relationship of the individual to objects of worship.
I became involved in the Fundamentalist Symposium based on my research of thirty-five years on Hitler, Nazism and the Final Solution. When I read Ruth Stein’s papers, it became evident that the dynamics she articulated to account for the actions of the suicide bombers were nearly identical to the dynamics I had uncovered as the source of genocide.
In writing about the Holocaust again and again, I continually used the word—far before 9/11— “Death to the non-believers” to express Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews. Jews symbolized someone who did not love Germany enough. Hitler said, “We are fanatic in our love for our people. We can go as loyally as a dog with those who share our sincerity, but we will pursue with fanatical hatred the man who believes that he can play tricks with this love of ours.” Hitler’s hatred was directed toward those whom he believed mocked his love for Germany; refused to share his sincerity and devotion.
The structure of Nazi ideology was identical to that of a religious belief system. Hitler stated that Deutschland uber Alles was a “profession of faith,” a faith which “fills millions with a greater strength, with that faith which is mightier than any earthly might.” He declared that” Our love towards our people will never falter, and our faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable,” and insisted that the German people did not want to have “any other God—only Germany.” Hitler insisted that everyone else worship Germany as he did.
According to Bin Laden, “In our religion, we believe that Allah has created us for the purpose of worshipping him.” The Quran urges those “to fight for the cause of Allah and kill pagans wherever they are found.” Whenever believers meet unbelievers, Muslims are encouraged to “smite their neck and to fight those who believe not in Allah.” The purpose of Jihad is to “rouse the believers” in order to “restrain the fury of the non-believers.”
The Holocaust, I hypothesize, grew out of Hitler’s desire to punish the non-believers. Jews in the minds of Nazis were people insufficiently devoted to Germany, who did not love her enough. Jews were conceived as selfish individuals—people incapable of devoting their lives to a national community. Their very presence within nations tended to corrupt and to destroy these communities.
The relationship between attachment to (the idea of) God and the proclivity toward violence, therefore, revolves around the question of belief and disbelief. Certain people become fanatically attached to objects they wish to worship (we may call these people “fundamentalists”). These people believe that the object that they worship is absolutely true and real. The fundamentalist is someone who conceives a particular object as omnipotent—and expects all to recognize the omnipotence of the object that is worshipped.
The proclivity toward violence is contained precisely within the need to maintain belief in the omnipotence of a particular object. Hitler and Bin Laden are people who believe in the omnipotence of the object that they worship (“Germany” or “Allah”), and who react with rage when contemplating the idea that others do not worship this object as they do. The “Other” or symbolizes disbelief; is an “infidel” whose existence calls into question the absolute truth, or omnipotence, of one’s own belief.
Certain fanatic believers feel their faith requires that they destroy those who do not share their faith; “infidels” whose existence calls into question the absolute truth of their faith. An order of 11/1/44 to the air force stated: “It goes without saying that anyone who expresses doubt concerning the Fuhrer, criticizes him or his measures, spreads derogatory information about him, or defames him is without honor and deserves to die.” Himmler spoke to his SS-men and described their responsibilities: “If anyone should ever be disloyal to the Fuhrer or the Reich, even if only in thought, it is up to you to see that this man departs from the brotherhood, and we shall see to it that he departs this life.”
According to Bin Laden, “Allah has ordered us to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that His word is the highest and the uppermost and that of the unbelievers the lowermost.” “When God ordered us to carry out jihad and ordered us to kill and to fight,” Bin Laden proclaimed, he said in his holy Koran “fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, and heal the hearts of the believers.”
According to Bin Laden, Allah “is the one who has ordered us to make holy wars. No Muslim may say that he does not want to do jihad in the cause of God.” After all, “Is there another way to repel the infidels?” God almighty has said in his holy book “Then, fight in God’s cause—for God is the strongest in might and in punishment.” Those who must be punished are those who do not worship God as Allah has required that they do.
Violence is carried out “in the name of the will of God,” in the belief that one is reasserting or reaffirming the power of God through violent acts carried out in his name. Acts of violence testify to the sincerity of the believer—and prove the power of one’s God. Violent acts of retribution demonstrate that the will of the object cannot be evaded; that everyone must bow down before the power of the omnipotent object.
Hitler undertook the Final Solution in order to demonstrate the omnipotence of Germany, to show that no one could escape or evade the obligation to submit—to sacrifice one’s life—to the nation. Similarly, the World Trade Center bombers undertook to manifest the power and wrath of Allah by virtue of their monumental act of destruction. As Ruth Stein puts it, victims were required to submit or bow down to the terrorists in a way analogous to “how the terrorists themselves worship God.” Similarly, just as the SS-man vowed “obedience unto death,” so Holocaust victims would be required to submit absolutely to Germany and its leaders.
Where there is fanatic belief, one may hypothesize that doubt is present. Doubt cannot be separate from fanatic belief because in reality no object or thing is absolutely powerful or true. The belief in omnipotence constantly must encounter the reality of weakness, limitations and vulnerability. The “Other” in the world view of the fundamentalist symbolizes one’s own doubt.
Consequently, the violent fundamentalist seeks to “kill off” doubt—the idea that the object one worships is not omnipotent—by killing members of a class of people who are perceived as not sharing “the truth.” That which must be violently destroyed is that which threatens the reality of one’s absolute belief. As Bin Laden puts it, “Our life on this planet would be meaningless, if we do not worship the God of the Ancient House.”
There is also the issue of ambivalence. There is a positive valence to the idea of attaching oneself to the idea of an omnipotent object. Such identification provides a “secure base”—the foundation for one’s identity. However, there also is a negative value attached to identification with an object conceived as omnipotent.
One feels obligated to submit to this object: to surrender or abandon one’s individuality in the name of serving the object. Those who worship an omnipotent object frequently engage in ascetic acts of renunciation in the name of the omnipotent object. The renunciation of individuality, loss of self within the omnipotent object (even as one gains a self through identification with it), create a wish to throw off or to abandon the omnipotent object to which one is attached.
However, it is the nature of fundamentalist fanaticism that one refuses to separate from or abandon the omnipotent object to which one is attached; to which one has devoted one’s existence. Therefore, the wish to be free or separate, to be an individualist, to act upon one’s desires, is projected onto an Other.
Hitler conceived of Jews precisely as selfish individuals who refused to or was incapable of submitting to Germany. This idea of Jewish selfishness—unwillingness to sacrifice—enraged Hitler. How dare the Jew believe that he was exempt from the obligation to worship and serve Germany? How dare the Jew believe he could separate from Germany; be free of the obligation to serve the omnipotent nation state? How dare the Jew believe he could evade the obligation to submit to Germany?
The Holocaust was a form of terroristic violence declaring, “You too are obligated to submit to the omnipotent God to which we ourselves have submitted.” As we have submitted to, sacrificed our lives for Germany, Hitler reasons, “so we will compel you to do so.” The Holocaust represented Hitler’s effort to compel Jews (and others) to submit to the God to which he had submitted, “Germany.”
Violence or rage expresses anger toward those who are imagined to have evaded the obligation to submit to God. Terroristic acts are the means toward forcing others to acknowledge the power and implacable will of one’s God. The Holocaust constituted proof of the omnipotence of Germany: “Our nation is capable of doing this. Do you believe now? Are you not sorry that you doubted the omnipotence of our God?”
Similarly, the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings were undertaken to prove the omnipotence of Allah. “Do you believe that Islam is weak or impotent? Do you doubt the power of our God? This is what Allah allows us to do. By virtue of our sacrifice, and by compelling others to sacrifice their lives as well, we have demonstrated the reality of the will of Allah.”
The dynamic of terroristic violence is summarized in Deuteronomy 17:
“Who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them…which I have not commanded…then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones.”
The terrorist imagines that God desires punishment of non-believers. Terroristic acts are undertaken in order to force non-believers to acknowledge the omnipotent of the object that one worships.