Spiritual Ambiguities

Living on the boundary of psychology and religion.

Sacred Terror: How Religion Makes Terrorism Worse

A sense of the sacred transforms movements in dangerous ways.


Abu Bakr Ba'asyir, alleged leader of Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, the group responsible for several bombings including the Bali nightclub said "The aim of jihad is to look for blessing from Allah."

The Rev. Paul Hill, who shot and killed a physician and a body guard in front of a women's health clinic in the United States, wrote from prison "I continued to lift up my heart to the Lord, thankful for success. I had not failed in my errand and He had not failed me. The Lord had done great things through me...Soon I was alone in a large, one man cell and could direct all my praise and thanks to the Lord. I repeatedly sang a song...'Our God is an Awesome God': He is..[I] never cease[d] rejoicing in the Lord for all He had done. "

After the Madrid train bombing, the perpetrators issued a statement in which they said, "We choose death as a path to life while you chose life that is a path to death."

All these examples, and there are many, many more, indicate that religiously motivated terrorists experience their violent commitments as a form of spiritual striving: they act in the name of the divine, their goals reflect an ultimate purpose and a concern with ethics, they seek to experience a divine reality in their actions; by giving themselves to a greater cause, they transcend the self and seek an integration with a greater reality. As much as those outside their movements may regard them as evil and criminal, in their eyes through violence and killing they are seeking the highest moral and spiritual goods-the sacred community, the purification of the human race, the kingdom of justice and righteousness, immortality, and union with God.

What does this have to do with psychology? A series of studies on the psychological impact of considering an activity as sacred, found that those who denote a facet of life as sacred place a higher priority on that aspect of life, invest more energy in it, and derive more meaning from it than happens with things not denoted as sacred. Denoting something as sacred appears to have significant emotional and behavioral consequences, maybe even if that something is the jihad or ending abortion and turning America into a Biblical theocracy, or restoring the boundaries of Biblical Israel, or purifying the Hindu homeland, or converting the Tamils to Buddhism.

Studies also find that sacred values and ultimate concerns take precedence over more finite concerns.
The leader of Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia said "Jihad is more important than making the hajj... There is no better deed than jihad. None. The highest deed in Islam is jihad. If we commit to jihad, we can neglect other deeds."

The Rev. Paul Hill told his followers, "we must use all the means necessary ...this duty comes directly from God and cannot be removed by any human government...It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of maintaining the eternal and immutable principles of the Moral Law..."

A young Somali man who was part of a cohort who left the United States to join El Shabaab in Somalia, at least one of whom died in a suicide bombing, said of his colleagues, "if it was just nationalism, they could give money. But religion convinced them to sacrifice their whole life."

For the religiously motivated terrorist, acts of violence in the name of God become "ultimate concerns," that is they take precedence over any more mundane commitments. As ultimate, sacred concerns, these acts take on an over-powering, transcendental necessity for the believer. In the eyes of their proponents such "acts of terror" become a spiritual necessity. Love of and duty to family must not stand in the way of duty to God or to the sacred land. No secondary commitments must be allowed to interfere with commitment to Jihad, to the "unborn," to Greater Israel, to Hindutva. Thus sacred terror is non-negotiable terror. It is no wonder that research finds that counterterrorism interventions that threaten or seek to bargain with religiously motivated terrorists only evoke greater scorn and rage: asking someone to trade their ultimate values for financial gain or greater political power is universally understood as the voice of the devil. A crucial point to remember in formulating any counter-terrorism policy.

My point is not that sacred terror, or any religious behavior, is only motivated by sacred strivings and goals. Of course not. My point is rather that this research suggests that when a goal or striving or movement takes on the patina of the sacred, that changes it in significant ways. There is much research being done now on how people are recruited into terrorist movements through naturally occurring groups: neighborhood and family connections, sports teams, internet chat rooms. But once the cause gets sanctified, once it moves from the family gathering or the soccer league or the online discussion into the realm of sacred values and ultimate concerns it changes. Even if terrorists are recruited primarily through natural groups, once their cause gets sanctified, it is transformed.

Likewise with the classic motivations for terrorist action like politics, ethnicity and nationalism. Once the nation, the land, the race takes on an ultimate status, it is no longer simple politics or group pride. Actions done in the name of the nation, the land, the race become absolute, ultimate, sanctified as the examples of the Hindu Nationalist Party (the BJP), or the Settler Movement in Israel or the Aryan Nations or the Nazis all show. They are not just politics cloaked in religious dress, they have entered the realm of ultimate concerns.

The research on the psychology of sacred values, spiritual strivings, and sanctification underscores some of the crucial ways that contemporary religious terrorism differs from previous ethno-nationalistic and politically revolutionary terrorism. It is not simply the same old terrorism with a different motivation or rhetoric. We must recognize that in the case of jihadis, Christian Identity Soldiers, Hindu nationalists and Israeli settlers seeking the ethno-religious purification of their country, apocalyptic Christians awaiting the rapture and hungering for Armageddon, Sri Lankan and South Asian Buddhists seeking to forcefully convert or suppress their non-Buddhist minorities, evoking and invoking the sacred transforms these movements in potentially dangerous ways.

 James W. Jones, Psy.D., Ph.D., Th.D., is a Professor of Religion, Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology, Rutgers University.

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