Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

The scary sound of religion

Fanaticism and extremism arise the moment religion is detached from its cultural and historical background.


Co-author: Ole Bjørn Petersen 

The 11. September 2001 apparently woke up to a new reality. Where the conflict picture used to be called East-West, people started talking about North-South – about the Western world to the Islamic world, if you will. But as dramatic as it may have occurred, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York was just another stop on a long journey, and the contradiction everyone was talking about was only part of an even bigger complex found in many shadows and variants worldwide.

Many claim that we have experienced a paradigm shift in which religion has come to stand as the real driving force where it was previously strategic and political interests that drove the global work. But this is only half a truth. The religious element has always been present, but lying and smoldering beneath the surface. Meanwhile, the feelings that local culture and identity are being hurt and thinned by outside forces have grown strong. During these years, many frustrated frustrations are being played in many places around the globe, in all major religions, and this has led to words such as radicalism, faith, fundamentalism and terror having a completely different and frightening sound.

Generational nihilism

The fanaticism and extremism arises at the moment that religion, as a result of globalization, secularization and individualization, is detached from its cultural and historical background and left alone to an individual who is not bound by culture and community norms. It is a trait we find in all religions, but let's take Islam as a nearby example.

Thus, it was not the Islamic State (IS) that created the terrorism; with the words of the French Islamic scholar Olivier Roy, it simply oozed from a vessel that already existed. IS took care of the tub by offering young people a narrative where they could realize themselves – and even better if others who voluntarily seek death – psychopaths, suicide candidates or rebels without a cause – through the Islamic State could give their personal desperation a global dimension.

Somali child soldiers enthusiastically swing the machetes towards their innocent victims.

So the starting point is the individual, who in many contexts is a seeking soul. For example, young terrorists do not understand their parents' generation – and at the same time, they lack expectations for the future. Against this background, they develop a radical nihilistic perspective on the world and then use Islam to carry out a similar assault. Therefore, they are not afraid to die, and many of them even feel that death is the only way out of a life without prospects.

Islamized radicalization

From this perspective, it is not a question of young people being radicalized by Islam, but rather of Islamizing their own radicalization. Many of the terrorists who have attacked European cities in recent years have grown up in an environment of gang crime, alcohol and drugs. No one in their circle has regarded them as religious believers – they did not care for the Sharia, they did not pray and were not busy eating halal. When the suspected man behind the attack at the Parisian football stadium Stade de France in November 2015 (where France and Germany played friendlies), as well as several attacks on restaurants and bars and the venue Bataclan subsequently called his cousin, he was at McDonald's. Thus, martyr death is characterized by a cleansing and a remission of sins. You could call it an exaltation – not only as a martyr with direct access to paradise, but also in this life. The fascination of violence and action is a pervasive feature of both right and left political terrorist groups, as well as of highly religious people. Being a "dangerous" jihadist in Syria is more attractive than sitting behind the box at the local supermarket.

Constructed identity

Add to this a totalitarian element. According to Danish Islamist Mehdi Mozaffari, Islamism in its radicalized or militant form becomes a totalitarian interpretation of the faith. It leads to an overall principle of action, which through terror aims to conquer the world by all means. The Millennium is the utopian vision.

This is a mindset we know from other totalitarian contexts. Nazism, fascism and communism all aimed to create a new human being by replacing the identity of the people with a new, constructed identity. This is again the case with the radical or militant Islamists, who exclude everything that is perceived as foreign to Islam: books, names, films, art, clothing, food, drink, and what we in the West perceive as natural human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and gender equality. Their ideal is the realization of hoping, the worldwide caliphate. And as something special to Islamism, the ultimate stage in the development of the new identity is martyrdom and a special glorification of death.

Body fragmentation

The young people thus seek the extreme where they can live their version of pure Islam and affirm themselves in their new identity as "reborn" without the parent's culture and religion. They seek an interpretation of religion that is liberated from any historical and cultural context and consists only of norms that young people can live without being part of a real community of history and culture. And a religion without the bonds of tradition, culture and history leads to violence.

A religion without the bonds of tradition, culture and history until violence.

Against this backdrop, some of the most common explanations of terror may be rejected: "the clash of civilizations", the inability of Muslims to be integrated into a Western-European culture, terrorism being a reaction to post-colonial structures, Western imperialism and European racism and Islamophobia .

One can do this by pointing to some very similar features in other religions and cultures. Thus, the German cultural theorist Klaus Theweleit gave in his book The laughter of the culprits ("The Killer's Laughter") from 2016 his troubling bid for why Anders Behring Breivik during his mass murder, the victims' screams and the shooting laughed and cheered each time a spot shot as it was a penalty shootout.

And his laughter wasn't the only one. The Islamic State warriors cheer on the beheading, Mexican narcotics play laughing football with severed heads, and child soldiers in Somalia enthusiastically swing the machetes towards their innocent victims. In this context, Klaus Theweleit speaks of so-called bodily fragmentation: The killer's physical need to stabilize a defective body that has gradually become deformed through entrenched experiences and defeats: the overlooked child, the failed puberty, the demarcation, the fear of the female, the social isolation, the stifled sexuality. These types of experiences can dissolve young men so much that they turn their self-hatred outward into a death rut.

There is thus more and more at stake than a distorted worldview, a religious zeal or a headless ideology. Klaus Theweleit's point is that in a desperate and physical attempt to keep himself up, the fragmented body needs destruction to create a balance. The killer's laughter is born of the fear of collapse.

power Vacuum

A good example of the overlooked child with the failed puberty is Andreas Baader, who became one of the protagonists of the Rote Armee Fraction. He collaborated with Ulrike Meinhof, who came from a confident upbringing and did not have any outside explanation for plunging into a headless and violent ideology. The RAF was not religiously motivated, but in the underlying motivations one sees the kinship. Timothy McVeigh, on the other hand, had strong religious motives when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and the same can be said of the Jewish family physician Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire the previous year and shot 29 praying Muslims in Hebron.

When Buddhists today carry out ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and when Indian Hindus attack civilians of other faiths, the explanation is in many ways the same. Local culture, and thus also religion, has come under siege from outside influences. Globalization, political upheavals, materialism and secularism have become a factor in everyday life in many parts of the world, and this triggers a reaction. However, this is not a clash between civilizations, as Samuel P. Huntington erroneously claims in his theory, but something far more complex that takes place on a personal level.

This makes the whole phenomenon difficult to predict. Stephen M. Walt, professor of international politics at Harvard University, argued in the journal Foreign Policy 23.10.17 that the threat posed by IS was greatly overstated and that the frightening effect was far greater than its real significance. As a revolutionary movement, the French Jacobins and the Russian Bolsheviks were far stronger and better founded. Although the IS caliphate in Iraq and Syria was richer than most other terrorist organizations, it was an extremely weak state, and it only gained its size because it conquered some more or less empty desert areas, and – not least – exploited a power vacuum.

This is the vacuum we need to stick to. For this kind of periodically occurs elsewhere in the region, and for that matter everywhere else in the world. This has always been the case, and it always will be, and time and again it comes as a surprise when radicalism emerges.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

You may also like