Why Does Religion Turn Violent? (Part II)
by James Jones
Part II of James Jones’ paper (condensed and edited) appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
For a complete list of Library of Social Science’s essays and papers, please click here.
James W. Jones, PsyD, Ph.D., Th.D.,is a Professor of Religion and an Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology, Rutgers University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow, Center on Terrorism, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a licensed clinical psychologist.
Book by James Jones
Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism

Oxford U. Press (2012)

The theme of sacrifice often appears central in the larger religious context from which “human bombers” emerge. For example, the leader of the 9/11 attacks called on his comrades to “purify your soul from all blemishes” and spoke to them of “offering sacrifices and obedience” in “these last hours” (Atta, n.d., Last Letter, discussed later in this paper). There he also refers to those whom they will kill as animals being ritually sacrificed. It underscores the sacrificial, that is to say, religious, nature of these actions. The terrorist is sacrificing both himself and his victim.

In reference to this theme of sanctification by self-sacrifice, Strenski (2003) writes that “The ‘human bombers’ are regarded as ‘sacred’ by their communities of reference. They have been ‘made holy’ in the eyes of the community that ‘accepts’ them and their deed. They are elevated to lofty moral, and indeed, religious levels, as sacrificial victim themselves or as kinds of holy saints”. For example, Hassan (2001) reports that in Palestinian neighborhoods:

Calendars are illustrated with the “martyr of the month.” Paintings glorify the dead bombers in Paradise, triumphant beneath a flock of green birds. The symbol is based on a saying of the prophet Mohammad that the soul of a martyr is carried to Allah in the bosom of the green birds of paradise.

A biography of a martyr tells of how his soul was borne upward on a fragment of a bomb. [An imam] explained that the first drop of blood shed by a martyr during jihad washes away his sins instantaneously. On the Day of Judgment, he will face no reckoning. On the Day of Resurrection, he can intercede for several of his nearest and dearest to enter Heaven.”

Scholars familiar with the hagiographic traditions of the world’s religions will see many common themes here—for example, the images of Christian saints and Buddhist Bodhisattvas borne up to paradise and ensconced in the highest heavens where, purified and sinless, they can intercede for others. By their offering and sacrifice, the human bombers and other martyrs have indeed become holy. A Palestinian militant said, “It is attacks when a member gives his life that earn the most respect and elevate the bombers to the highest possible level of martyrdom” (Post et al., 2003).

Likewise, the Tamil Tigers describe their suicide bombings in Sri Lanka by a word that means “to give oneself.” Their actions are “a gift of the self.” In joining the Tigers one takes an oath in which “the only promise is I am prepared to give everything I have, including my life. It is an oath to the nation” (Strenski, 2003). A Palestinian questioned by Post and his colleagues angrily rejected their appellation of suicide and told them, “This is not suicide. Suicide is selfish, it is weak, it is mentally disturbed. This is istishad (martyrdom or self-sacrifice in the service of Allah)”.

That “martyrdom operations” are understood by their participants as religious acts is made clear by the rituals that surround them. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 terrorists, left for posterity a letter, the major themes of which are obedience, prayer, union with God, and sacrifice. Atta calls on his comrades to engage in devotions as preparation for their mission:

Remember the words of Almighty God. Remind yourself of the supplications. Bless your body with some verses from the Qur’an. Pray the morning prayer in a group and ponder the great rewards of that prayer. Make supplications afterward, and do not leave your apartment unless you have performed ablution before leaving. Read the words of God. (Atta, n.d., Last Letter)

Such religious ritualizing was not unique to the 9/11 cell; it is a normal and crucial part of the human bomber’s mission:

Just before the bomber sets out on his final journey, he performs a ritual ablution, puts on clean clothes, and tries to attend at least one communal prayer at a mosque. He says the traditional Islamic prayer that is customary before battle, and asks Allah to forgive his sins and bless his mission. He puts a Koran in his left breast pocket, above the heart, and he straps the explosives around his waist or picks up briefcase or a bag containing the bomb.

The planner bids him farewell with the words, “May Allah be with you, may Allah give you success so that you achieve Paradise.” The would-be martyr responds, “Inshallah, we will meet in Paradise.” Hours later, as he presses the detonator, he says, “Allahu akbar”— “Allah is great. All praise to Him.”

Atta’s letter goes on to stress the need for continual supplication throughout the 9/11 hijacking and the assurance of divine protection, favor, and reward: “Everywhere you go, say that prayer and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers. And the angels will protect you without you feeling anything,” Atta writes to his comrades. There are few references in his letter to anger or revenge: rather, the driving motivation is reunion with God.

The letter makes it clear that the terrorists were not seeking political or social goals but rather that they “are heading toward eternal paradise.” A leader of Hamas said “Love of martyrdom is something deep inside the heart. But these rewards are not in themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah’s satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah” (Hassan, 2001).

The same attitude emerges from an interview with a Palestinian suicide bomber who survived a failed attempt and a gun battle with Israeli troops. Like Atta he describes his preparation for his “martyrdom operation” as a spiritual discipline.

We were in a constant state of worship. We told each other that if the Israelis only knew how joyful we were they would whip us to death. Those were the happiest days of my life. We were floating, swimming, in the feeling that we were about to enter eternity. We had no doubts. We had made on oath on the Koran, in the presence of Allah. I know there are other ways to do jihad. But this one is sweet—the sweetest. All martyrdom operations, if done for Allah’s sake, hurt less than a gnat’s bite.

On a similar note, the killer of a doctor outside a family planning clinic in the United States says he was comforted by reading the Psalms on his way to commit the murder. One of the perpetrators of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center is reported to have told a journalist that secular Americans will never understand why he did what he did because they miss “the soul. The soul of religion, that is what is missing”.

Hence, the 9/11 attacks were not a political act; they were a religious act. Therefore, the psychology involved here is that of religion. Although humiliation and relative deprivation clearly play a part in much of the terrorism in the Middle East, the usual sociological variables—poverty, lack of education, and the like—often appear to play little role and provide little predictive value. One of the best predictors is religiosity.

The Singapore Parliamentary report on captured members of terrorist cells in Southeast Asia emphasizes this connection: “These men were not ignorant, destitute, or disenfranchised. All 31 men had received secular education and held normal, respectable jobs. As a group, most of the detainees regarded religion as their most important personal value” (quoted in Atran, 2003).

Psychologically it is not the themes of sanctification or purification that are at issue. Rather, it is their linkage with violence and death that matters in the psychology of religiously motivated terrorism. This theme of sacrificing one’s self and one’s victim in order to sanctify or purify both becomes more and more prominent in Asahara’s religious rhetoric as Aum Shinrikyo turns more violent and Asahara seeks to justify the group’s murderous actions.

Since the human bombers are offering a religious sacrifice, Strenski (2003) argues, their actions are not primarily motivated by “a utilitarian or pragmatic calculus”. One important and perhaps unhappy practical conclusion of this situation is that it is mistake to seek to understand religiously motivated terrorists using the game theoretic or rational choice models so prominent in the social sciences these days.