We suggest that a fundamental psycho-social syndrome is at work transforming a non-violent, non-militant, ‘normal’ individual—perhaps with feelings and values which are too inchoate, confused and contradictory to be dignified with the term ‘worldview’—into a fanatical devotee of a creed demanding the execution of an act of destruction that sends a message wrapped in terror to a target audience.
Book by Roger Griffin
Terrorist's Creed casts a penetrating beam of understanding into the disturbing and murky psychological world of fanatical violence, explaining how the fanaticism it demands stems from the profoundly human need to imbue existence with meaning and transcendence.
The first premise for this model: the innate need of human beings to feel their lives have a self-transcendent dimension and suprapersonal purpose. This dimension or purpose is variously described in terms of religion, culture, totalizing value system, narrative arc, transcendence, sacred canopy, nomos—or some other term suggesting the experience of a meaning beyond, and hence of greater significance and duration than—their own brief (and within a cosmic perspective) infinitesimally small and insignificant personal timeline.
The corollary of this need is a visceral fear of anything that threatens the coherence, vitality, or self-evidence of the nomos. Growing up in the absence of a fully-fledged, ‘solid’ nomos – as so many modern individuals do – can make them susceptible to the powerful negative emotions (affects) evoked by terms such as distress, dread, angst, terror, and ontological exile, loneliness, and homelessness.
The authors of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror locate the root of the Islamist attack in the threat posed by American by Westernization to Muslim religion, culture, and national identities. The book analyses the events of 9/11 through the lens of Terror Management Theory. TMT’s premise is that fanaticism arises from a profound disturbance in the sense of belonging to a meaningful, purposeful cosmos— guaranteed by a ‘culturally derived worldview’ that endows the world with ‘order, stability, meaning and permanence’.
Culture imparts to individual lives a sense of purpose deriving from the certainty that they are ‘capable of transcending the natural boundaries of time and space, and in doing so, elude death’. Threats to cultural integrity can create the conditions for extreme violence.
Assaults on the integrity or self-evidence of the nomos—for example, the challenge of radically conflicting conceptions of reality— threaten to ‘release the anxiety from which our conceptions shield us, undermining the promise of literal or symbolic immortality afforded by them’. This can lead to the desire to ‘annihilate’ those who embody divergent beliefs.
Based on in-depth interviews with ‘religious’ terrorists, Jessica Stern arrives at a similar conclusion:
Because the true faith is purportedly in jeopardy, emergency conditions prevail, and the killing of innocents becomes, in their view, religiously and morally permissible. The point of religious terrorism is to purify the world of these corrupting influences. But what lies beneath these views? Over time, I began to see that these grievances often mask a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear. Fear of a godless universe, of chaos, of loose rules and loneliness.
The fruitfulness of this line of inquiry is reinforced by Eric Hoffer’s slim but ‘classic’ treatise on political and religious fanaticism, The True Believer, written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when memories of the mass rallies of Hitler and Stalin were still vivid. Hoffer offers insights into the intimate relationship between anomy and blind faith in mass movements and their leaders—that apply to the commitment of disaffected individuals to terrorist causes.
Hoffer writes that when people who see their lives as ‘irremediably spoiled’ convert to a movement— they are reborn to a ‘new life in its close-knit collective body’. The drive to belong to a community of faith, secular or religious, provides a sense of ultimate purpose missing from an atomized, anomic individual existence. This leads to the ‘selfish altruism’ described by Dipak Gupta as intrinsic to the terrorist persona. The ‘acts of self-sacrifice’ by members of a jihadi movement transform them into ‘god-like creatures, much beloved by God himself’.
Hoffer relegates ideology to a secondary factor, stating that a rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises, but by ‘the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence’. He sees all forms of self-surrender to a political cause as in essence a ‘desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoilt lives.’
Janja Lalich’s study of the dynamics of fanaticism generated by cults is relevant, highlighting the role played in the process of radicalization by the need for ‘cognitive closure’ and ‘personal significance’—in an age of reality’s permanent tendency to liquefaction. She carried out in-depth case-studies of two modern US cults, the New Religious ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and the New Left ‘Democratic Workers’ Party’ (of which she was a dedicated member before her voluntary de-radicalization and metamorphosis into a professional sociologist).
She reconstructs the ‘intense reorganization of the person’s inner identity, or sense of self’ that transforms a ‘normal’ person into a fervent adept, even (as in the case of the Heaven’s Gate members) to the point of death. At the heart of the new-found sense of belonging lies a discernible ‘world-view shift’ that endows life with ‘meaning and purpose’—combined with an ‘activist stance’ on everyday life underpinned by a ‘transcendent belief system’.
This experiential ‘opening up’ is the concomitant of the closing down of the ‘old world’ of ambivalence, ambiguity, complexity and plurality. The liquid turns solid. This insight leads Lalich to talk of achieving ‘personal closure’ within a ‘self-sealing’ system. It is a system made up of charismatic authority emanating from a ‘guru-like’ leader figure, ritualized procedures of control imposed by the group or cult, and an overarching belief-system—producing a transformation in world-view which may take over the lives of initiates to the point of fanaticism and violent action.