t is for terrorism… with or without religion

I’m taking a class on the psychology of terrorism this semester. We’ve started by discussing the psychology of the terrorists; later we’ll discuss the victims. It has been… enlightening. It’s very much a practical application of things I’ve already learned about psychology, applied a way I hadn’t anticipated, but I understand.

Now, my poor reader, I’m subjecting you to what I’ve learned.

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First, addressing “normal” versus “abnormal”:

Our text, and our professor, has hypothesized (with, I admit, substantial evidence to support them) that terrorists are not afflicted with a psychopathology (mental illness); they are not abnormal.

Before we move on, let’s cover the definitions. For our purposes, “terrorists” are those people with the psychological and/or situational composition and content which allows or encourages them to act out terrorist events – or those events which are perpetrated specifically to  create mass fear.

Essentially, my professor’s argument is that because we – that’s the royal we – have not been able to find, in our research, any psychopathology in the mental state of terrorists, we must then assume that they are not abnormal. Rather, they are normal people who have acted in dramatically abnormal ways. Of course this flies in the face of all the ways the public at large hears about terrorists and their activities, but I’m really not concerned with public bias. I don’t disagree that “normal” people can be made to act extremely irrationally in ways that even are extremely violent or horrific (Nazi Germany, anybody?).

However, calling the minds of terrorists “normal” bothers me. Maybe it’s an emotional reaction rather than a rational reaction, and maybe I’m wrong. But I’m not convinced that terrorists are not abnormal. Statistically it is abnormal, and if we convince ourselves that a healthy mind is a normal mind (which I’m not sure I believe), then surely we do not want to say that the pathology of terrorism can be present in a healthy mind? Want might have nothing to do with it.

My rebuttal is this: if normal is healthy, and the psychology of a terrorist is unhealthy, then the psychology of a terrorist does not equal normal, and therefore is abnormal. But, if healthy is not the same as normal, then the relative healthiness of a terrorist’s mind is immaterial. If by normal we mean statistically in the majority, then terrorism (meaning the psychology thereof), which is statistically in the minority, is not normal, and therefore is abnormal.

I do think that normal and abnormal must be mutually exclusive, and compose the entirety of this particular continuum, in order for those terms to be valuable. However, I think that normal and abnormal each have subcategories. Within abnormality there is another spectrum, in my opinion, which contains everything from the most dangerous sociopaths to unusual but harmless (perhaps even healthy) outliers. Terrorists, I think, must exist somewhere in the abnormal spectrum. Perhaps they are not psychopaths, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are normal. It might not even mean they are healthy.

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Regardless, I believe the point my professor is trying to make is that whatever is ‘wrong’ with the mind of a terrorist, it isn’t something we can diagnose as a disorder; the problem is more likely a developmental weakness – a flaw in their development as a human being which is not a pathology, but a vulnerability to… whatever it is that leads them to act in such horrifying ways. And that seems very plausible to me. Likely, even.

First, then, it’s important to understand that an act of terrorism is a defensive  act, with an individual psychosocial motivation for which religion is only an excuse, not a cause. That’s right: religion, even fundamental religion, does not cause terrorism. We’re all familiar with the maxim ‘correlation is not causation,’ right? Well, adherence to a fundamental religious ideal is symptomatic of the same flaw that allows for the terrorist mindset. They are comorbid, if you will, but there is no evidence for a causal relationship between the two. Indeed, there’s not even a logical path toward evidence which might only suggest causation.

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I think it’s important here to separate religion and culture. Many of the things we westerners decry about Islam and not religiously-derived at all. The role of women is the most glaringly obvious example. Take the rural Saudis, for example. In their culture, they practice a pretty extreme (from our perspective) subjugation of women which manifests as a near-invisible role for those women. [Just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about the practice of wearing the hijab or vieling in any form; I’m talking about laws/rules/codes which prevent women from speaking, driving, or getting an education – things of that nature, which still a woman’s mind, not those which cover her face.]  Religious context is given in the defense of these practices, but they are not derived from religion; they began as cultural practices, which then got incorporated into their daily practice of Islam. Ok, so see how that makes the practices look religious? Yeah, I get that, but there are some logical issues with calling those practices religious. Let’s go beyond the cultural – not religious – origins of the practices in this debate, and look at the implications of all this.

We’d like to avoid painting all of Islam with one brush, right? If only because we don’t want somebody doing the same with our own religion. I’m certainly not the same as every other pagan in the way I practice, nor are all Christians the same, or Buddhists, etc. So we could call the religion of rural Saudis by a name which distinguishes them from other Islamic paths – something I’m fairly sure would upset them, for reasons that could comprise a whole nother post. Already, we’ve labeled that and similar Islamic variations as “fundamentalist,” and that’s the problem. Because the practices which make women invisible in the rural Saudi culture – to stick with one example – are not part of the fundamental nature of Islam. Those are cultural practices which have become integrated with their religious world view, in part because they have no separation between their religious worldview and their secular worldview. The two are unified, and anything which exists in one, also exists in the other – and that is a cultural phenomenon. More on that later.

I’d like to take this part of the conversation one step further. Imagine a “fundamentalist” from any other religion. I’ll pick Christianity, just because it’s the first that comes to my mind, and is probably the easiest to point out as an example. Around these parts (meaning, the western world), we all know somebody who’s a Christian. We probably know good people who are Christians, and bad people who are Christians. Neither are good or bad because they are Christians. Now, move that up a level: we know of cultures, now or in the past, in which the people are uniformly Christian. Still, both good and bad people existed. Now let’s think of some different sects of Christianity – everything from Pentecostals to orthodox Catholics to Congregationalists come to mind. Oh, can’t forget the Quakers. Which of those is fundamentalist, would you say? Which of those fundamentally  Christian? See the problem? What practices could we consider fundamentally Christian? If we defined fundamental Christianity as some do, it would be living in a way devoted to a literal interpretation of the Bible. So… polygamy, slavery, and concubines are cool, just don’t eat any shellfish, and you could be fundamentally Christian, too! Except, that many Christians, I think, would probably be offended by that evaluation of what it means, on a fundamental level, to be Christian. Likely, they would say it has more to do with being a good person than what you eat or who you screw. So there are issues with calling any one practice a sign of fundamental religion.

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Back to what I said about the unified world view – remember that? If a person doesn’t segregate the physical and the divine, if their deity is their reality, then does it really matter to them if their practices are cultural or religious? No, probably not, because everything  they do is related somehow to their religion. There is no separation. And that’s not inherently a bad thing. Hel, it would probably make a lot of people act a lot better if more of us thought that way. But that difference does  matter when we’re looking from the outside in, trying to figure out why people do bad things.

Imagine this – I’m summarizing here, because I just realized how long this post is – imagine there’s a person who learned to trust, but never learned to think autonomously (think Erik Erikson, if you’re into psychology), and somehow that person gets the approval and protection of a small group of people who create a womb-like social environment for that trusting, dependent person. That person would not need religion to encourage them to follow the group, particularly if that group came stocked with a charismatic leader somewhere in the ranks.

Now, picture that same person in an agrarian culture with a unified worldview, and put that culture under attack from modernization – everything that person knows is being challenged. The human response to that challenge is fear, which then instigates defensiveness. A cornered human, like any other animal, is likely to resort to violence.

Something to think on. I may do a part two to this post. For now, it’s plenty long enough.

What does this all mean? At the end of the day, it means that no one religion causes terrorism.

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