Do Terrorists Really Believe?

by Robert Poe

The recent resurfacing of the Muhammad cartoon controversy brought to mind a lecture about belief given about two years ago by the prolific Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. For those uninitiated, Žižek is a contemporary, widely published philosopher who attempts to bring together a Marxist-Leninist critique of late-capitalist society with an understanding of mass-psychology inherited from 20th century psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

He begins by giving an interesting twist to the now famous – though strongly caricatured – clash of civilizations between liberal democracy and radical, Islamic terrorism. He sums up this clash with a short excerpt from a poem by William Butler Yeats (Second Coming):

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

“The best,” according to Žižek refers to our cynical, post-modern age in which no one truly believes anymore; “the worst” being those who purportedly still believe with the greatest passion: the terrorists – whom are willing to go to any lengths to violently support and die for those beliefs. At the surface this appears to describe Samuel Huntington’s much quoted “clash” where, in Žižek’s terms, we will all have to learn to tolerate each other’s cynical, lackluster (dis)beliefs if we are to survive.

Like any good psychoanalyst Žižek cannot be content with this superficial diagnosis. He parts ways with Yeats diagnosis of the situation and looks to one of the symptoms, namely the passionate intensity of “the worst.” His question regarding this symptom is a provocative one: Do these fundamentalist, Islamic terrorists really believe? Are these fundamentalists really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term?

To help answer his provocations Žižek cities some examples of groups that he would consider fundamentalists in the true sense of the word: the Amish and Tibetan Buddhists. What qualifies these groups as fundamentalist for Žižek is their lack of resentment and envy, an indifference towards non-believers: they really believe they have found the truth and therefore don’t feel threatened by outsiders. What Wiktoriwicz describes as the Purist faction of Salafist movement by all intents and purposes also fits this description (to give an example within the Islamic religion).

What distinguishes these groups from al Qaeda or the radical, right-wing Christian Conservatives in the United States is their lack of intrigue and fascination with the sinful lives of non-believers. True fundamentalists are not bothered by the lost path being walked by others, nor are they provoked to violence by it. Žižek wonders whether in fighting against the sinful other one is not really just fighting against one’s own temptation to that sinful lifestyle. The violent outbursts of fundamentalist, Islamic terrorists are examples of resentment and envy for Žižek and mark their lack of true conviction/belief.

A glaring example of this, brought up by Žižek back in 2006 when he gave the lecture, but which has now resurfaced, is the controversy about the Danish cartoons. In the recent tape, Osama bin Laden warns of a “severe” reaction for Europeans’ publication of these cartoons. Žižek’s indirect response to bin Laden comes straight from his lecture:

How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a low-circulation daily Danish newspaper.

The authentic believer, or true fundamentalist, would not be put off in the least. The severe reaction that bin Laden promised to visit upon Europe only serves to put radical, Islamic terrorists in the same field as the cartoonists it decries. In stirring up such a violent response within certain groups, the cartoons are validated with respect to those groups – it’s as if they are speaking the same language. What do I mean by this? Fundamentalists pride themselves not on their beliefs, but on their knowledge of the truth. Whether this be the Creationist story that the Earth is literally only a few thousand years old, or that several dozen virgins will literally be waiting in the afterlife for the suicide bomber who sacrifices himself in the name of Allah. The truth claims made by fundamentalists are considered by them no different than any other scientific claim about the validity of some proposition or state of affairs.

This helps explain why radical, Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al Qaeda are so upset about some cartoons. As Žižek says:

To put it simply, a fundamentalist does not believe in something, but rather knows it directly. In other words, both liberal-sceptical cynicism and fundamentalism share a basic underlying feature: the loss of the ability to believe in the proper sense of the term. For both of them, religious statements are quasi-empirical statements of direct knowledge: fundamentalists accept these statements as such, while sceptics mock them. What is unthinkable for both is the ‘absurd’ act of a decision which installs every authentic belief, a decision that cannot be grounded in the chain of ‘reason’, in positive knowledge.

This passage illustrates a very important point, namely that fundamentalist terrorists measure themselves by the standards of their secular enemies in the Western world. Are we then locked into this violent cycle of cynicism and resentment that hopes to fulfill the prophetic clash of civilizations? Žižek, in an op-ed piece for the New York Times back in 2006 proposes a modest solution – from the position of his own atheist belief – to this rhetorical stalemate:

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other’s beliefs. Respect for other’s beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple “regimes of truth,” disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

What Žižek forces us to confront is not simply our poor treatment of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, but our rhetorical (dis)engagement with radical, fundamentalist Muslims in general. Thus, any communication strategies we undertake will appear disingenuous if we do not show a true respect for Muslims and their beliefs.

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  1. [...] by ubiwar on 29 April 2008 Robert Poe at COMOPS Journal has an interesting post, Do Terrorists Really Believe? in which he outlines the arguments of Slavoj Žižek, the prolific Slovenian psychoanalyst, in [...]