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Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

The Uses of Religious Outrage

When volatile motives mix

The last time I looked, mob attacks on embassies in the Middle East had spread to 30 countries, with four diplomats murdered in Benghazi, Libya and some skirmishers dead as well. You know the usual explanation. The rampages were protesting a crudely propagandistic film, "Innocence of Muslims," that deliberately insulted Islam. The rampage behavior is worth considering here because it raises questions about how we use forces that seem to be beyond our control to explain and justify own our motives.

Trauma and berserk fury, for instance, seem to override self-control. Likewise, for better or worse, the deep passions of religion, love, and Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" can seem to be absolute imperatives. The problem is that we can only think about such things by interpreting them. Trauma, say, is an injury that is also an interpretation of an injury. Your ideas about your experience shape how you feel. And you may use the idea of trauma too—as an explanatory tool, say, or as a claim to compensation. Your suffering may be real, but it's affected by how you regard it. Even psychosis has an element of interpretation in the experience.[1] This is true as well of religion, which is one reason religions have priests and theologians.

Just to be clear: as critics, we don't have enough evidence to judge the ultimate truth of any particular religion. The suffering and injustice in the world—the agony of a child dying of brain cancer, say—challenges all theologies. Which is one reason why the world's religions speak of "faith." And to complicate matters, the world's religions exist in all sorts of variants and incompatible interpretations. Like Ulster Protestants and Catholics, Shia and Sunni Muslims have at times been deadly adversaries. In Afghanistan the Taliban exploded the Buddhas of Bamiyan; in northern Mali, Al-Qaeda-in-the-Maghreb insurgents have demolished ancient shrines in Timbuktu. Militants have persecuted "impure" Sufis.

What we can think about is religious behavior. Among other things, we can explore the ways people handle the question of control. In religious rampages, participants claim to be guided or commanded by a sacred authority, yet they may be acting out roles such as the righteous warrior hero that may be personally gratifying. Where does responsibility lie?

Consider the diplomatic murders in Benghazi Libya. Afterward, Wissam Buhmeid, the commander of the Tripoli government-sanctioned Libya's Shield Brigade, effectively a police force for Benghazi, insisted that the guards abandoned the diplomats to the mob because they believed "The deaths [of the diplomats] are all nothing compared to insulting the Prophet."[2] The chief ambiguously excuses the security force and the attackers with the claim that an insult to religion justifies vicious revenge. However, since the rampage may well have been a planned terrorist attack, and the dead envoys had nothing to do with the offensive film, the attack was murder and the security force either failed or was indirectly complicit. No wonder the commander invokes the familiar religious taboo. Whether or not the Prophet is insulted, the taboo serves him and the fleeing guards.

Whatever the security chief In Benghazi personally believes, he is presumably also using religion for personal—selfish—ends. Since Islam calls for the protection of innocents, his religious principle ("The deaths are all nothing") is potentially un-Islamic. What's more, through his formula, the representatives of law and order short-circuit all accountability. If religious "insult" is beyond any test, anyone could justify murder.

The chief's formula serves personal needs. For one thing. it turns flight into fight. Instead of feeling depressed and guilty about his failure to protect the victims, he invokes cosmic righteousness that would rationalize the murders. In fact his behavior is implicitly a threat display, since his formula could justify more murders. In practical terms, the formula's transcendent claims allow him to dominate the interview, mooting the journalist's questions.

In this perspective, outrage can be an enabling fiction opening up all sorts of possibilities. It can signal demands for recognition and justice. As threat display, it can intensify solidarity and personal resolve. Outrage fueled the great democratic revolutions and contributed to the abolition of slavery. That said, explosive conviction is as unpredictable as it is potent.

Not surprisingly, militant groups such as Pakistan's hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party used the contemptible film as a tool to rally adherents. In clashes with police, other Islamist groups, including Jamaat-u-Dawa and the al-Qaida linked militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba, raised their banners. Governments in the region have routinely used "insult" to shape public opinion. Critics sometimes view this as the creation of an "outrage industry." As sources from Al Jazeera to the Times have pointed out, radical Islamic groups have been using religion as a weapon in a struggle to capture political power.[3] This is the fatal combination of religious and political motives that in 1979 hijacked the Iranian deposition of the Shah on behalf of a clerical elite.

Crowds can supercharge emotions.[4] But while some protesters will be more focused than others, the copycat quality of the recent rampages tells us they've become a style.[5] Coached by leaders, the mob storms an embassy like a medieval castle. If they penetrate the perimeter, they score a victory akin to a football goal, setting fires and perhaps looting trophies. With global media watching, the attackers humiliate and symbolically kill the adversaries in their stronghold, combining tropes of warrior heroism and a sporting contest.

For the young men who are the main actors, religious outrage is a means of managing morale. If they've been activists, rampage allows them to keep warrior euphoria pumped up. The language of "insult" points to anxiety about honor and reputation—values historically strong in middle eastern cultures, as novelists such as the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz have described. Given the stress of unemployment and the unsatisfied expectations of the Arab spring, young men may welcome an outlet for frustration. But regimes also direct anger at external scapegoats, as the besieged Iranian regime has done in cynically reviving the 20-year-old call to assassinate author Salman Rushdie for "insults to Islam."

Religious outrage is often depicted as uniquely Islamic. Yet fewer than 100,000 of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims protested, and many Muslims disapprove of the violence. When a Pakistani cabinet minister put a bounty on the head of the anti-Islam filmmaker, a government official condemned the gesture. Nevertheless, Newsweek headlined "Muslim Rage" and some broadcasters pointed to "the Muslim world."[6] That is, we're looking at a system of mutual scapegoating.

It turns out that the underlying dynamics of insult rage are as widespread and familiar as the rageaholic talkshow on your radio dial. Rant broadcasting thrives on insult. The shows excite bracing rage that turns feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness into adrenalized potency. The payoff is not information but the put-down of a resented opponent, the more devastating the better. Shock jocks project insults to the listeners' values and self-esteem, then symbolically kill off the supposed villain. Believing liberals were "ruining" the country, one susceptible believer, the unemployed truck driver Jim Adkisson, opened fire on a "liberal" church congregation.

American politics is quick to exploit insults to self-esteem. Politicians whose real clients are the wealthy use the so-called culture wars to distract voters with inflammatory hot button social issues. They lambaste "educated elites" who supposedly denigrate working class "conservatives." In turn, Democrats pumped up outrage over presidential candidate Mitt Romney's insult to the 47 percent of Americans he caricatured as "entitlement" freeloaders.

It's useful to keep in mind that "insult" is symbolic killing. Satire—the fusion of criticism and laughter—originated as cursing: in the belief that language charged with magical power can injure or kill enemies.[7] Conjuring and ritual incantation, for example, use devices such as repetition, rhythm, chant, and vows to rouse conviction toward action. Like magical imprecations, rampage style uses a range of techniques, from chanted slogans to scapegoat effigies, to inflame intoxicating rage. Everybody is susceptible to magical thinking—the belief that thoughts can change things in the physical world. Today the witchcraft spells and exorcisms of centuries past are conditioned by skepticism and irony. But they are still with us in certain religious practices as well as in pseudo-documentaries on television. For the most part they are style rather than "real" rage; vicarious threat display rather than shootouts; rhetoric rather than magical words. But the ambiguities are not to be underestimated.

When self-esteem feels acutely threatened, it undermines the ground of identity. The outcome can be panic or madness. Consider how the September 11 terrorists calculated the World Trade Center attack as a maximum insult to American prestige, and how the resulting distress drove the geopolitical rampage of the Bush presidency, with the invasions of oil-rich Iraq and Afghanistan, the expansion of domestic surveillance, and the alarming defense of torture. The climate of hostility toward Islam and the expanded US military presence in the middle-east—now routinely dubbed an American "empire"—has arguably contributed to outrage culture in the region. No less grotesquely, it may well have inadvertently sharpened the anti-Islamic fixation of the provocateurs behind the film "Innocence of Muslims."

When people run amok, the power of reason is limited but still at work. To some extent people are always using rage, whether they realize it or not. So it makes sense to keep negotiating. After all, use implies more strategic self-awareness than may at first meet the eye. To be sure, the passions go deep. Rampage entails real or symbolic killing, but it's underside is death-anxiety. After all, an "insult" to your religion is a disturbing reminder that not everyone shares your belief. You could be wrong about your faith and therefore unprotected, a frightening thought.

But this is by no means just a theological matter. From infancy we use culture and each other to develop a core conviction of "what is right." It's the ground of personality: how we're built. It allows you to feel that your life has lasting significance in spite of inescapable death. So, as Otto Rank put it, "Every conflict over truth is in the last analysis just the same old struggle over . . . immortality." Adds Ernest Becker, "If anyone doubts this, let him try to explain in any other way the life-and-death viciousness of all ideological disputes. Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance . . . . No wonder men go into a rage over fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die."[8]

In the real world of course "fine points of belief" can have life-or-death consequences. Therefore it's useful to think of insult rampage as a shouting match that would be healthier as a conversation. That would require a willingness to explore conflicts that denial screens out—no easy matter, because rage has its satisfactions as well as tragic drawbacks. Washington has screened television ads in Pakistan in which President Obama assures viewers of American respect for Islam. Advertising may seem a tawdry approach to conversation, but it has the virtue of personalizing abstractions and thereby creating some resistance to runaway emotions.

The Islamic middle-east is weathering a storm of change, but the turbulence isn't isolated there. Although American embassies are opportune scapegoats for local grievances and ambition, they are also signs of a nation that has all too often preached democracy while supporting dictators and instigating economically tainted shock and awe invasions. The world is continually adapting to new realities, and who among us doesn't need to know thyself?

One of these days we can give some thought to irony: a style of thinking that copes with the slings, arrows, and overwhelmingness of modernity by deliberately saying what's not true—and winking. But that's a story for another day, further up river, around another bend in da Nile.


1. Carrie Arnold, "At Risk for Psychosis?" Scientific American, Oct. 13. 2011.


Also Rachel Aviv, "Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevents?" Harper's Magazine, December, 2010.

2. Kim Sengupta, "Revealed: inside story of US envoy's assassination," The Independent (UK), 9.14.12. <<…

3. Hamid Dabashi, "Cairo, Benghazi and Beyond: Beware the False Fury,"

Al Jazeera English, September 14, 2012.

4. The most penetrating study of crowd psychology remains Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power (1962).

5. For more on the function of style, see the previous blog post, "The New Rampage Mentality."

6. Peter Hart, "Quantifying 'Muslim Rage,'" ˆCommon Dreams (9.22.2012).


7. Robert C. Elliott, The Power of Satire (Princeton, 1960).

8. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York, 1975), 64.