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Understanding Religious Terrorism

James W. Jones is Professor of Religion and Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology, at Rutgers University. His book, Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism, looks at what makes ordinary people evil. Jones argues that not every adherent of an authoritarian group will turn to violence, and he shows how theories of personality development can explain why certain individuals are easily recruited to perform terrorist acts. In the article below Jones argues that understanding people who turn towards terrorism is the first step to halting their violent acts. Check out Jones’s webpage here.

How much do we really know about terrorism? The short answer is “a lot” and “a very little.” “Terrorism” — as the cliché about one person’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter suggests — is more often used as an epithet or a bit of propaganda than a category useful for understanding. There is general agreement that terrorism is not an end in itself or a motivation in itself (except perhaps for a few genuinely psychotic individual lone wolves). No movement is only a terrorist movement; its primary character is more likely political, economic, or religious. Terrorism is a tactic, not a basic type of group.

The first step in clarifying this topic of “understanding terrorism” is to become clear about the purpose of our attempts to understand terrorism. Part of the confusion over the understanding of terrorism results from the more basic confusion of not knowing what we want our explanations of terrorism to do for us. Before we undertake to “explain” terrorism, we should be clear as to what we want this “explanation” to accomplish? Many hope that understanding terrorism will help predict future terrorist actions. Others hope that it will help devise effective counter-terrorism strategies. Will a psychological, or political, or military, or religious understanding of religious terrorism aid in those goals?

I know from my work in forensic psychology that predicting violent behavior in any specific case is very, very complicated and very rarely successful. And dramatic acts of violence that change the course of history — the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that lit the match on the conflagration of World War I, the taking hostage of the American embassy in the Iranian revolution, the 9/11 attack — are rarely predictable. We can list some of the characteristics of religious groups that turn to violence and terror. I have studied some of the themes common to Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist groups that have turned to terror. We can also outline the steps that individuals and groups often go through in becoming committed to violent actions. The NYPD has done exactly that in a recent study. But I remain skeptical that any model will enable us to predict with any certainty when specific individuals or groups may turn to terrorism. There are warning signs we should be aware of. But these are signs, not determinants or predictors.

As for counter-terrorism, it is an important strategic principal that one should know one’s enemy. We succeeded in containing the expansiveness of the former Soviet Union in part because we had a detailed and nuanced understanding of the Soviet system. Understanding some of what is at stake religiously and spiritually for religious groups that engage in terrorism can help devise ways of countering them. So a religious-psychological understanding of religious terrorists’ motivations can be an important part of the response to them.

In the months following 9/11 I often heard demagogues on the radio say that psychologists (like me) who seek to understand the psychology behind religiously motivated violence simply want to “offer the terrorists therapy.” The idea that one must choose either understanding or action — that one cannot do both — is an idea that itself borders on the pathological and represents the kind of dichotomizing that is itself a part of the terrorist mindset. Such dichotomized thinking, wherever it occurs, is a part of the problem and not part of the solution. I worked for two years in the psychology department at a hardcore, maximum security prison. But I never thought of that as a substitute for just and vigorous law enforcement. Understanding an action in no way means excusing it; explaining an action in no way means condoning it.

There is, however, a deeper issue here. Understanding others (even those who will your destruction) can make them more human. It can break down the demonization of the other that some politicians and policy makers feel is necessary in order to combat terrorists. The demonization of the other is a major weapon in the arsenal of the religiously motivated terrorist. Must we resort to the same tactic – which is so costly psychologically and spiritually – in order to oppose terrorism? Or can we counter religiously motivated terrorists without becoming like them?

Recent Comments

  1. Un-bonding

    Dr. Jones, (or others)

    Can you comment, please on:

    (1) the parallels between terrorism, genocide, and femicide? Both of these target individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of the us/them dichotomy.


    (2) on what basis a secular understanding can save lives if it has the same us/them mentality about faiths that the “faiths” do about each other?

    The real dichotomy is between faith and practice, whether of theology or law.

    I say this as degreed in music and theology, both of which entail “practice.”

    I hope to be around for that discussion, and to read your book, but am struggling with how to safely finish divorcing a man that battered me in the name of his god and male-ness; and currently he has my kids.

    Violence shatters all reason. It should not cost a woman her life or her children (or her livelihood) in the process of leaving a man in order to save her life and her children. But it does.

    This is sanitized and rationalized in courts of law with as much messianic self-righteousness as in the churches that won’t address it either, and it’s spiritually and emotionally sickening.

    So I ask, who is looking at the PROFIT motive as well as the basic human instincts of lust for power, and greed. You’ve mentioned the psychological and theological views of society. How about simple profit/loss? (The pelican brief, anyone?) WHo profits from others’ dysfunctions whereas it ought to be, mutual proftits from exchanges of goods?

    Behind closed doors is where these things happen. I’m talking in courts, schools, churches, mosques, and families.

    I hope to be around for the discussion, but right now am struggling still with the same issues – the fallout from domestic violence, my sense of multiple betrayals, and working to utilize the core of my faith to continue to work virtual miracles, while trying to adjust my loss of “faith” in the legal systems that should’ve stood firm (and been enforced fairly) where it wasn’t. In looking closer at this, it takes personal morality to not look the other way, or even not to lie in court.

    THe enforcement of the laws that are to protect having failed, I am brought again (and enriched) back to basic faith in a god that hears, knows, and sees when others do not. And in the analogy (for those who do not believe it literally) of a christ who took the rap for speaking truth, and for hugging lepers, noticing women, and pointing out that he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone. APpropriately, it seems, the woman (not two people) caught in adultery was about to be stoned.

    There’s a wisdom in that, it seems to me. I could at least attempt to follow in the footsteps of such a leader.

    You just heard from a woman who hasn’t seen one child in a year and a half, can’t practice her former profession for the trauma of how this happened, And is unsure whether the next round (of my attempt at justice) is going to get someone hurt, or herself homeless. And had better believe in a resurrection if she’s going to go a few more rounds of this.

    If “we” are going to continue as an imperialistic nation (and it seems to be the course), “we” are going to need an educational system and a culture that will erode self-sufficiency, maturity, basic compassion, and the ability to reason. Case in point, it’s here.

    (Lord have mercy…)

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