The mind of the religious extremist

Neil J. Kressel

Throughout history, people have perpetrated extreme violent acts in the name of religion – whether it be Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or another faith. A complex series of psychological, political, historical and theological factors combine to trigger such behaviour. 


The electoral success of Muslim theocratic parties in last autumn’s Egyptian elections has once again raised questions about the extent to which politicians motivated by intense and publicly expressed religious belief can produce good democratic governance. 

Journalist Robin Wright, an expert on Islam, is optimistic. She explains: “Many Muslims share conservative values even as they push for freedoms. The right to human dignity, Muslims believe, is God-given – a view shared by Thomas Jefferson and engraved on the walls of his memorial. The values of their religion are a starting point for all other aspects of life.” British author John R. Bradley, on the other hand, describes as “eyewash” “the Islamists’ perpetual argument that their agenda not only embraces democracy but in fact takes it to a higher level of true popular participation”. In his view, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood would mean “… the fi nal death knell for Egypt’s deep-set democratic and pluralistic traditions, with devastating consequences for the wider region”. Many other views have been expressed on the likely impact of rising theocratic influence on the prospects for human rights in Egypt and elsewhere. 

Similarly, longstanding religion-based governance in Iran and Saudi Arabia has, in the eyes of many Muslims and non-Muslims, been associated with diminished human rights in those countries. It is, for example, disturbing that the most virulent expressions of anti-Semitism have come so often from those functioning as clerics in the Muslim world. Finally, many of the most dangerous terrorists in recent decades have cited Islamic religious justifications for their activities, often including chapter and verse. 

Although all of these cases have involved Islam, it should be obvious to anyone with a rudimentary exposure to world history that many other religious traditions, including, for example, Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism, have been associated with dangerous extremism. Such collective impulses have waxed and waned in various eras, and even today, there is no shortage of religious extremists outside of Islam. One need only consider the Christian members of the Army of God, for example, who have carried out attacks on abortion providers in the United States to confirm that point. And, of course, students of religious extremism must always remember that great good has also been carried out in the name of religions across the globe; such good is not erased by the recognition that evil sometimes draws its inspiration from religious faith. We must additionally recognise that extremism in world history has not always been religious in origin. Recall, for example, the Red Army Faction of the 1970s, the fascism of the 1930s and the wave of anarchist attacks that plagued much of the Western world around the turn of the 20th century. 

Yet none of these caveats can be used as justification for averting our attention from the challenges posed by religious extremism. It must always be remembered that the majority of Muslims are not extremist. Many Muslims arrive at socio-political positions that are deeply opposed to militancy, and many have themselves been victims of the extremists. 

The liberal Canadian-Muslim writer Tarek Fatah comes to mind as one who finds in his religion the basis for waging a brave battle for progressive values on many fronts, including his 2010 attack on anti-Semitism, The Jew Is Not My Enemy. Even some Muslims who accept views that might in a religious sense be deemed fundamentalist still actively support the expansion of human rights. Nonetheless, in my view, there is little basis for disputing that today the Islamic variety of religious extremism poses the greatest challenge to harmonious interfaith relations in many parts of the world. The problem is that we do not know which strand of religious extremism will prove most challenging to the expansion of human rights and good governance tomorrow. 

The stakes – present and future – are very high. After all, the freedom to follow the religion of one’s choice, or no religion at all, is one of Western civilization’s greatest accomplishments – and greatest treasures. Yet, at the same time, throughout history, many pious individuals have pondered their relationship with God only to end up with a programme of hatred, murder, misogyny, bigotry or child abuse. How, then, should those who care about human rights deal with the apparent conflict between encouraging freedom of religion and avoiding the sometimes deadly consequences of religious extremism? 

For starters, we must avoid the temptation to be simplistic. Many political leaders, for example, have argued that religiously motivated evil always represents a corruption of true religion, the core of which – as a tactical matter – they rarely identify with much specificity. Others have turned to the ever-popular explanation that the problem is the other fellow’s religion, indicting in toto one or another of the world’s major religious traditions. Yet others have suggested that religion itself, all religion, is the source of the problem. 

None of these explanations will do. We should, instead, start with the assumption that ethical and reasonable people – whether religious, agnostic or atheistic – will typically disdain and reject destructive violence and intolerance perpetrated in the name of religious faith or other ideologies. 

Quite a few of the disagreements surrounding religious extremism – though certainly not all of them – have roots in the failure of parties to agree about just what they are discussing. We might therefore adopt a working definition of religious extremists as people who – for reasons they themselves deem religious – commit, promote or support purposely hurtful, violent or destructive acts against others. 

The definition is not perfect, and it leaves many unanswered questions, such as how much support for destructive behaviour is required, how hurtful must acts be, and what about those who are not extremists themselves but fail to condemn co-religionists who are? Still, the working definition provides a starting point and suggests a research agenda. For example, one might seek to understand: what separates destructive religious impulses from neutral and constructive ones; how various manifestations of religious extremism are similar, and how they differ; why some religions, religious doctrines and religious practices are more likely to inspire hatred and extremism than others; whether some psychological types are prone to extremism; and if some sorts of societies are more likely to become breeding grounds for extremists. 

More generally, we might explore the theological, historical, political, social and psychological roots of extremism. We might finally ask what can (or should) be done to combat the various forms of religious extremism, and what limits, if any, can (or should) be placed on religious practice in societies that promote good democratic governance. 

According to my research, certain beliefs characterise religious extremists across a variety of religious traditions. In recent times, the worst manifestations of religious militancy have involved some combination of the following: 

– Idealisation of some past era combined with the belief that the world has gone awry;
Declared certainty of the correctness of one’s religious vision;
Complete unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree;
Powerful denunciation of people with different lifestyles, especially when they involve forms of homosexuality or sexual liberality;
Devaluation of events in this world and an intense focus on life after death;
Willingness to assume the role of God’s ‘hit man’, defending the deity and his representatives against all perceived insults;
Extreme veneration of some religious leader or leaders; Disconcerting lack of concern for earthly evidence, except of the sort sanctioned by the religious system;
Routine acceptance of the desired ends as justification for unsavoury means;
Adoption of numerous defensive methods for avoiding serious encounters with conflicting systems of belief and their adherents;
Dehumanising imagery of non-believers and religious outgroups (most commonly the Jews); and
Strong preference for keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles. 

When all or most of these beliefs characterise a person’s mindset, there is considerable reason for concern. 

A critical question is why so many people turn to extremist religious systems in place of more benign ones, many of which are available. People seek out religion for many different reasons, and one need not resolve the debate between atheists and theists in order to reject extremism. Moreover, many people turn to religion without paying much attention to ideology or beliefs. Some people may find it meaningful to engage in a life of highly structured ritual and practice. Others may be attracted by the emotions or alterations in consciousness that, for them, accompany prayer and the quest for mystic experiences. There are also those who adhere to a religious life because they see it as a way of combating loneliness, maintaining an alcohol-free existence, coping with difficult to manage sexual urges or overcoming neuroses. Still others stay with a faith because of social pressures or because they know no other way. It is counter-productive and wrongheaded to confuse a battle against the destructive manifestations of religious extremism with a battle against religion. 

No one answer accounts for the range of motivations behind the turn to extremism in different places and times. One of the first students of the psychology of close-mindedness, the American social psychologist Milton Rokeach, wrote in 1960 that, “If doubt is cast on any portion of the belief system, doubt can be cast on any other portion, and this threatens the cohesiveness and solidarity of the group as well as the inner psychic stability of the individual believer.” 

In addition, religious extremists may be using their beliefs to manage anxiety about their own mortality. As the Pulitzer-prize winning cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, argued, people will go to tremendous lengths and expose themselves to all sorts of risks and dangers solely to “prove” that the “myths” they live by are true. Extremists may be trying to prove to themselves that life has meaning beyond the grave. How final could death really be, the extremist unconsciously asks himself, if he is so willing to put his own life in danger for a cause? 

Extremists may also be trying to overcome feelings of ultimate aloneness by bolstering a sense of group identity based in intense loyalty to the religion. They may be striving to escape from the overwhelming challenges brought about by too much freedom. And, by signing on as an agent of God, at the very least, they are augmenting self-esteem. Still others may be trying to cleanse some real or imagined sense of sinfulness. All in all, as liberal theologian Charles Kimball writes, “The need for fixed stars, for certainty in the midst of our tenuous lives on a dangerously unpredictable planet, is real and understandable. Religious leaders who can package and deliver absolute truths find receptive audiences.” 

Psychologists do not really know which psychological types are most likely to become enthusiastic proponents of religious militancy. Reasonably, we might be most concerned about those who are in late adolescence and early adulthood; come from families lacking in normal love and support; are frustrated and consumed by thoughts that their lives have been spoiled or wasted; are preoccupied with issues of pride; feel personally humiliated; feel their group has been humiliated; experience intensely threats or imagined threats to their identity or self-esteem; or have bound tightly together their religious, ethnic and personal identities. But a more definitive understanding of the extremist type requires further research. 

Moreover, the rise in extremist religion is never just a matter of psychology; political, historical and theological forces can influence what happens, why, when and where. In particular, with the advent of globalisation in media, politics and the economy, the dream of acquiring Western science while retaining traditional values has started to seem illusory. ‘Dangerous’ threats to traditional culture come in the form of greater sexual openness, equality for women, religious tolerance, free speech and a host of other imports. The situation can create anger – and temptation – among those committed to traditional ways. When people succumb, as they often do, to the logic of the new ways, there may be a surge in guilt. Precisely at the moment when one’s culture seems under unremitting attack, one may feel the greatest need for a reassertion of self-esteem based on the traditional identity. And this can become the engine that fuels much fanaticism. 

To understand why the Muslim world has experienced so much extremism in recent years, we should recall that widespread rules prohibit criticism of Islam, leaving it the only untarnished symbol in societies that have failed politically and, in some cases, economically. Moreover, some Muslim countries permit and even sponsor extremist education and socialisation, and most Muslim countries lack adequate constitutional protections for religious diversity. 

Whenever religious extremism arises (in the sense of the working definition), it is not good for constitutional democracy. We must stop thinking of democracy primarily in terms of elections, even when they are formally free. We must instead start thinking in terms of support for a full menu of democratic and constitutional freedoms, with human rights and tolerance for religious diversity near the top of the list.

About the author:

Dr. Neil J. Kressel, a Harvard-educated political psychologist, is the author of Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism, Mass Hate: the Global Rise of Genocide and Terror, and other books


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