Political Violence as Submission to a Sacred Object
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Killing as a Sacred Duty
1) We believe that Allah has created us for the purpose of worshipping him (May 1998).
2) Allah has ordered us to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that His word is the highest and that of the unbelievers the lowermost (May 1998).
3) We will continue this course because God ordered us to carry out jihad so that the word of God may remain exalted to the heights (September 1998).
4) To seek to possess the weapons that could counter those of the infidels is a religious duty (September 1998).
5) If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then this is an obligation I carried out (Sept. 1998).
6) It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims (Sept. 1998).
7) When God ordered us to carry out jihad and ordered us to kill and to fight, he said in his holy Koran fight them, and God will punish them by your hands (Sept. 1998)
8) Jihad is part of our religion and no Muslim may say that he does not want to do jihad in the cause of God (Sept. 1998)
9) God almighty has said in his holy book "Then, fight in God's cause – Thou art held responsible only for thyself – and rouse the believers” (Sept. 1998).
10) Hostility towards America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded for its by God (Sept. 1998).
11 )Praise be to God for guiding us to do jihad in his cause (Sept. 1998).
12) What we do care for is to please God by doing jihad in his cause and by liberating Islam's holy places from those wretched cowards (Sept. 1998).
13) Killing and fighting have been prescribed for us, by the Grace of God (Sept. 1998).
14) I tell Muslims to believe in the victory of God and in Jihad against the infidels of the world. The killing of Jews and Americans is one of the greatest duties (Oct. 2001).
15) The killing of Jews and Americans is one of the greatest duties (Oct. 2001).
16) The most important religious duty – after belief itself – is to ward off and fight the enemy aggressor (March 2003).
17) Seeking to kill Americans and Jews everywhere in the world is one of the greatest duties, and the good deed most preferred by Allah (March 2003).
18) To drive off the enemy aggressor who destroys both religion and the world – there is no religious duty more important than this (March 2003).
Once upon a time it was imagined that warfare and other forms of political violence were undertaken as forms of “aggression”—as if human beings possessed an inherited biological drive to harm or kill other human beings.

It is now evident that most forms of political violence derive from a spiritual or moral quest. Scott Atran writes about “devoted actors” who fight and die in the name of “sacred values.” Michael Roberts has coined the term “sacrificial devotion” to characterize violent political acts undertaken in the name of a sacred political mission.

My research on Nazism supports this conceptualization of political violence. In justifying the Final Solution, Heinrich Himmler declared, “We had the moral right, we had the duty to our own people, to kill these people who wanted to kill us.”

Acts of political violence are not simple acts of “aggression.” In most cases, there is an intervening variable, a “third object” that constitutes the raison d’etre for the violence.

In the Nazi case, violence was undertaken in the name of the German nation. It was not that Himmler hated Jews. Rather, he advocated and generated violent political acts in the name of and for the sake of Germany. He believed that it was his duty to perform these acts—to rescue the German people.

In the case of Bin Laden (see table to the right), one can readily perceive this structure of thought. Bin Laden seeks to perform acts of violence because he imagines he has been ordered to do so by Allah. Bin Laden feels he is acting as Allah’s delegate.

Again and again in Bin Laden’s writings and interviews, the term “duty” appears. As Himmler believed he had a duty to kill Jews (in the name of Germany), so Bin Laden believed he had a duty to kill infidels (in the name of Allah).

The purpose of jihad is to “please God.” Addressing Moslems, Bin Laden says that killing and fighting have been “prescribed for us.” The killing of Jews and Americans is “one of the greatest duties.”

It is not that Bin Laden likes or enjoys violence:

Killing and fighting have been prescribed for us by God, who says in his holy book, “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you love a thing which is bad for you. But God knoweth and ye know not.”

Even if one dislikes violence, still it is “prescribed” and “good for you.”

Violence is good because it is the vehicle for killing infidels—in order to rescue the sacred object. It is the duty of Moslems, according to Bin Laden, to destroy non-believers. This is the only way to “repel the infidels.”

At the core of political violence is a psychological stance of submission. Bin Laden seems “aggressive” to the victims of violence—who have not entered into his mind and belief system. What is not readily apparent is that the destructive acts he advocated were performed in the name of another object—an entity that had taken over his mind and body.

Bin Laden was possessed by his God—unable to resist acting in the name of the will of Allah. He imagined that Allah existed within him—and saw no alternative but to do his bidding. Acts of political violence constituted submission to the will of Allah.

What, then, is the meaning of “aggression”? Violent political acts have the purpose of compelling members of the “other” group to submit to the object to which members of one’s own group have submitted.

Bin Laden raged and waged war against “infidels”—seeking to punish people who had not submitted to Allah (as he had). Hitler and Himmler waged war against and sought to punish those whom (they imagined) refused to submit to Germany (as they had). As the true believer has submitted to a sacred object, so does he expect everyone else to do so.

Richard A. Koenigsberg, PhD: (718) 393-1081