The Anatomy of Propaganda within Religious Terrorism

By Hindery, Roderick | The Humanist, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Anatomy of Propaganda within Religious Terrorism


Hindery, Roderick, The Humanist


Terrorism promoted in the name of Islam, Irish Catholicism, or other religious and nonreligious political doctrines doesn't confine itself to suicidal explosions or the infliction of intolerable collateral homicides. At its nucleus terrorism is psychological as well as physical. It paralyzes minds and emotions as much as it explodes buildings, buses, or planes. From Dantesque depictions of eternal fire and torture to threats of holy destructions issued in the name of deities, terrorists commence with the indoctrination of their own agents. Meanwhile, they pursue the demoralization of further victims. Either as systematic mass suggestion (propaganda) or as the one-on-one manipulation of individuals (indoctrination), intimidation shuts out critical thought as well as emotional maturity.

While terrorism and propaganda are distinct ideas, they frequently overlap--such as when youth are deceived or frightened into sexual submission by religious opportunists and predators. Despicable as such physical molestation is, abuses of minds and hearts are equally appalling because their scale is more extensive than physical terror, and physical coercion is so often preceded by deception and emotional manipulation. As the physical manipulation of minors is preceded by lies and indoctrination, imminent social catastrophes can be better gauged and forecast by recognizing the anatomy of lies and manipulations within propaganda.

In my 2001 book Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? I identify several features of indoctrination and propaganda practiced by terrorists and others. Five of these elements are: unwarranted certitude, unmodified self-interest, deceptions by others, exploitations of emotions, and the impact of misled intellectuals. There are three preliminary strategies that seem especially prevalent within propagandas spread by terrorists: the use of repetitive formulas and self-hypnotic meditations, binary thinking, and a focus on youth. These characterize one-on-one indoctrination as well as large-scale social propaganda. Because they also function as barometers for measuring both physical and psychological terrorism, their composition needs to be examined more closely.

Repetitive Formulas and Self-hypnotic Meditations

A document found in a suitcase belonging to leading September 11, 2001, terrorist Muhammed Atta has been faulted for being insufficiently Muslim in tenor by Sunni (orthodox) Muslims who might not be comfortable with its mystical language. Sufi Muslim mystics, however, might accept the language because it reads like a set of rules for novices in Sufi asceticism. In any case, the "suitcase document" is remarkable for four reasons.

First, it embodies a classic ascetical strategy for applying formulaic principles to intended actions. Second, it shares much in common with repetitive techniques for self-hypnosis. Third, it bears a striking resemblance to mainstream traditions such as Catholicism in ascetical manuals like The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola or The Rule of St. Benedict that says, "keep death daily before one's eyes." Whether or not such manuals threaten human freedom depends, of course, on the various contexts in which they have been presented. If in the wrong hands they can function as formulas and meditations both for indoctrination and for fighting "holy" wars.

Fourth, the document from the suitcase directly connects religious formulas and meditations with intentions to perpetrate mass murder. Practical checklists of objectives, terrifying in magnitude, are interwoven with religious statements and then repeated and applied as mantras of self-indoctrination.

The "Suitcase Document," published in 2001 by the New York Times Company, paraphrases some of the formulas:

  Pray during the previous night. Remember God
   frequently and with complete serenity. Visualize
   how you will respond if you get into trouble. … 

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