New Internationalist

Why?

Issue 370

Psychotherapist Robert M Young examines the motives for religious extremism.

In the 1920s the term ‘fundamentalism’ was first coined to refer to the Protestant denominations and sects in the US who advocated the return to what they claimed were the ‘fundamentals’ of their faith.

They believed that the Bible should be taken literally, that it was dictated by the hand of God, that morality was to be strictly adhered to, and that Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicted Holy Scripture and should never be taught in the schools. They were profoundly conservative and hated pluralism, materialism, relativism and libertinism of all kinds.

The term fundamentalism has been taken up and applied widely to tendencies in other religions which have agendas which overlap with those of the original Protestant movement but have other agendas, as well. For example, that the Qur’an or the Torah is the perfect and inspired word of God to be taken as such and followed literally.

What motivates these people? Different things in different cases, of course. Some, like US rednecks, Palestinians and Afghans, have been displaced, impoverished and persecuted by new economic and political developments such as the mechanical cotton-picker, the Israelis, the Russians, or globalization. The spread of US power and popular culture is often a key motivation – Osama Bin Laden hates the presence of American soldiers on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia as deeply as he hates the hegemony of Israelis in the Holy Land.

I think the widest generalization embracing the emotional basis of fundamentalism is the fear of annihilation of a way of life. This unites the impoverished and immiserated suicide bombers in Israel with the Saudis who adhere to the traditional Wahabi Muslim sectarianism from which al-Qaeda draws nourishment. This accounts for the presence of the relatively well-off among the perpetrators of the attacks of 9-11. The annals of those who oppose established orders in the name of a rigid faith are full of people who were economically prosperous but – arguably – psychologically threatened and damaged.

Stirring the lower depths

Freud has a motto on the frontispiece of his masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) that I think sums up how fundamentalism links to terrorism at both a social and individual level: ‘If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up the lower depths,’ it goes.

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion takes us into those lower depths to the most primitive psychological defences of all: defences against psychotic anxieties that arise in the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’ positions. These are two fundamental stances in the psychic lives of us all.

In the paranoid-schizoid position we indulge in extreme splits between, for example, love and hate, good and evil, us and them. We treat others not as full humans but as part-objects; we indulge in hostile accusation and attribute guilt in a brittle, punitive way. Messrs Bush, Cheney, Sharon and Bin Laden are among the most striking current exemplars of this way of thinking.

The concept of Satan is useful for those who routinely adopt this position. According to theologian Elaine Pagels, Satan is a projection. He expresses the quality of going beyond lust and anger and to brutality. This is familiar territory for psychotherapists: we humans project unconscious feelings on to others and blame them for what we want to disown in ourselves.

In less dramatic ways we are all in this psychological position a considerable part of the time, though it is better to be in the other position, the depressive one. This is characterized by being able to occupy the middle ground, to experience life as a difficult mixture of good and evil, changing friends and foes. Here we treat others as whole objects of feelings, not fragments, and we associate guilt with the drive to make reparation and thus hold on to civility. Each of us will have his or her exemplars of this way of being. I suggest Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan.

In her study of fundamentalism, The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong tells us that fundamentalisms all follow a certain pattern.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these “fundamentals” so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back and attempt to re-sacralize an increasingly sceptical world.’

There are, of course, various forms of fundamentalism around, but Karen Armstrong suggests that they have certain common features – common fears, anxieties and desires – and that they share a reaction against scientific and secular culture. This is certainly true of Protestant fundamentalism in the US and the Muslim fundamentalism implicated in recent events. Armstrong concludes that the sacred texts they put in place of modernism ‘materialize the transcendent and give absolute value to a purely human policy’.

Unbearable uncertainty

When people feel under threat they simplify; in a reduced state people cannot bear uncertainty.

To simplify, in psychoanalytic terms is to regress, to eliminate the middle ground, to split, dividing the world into safe and threatening, good and evil, life and death. To be a fundamentalist is to see the world perpetually in such terms and to cling to certainties drawn from sacred texts or the pronouncements of charismatic leaders.

The baby whose needs are not met blames the mother/carer who has not provided or who has removed what she or he needs and is experienced as abandoning or withholding. She or he feels attacked, as it were, by lack or hunger, and wants to retaliate. Life’s experiences activate primitive reactions, leading us to rationalize and project our unconscious fantasies on to the world in the hope of assuaging them and getting control over what threatens us.

It is tempting to defend oneself from feeling so abject by becoming, in fantasy, the opposite and attaining a position of complete self-sufficiency or certainty. Osama Bin Laden’s father died when he was still a boy; his mother, not one of the father’s main wives, was looked down upon. The young Hitler had an unhappy childhood and was a failed painter. ‘I am nobody and am sure of nothing’ becomes ‘I am powerful and sure about everything: it is in the book’. If fundamentalists were really sure they would not have to be so intolerant.

People who feel threatened in this way suffer from fantasies of annihilation. They defend themselves against these psychotic anxieties with rigid views. They lose the ability to imagine the inner worlds and the humanity of others. Compassion and concern for the object evaporate, and brittle feelings of blaming and destructiveness predominate. They act out. Where acting out is, thought is not. And terrorism is, of course, a very dramatic form of acting out. The religious fundamentalist who blows up a trainload of people going to work in the morning is operating at the extreme end of killing in ‘a higher cause’. Their hatred enables them to act out unconscious fantasies.

Many commentators have observed that as modernism takes hold throughout the world, Islamic culture is forced into a defensive mode.

In the West we tend to think that assimilation into Western culture might bring Islamic fundamentalists around, temper their zeal. But, according to Andrew Sullivan writing in the New York Times Magazine, the opposite is the case: ‘The temptation of American and Western culture – indeed, the very allure of such culture – may well require a repression all the more brutal if it is to be overcome.’

Remember stories of the 9-11 suicide bombers sitting pool-side in Florida, or racking up a wvodka tab in an American restaurant, or soliciting prostitutes in Boston the day before their mission.

Sullivan goes on to say: ‘There is little room in the fundamentalist psyche for a moderate accommodation. The very psychological dynamics that lead repressed homosexuals to be viciously homophobic or that entice sexually tempted preachers to inveigh against immorality are the same dynamics that lead vodka-drinking fundamentalists to steer planes into buildings. It is not designed to achieve anything, construct anything, or argue anything. It is a violent acting out of internal conflicts.’

Precarious pit

But that does not reduce the weight of external political and social provocations, insensitivities and injustices. And it certainly does not let the West off the hook morally.

As the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman points out, we do not know ‘the precarious pit of everyday fear’. Nor have we had our culture assaulted by one that defiles our customs and values or had our sacred lands used as staging places for the armies of people who do not share our beliefs, as the Saudis have. Nor have we been the victims of geopolitical arrangements solely designed to secure raw materials, such as oil, for richer countries.

Western leaders did not ask ‘Why?’ in the wake of the 11 September attacks and they have not done much soul-searching since. Instead Bush said: ‘The forces of evil have chosen to destroy us, because we are good.’

We are, it appears, blind to the immiseration of peoples throughout the world to which we either contribute or at least turn a blind eye. Yet we are surprised by the retaliation it evokes. How else can we explain why young people flock to al-Qaeda and queue up to be Palestinian suicide bombers, in search of an idealized reason for living and dying?

Of course, we can continue to fail or inadequately address the basic causes of human miseries which could be ameliorated. Then the motor of hatred and revenge will continue to run. Or we can try to understand and address the causes of fundamentalism and terrorism – especially the historical, economic, cultural and political grievances. This would allow us to promote moderation while assuaging the pain and misery which bring forth oversimplification, hatred and violence in our fellow humans.

Robert M Young is a US-born psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London and co-editor of the human-nature.com website, where his writings are available.

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