Blood that cries out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism

James Jones: Blood that cries out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-533597-2

Reviewed by Richard A. Koenigsberg  

Professor James Jones of Rutgers University

James Jones seeks to understand Islamic terrorism as a form of sacrificial behavior undertaken in the name of a religious ideology and community. Citing Ivan Strenski, he observes that suicide bombers are regarded as “sacred” by their communities of reference—as sacrificial victims. A Palestinian militant stated that it is when a bomber gives his life that he earns the most respect and is “elevated to the highest level of martyrdom.” The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered the use of terrorism as a political methodology. They described their call to suicide bombings by a word that means “to give oneself” and conceived of their violent actions as a “gift of the self.” In joining the Tamil Tigers, one took an oath that the “only promise is I am prepared to give everything I have, including my life. It is an oath to the nation.”

Whether it is for a Palestinian homeland or a Tamil homeland or to defend the religion of Islam, the human bomber is willing to give himself (or herself) over—to sacrifice his or her life—in the name of an object or entity imagined to be “higher” and more significant than the self: a God, community or nation. What manifests and is called an act of violence or aggression by the outside observer—is understood by the terrorist as an act of martyrdom or sacrifice. Destructive acts are conceived as a form of devotion to a sacred object.

In the case of Islamic radicals, the object or entity motivating acts of sacrificial violence is Allah. A leader of Hamas stated:

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. This can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah.

This passage suggests that terroristic acts are undertaken in order to win the love of God. The suicide bomber is a martyr who acts in order to “win Allah’s satisfaction.” We are in the domain—once again—of“Killing in the Name of Love.”

Jones states that at the heart of religious fanaticism lies the desire for an “experience of union with a transcendental or divine reality.” Jones observes that this desire for the experience of transcendental union with God, however, is fundamental in “virtually every religion.” What is unique to terrorists is the linkage of the desire for spiritual reunion with violence; especially the “violence of sacrificial killing or apocalyptic purification.” What turns spiritual longing into terrorist action, Jones suggests is the “linking of a well-nigh universal and powerful desire” (for union with a divine reality) with the idea of “bloody sacrifice and purification through violence.”

If the desire for spiritual unification with God is fundamental to all religions—but does not usually lead to violence—how are we to understand those instances when this desire does lead to violence? Jones poses this question as follows: Why is the spilling of blood (among certain religious fanatics) experienced as necessary for redemption?

Jones hypothesizes that violent religious actions are linked to a particular “image of God,” namely that of a “vengeful, punitive and overpower patriarchal divine being.” The believer who engages in acts of violence, Jones says, is relating to an omnipotent being who “appears to will the believer’s destruction.” This punitive God must be “appeased and placated.” In the face of such a God, the believer must “humiliate and abject himself.”

Jones concludes that terroristic violence revolves around the following dynamic: an image of God as wrathful and punitive, the insistence of “purification at any cost,” and belief in the necessity of “bloody sacrifices.” It is the relationship of the religious fanatic to a wrathful, punitive God that compels him or her to perform violent, sacrificial acts.

It is plausible that—if one were to penetrate the mind of a terrorist on a deep, psychological level—one might discover that the God that requires sacrificial violence is imagined as a “punitive and overpowering, patriarchal being.” Psychoanalysis of individuals who perform acts of terror might enable one to discover that their minds are dominated by the image of an “omnipotent being that must be appeased and placated.” However, based on the documentation that is available to us, there is no evidence that violent religious actors experience God in this way.

On the contrary, as Ruth Stein discovered, terroristic behavior often grows out of love: the “mystical longing for merger with the idealized other.” Looking at acts of suicidal terrorism from the perspective of an outsider, the behavior of the terrorist might be viewed as submissive and abject. However, the suicide bomber does not conceive of his behavior in these terms. Rather, he believes he is carrying out the wishes of a benevolent God.

Jones’ characterization of the God to which the Islamic terrorist is devoted—as vengeful and punitive—does not correspond to how the radical Islamist views Allah. What’s more, terrorists do not see themselves as submissive, abject or humiliated. From the perspective of the ideology of jihad, it is precisely the desire and willingness of the terrorist to submit to Allah—to abandon his own will for God’s—that makes him honorable. Submission is not conceived as a form of humiliation, but as martyrdom or noble sacrifice.

So the question becomes: How are we to understand the relationship between a God that is beloved, on the one hand, and a God that requires violent sacrificial acts, on the other? What is the relationship between one’s love for God and the willingness to submit to God—perform sacrificial acts in His name? When speaking of violent, sacrificial acts, shall we say that the believer has martyred and given a gift of himself or that he has become abject and humiliated himself?

In committing acts of violence in the name of an entity conceived as greater than the self, is one engaged in a noble act of sacrifice? Or is one “appeasing a vengeful, punitive, and overpowering being”? The terrorist views his behavior as honorable and noble. How does this self-image jibe with Jones’ understanding of violent terrorism as a manifestation of abject submission and self-humiliation?

1 Comment

Filed under military strategy, suicide bombing, terrorism, world events & processes

One response to “Blood that cries out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism

  1. Wonderful ideas – I was listening you from South Africa – thank you

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