In the 1920s the term ‘fundamentalism’
was first coined to refer to the Protestant denominations
and sects in the US who advocated the return to what
they claimed were the ‘fundamentals’ of their faith.
They believed that the Bible should
be taken literally, that it was dictated by the hand
of God, that morality was to be strictly adhered to,
and that Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicted Holy
Scripture and should never be taught in the schools.
They were profoundly conservative and hated pluralism,
materialism, relativism and libertinism of all kinds.
The term fundamentalism has been taken
up and applied widely to tendencies in other religions
which have agendas which overlap with those of the original
Protestant movement but have other agendas, as well.
For example, that the Qur’an or the Torah is the perfect
and inspired word of God to be taken as such and followed
What motivates these people? Different
things in different cases, of course. Some, like US
rednecks, Palestinians and Afghans, have been displaced,
impoverished and persecuted by new economic and political
developments such as the mechanical cotton-picker, the
Israelis, the Russians, or globalization. The spread
of US power and popular culture is often a key motivation
– Osama Bin Laden hates the presence of American soldiers
on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia as deeply as he hates
the hegemony of Israelis in the Holy Land.
I think the widest generalization embracing
the emotional basis of fundamentalism is the fear of
annihilation of a way of life. This unites the impoverished
and immiserated suicide bombers in Israel with the Saudis
who adhere to the traditional Wahabi Muslim sectarianism
from which al-Qaeda draws nourishment. This accounts
for the presence of the relatively well-off among the
perpetrators of the attacks of 9-11. The annals of those
who oppose established orders in the name of a rigid
faith are full of people who were economically prosperous
but – arguably – psychologically threatened and damaged.
Stirring the lower depths
Freud has a motto on the frontispiece
of his masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams
(1900) that I think sums up how fundamentalism links
to terrorism at both a social and individual level:
‘If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up
the lower depths,’ it goes.
The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion takes
us into those lower depths to the most primitive psychological
defences of all: defences against psychotic anxieties
that arise in the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’
positions. These are two fundamental stances in the
psychic lives of us all.
In the paranoid-schizoid position we
indulge in extreme splits between, for example, love
and hate, good and evil, us and them. We treat others
not as full humans but as part-objects; we indulge in
hostile accusation and attribute guilt in a brittle,
punitive way. Messrs Bush, Cheney, Sharon and Bin Laden
are among the most striking current exemplars of this
way of thinking.
The concept of Satan is useful for
those who routinely adopt this position. According to
theologian Elaine Pagels, Satan is a projection. He
expresses the quality of going beyond lust and anger
and to brutality. This is familiar territory for psychotherapists:
we humans project unconscious feelings on to others
and blame them for what we want to disown in ourselves.
In less dramatic ways we are all in
this psychological position a considerable part of the
time, though it is better to be in the other position,
the depressive one. This is characterized by being able
to occupy the middle ground, to experience life as a
difficult mixture of good and evil, changing friends
and foes. Here we treat others as whole objects of feelings,
not fragments, and we associate guilt with the drive
to make reparation and thus hold on to civility. Each
of us will have his or her exemplars of this way of
being. I suggest Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan.
In her study of fundamentalism, The
Battle for God, Karen Armstrong tells us that fundamentalisms
all follow a certain pattern.
‘They are embattled forms of spirituality,
which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis.
They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist
policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself.
Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional
political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war
between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation,
and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means
of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices
of the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw
from mainstream society to create a counterculture;
yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They
have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity,
and, under the guidance of their charismatic leaders,
they refine these “fundamentals” so as to create an
ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action.
Eventually they fight back and attempt to re-sacralize
an increasingly sceptical world.’
There are, of course, various forms
of fundamentalism around, but Karen Armstrong suggests
that they have certain common features – common fears,
anxieties and desires – and that they share a reaction
against scientific and secular culture. This is certainly
true of Protestant fundamentalism in the US and the
Muslim fundamentalism implicated in recent events. Armstrong
concludes that the sacred texts they put in place of
modernism ‘materialize the transcendent and give absolute
value to a purely human policy’.
When people feel under threat they
simplify; in a reduced state people cannot bear uncertainty.
To simplify, in psychoanalytic terms
is to regress, to eliminate the middle ground, to split,
dividing the world into safe and threatening, good and
evil, life and death. To be a fundamentalist is to see
the world perpetually in such terms and to cling to
certainties drawn from sacred texts or the pronouncements
of charismatic leaders.
The baby whose needs are not met blames
the mother/carer who has not provided or who has removed
what she or he needs and is experienced as abandoning
or withholding. She or he feels attacked, as it were,
by lack or hunger, and wants to retaliate. Life’s experiences
activate primitive reactions, leading us to rationalize
and project our unconscious fantasies on to the world
in the hope of assuaging them and getting control over
what threatens us.
It is tempting to defend oneself from
feeling so abject by becoming, in fantasy, the opposite
and attaining a position of complete self-sufficiency
or certainty. Osama Bin Laden’s father died when he
was still a boy; his mother, not one of the father’s
main wives, was looked down upon. The young Hitler had
an unhappy childhood and was a failed painter. ‘I am
nobody and am sure of nothing’ becomes ‘I am powerful
and sure about everything: it is in the book’. If fundamentalists
were really sure they would not have to be so intolerant.
People who feel threatened in this
way suffer from fantasies of annihilation. They defend
themselves against these psychotic anxieties with rigid
views. They lose the ability to imagine the inner worlds
and the humanity of others. Compassion and concern for
the object evaporate, and brittle feelings of blaming
and destructiveness predominate. They act out. Where
acting out is, thought is not. And terrorism is, of
course, a very dramatic form of acting out. The religious
fundamentalist who blows up a trainload of people going
to work in the morning is operating at the extreme end
of killing in ‘a higher cause’. Their hatred enables
them to act out unconscious fantasies.
Many commentators have observed that
as modernism takes hold throughout the world, Islamic
culture is forced into a defensive mode.
In the West we tend to think that assimilation
into Western culture might bring Islamic fundamentalists
around, temper their zeal. But, according to Andrew
Sullivan writing in the New York Times Magazine, the
opposite is the case: ‘The temptation of American and
Western culture – indeed, the very allure of such culture
– may well require a repression all the more brutal
if it is to be overcome.’
Remember stories of the 9-11 suicide
bombers sitting pool-side in Florida, or racking up
a vodka tab in an American restaurant, or soliciting
prostitutes in Boston the day before their mission.
Sullivan goes on to say: ‘There is
little room in the fundamentalist psyche for a moderate
accommodation. The very psychological dynamics that
lead repressed homosexuals to be viciously homophobic
or that entice sexually tempted preachers to inveigh
against immorality are the same dynamics that lead vodka-drinking
fundamentalists to steer planes into buildings. It is
not designed to achieve anything, construct anything,
or argue anything. It is a violent acting out of internal
But that does not reduce the weight
of external political and social provocations, insensitivities
and injustices. And it certainly does not let the West
off the hook morally.
As the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman
points out, we do not know ‘the precarious pit of everyday
fear’. Nor have we had our culture assaulted by one
that defiles our customs and values or had our sacred
lands used as staging places for the armies of people
who do not share our beliefs, as the Saudis have. Nor
have we been the victims of geopolitical arrangements
solely designed to secure raw materials, such as oil,
for richer countries.
Western leaders did not ask ‘Why?’
in the wake of the 11 September attacks and they have
not done much soul-searching since. Instead Bush said:
‘The forces of evil have chosen to destroy us, because
we are good.’
We are, it appears, blind to the immiseration
of peoples throughout the world to which we either contribute
or at least turn a blind eye. Yet we are surprised by
the retaliation it evokes. How else can we explain why
young people flock to al-Qaeda and queue up to be Palestinian
suicide bombers, in search of an idealized reason for
living and dying?
Of course, we can continue to fail
or inadequately address the basic causes of human miseries
which could be ameliorated. Then the motor of hatred
and revenge will continue to run. Or we can try to understand
and address the causes of fundamentalism and terrorism
– especially the historical, economic, cultural and
political grievances. This would allow us to promote
moderation while assuaging the pain and misery which
bring forth oversimplification, hatred and violence
in our fellow humans.
by Robert M Young
- a US-born psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London
and co-editor of the human-nature.com website, where
his writings are available.