October 30, 2001

Otto F. Kernberg, M.D.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALIST IDEOLOGIES

The following text is a transcript of Dr. Kernberg's presentation at the New York Academy of Medicine.

It seems to me that perhaps the best way to generate a discussion is that I start out informally commenting on some of what Dr. Post has presented to us, the fascinating analysis of the personality of suicide bombers and members as well as leaders of terrorist movements. I will start from there and then go into some of the aspects of fundamentalist ideologists and their relation to terrorist movements. If you permit me to ask you a question, I wasn’t at the meeting in which Dr. Vamik Volkan presented but I have listened to the cd audio rom of the presentation and discussions. He said some very important things about all of this. Those who of you who did not heard Vamik Volkan could you please raise your hands. Those who heard him raise your hands.

Ok. I have to change what I am going to say because I assumed it was only a small number but it’s probably not more than 10% of you who heard Vamik Volkan. I warmly encourage you to hear his definition of group regression and its relationship to what New York is living at this point. I think they are very important.

I would like very, very briefly to give you an outline of my theoretical frame to then go into practical issues. My theoretical frame to analyze socially sanctioned violence is the subject that has interested me in recent years. Socially sanctioned violence, in other words, violence committed by masses of individuals against others, is that in which the most elementary rules of humanity are set aside. You have mass murder of one group by another. We have abundant examples of this in the 20th century. In analyzing what conditions bring it about, they are particularly centered not on terrorism but on totalitarian states such as the development in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which caused more than a hundred million deaths throughout the century. We don’t have enough information yet about the Cultural Revolution in China. We know that there were millions of deaths but the archives in China are not yet opened. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are the most important examples that I have used to develop the following frame.

First of all, the biological basis of aggression common to all human beings and to mammals are the normal aggressive functions of the territorial defense, defense of the young, fight over sexual partner that we find in all animal species, primates, and in human society of course. These are compensated and defended against by structures and levels of socialization and reflected in the individual by an inborn disposition to aggressive response that as psychoanalysts we know as the aggressive drive in contrast to the libidinal drive. Regardless of where you stand on drive theory, I think there is good evidence that under either genetic or constitutional disposition to excessive activation of aggression in temperament under severe trauma or early traumatization, there is an excessive drive of the aggressive segment of experience. This keeps fixation at an early level of development in which there is a sharp splitting between idealized and persecutory experiences in which if it is not overcome, a permanent set of primitive dissociation with splitting, projective identification, the division of the world into good and bad, intolerance of ambivalence, search for external enemies, and defensive search for self protective idealist relationships take place. This characterizes borderline personality organization and the two paradigmatic personalities that reflected are the paranoid personality in which you have a pure culture of ego syntonic and at the same time projected aggression and the narcissistic personality in which as a secondary defense a pathological grandiose self protects an idealized version of self against aggression. Except in the cases where that defense fails, then grandiose self becomes infiltrated with aggression and you have a malignant combination of paranoid and narcissistic features in the syndrome of malignant narcissism characterized by narcissistic personality, paranoid features, ego syntonic aggression and antisocial behavior. That’s the theory of personality, which is the first building block of the theoretical frame.

The second one is reflected by the psychoanalytic theory of masses: Freud’s theory of mass psychology, Turquet’s theory of large group psychology, Bion’s theory of small group psychology. These different phenomena described by Bion, in his basic assumption groups of dependency, fight-flight, and pairing; by Pierre Turquet, in large groups; and by Freud, his description of masses, come together in a theoretical frame in which the loss of ordinary structuring of social relations activates the primitive segment of early splitting and related mechanisms that normally is controlled by later dyadic and triadic developments that lead to the status role relations within the family and social life. The loss of that structure brings about an immediate regression regardless of the level of sanity of the individual and shows in the manifestations of unstructured small groups, Bion’s basic assumption groups, in the unstructured large group of Pierre Turkquet and in the mass psychology of Freud. So that they all have common characteristics in which the basic situation is the situation of the large group, is that of the unstructured large group in which there is externalized anxiety, uncertainty, fear of attack, and a tendency of a small group to become very violent while the large majority becomes innocent spectators, the search for allies that doesn’t work, intolerance of intimate relations, regression of sexuality into analization of it, vulgarization of reference to sexuality and the sense of impotence of the individual. Nobody listens to anybody else except in the one situation, except in the narcissistic merchant of illusions, mediocre cliché ridden good grandfather figure that calms the group and transforms it into a narcissistic entity of self-congratulation, ecstatic enjoyment and ambivalent relation to that “idealized narcissistic leader.” Or else into a paranoid direction in which the leader who organizes the group finds external enemies, permits the consoolidation of the group and the projection of its aggression outside creates Freud’s mass psychology.

On the other hand, when instead of the large group you have the small groups of Bion, then you find in pure forms these different defensive organizations: The dependent one with the narcissistic leader in the dependent group, the paranoid one in the fight-flight group and as a defense a sexualization in the idealization of the pair that one would almost say would advance into an Oedipal situation, of the basically primitive pre-Oedipal nature, the group’s structure all along.

This is the basic frame that explains the mass psychology of Freud enriched by the descriptions of Moscovici with the integration of several additional theoretical frames also coming from psychoanalysis. First, the role of the leader, in contrast to Freud, who didn’t analyze leadership roles, the analysis of leadership of the narcissistic groups, paranoid groups, paranoid mass psychology and of leadership in organization shows the importance of narcissistic and paranoid features with high intelligence and particular qualities of leadership that are less relevant at this moment. The groups tend to suck into leadership the particular leader they need: paranoid group a paranoid leader, dependent group a narcissistic leader but in term a narcissistic and paranoid leader are able to model a group that is still uncertain in the larger group’s situation. In the case of mass movements, there is a special role for the leader with malignant narcissism because that leader may combine both the narcissistic and paranoid aspirations into a consolidated dynamic mass movement. It then characterizes from relatively small organization, to mass movements, to political movements that can determine the characteristics of an organized state. If that kind of leadership comes together with control of media, economics, army on the one hand and an ideology, a system of beliefs that supports the leadership, builds upon the cultural dispositions of the group and re-enforces this mass structure. That leadership, ideology and group regression get integrated and to this you can finally add existence. Here comes Vamik Volkan’s work on historical traumata that get integrated into the personality by mechanisms I cannot go into right now but that are activated under moments of regression. They produce a resonance between the historical traumata that the present ideology is formulated by the leader and in turn ideology that does not need to be an ad hoc ideology as apparently that of Nazi Germany that basically already had antecedents of nationalistic ideology of Germany of nineteenth century. Nor does it need to be specifically Russian Communism, but builds itself up in a broader ideology. My corresponding theories that ideologies have in general a broad spectrum of formulations that runs from a central humanist core to a narcissistic triviality that on the one hand fits into the narcissistic group regression and into a paranoid polarity on the other fits with fundamentalist ideologies, as in Marxism. The official Communist movement of Soviet Russia of the last ten years before its demise, in which nobody believed in it but it was the language by which one obtained positions that recognized each other as being part of the establishment to the red army faction. In Germany or the Shining Path, you have a violent terrorist movement with a Marxist ideology.

So that the combination of historical traumata, actual true regression by present social crisis, economic crisis, or radical transformation of society in which ordinary structure is lost or destroyed thus provokes the unstructured group conditions that I mentioned. An ideology that facilitated its regression into the paranoid direction and corresponding leadership give rise to the possibility of the regime in which the combination of these factors may bring about organized sanctioned social violence that’s not yet terrorism. Terrorism is a specialized form of organized social violence..

That’s the general theory. Now I’d like to come to the characteristics of fundamentalists, the characteristics of terrorism and then talk a little about the present political situation. If you want to, you’ll see the application of the theory and how I look at it and even dare to talk about what you do about this kind of situation in light of historical developments. There is an entire literature on terrorism. Of course you’ve heard the wonderful introduction from Dr. Post and Vamik Volkan, those who heard him. There is a very simple book that I’d like to recommend to all of you which is a history of terrorism. It’s called the New Terrorism by Walter Lacqueur, a British historian who in relatively nontechnical terms and simple language provides an enormous amount of information, which gives a prospective that should help and I think dovetails with the analysis that I am presenting here.

The basic characteristics of the fundamentalist ideologies, in other words, an ideology that is a integrated system of ideas that gives a group, a mass or a population, a sense of their origin, their function and mutual relationships. The center of fundamentalist ideologies is a self-idealization of the social group involved, absolute goodness, and a tendency to find an outside enemy that potentially threatens that good group, a dangerous enemy who is absolutely bad. The establishment of sharp borders with an absolutely bad group with the need to avoid contamination by that bad external outside group. A need to consolidate as a community and avoid getting dispersed in privacy with an imposed control, even suppression of private life, private intimate sexual relations that get typically regulated if not forbidden in fundamentalist ideologies so that the individual has to sacrifice himself to the community. The defeat of the enemy will bring about a universal happiness, a utopian quality of the fundamentalist ideology and everything fostering that triumph of what we stand for is good, in other words, a rationalization of ego syntonic aggression against the other group. This ideology may take specific forms. We are the master race, we are threatened by a contaminated bad dangerous race, we are the proletariats, we are endangered by the wealth-destructive capitalist class, we are the Muslim defenders of god, threatened by Christian infidels, etc.

Religious fundamentalism has a particular emphasis on deity that provides the ultimate rational of self-idealization and has therefore an additional force that may base itself on traditional fundamentalist tendencies, in contrast to fundamentalist ideologies that are godless so to speak, where the leader is idealized and becomes a godlike figure very often only after first defeating all his rivals. Examples of this are the earlier sense of Hitler and of Stalin who then acquired that godlike quality.

This fundamentalist psychology veers into a terrorist psychology only under particular circumstances: usually when the general fundamentalist ideology is sufficiently dispersed, not able by itself to control the entire population or assure the defense against external boundaries. Radical expression of the ideology pushes it into an extreme that re-enforces the borders on the one hand and the need for an active aggressive stance against the outside world. So that terrorists transform fundamentalist ideologies into a dynamic force in which the destruction of the enemy becomes the dominant concern. Terrorism can take many forms. There is state terrorism against inside potential opposition, for example the grand terror in Soviet Russia. There is external state terrorism external enemies of the country have to be destroyed, for example the terrorist Marxist movements in Latin America and Western Europe and the Middle East supported by the Soviet Union until approximately 1980. There exist terrorist movements in away that protect fundamentalist ideologies and a state having fundamentalist ideologies against internal opposition by focusing all the aggression outside. This is the characteristic of Muslim fundamentalism, of Muslim terrorism which does not coincide with Muslim fundamentalism but which is its terrorist expression. And of course there are what Walter Lacquer calls exotic terrorism that has to do with one particular area that terrorists have terrorist cults and terrorism as a weapon in national liberation movements. One has to differentiate nationalist movements that are trying to establish a new regime, conquer space, state and loss from a terrorist movement that only tries to destroy the enemy without any further objective. It is important to keep that in mind because there is often confusion and you can hear in some circles one’s national liberation is another’s terrorist. That is not so, I cannot say, there are elements of this but we are going to talk about this later. It is a very frequent confusion.

The characteristics of a terrorist movement are that it is terrorism directed towards the inside and towards the outside. The interior directed terrorism is characterized by the absolute submission of the individual to his group and of the community to the leader, total limitation of privacy, a need for purification and strict obedience of laws of behavior. Some of this you heard Dr. Post refer to and I think it was in the New York Times yesterday or today or three days ago of these characteristics: usually extreme patriotism or erasure of sexual differences, a sadistic perfectionism of the demands from each member of the terrorist group. Giving up of all personal aspirations. The need to be prepared to kill traitors a mutual vigilant, to destroy traitors and to accept absolute cruelty and fearlessness is a precondition for being able to murder and destroy indiscriminately, to justify the external terrorist aims which are coming right now. First of all, destruction is the only objective and it is an incredible objective that has to be carried out with cruelty and dehumanization, disregarding who are the victims and facilitated by obeying orders slavishly to avoid any possibility of arbitrary selection of victims. Because the objective of terrorism is to spread terror, they must paralyze the enemy, the bad, other, devilish forces and bring about their disorganization. To terrorize them needs a maximum publicity of the terrorist. The “innocent” with the participation of the media becomes very important. The terrorist movement is absolutely intransigent in that it may show a tactical flexibility, but cannot compromise with the enemy because compromise erases the border and creates the danger of contamination. So that when you negotiate with terrorists you provide them tactical advantages but you don’t destroy them. The most beautiful example of this is what is happening with the FARC the leftist guerilla in Colombia. That in correlation with the drug dealers with the narco traffic started out with 3000 terrorists and grew to hijacking, murdering, and terrorizing the countryside and successive Colombian governments giving them more and more leeway in trying to compromise so that now after 10 years they are now in total control of 42000 square kilometers, have an army of 35000 men, and have better weapons than the Colombian army because they have much more money to buy air fields where they import/export drugs. I was in Colombia just two weeks ago and it is a country that is gradually opening up to destruction unless something happens in an apparently non-dramatic way. So by definition the terrorist therefore cannot enter into symmetrical honest negotiations. The objective of terror is then to paralyze the enemy, to legitimize the leadership so that the people of the enemy start losing the faith in their own government which then opens the possibility of disorganization and further weakening of the enemy forces. Or as an alternative, the strategy of terror is to produce counter terror in the sense of such massive abandonment of the civil liberties that the country becomes a totalitarian dictatorship that supposedly will then bring the total rebellion and the destruction of the country. The assumption for example of the Marxist terrorists in Germany was the thing they would bring down what they would provoke by random murder of industrialists and beat intellectuals. They would recreate a fascist state in which there would be a communist rebellion.

The enemy is always considered totally corrupt, dangerous, undeserving to live and the tracks or books of statement hammer this message to reinforce the freedom for terrorist action. The object of terrorism is then to destroy, the will to resist and then to defend themselves on the part of the enemy. Let me come to the concrete situation, which we are in.

Terrorism is a universal phenomenon that has existed throughout entire history. It has different characteristics in different historical periods. For example, the anarchist terrorism in Russia in the 19th century had very different characteristics in which anarchist ideology tried to destroy the established power but there was a tremendous effort on the part of the terrorists not to damage women and children in the terrorist acts, very different from the modern terrorism. And there was a willingness to die, so the suicidal psychology is nothing new. The assassins in the 11th century were a special Islamic terrorist group for whom emulation had the same characteristics that Dr. Post has so well described to you. The most suicidal terrorists in the last 20 years are not the Muslim terrorists but the Tamils for whom the death in pursuit of establishing a Tamil state has been more successful and impressed upon their masses, their groups, than even in the Middle East. Probably that is the most interesting terrorist group to study. It is the most extreme one that we know, much more so than ETA in the Basque country or the IRA. I could just give you a list of terrorist movements. But what happened in the United States is that we had never had a terrorist movement except some pathetic isolated esoteric individual like the Unabomber or a few extreme, rightists in Montana. But we have not been subjected systematically to terrorism like France by the Algerian terrorists in the 1970s, Germany by the RAF, the Greek by the June 17th (I think that is the name of the movement), Egypt by the Muslim brotherhood, Israel by Hammas, the Islamic jihad. So this is, Turkey by the BKK, Great Britain by the IRA. We are really almost the only civilized country that is only experiencing this to begin with. As Dr. Post pointed out to you, this hasn’t started by the bombing of September 11th but by the bombing of the embassies, trying to sink a ship, destroying planes, but we must confess to the naïveté , the illusion and false sense of security that now has been shattered.

The origin of Islamic terrorism is fundamentalist religious ideology but fundamentalist religious ideology is not the same as terrorism. The support of terrorism on the part of several Arab governments has been an effort to direct towards the outside enormous internal tensions within the Muslim world. Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to many Arab regimes and to many Muslim regimes. For example, Turkey has been fighting successfully against being taken over by Muslim fundamentalists. Egypt has been fighting successfully, and Indonesia has been fighting. The most powerful, or some of the most powerful Muslim countries are strongly opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, which is seen as a danger but have fostered terrorism directed against Israel and the United States in an effort to displace their internal tensions toward the outside. It is in an effort to consolidate the strong fundamentalist community, the dictatorial if not totalitarian nature of several of their states, protect dictatorial in part aristocratic in part military dictatorships and determines the ambivalence typically expressed by Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, it is interested in maintaining a good relationship with us because of the benefit from oil. And on the other hand it tries to protect itself against a threatening fundamentalism that at the same time has become the voice of the poor, oppressed, disorganized, those left aside from the lack of general development in Muslim countries. By fostering an outward directed terrorism that is not simply bin Laden but probably has a number of different arms and is supported and logistically coordinated and inspired by the governments of Iran, Iraq, and in the past and to a smaller degree, Libya, Sudan and Afghanistan. We are dealing with a powerful terrorist movement that is different from others only in that is has the universal quality that for example the Marxist one had in contrast to the localized one, of nationalist or localized terrorism. That it’s a religious inspired terrorism, which reinforces the total submission to the authority and permits the education of children and the brainwashing in the direction that you don’t die but by dying and killing you enter paradise immediately. You have already heard of the individual or psychological implications of the terrorist education. I think Dr. Post already mentioned that the education of children particularly from poor families, isolated from their families, indoctrinated from early childhood on makes for a wonderful army of the kind of suicidal terrorists you have in Israel. And on the other hand in the highly individualized importance with malignant narcissism the kind of personality structure that we re-encounter throughout the various levels of group that I mentioned by themselves can become the ideal leader of terrorist cells, a characteristic of those whom you have seen have been visiting us in the United States.

What needs to be done?

First of all, some dead end alleys you’ll hear in the press and by the intellectuals writing for the New Yorker, all the way down to the yellow press. You have to study the causes behind the profound frustrations. There are of course social, economic and political causes of the strengthening of religious fundamentalism and of the origin of terrorist movements. But in the moment when you are confronted by terrorist movement you cannot go into these historical causes. The first step is to eliminate the terrorist movement. Otherwise it will eliminate the state or community or the group to which it is directed because it is not a group to which you can come to an understanding or even if there were an understanding with the society that sends them it would not eliminate them. Beautiful proof is the IRA that is being slowly weakened by the combination first of all by the military measures the British government has taken against terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland on both the Protestant and Catholic side. Second, by the gradual education of the population against the terrorist attacks so that they lose the support in the surrounding fundamentalist culture. And third, it will sound trivial, by drying out their financial support.

Walter Lacquer described these principles before September 11th. I need to say he wrote this book two years earlier but already pointed out the importance of financial support of terrorist groups that gives them an independence of functioning in the form of “urban guerillas.” As the financial support dries out, they gradually disperse. This was true for example for the terrorist group in Germany in which the first step was radical control by the German government making it clear to East Germany that they would no longer tolerate East German basis for the terrorists in West Germany. And finally the gradual disillusionment of the German left who sympathized with the terrorists at first for the same reasoning they expressed profound, and you have to listen to them, they expressed conflicts that are very real, so that the terrorism needs to be destroyed. A good example of how this was achieved was with the Shining Path in Peru. To do that, as you have already heard, you cannot do massive warfare but it has to be counter terrorist movement against the leadership, against the financial support, infiltrating their movements and drying out their political and social support as well as their military measures. This requires, and what I am going to say next you probably will not like, this requires self-discipline on the media instead of being exploited by terrorism and I am referring here to the work of Hugo Neira,a Peruvian sociologist who has studied in great detail the relationship between terrorist expansion and media. I think we are seeing this in this country. It requires a reduction and control of civil liberties, sufficiently so to be able to get to the terrorist but not so much so to change the democratic nature of the state. And that is the main political decision. How much do you have to restrict individual civil liberties to be able to defeat the terrorists? What are the limits of censorship? To what extent do you need this censorship? And when is it justified?

Dictatorships have no problem in suppressing terrorist regimes, which…..
exploded after democracy in Spain, exploiting the freedom the democracy gave. I think we are faced with a need to limit the kinds of freedoms to which we are traditionally accustomed. As part of a war that will not be ended with massive bombings of Afghanistan but will involve many silent quiet terrorist operations, financial control, political pressure of perhaps also the need to destabilize one or another regime in the Middle East. I don’t have the time to give you the rationale for that… but I thought I should put my cards on the table to give you a chance for argument. I said the same thing in Colombia that the FARC had to be defeated militarily and there was a hushed silence from the thousand people in the room. Nobody said a word and then people came to me massively in the corridors to express their agreements. And I asked why didn’t you say this so publicly and they said it’s dangerous to say this in public.