Why Do Religious Terrorist Martyrs say that they aim to kill the demons?

Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God makes a convincing case that the encouragement of people to become martyrs is a part of many religious systems. Martyrdom is the label that when applied to defeat and death, turns it into victory:

Overcoming defeat and humiliation is the point of war. The story of warfare explains why one feels for a time beaten and disgraced--that is part of the warrior’s experience. In cases of cosmic war, however, the final battle has not been fought. Only when it has can one expect triumph and pride. Until that time, the warrior struggles on, often armed only with hope. Our personal tales of woe gain meaning, then, when linked to these powerful stories. Their sagas of oppression and liberation lift the spirits of individuals and make their suffering explicable and noble. In some cases suffering imparts the nobility of martyrdom. In such instances the images of cosmic war forge failure--even death--into victory.

The idea of turning death into ritual starts in the practice of religious sacrifices:

The idea of martyrdom is an interesting one. It has a long history within various religious traditions, including early Christianity. Christ himself was a martyr, as was the founder of the Shi’i Muslim tradition, Husain. The word martyr comes from a Greek term for “witness,” such as a witness to one’s faith. In most cases martyrdom is regarded not only as a testimony to the degree of one’s commitment, hut also as a performance of a religious act, specifically an act of self-sacrifice.

This dimension of martyrdom links it to the activity that some scholars see as the most fundamental form of religiosity: sacrifice. It is a rite of destruction that is found, remarkably, in virtually every religious tradition in the world. The term suggests that the very process of destroying is spiritual since the word comes from the Latin, sacrificium, “to make holy.” What makes sacrifice so riveting is not just that it involves killing, hut also that it is, in an ironic way, ennobling. The destruction is performed within a religious context that transforms the killing into something positive. Thus, like all religious images of sacrifice, martyrdom provides symbols of a violence conquered--or at least put in its place--by the larger framework of order that religious language provides.

There is some evidence that ancient religious rites of sacrifice, like the destruction involved in modern-day terrorism, were performances involving the murder of living beings. The later domestication of sacrifice in evolved forms of religious practice, such as the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, masked the fact that in most early forms of sacrifice a real animal--in some cases a human--offered its life on a sacred chopping block, an altar. In the Hebrew Bible, which is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the book of Leviticus gives a detailed guide for preparing animals for sacrificial slaughter. The very architecture of ancient Israeli temples reflected the centrality of the sacrificial event. The Vedic Agnicayana ritual, some three thousand years old and probably the most ancient ritual still performed today, involves the construction of an elaborate altar for sacrificial ritual, which some claim was originally a human sacrifice. This was certainly so at the other side of the world at the time of the ancient Aztec empire, when conquered soldiers were treated royally in preparation for their role in the sacrificial rite. Then they were set upon with knives. Their still-beating hearts were ripped from their chests and offered to Huitzilopochtli and other gods, eventually to he eaten by the faithful, and their faces were skinned to make ritual masks.

JUERGENSMEYER further defines and presents his theoretical framework as follows:

Why are such gory acts of sacrifice central to religion? The attempt to find answers to that question has been a preoccupation of scholars for over a century. The insights of such pioneering thinkers as smile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud have been revived by recent scholars, including Maurice Bloch, René Girard, Walter Burkhert, and Eli Sagan, who give social and psychological reasons for the virtual universality of violence in religious images and ideas. Most of them see the symbols of violence as playing an ultimately nonviolent and socially useful role.

According to Freud, for instance, violent religious symbols and sacrificial rituals evoke, and thereby vent, violent impulses in general. Accepting Freud’s main thesis, Girard amended it by suggesting that the motivation for violence is --mimetic desire--the desire to imitate a rival--rather than the psychological instincts of sexuality and aggression. Like Freud, Girard claimed that ritualized violence performs a positive role for society. By allowing individuals to release their feelings of hostility toward members of their own communities, symbols of violence enable affinity groups to achieve greater social cohesion. “The function of ritual,” claimed Girard, “is to ‘purify’ violence; that is, to ‘trick’ violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals.” Those who participate in ritual are not consciously aware of the social and psychological significance of their acts, of course, for Girard claimed that “religion tries to account for its own operation metaphorically.”

Much of what Freud and Girard said about the function of symbolic violence in religion has been persuasive. Even if one questions, as I do, Girard’s idea that mimetic desire is the sole driving force behind symbols of religious violence, one can still agree that mimesis is a significant factor. One can also agree with the theme that Girard borrows from Freud, that the ritualized acting out of violent acts plays a role in displacing feelings of aggression, thereby allowing the world to be a more peaceful place in which to live. But the critical issue remains as to whether sacrifice should he regarded as the context for viewing all other forms of religious violence, as Girard and Freud have contended.

My own conclusion is that war is the context for sacrifice rather than the other way around. Of course, one can think of religious warfare as a blend of sacrifice and martyrdom: sacrificing members of the enemy’s side and offering up martyrs on one’s own. But behind the gruesome litany is something that encompasses both sacrifice and martyrdom and much more: cosmic war. As Durkheim pointed out, religious language contains ideas of an intimate and ultimate tension, one that he described as the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This fundamental dichotomy gives rise to images of a great encounter between cosmic forces--order versus chaos, good versus evil, truth versus falsehood--which worldly struggles mimic. It is the image of war that captures this antinomy, rather than sacrifice.

Why do religious terrorists create demons?

JUERGENSMEYER spells out a succinct and eloquent explanation that affirms:

Put simply, one cannot have a war without an enemy.

This means that some enemies have to he manufactured. As Stanley Tambiah noted in his analysis of ethnic conflict, the “rites of violence” in religious riots in South Asia led inevitably to the “demonizing of victims and their expulsion or annihilation in the idiom of exorcism.”
The demonization of an opponent is easy enough when people feel oppressed or have suffered injuries at the hands of a dominant, unforgiving, and savage power. But when this is not the case, the reasons for demonization are more tenuous and the attempts to make satanic beings out of relatively innocent foes more creative.

As we have seen before, each religion’s script is different in its details. JUERGENSMEYER generalizes about demonization:

These blanket characterizations of a people make the process of dehumanizing an enemy easier. It is difficult to belittle and kill a person whom one knows and for whom one has no personal antipathy. As most Jews are aware from centuries of experience at the receiving end of anti-Semitism, it is much easier to stereotype and categorize a whole people as collective enemies than to hate individuals. The Christian Identity activists still regard Jews this way, and as we have seen, some Jewish extremists collectively brand Arabs in such a manner. To many Muslim activists, America and Americans are collective enemies, with the particulars of how and why they threaten Muslim people and their culture left unspecified.

This phenomenon of the faceless collective enemy explains in large part why so many terrorist acts have targeted ordinary people--individuals whom most observers would regard as innocent victims. In the eyes of those who planned the Hamas bombings in the buses of Jerusalem and Tel Avis the schoolchildren on their way to class and the housewives on their way to the shopping mall were not innocent: they were representatives of a collectivity--Israeli society--that was corporately the foe. An Israeli on the other side of the struggle confirmed that he regarded innocent Arabs as enemies as well, since there were no such things as civilians in “a cultural war.” Echoing this sentiment, a leader in the Hamas movement told me, “No one is innocent in the war between Arabs and Jews.” He indicated that he regarded all Israelis as soldiers or as potential soldiers, including women and children.

There can in fact be more than one target or enemy:

The idea of the enemy is sufficiently flexible that it can include more than one group. In fact, as political scientist Ehud Sprinzak has argued, the efforts to “delegitimize” an opponent by considering it to be an enemy has often been “split.” The hatred inspired by what Sprinzak has called “the radicalization of a group of extremists” has been directed toward “two separate entities.” In such instances the enemy includes not only the primary target, hut also a secondary target. It could be any person or entity that is seen as supporting or defending the primary target.
The primary enemy is the religious rival or local political authority that directly threatens the activist group and against which there is usually a commonsense basis for conflict and animosity. The secondary enemy is a less obvious threat: a moderate leader on one’s own side, for example, or a governmental authority who is trying to be fair-minded. Both can infuriate an activist who has bifurcated the world into heroes and enemies in a cosmic war. Secondary enemies, such as government authorities, are seen as not only defending the primary enemy hut also belittling the very notion of cosmic war. One of these secondary enemies’ greatest failures, from a radical’s point of view, is their inability to take seriously the notion of an absolute, sacred struggle. Instead they treat disputes as if they were rational differences over which reasonable people can come to some sort of accommodation or even agreement. This view is anathema to those who see the world at war.

How do the notions of a cosmic war become symbols and rituals in a religious system?

JUERGENSMEYER summarizes an illustration regarding symbolism:

The images of warfare in Protestant Christianity situated the faithful in a religious cosmos that inevitably had a moral valence, hut this has not been the case in all traditions. The battles of the Mahavamsa, the Hebrew Bible, and the Hindu epics, for example, testify to a different sort of ultimate encounter. The motif that runs through these mythic scenes of warfare is the theme of us versus them, the known versus the unknown. In the battles described in the Hebrew Bible and in such epics as the Ramayana, the enemies were often foreigners from the shady edges of known civilization--places such as Canaan, Philistine, and Lanka. These foes often embodied the conceptual murkiness of their origins; that is, they represented what was chaotic and uncertain about the world, including those things that defied categorization altogether. In cases where the enemy possessed a familiar face--as in the Mahabharata, where war was waged between sets of cousins’ chaos is embodied by the battle itself. It is the wickedness of warfare itself that the battle depicts, as the mythic figure Arjuna observed at the outset of his encounter with Lord Krishna on the battlefield. To fight in such a circumstance was to assent to the disorder of this world, although the contestants knew that in a grander sense this disorder is corrected by a cosmic order that is beyond killing and being killed. Such was the message of Lord Krishna in his address to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

JUERGENSMEYER says of the elements of religious ritual of violence and warfare that:

Thus violent images have been given religious meaning and domesticized. These acts, although terribly real, have been sanitized by becoming symbols; they have been stripped of their horror by being invested with religious meaning. They have been justified and thereby exonerated as part of a religious template that is even larger than myth and history. They are elements of a ritual scenario that makes it possible for the people involved to experience safely the drama of cosmic war.

What makes America such a prevalent enemy for the religious terrorist?

JUERGENSMEYER presents these criteria:

Why is America the enemy? This question is hard for observers of international politics to answer, and harder still for ordinary Americans to fathom. Many have watched with horror as their compatriots and symbols of their country have been destroyed by people whom they do not know, from cultures they can scarcely identify on a global atlas, and for reasons that do not seem readily apparent. From the frames of reference of those who regard America as enemy, however, several motives appear.

One reason we have already mentioned: America is often a secondary enemy. In its role as trading partner and political ally, America has a vested interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This has often put the United States in the unhappy position of being a defender and promoter of secular governments regarded by their religious opponents as primary foes. Long before the bombing of the World Trade Center Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman expressed his disdain for the United States because of its role in propping up the Muharak regime in Egypt. “America is behind all these un-Islamic governments,” the Sheik explained, arguing that the purpose of American political and economic support was “to keep them strong” and to try to “defeat the Islamic movements.” In the case of Iran prior to the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini saw the shah and the American government linked as evil twins: America was tarred by its association with the shah, and the shah, in turn, was corrupted by being a “companion of satanic forces--that is, of America.” When Khomeini prayed to his “noble God for protection from the evil of every wicked traitor” and asked Him to “destroy the enemies,” the primary traitor he had in mind was the shah and the chief enemy America.

A second reason America is regarded as enemy is that both directly and indirectly it has supported modern culture. In a world where villagers in remote corners of the world increasingly have access to MTV, Hollywood movies, and the Internet, the images and values that have been projected globally have been American. It was this cultural threat that brought an orthodox rabbi, Manachem Fruman, who lived in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank of Israel near Hebron, to regular meetings with Hamas related mullahs in nearby villages. What they had in common, Rabbi Fruman told me, was their common dislike of the “American-style” traits of individualism, the abuse of alcohol, and sexy movies that were widespread in modern cities such as Tel Aviv. Rabbi Fruman told me that “when the mullahs asked, who brought all this corruption here, they answered, the Jews.” But, Fruman continued, “rabbis like me don’t like this corruption either.” Hence the rabbi and the mullahs agreed about the degradation of modern urban values, and they concurred over which country was ultimately responsible. When the mullahs asserted that the United States was the “capital of the devil,” Rabbi Fruman told me, he could agree. In a similar vein, Mahmud Ahouhalima told me he was bitter that Islam did not have influence over the global media the way that secular America did. America, he believed, was using its power of information to promote the immoral values of secular society.

The third reason for the disdain of America is economic. Although most corporations that trade internationally are multinational, with personnel and legal ties to more than one country, many are based in the United States or have American associations. Even those that were identifiably European or Japanese are thought to he American-like and implicitly American in attitude and style. When Ayatollah Khomeini identified the “satanic” forces that were out to destroy Islam, he included not only Jews hut also the even “more satanic” Westerners--especially corporate leaders with “no religious belief” who saw Islam as “the major obstacle in the path of their materialistic ambitions and the chief threat to their political power.” The ayatollah went on to claim that “all the problems of Iran” were due to the treachery of “foreign colonialists.” On another occasion, the ayatollah blended political, personal, and spiritual issues in generalizing about the cosmic foe--Western colonialism--and about “the black and dreadful future” that “the agents of colonialism, may God Almighty abandon them all,” have in mind for Islam and the Muslim people.

What is the process that religious terrorists use, called Satanization?

JUERGENSMEYER defines and discusses the stages and purposes of satanization:

The process of creating satanic enemies is part of the construction of an image of cosmic war, and some of the same criteria listed at the end of the previous chapter that make sacred warfare possible also make possible a satanic opponent. When the opponent rejects one’s moral or spiritual position; when the enemy appears to hold the power to completely annihilate one’s community, one’s culture, and oneself; when the opponent’s victory would he unthinkable; and when there seems no way to defeat the enemy in human terms--all of these conditions increase the likelihood that one will envision one’s opponent as a superhuman foe, a cosmic enemy. The process of satanization is aimed at reducing the power of one’s opponents and discrediting them. By belittling and humiliating them--by making them subhuman--one is asserting one’s own superior moral power.
Satanization is to some extent a process of “delegitimization,” as Sprinzak has described it. He has identified a three-stage series of progressive steps aimed at discrediting one’s opponents, humbling them, and reducing their power. The first stage involves a crisis of confidence over the authority of a regime or its policies. The second stage is a conflict of legitimacy, in which a challenge group is “ready to question the very legitimacy of the whole system.” The third stage is a full crisis of legitimacy. At this stage the challenge group extends its hostility to everyone in society associated with a regime it regards as illegitimate, and both the regime and ordinary citizens are satanized--or as Sprinzak puts it, they are “derogated into the ranks of the worst enemies or subhuman species.” It is this dehumanization that allows a group to “commit atrocities without a second thought.” It is in this stage, according to Sprinzak, that acts of terrorism can he justified.

What is a good recommended resources for further study?

The New Yorker article, “The Man Behind Bin Laden” gives us an insight into the detailed thinking of one religious group that encouraged and developed the notions of martyrdom and demonization.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Informative posts, Tzvee.

1. For those interested in Satanization, the places in the NT to look up are Revelations 2:9, and 3:9, as well as Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33 and Luke 3:7.

2. What does the author say about the Jews and martyrdom in context with the mitzvah about not giving one's children to Molech?

It seems to me that the author assumes that a society that performs korbanos is "naturally" going to lead to people shooting for martyrdom. If that's the case, I'm not sure I'd agree.