The psychology of fundamentalism

We have a delusion detector on my ward at the Allan a novel written by Yasmin Khadra (a pseudonym of Memorial Institute. It comes in the form of a Haitian Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul) set in psychiatric nurse. Every time a Haitian patient is admitted Afghanistan that follows the fortunes of a married couple to the ward with some bizarre ideas, we ask this nurse to living under the Taliban regime. Violence and humiliation talk to the patient and tell us whether his or her “crazy” are daily events as the Mullahs try to impose their values ideas are delusional or just typical of the island culture. So if a Haitian lady feels that she is hexed or that all her In Infidel, the Muslim writer, Hirsi Ali, writes about her problems are caused by someone poking a voodoo doll, our professional delusion detector will decide if the particular description of magic is within or outside the turned to the verses on how women were supposed to behave with their husbands. We owed our husbands absolute obedience, he told the mothers and teenage girls Recently a young deeply spiritual and very religious who had gathered to listen to him. If we disobeyed them, Muslim male was admitted to the ward because he had stopped eating and drinking in order to purify himself. He A further example is found in Jon Krakauer’s Under the desperately wanted to make sure that he would be allowed Banner of Heaven, a non-fiction account of a to enter Paradise if he should die. He didn’t seem fundamentalist Mormon sect in Utah. What would a depressed and his thinking was otherwise normal. Mormon delusion detector say about Dan Lafferty, a Fortunately at that time we had a Saudi resident working devout believer, who, along with his brother, murdered on the ward and she was able to assure us, without two people (a third brother and his wife) because they reservation, that the patient’s thinking was delusional. In rebelled against the religious requirement of polygamous fact recently the patient again stopped eating and the marriage? He testified that he was ordered to kill by God. family consulted a local Sheik who tried to convince the In an interview with Krakauer, Dan “believes … that the young man that God would not want him to avoid food or most salient fact of existence is the immutable division of drink, “It’s against our religion,” he said, but the young humankind into those who are inherently righteous and those who are inherently evil. ‘Some were chosen to be A family that I saw a few years ago raised related issues. children of God and others became children of the devil. A Pakistani man and his French Canadian wife believed Either you’re a brother—a child of God—or an asshole—a that their 19-year-old son, who suffered from a severe child of the devil.” So what does our delusion detector form of schizophrenia, was possessed by a djinn. Djinns find? According to Krakauer, “Most folks in Utah regard are malevolent spirits commonly believed in some Middle Dan Lafferty’s theology as both preposterous and Eastern cultures to cause all kinds of illness and abnormal horrifying, but they concede that he seems to be a true behaviour. That part was easy for me to understand. What was more difficult occurred when I saw the family in In the first example I gave, a fictional Haitian patient, a therapy. The family consisted of the parents and three nation’s culture accounts for ideas that to us Canadians brothers, one of whom was the patient. At the beginning would be delusional. In the second, our Muslim of one session, mother came in to the office wearing dark gentleman, we had to rule out appropriate religious ideas sun glasses which she refused to take off. I thought I saw before deciding that the patient was, in fact, ill. In the third swelling and a bruised cheek under her glasses. When I case, we see that it is possible that several members of a asked about it, father defiantly said that he hit his wife family hold beliefs (which may or may not be congruent because she was sun bathing on their porch wearing only a with their culture) that are delusional, or at least seem so bathing suit. The three boys shouted at their mother that to someone looking in from the outside. And in the case of she deserved to get hit and that god would punish her. She the devout Mormon, we see how fundamentalist beliefs can rationalize murder; or were they delusions? With only minor changes in the details, this family could have been found in the pages of The Swallows of Kabul, Hirsi Ali, Ayaan, Infidel, Free Press, 2007. Khadra, Yasmina, The Swallows of Kabul, (trans. John Cullen), 3 Krakauer, Jon, Under the Banner of Heaven, Doubleday, 2003. St. Mary’s Hospital Psychiatry Grand Rounds, November 22, 2007. Wiviott, Gerald (2007) The psychology of fundamentalism Let me define delusion. It is a fixed, false belief, not psychological motives of the individual fundamentalist correctable upon presentation of appropriate evidence, and and propose a number of theories, most of which derive, – very important – not part of a subcultural norm. Well in one way or another, from a psychoanalytic perspective. how big does the subculture have to be before we can chalk up a crazy idea to something other than a delusion? 1. We hold beliefs that unite us to a group. That identity Are the wafer and wine really the body and blood of provides security for the person whose sense of self is Christ? Well, no, but enough people believe it so that is not delusional. How about a wire strung up around a Group norms and values are accepted and expressed neighbourhood? Is this eruv really the extended wall of a in order to feel the embrace of the group. While “faith house? What about the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, a and belief can be the most powerful motivating forces religious cult, who collectively suicided when the Haley in human life” at the extreme, “Reality is replaced Bopp comet was nearest the sun believing that they would with delusions, perspectives with myopia at a level be reborn on a starship hidden in the tail of the comet, which attains an almost erotic level of collective certain of a better fate than the one awaiting them on hysteria.” (Stephen Morgan, The Psychology of Terror earth. Does 39 make a subculture, or were they all delusional – in other words, if one of them survived and Rituals help solidify group identity, perhaps even at came to the emergency room, would he be considered the expense of individual identity. Alan Shapiro, an psychotic for holding such beliefs if, in every other way, American poet writes about an old friend of his who These questions seem more topical today. In a recent New He talked about the 613 mitzvot (commandments), York Times article, Paul Krugman wondered whether the which govern every aspect, every moment, of a Hasid’s administration in Washington was cynical or delusional in life, and how a life lived according to the Law infuses planning its famous “surge.” He couldn’t decide (both everything—lovemaking, eating, even bodily imply contempt for the government), but the mere fact that functions—with holiness and joy … the more [I he could raise the question ought to make us consider the watched him] the more it seemed that the holy joy he role of delusional thinking in everyday life. And look at felt (and I have no doubt that he felt it) was not a the controversy caused by Richard Dawkins’s popular personal joy but the joy of personal extinction, the joy book, The God Delusion. In it Dawkins asserts that the of the body transformed through ritual and unremitting discipline into a transpersonal vessel for the holy spirit, belief in a transcendent being, responsible for cosmic creation and consciously involved in the lives of people, is delusional. Strictly speaking, both Krugman and Dawkins 2. To insure that we are not threatened by ideas that are misuse the word “delusion.” For better or worse, the not part of the group identity, we project onto those Neocon ideas are a subcultural norm, and belief in God is who hold contrary ideas images of sin, evil, and more of a cultural norm than is atheism, which at least is a degradation. Thus certain cultures try to sever ties with the world outside their domain in order not to be contaminated. David Brooks, in a January 25 NY What’s important here is the notion that ‘delusion’ means Times Op-Ed piece, described the currant situation in ‘not real’. It’s a false belief, fixed, and not correctable, yet Iraq, “Amid the turmoil, the complexity of life falls here we are using the term to describe ideas held by away, and things are reduced to stark polarities: groups of people. Are they all delusional? The “not part of Sunni-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni, human-subhuman. Once a subcultural norm” requirement reduces the number of this mental descent has begun, it is possible to kill people who might be considered to be delusional, but it without compunction.” We employ the mechanism of makes context important. Is the belief inside or outside a splitting to create us-against-them scenarios. We (and, subculture? And the same way that context determines by inclusion, I) are all good and they (the other) are all ‘delusion’, context determines reality, as I will show Now what does all this have to do with the psychology of fundamentalism? It would be a lot simpler to look at the 6 Morgan, Stephen, The Mind of a Terrorist Fundamentalist, Awe- 4 Krugman, Paul, “Quagmire of the Vanities,” New York Times, Jan. 8, 7 Shapiro, Alan, The Last Happy Occasion, University of Chicago 5 Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 8 Brooks, David, New York Times, Jan. 25, 2007. Wiviott, Gerald (2007) The psychology of fundamentalism 3. As you might expect from an analytic framework, quality much like genes. Such ideas have a particular sexual conflict has been proposed to account for appeal, meet a vital need, provide some kind of fundamentalist thinking. There are several variations advantage, probably psychological, and, therefore, of this model: in one, men’s fear of the feminine have staying power. He believes that the “meme” underlies the kind of patriarchy and subjugation of hypothesis accounts for the widespread notions that lie women that is seen in many fundamentalist cultures. at the heart of the world’s religions, and when taken to In another, it is the fear of the uncontrollable that extreme, they evolve into fundamentalism. leads to ideologies that provide clear and rigid rules to But I don’t think that this kind of hypothesizing captures govern sexual behaviour, another characteristic of the essence of the psychological roots of fundamentalism. fundamentalist cultures. Listen again to Hirsi Ali2: Fundamentalism is more about a way of thinking than it is I found it remarkable how many esteemed Muslim about the content. And here I want to bring in the concept thinkers had philosophized at such length about how of epistemology. That is the branch of philosophy that much female skin could be bared without causing deals with knowledge. Not knowledge about things but, chaos to break out across the landscape. Of course rather, “what do we mean when we think we know almost all these thinkers agreed that once a girl reaches something?” Do we think that what we know corresponds puberty, every part of her body except her face and her to a reality that exists out there, independent of us, and hands must be covered when in the company of any men who are not immediate family, and at all times that our knowledge corresponds to that reality? Sure, in outside her home. This was because her bare skin everyday life, we are in pretty good shape if our would involuntarily cause men to feel an knowledge of a banana leads us to peel that banana before slicing it into our cereal. No doubt a scientist could provide empirical evidence to support such a practice. But Surely these ideas would register with the Outremont what about “knowing when life begins in utero” or “the Orthodox Jews who lobbied for frosted glass on the age of the earth”? What does it mean to say that we know windows of the local YMCA. Let’s face it, the the Messiah is coming, or, for that matter, that Jesus, or physicality and intensity of sexual feelings can be the Hidden Imam, will one day return? If we think that our unsettling, even explosive, and fundamentalist “knowledge” about these issues is the same as our knowledge of a banana, we are using an “absolutist” 4. From a more existentially oriented analytic framework, epistemology. If, on the other hand, we recognize that human beings live with the awareness of their own much of what we call knowledge is culturally determined, mortality – we are all going to die. For many this or consequent to our own unique experience or education, reality is fraught with unbearable anxiety; it is easy to we will not be so quick to assume that our knowledge is understand why so many religions offer images that the only correct explanation or the “Truth.” We will be assuage death anxiety. Belief in Heaven, Paradise, using a contextual epistemology which allows for reincarnation, and the soul all offer consolation. The more intense the individual’s fear, the more rigidly Postmodernists, in taking this relativity to an extreme, held the belief. The greater the outside threat (or the make moral principles seem vague and trivial. They also greater the perception of threat) the more desperate is risk being so respectful of cultural diversity that any the need to defend the comforting belief against criticism of cultural practices becomes unacceptable. criticism, skepticism, evidence, or denial. (Think about female circumcision, as an example.) One 5. Man senses his insignificance in the face of an might make the case that fundamentalist ideologies are a overwhelming and uncaring universe. Seeking growing response, first, to the lack of moral absolutes and, guidance and meaning, he turns to sources which give second, to notions of cultural diversity. In fact, since 9/11, answers. Doubt and questioning only lead to more our tolerance for cultural diversity has shrunk as the U.S. anxiety, so a literal interpretation of the literature is has demonstrated a missionary zeal to spread the Truth: preferred. Religious fundamentalism is characterized “freedom and democracy” and, in some places, reasonable by literal readings of the relevant texts. There is accommodation notwithstanding, laws banning the neither room for debate, interpretation, nor literary wearing of religious clothing and symbols are being 6. Another theoretical perspective is offered by Dawkins, But what does all this talk about epistemology have to do the Professor of evolution. He suggests that “memes” with fundamentalism, and where does psychology fit in? or ideas that emerge at some point in human history, There is no doubt that fundamentalists see the world as if often across cultures, have a “survival of the fittest” their knowledge of it were absolute. Rigidly held beliefs, Wiviott, Gerald (2007) The psychology of fundamentalism intolerance of alternative points of view, capacity to groups or cults. In other words, people with psychological reinterpret history to fit their worldview, and rejection of vulnerabilities will seek out “subcultures” whose ideas, scientific evidence are all manifestations of a perspectives and values offer comfort. Take a charismatic fundamentalist ideology. Not just religions, mind you, but leader and he or she will find willing followers, followers also systems of government and economic theories can whose own weakness is fortified by the energy, become endowed with the characteristics of confidence and conviction of a leader who preaches fundamentalism. Look at Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Mao’s salvation no matter what flavour it comes in. China, or the Israel imagined by Yagil Amir, the assassin To maintain loyalty to a leader, even a dead one, rigid of Yitzhak Rabin. Even Baptists call those Baptists who group-think becomes the norm. Baruch Goldstein was an favour gay rights “Fundamentalists of the Left.” Israeli doctor and a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defence League. In 1994, Goldstein These ideas blend into psychology when we think about walked into a mosque in Hebron during prayer services how an absolutist epistemology (or fundamentalist and shot to death 29 Muslims and wounded 150 before thinking) relates to imagination. I contend that there are being killed by the survivors. His tombstone has become a two kinds imagination: the first underlies the ability to pilgrimage site. It reads: “Here lies the saint, Dr Baruch create; here it is the ability to imagine other worlds, other Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the holy man, may ways in which things can be organized, other explanatory the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the models. The second is the ability to imagine other minds. Jews … His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He Believe me, this is not as simple or as common as you was killed as a martyr of God.” Grandiosity and hero- might think. It is the capacity for empathy or, as Martin worship are a potent, sometimes lethal, mix. Buber defines it, the “bold swinging into the other.” And to do that, one has to assume an openness, a non- Another dimension may be biological. Imagination might judgmental attitude, a sense of wonder and curiosity about have a lot to do with brain circuitry. There is no doubt that how the other mind makes sense of the world. Empathy some people have more robust imaginations than others, requires a recognition that each mind is unique. From a and likewise, some people have much higher developed psychological perspective, we can see that fundamentalists capacity for empathy. However, with relatively few lack the capacity for empathy and their imaginative world exceptions, I don’t think that biology or individual psychology are responsible for the fundamentalism we see on a vast scale. In How to Cure a Fanatic, Amos Oz prescribes imagining the other as part of the cure. He writes, I think culture shapes not only what we think, but also “Imagining the other, in my view, is not only an æsthetic how we think. And culture does this on one level by using business. It’s an ethical imperative. Inside the family—not the family as a conduit to pass on values, but more just between nations or between communities—imagining explicitly in its education systems. I remember my wife the other is a moral imperative. I want to tell you a secret telling me about her days as a teacher at a Lubovitch day (don’t quote me): I think that imagining the other is also school. Certainly clothing regulations were in place to great pleasure. A secret pleasure and a great pleasure. I maintain modesty; that didn’t surprise me. But what did think imagining the other turns us not only into better was the censorship of reading material and the topics that neighbours, or better spouses, it even turns us into better could be discussed. And she told me that the students lovers.” But, as I’ve implied, it’s fear of the other, the could not watch commercial TV and were not allowed to unique and separate other, that lies at the heart of see movies. What is different about educating children in that milieu and home schooling in the States where 43% of home schooled children come from Evangelical How do we account for the existence of fundamentalism? families, or the Amish without electricity, or the I already expressed skepticism that the answer will be Maddrasses in Pakistan? It is obvious that the content of found in individual analytic models of psychological the curricula varies, but what doesn’t is the development. That doesn’t mean that in some cases, epistemological foundation of all the teaching – there is individual fears, conflicts and vulnerabilities may make only one reality, one way of conceptualizing the world, someone prone to rigid thinking or to joining fanatic one way of understanding ethics and metaphysics, and the knowledge that is being transmitted corresponds to the one 9 Sharlet, Jeff, Through a Glass Darkly, How the Christian Right is reality that exists out there independent of culture and Reimagining U.S. History. Harper’s, December, 2006 experience. This is the nature of fundamentalism – the 10 Buber, Martin, I and Thou, Free Press, 1971 11 Oz, Amos, How to Cure a Fanatic, Princeton University Press, 2006. Wiviott, Gerald (2007) The psychology of fundamentalism indoctrination of young children into a way of thinking buck conformity, to question, and to doubt. It takes that renders them impervious to alternate models of courage to give up the big weapon of “Truth.” understanding their world, even blind to evidence from Knowing the truth, or at least feeling that one is in possession of the truth, boldly affects one’s personality. We can erect wall around schools and fences to separate Think of the beatific glow on the face of someone who has nations; we can censor books, imprison dissident writers found the answer to life’s mysteries and the answer to the and, if necessary, murder or execute those willing to vexing problems of deciding right from wrong; see how disseminate ideas that threaten the beliefs underlying earnestly they want to share the answer with you. As group identity. But the 21st Century has seen the rise of Amos Oz says, the fanatic wants nothing more than to help technologies that allow ideas to jump over fences, those who haven’t found the truth. In a somewhat tongue- disregard borders, evade censors, and leap freely from an anonymous source into a secret computer hidden in a Bin Laden’s immediate target may have been New York, or teenager’s closet. For cults this is a way of attracting Madrid, but his goal was to turn moderate, pragmatic adherents; for fundamentalists these technologies are a Muslims into “true” believers, into his kind of Muslim. formidable threat to their ability to control the Islam, in bin Laden’s view, was weakened by “American epistemological agenda. How will they recreate their values,” and to defend Islam, you must not just hit the West borders and limit the availability of alternative views? The and hit it hard, you must eventually convert the West. Peace answer lies at the heart of the “Clash of Civilizations.” will prevail only when the world is converted not to Islam, but to the most fundamentalist and fierce and rigid form of Recently a documentary film, The Jesus Camp was Islam. It will be good for you. Bin Laden essentially loves shown in Montreal. It illustrated with frightening clarity you; by his way of thinking September 11 was a labor of the role of education in shaping the thinking patterns of love, he did it for your own good, he wants to change you, impressionable children. Again, I want to emphasize that it is not so much the content as it is the process of thought But in a striking juxtaposition, Oz immediately goes on to that is so important. The film focuses on the work of Pastor Becky Fischer, an Evangelical Christian, who runs a summer camp called Kids on Fire that prepares children Very often these things begin in the family. Fanaticism to be soldiers in God’s army. I’ll quote from a review by begins at home. It begins precisely with the very common urge to change a beloved relative for his or her own good. It begins with the urge to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a Ms. Fischer understands full well that the indoctrination dearly loved neighbor; it begins with the urge to tell a child of children when they are most impressionable (under of yours, “You must become like me not like your father.” 13 and preferably between 7 and 9) with evangelical Or among married couples, “You have to change, you have dogma is the key to the movement’s future growth, and to see things my way or else this marriage is not going to she compares the Kids on Fire to militant Palestinian training camps in the Middle East that instill an But if people are not willing to change, if they are not aggressive Islamist fundamentalism. The term war, as in culture war, is repeatedly invoked to describe the willing to accept the Truth, fanatic believers are prepared fighting spirit of a movement already embraced by 30 In October, 2006, at a debate on the grounds of Dublin’s At one point in the film, a 12-year-old home-schooled boy Trinity College, Omar Brooks, a British-born Muslim is reading a book ridiculing evolution and mocking the extremist, said Prophet Mohammed’s message to idea that science has any relevance in his education. One nonbelievers is: “I come to slaughter you.” He went on to can imagine that if this lad began to question some of the say, “We are Muslims… We drink the blood of the enemy, ideas that he is being fed, he would be branded a traitor by and we can face them anywhere. That is Islam and that is his community. This, of course, was the fate of Hirsi Ali, jihad.” But another young Muslim in the crowd watching who rejected the religious values and clan traditions in the debate waved his finger at the radicals and shouted, which she was raised. For Amos Oz, being a traitor is a “This is not ideology. It’s mental illness.” That too is good thing because it assumes the capacity to change, to subject for debate, but who is going to be the delusion detector? Or has delusional thinking already become a 13 “Jesus Camp,” film directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 15 Radicals vs.moderates: British Muslims at crossroads., 14 Holden, Stephen, New York Times, Sept. 22, 2006. Wiviott, Gerald (2007) The psychology of fundamentalism From 9/11 to family life, fundamentalist ways of thinking themselves. And we have to have the courage to be are seen to pervade the very fabric of our daily lives. From traitors, to acknowledge that we have not found the spouses to nations, from our neighbourhood to the planet, answer, but rather that we have found an answer that feels intolerance of differences is tearing us apart. It would be right for now, and we know that others have found their funny if it weren’t so sad. But, as Oz reminds us, we have comfortable answers. Some of those answers may seem to see the humour in it. We have to retain the ability to delusional to us, as ours may appear to them, but it matters laugh at ourselves. That is a sure antidote to the less what is the content than what boundaries contain it. fundamentalist in us – fundamentalists can’t laugh at References
1. Khadra, Yasmina, The Swallows of Kabul, (trans. John 9. Sharlet, Jeff, Through a Glass Darkly, How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History. Harper’s, December, 2006. 2. Hirsi Ali, Ayaan, Infidel, Free Press, 2007. 10. Buber, Martin, I and Thou. Free Press, 1971 3. Krakauer, Jon, Under the Banner of Heaven. 11. Oz, Amos, How to Cure a Fanatic. Princeton 4. Krugman, Paul, Quagmire of the Vanities. New York 5. Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion. Houghton 13. “Jesus Camp,” film directed by Heidi Ewing and 6. Morgan, Stephen, The Mind of a Terrorist 14. Holden, Stephen, New York Times, Sept. 22, 2006. Fundamentalist. Awe-Struck E-Books, 2001. 15. Radicals vs.moderates: British Muslims at crossroads. 7. Shapiro, Alan, The Last Happy Occasion. University of * Lawrence Harrison’s The Central Liberal Truth, How 8. Brooks, David, New York Times, Jan. 25, 2007. Politics Can Change a Culture and Save it From Itself provides a background for understanding how culture plays a role in cultivating fundamentalism.


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