Death to the Non-Believers: Political Violence as Terrorism

Excerpts from Dr. Koenigsberg’s paper appear below.

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I. Political Violence as Terrorism

The term “martyr” derives from the Arabic word “shahid,” meaning “witness.” The martyr bears witness to his love for Allah by killing infidels. As he submits to the will of God by sacrificing his own life, so does the terrorist compel others to submit to the will of God—and to sacrifice their lives.

When the airplane plunged into the ground in Pennsylvania on September 11, the suicide bombers’ last words were, “God is great.” The terrorists gave witness to their belief that God is great—by virtue of their willingness to die and kill for him. The suicide bombers sacrificed their lives for Allah, and took Americans along with them.

“Allah” is a name given to an object or entity that some human beings worship. Other groups of people worship other objects or entities. People may worship a god, an ideology or their own nation. In each instance, people “look up” to the object, conceive of it as all-powerful, and are willing to perform “sacrifices” in the name of this idealized object.

Why do individuals and groups bind their identities to objects conceived as omnipotent? What is the relationship between attachment to an omnipotently conceived object—a god, ideology or nation—and the proclivity toward violence?

The phrase “Death to the non-believers” conveys the central meaning of political violence. Members of one group seek to dominate or kill members of another group that do not bow down to the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group. Terroristic violence is intended to compel belief: to force members of another group to submit to the same sacred object to which members of one’s own group have submitted.

II. Nazism as Religion

Nazism was a form of religion. Hitler declared, “We do not want to have any other God, only Germany.” Hitler was like a preacher, inspiring his flock to worship the German nation. Deutschland ueber Alles (“Germany Above All”), Hitler explained, was a “profession of faith that fills millions with a strength that is mightier than any earthly might.” Our love for our people, Hitler said, will never falter, and our “faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable.”

The other side of the coin of Hitler’s love for and faith in Germany was anger toward those who—he imagined—did not share his love and faith. Hitler declared: “We are fanatic in our love for our people. We can go as loyally as a dog with those who share our sincerity, but will pursue with fanatical hatred the man who believes that he can play tricks with this love of ours.”

Well before Islamic terrorism became prominent, I used the phrase “death to the non-believers” to crystallize my understanding of why Hitler felt compelled to exterminate the Jewish race. Hitler conceived of Jews as people who did not worship Germany sufficiently: were unwilling to embrace and surrender to the national community.

According to Hitler, every single German was required to embrace and to serve the German nation. No one was exempt. There “cannot be a single person,” Hitler proclaimed, who “excludes himself from this obligation.” The aim of National Socialism was dictatorship of the “whole people, the community.”

III. Punishing Those Who Doubt the Sacred Object

Citing the Qur’an, Bin Laden claims that Allah ordered Muslims to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that “His word is the highest and the uppermost and that of the unbelievers the lowermost.” When God ordered Muslims to carry out jihad and to kill and to fight, he said, “Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, and heal the hearts of the believers.”

Bin Laden advocates acts of terror in the name of Allah. Hitler authorized acts of terror in the name of Germany. Terroristic violence is initiated in order to punish people who—the believer imagines—do not worship the sacred object that the believer worships. Violent collective actions are designed both to punish the non-believer for refusing to believe; and to compel the non-believer to believe.

Terroristic violence seeks to demonstrate the power of the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group—by crushing or squelching members of non-believing groups. Acts of violence are designed to give witness to the greatness of one’s god, nation or ideology. The believer initiates acts of violence in order to terrify—to induce feelings of shock and awe in the minds and hearts of believers and non-believers alike.

IV. Violence as Squelching Doubt

Part and parcel of fanatic belief is the idea that everyone should worship the same god or nation or ideology that one’s own group worships. True believers like Hitler and Bin Laden become deeply disturbed when they realize that there are people in the world that do not share their beliefs.

I hypothesize that where there is fanatic belief—when one imagines that an object is omnipotent—then doubt also must be present. Doubt cannot be separated from fanatic belief—because in reality there is no such thing as omnipotence. If no-thing is absolutely true and no-thing absolutely powerful, then if someone believes that some-thing is absolutely true and absolutely powerful, doubt must be present.

Terroristic violence is undertaken in order to squelch doubt. As the believer begins to realize that the object he or she worships is not omnipotent—that there is no such thing as omnipotence in the world—the sense of doubt may be projected into another group or class of people. This other group or class of people comes to symbolize disbelief in the goodness and power of the object with which one’s own group is identified.

The struggle between competing ideologies—each possessing a claim to absolute truth—is a fundamental source of collective forms of violence. The very existence of another ideology—that claims to be absolutely true or omnipotent—is felt as working to undermine or destroy one’s own ideology. Acts of violence are initiated to determine—once and for all—”the truth.”

V. Ambivalence: “You are nothing, the sacred object is everything”

Inherent within an individual’s attachment or connection to an object conceived to be omnipotent is ambivalence toward this object. Identification contains both a positive and negative valence. On the one hand, the individual imagines that his or her ego has become more expansive—bigger and more powerful—by virtue of attachment to the object. On the other hand, the individual may feel diminished or crippled as a result of binding his ego to an object seemingly so much greater than the self.

The essence of this ambivalent relationship to an omnipotently conceived object is expressed in a phrase that recurs in Hitler’s speeches. Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” The word “everything” contains the positive dimension of identification. At the mass rallies at Nuremberg, tens of thousands of Germans gathered in a single location—as if bound together to constitute a single, omnipotent body. Germans participating in these rallies may have experienced a sense of being fused with “everything.”

The word “nothing” contains the negative valence of imagining that one is connected to or fused with an omnipotent object. By virtue of binding one’s self to this object—conceived to be gigantic and powerful—the individual’s ego shrinks by comparison. One becomes submerged within the object, losing one’s sense of individuality and agency.

VI. Compelling Submission

Terroristic violence seeks to squelch doubt or disbelief—by affirming the omnipotence of the sacred object with which members of one’s group are identified. Death to the non-believers means: “How dare you doubt that the object we worship is omnipotent? How dare you disbelieve in the power of the nation or god or ideology that our group worships?”

The Final Solution sought to convey the following message to Jews: “Do not imagine that you are exempt from the obligation to sacrifice your lives.” Acts of violence performed by one group are designed to terrorize members of another group: to compel them to bow down; submit to one’s own god, nation or ideology. Acts of violence seek to convert infidels or enemies into “believers.” That which kills must be real.

VII. Conclusion

Political violence conveys the message: Death to non-believers: death to those who refuse to acknowledge the omnipotence of our nation, ideology or god. The purpose of acts of collective or group violence is to compel others to submit to the sacred ideal to which members of one’s own group have submitted. Acts of terroristic violence are performed in order to “give witness” to the depth of one’s devotion.

Acts of group violence represent demonstrations: “Now you see how powerful our nation, god or ideology is.” Collective acts of violence seek to persuade other groups that one’s own nation or god is powerful, and its ideology true. Violence functions in the name of verification: This is what happens to people who do not acknowledge the power of our god or nation. This is what happens to people who do not embrace our ideology.

Each group demands that the other abandon its sacred object and bow down to one’s own sacred object. Group violence conveys the message—as Dostoevsky puts it—”Put away your god (or ideology or nation) and come and worship our god (or ideology or nation). If you do not worship the object that we worship, then we will come and kill you (and destroy your god, ideology or nation).” Terroristic violence seeks to compel members of the other group to bow down to the sacred object that is worshipped by one’s own group.

One thought on “Death to the Non-Believers: Political Violence as Terrorism

  1. Charles Macdonald

    I find much I agree with completely. It seems that your mind and mine are on the same track. I am really glad to see that nationalism, terrorism, war, group violence, sacrifice, religious fanaticism and other related ideological phenomena are finally explained within a unified theoretical framework. Being an anthropologist I look at it under the light of evolutionary anthropology.

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