T Nation

The Contagion of Fanaticism


I found this to be a pretty interesting read on how fanaticism is at the roots of terrorism, more so than anything else (although you consistently hear all sorts of statements from academics about how it is in response to U.S. foreign policy over the years, etc.) Generally speaking, I have found the columns of this Newsweek writer (Fareed Zakaria) to be fairly on point and balanced (yes, even at Newsweek it's possible I guess).


How to Stop the Contagion

This is battle, not an academic seminar. We in the West have to discredit, delegitimize and dismantle barbaric ideas.

By Fareed Zakaria

Aug. 1 issue - If you want to understand what motivates suicide bombers, watch the recent movie "Downfall." Based on eyewitness accounts, it chronicles the final days inside Hitler's bunker. In a particularly harrowing scene, Joseph Goebbels and his wife are given the opportunity to have their six young children flee to safety. But Magda Goebbels refuses and instead drugs the kids to sleep. Then she inserts a cyanide capsule into each child's mouth and presses the jaws until the capsule breaks. When explaining why she won't allow her kids to escape, Mrs. Goebbels explains, "I can't bear to think of them growing up in a world without national socialism."

This is the power of ideology. Magda Goebbels had embraced a horrific world view that made her believe that murdering her children was a noble act.

Suicide bombing cannot be explained by poverty and disadvantage. The London bombers were not the wretched of the earth. They came from working-class but comfortable backgrounds, living in one of the world's most prosperous countries. For all the talk of their being marginalized, none were living in hellish ghettos. Britain today does a decent job of assimilating its immigrants, certainly better than any other European country. If anyone had cause for rage, it was not the bombers but their parents. Muslim migrants from Pakistan (in three cases), they arrived in Britain in less multicultural times. They were dirt-poor and probably ostracized and persecuted. And yet they did not become murderers; they started fish-and-chips shops.

Like all ideologies, radical Islam is a phenomenon of the educated class. From Muhammad Atta to Mohammed Sidique Khan, almost all suicide bombers have been men who read and write. In V. S. Naipaul's book "A Million Mutinies Now," the author interviews a young Hindu fanatic. The man explains his fascistic views, and then Naipaul asks the man's father, who happens to be sitting there, what he thinks. The old man explains that he works at a factory from morning till night and doesn't really have time for these kinds of ideas. Extremist ideology is a leisure-time pursuit.

Nor can foreign policy really explain such rage. The invasion of Iraq clearly has greatly enraged many Muslims, radicalizing some deeply. But can a disagreement over foreign policy really make a Briton like Germaine Lindsay, who had never even visited Iraq, kiss his pregnant wife and child goodbye and go out and blow himself and others up? There is something deeper at work here. Last week Egypt, which sent no troops to Iraq and condemned the invasion, was targeted. Turkey and Indonesia?which are both opponents of the war?have also been attacked. (Besides, the demands keep changing. Osama bin Laden's primary one was that American troops leave Saudi Arabia, which they have done. Bin Laden seems not to have noticed.)

What this is about, as Tony Blair has argued, is fanaticism. Radical ideologies of hate and violence have often seduced disaffected young men searching for some great cause. Forty years ago they would have embraced Leninist revolutionary dogma, with Che Guevara as the bin Laden of his day. Today, for Muslims, it is a violent interpretation of Islamic fundamentalism. Born in the Middle East, it has spread like a virus across the Muslim world and into the Islamic diaspora in the West.

The good news is that in the heart of the Muslim world, this ideology is not doing so well. The bombings, increasingly of civilians, are showing Al Qaeda and its ilk in their true light. Arabs are finally denouncing terrorism and also the ideologies that feed it. They need to do much more, and far more forcefully. It's a clich?, but true, that ultimately only Muslims can win this fight.

But Western countries can do more as well. We're fighting a military battle against a phenomenon that is largely nonmilitary. In a battle of ideas, no one bullet will win. We must present a positive vision for Muslim societies, be seen as a friendly and progressive force by them and thus strengthen the moderates and liberals.

But this is battle, not an academic seminar. We also have to discredit, delegitimize and dismantle barbaric ideas. After the London bombings, Arab commentators pointed out that for years Britain has granted asylum to noxious preachers and scholars who praise suicide bombings, argue for the overthrow of Western regimes and celebrate Al Qaeda's victories.

The director-general of Al Arabiya TV, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, asked two weeks ago in the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat, "Why would Britain grant asylum to Arabs who have been convicted of political crimes or religious extremism, or even sentenced to death? Not only were they admitted to this country, but they were also provided with accommodation, a monthly salary, and free legal advice... for those who want to prosecute the British government." Recall that bin Laden's original declaration of war against the West was published in only one venue, a London-based newspaper. Next time, let him publish it in Saudi Arabia if he can.

"Extremism, like many other diseases, is an infectious one," Al-Rashed continued. "A small dose of carriers can spread the infection like wildfire, establishing a community full of destructive thoughts and practices." It isn't the only answer, but let's start by making life as difficult as possible for the carriers of this virus.


That's a good post Kuz very interesting....taught me a couple things about what's behind some of these bombings.


Great post.


Excellent, and very true -- especially of beliefs that are not anchored in rational reasoning. Obviously, some are a lot more dangerous than others, but you can see echoes of such extremist thought processes in everyday life all the time, from Red Sox fans to religious zealots to militant vegans to what have you.


Here something else on the causes of fanaticism. It's a movie review, but the movie itself might be interesting to check out.



What I found most striking is the the fact that the fanaticism is described as being such a product of the educated middle class. The best line of the article is:

"Extremist ideology is a leisure-time pursuit."

Another thing the article brought to mind for me is that it seems people (and rightly so in a way) have a hard time wrapping their heads around the beliefs of these fanatics. People want to find carefully constructed reasons for the hatred (U.S. intervention in the Middle East, U.S. aggression abroad, etc. etc.) but it ends up being hatred for its own sake, in a way.

And thankfully the only thing Sox fans are strapping to their bodies are "Jeter Sucks" t-shirts. (Actually, as BB probably well knows, the shirts are much worse than that, but I didn't feel like going into too much detail on a work computer. lol)



Good post. I would also ad that the need to blame someone else is also important to this type of absolute idealogy. "The West", "The Jews" etc. Same line of shit, the pattern repeats itself.

As to Red Sox fans...don't give them any ideas. Mass suicides in the Charles River were never far from reality during the post season.



Great stuff on the radicalism as a 'leisure activity.'

Gotta think there is a similar theme here in that many affluent, educated men and women can get powerfully interested in radical politics of all sorts - think of the West-coast Communists. It's quite a phenomenon to see what kind of radicalism college educated folks in a garden variety coffee shop can cook up - and actually begin practicing.

Is it the age-old criticism of the softness of mind that affluence and ease brings? Dunno. In the West, I think it has something to do with tolerance run amok as moral relativism - but in Arab societies, they don't have an overabundance of liberalism (the old kind of liberalism), so it is not a perfect match.

But as the joke I've heard goes:

"Were you ever a Marxist in college?"

"No, my parents didn't make enough money."


These are both good articles, and I agree a lot with them. Sitting here in London, and taking the underground, where everyone (including me) is scared, you think about these things a lot.

I salute this thread as one of the first here, which recognises that and does not fall into a apologism/nuke'em fest. Let's keep it that way.

I indeed think that the root for fanaticism lies in the search for some meaning, and under the wrong circumstances the most simplistic answer (nazi ideology, religious hatred, homorepugnance, etc.) can lead to the most dreadful decisions. It is interesting to see that radicals often actually switch ideologies, as their common denominator is, well radicalism, and the ideological divisions often are marginal.

This does not, however, mean that my critical view on the Iraq war has changed. As the Newsweek article states, terrorism cannot be defeated by bullets, but by offering real and believable alternatives. That I don't see much in american (and many other countries') foreign policy.

Perhaps the problem we face is rather an internal one, where we should criticise our political classes (and as a European, I have a lot to criticise in my politicians). So do not mistake my statement as anti-american, just because it questions american policy.

As long as certain standards are not upheld by "us" (human rights, due process, humane treatment of prisoners, etc.), it will provide ideologists and demogogues with propaganda material to feed to the crowd of sense-seeking angry young people. Is that a justification or even an apology for becoming a terrorist? No, but it can provide some insight into the arguments wielded by the ones who foster radicalism in impressionable young people. Ignoring this will simply not help in the effort to reduce terrorist acts, thus creating an obstacle in the "war on terror".

But in the terms of alternatives, what do we really provide as "western" societies? Reality TV, brand identity and materialism? It's not a surprise (but in no case a justification) that the ones rebelling (in the worst possible sense) are educated people. Could they decide differently? Hell yes. The question is - why don't they?



That's probably an important part of the problem right there. When we proclaim our love of freedom and liberty, and how we want all men to be able to pursue happiness, it sounds great.

But if we turn a blind eye to countries that oppose those ideals, whether because they're "allies" or because it is economically advantageous (child labor in China, for example) then we appear to be hypocrites. We simply want those ideal conditions for ourselves, and fuck you all if you must suffer so that we can enjoy the good life. Shut up, make those shoes and give us some oil.

It might be from simple desperation. Changing "the system" by a peaceful approach appears near impossible. Corrupt politicians are propped up by greedy corporations, and the people are kept distracted by the media, most of which is owned by the same corporations.

Some might come to the conclusion that only a violent revolution or an all out war between religions and culture would have any hope of toppling that "system."


This seems to fit with this general idea -- more privileged Europeans are becoming the terrorists, not the disenfranchised poor of the middle east.


The New Face of Terror
Boy, if you read one article today, make this one it, even though it will scare you to death:


All the arguments about al Queda flattening out, or worse becoming less a hierarchical organization and more a movement seem to be panning out. And this article describes the sources of terrorists in Europe today.

Not good. I mean really, really not good.

And you might want to argue that Iraq is providing motivation, but there seems to be little evidence so far that either Iraq or Chechnya is providing a class of hardened, battle trained, experienced terrorists. It's young men who are educated enough (as per the profile: with technically oriented educations, many from engineering-related fields) to read the various easily available manuals out on CD and DVD and figure out on their own how to build bombs and other explosive devices -- or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, uneducated enough, to be manipulable, the perfect class of patsies, ala Richard Reid.

The al Queda handbook and all their training manuals have been lovingly downloaded for just such a moment, my friends. (Link here, since I'm assuming the DOJ would have scrubbed this before putting it up so this particular link is safe to pass on: http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/trainingmanual.htm )


And here's the article referenced in the previous post:

Europe Meets the New Face of Terrorism

Published: August 1, 2005

LONDON, July 31 - One attack was deadly, the other was not. But taken together, the two terrorist strikes that hit London in July highlight a new, more ominous face of terrorism in Europe.

It transcends ethnic lines and national causes, blends ideological fervor with common criminality and is rooted to a large extent inside the target country. Shifting assumptions about the nature of the terrorist threat, it also complicates efforts to devise strategies to combat it.

Although some senior intelligence and law enforcement officials said they began to recognize the mutating threat at the time of the train bombings in Madrid in March 2004, the London bombings have reinforced the lesson that, by all accounts, the centrally controlled Al Qaeda of 9/11 is no more.

"We are seeing a terrorist threat that keeps changing," said Pierre de Bousquet, the director of France's domestic intelligence service, known as the D.S.T., in an interview in Paris. "Often the groups are not homogeneous, but a variety of blends."

"Hard-core Islamists are mixing with petty criminals," he added. "People of different backgrounds and nationalities are working together. Some are European-born or have dual nationalities that make it easier for them to travel. The networks are much less structured than we used to believe. Maybe it's the mosque that brings them together, maybe it's prison, maybe it's the neighborhood. And that makes it much more difficult to identify them and uproot them."

In the case of the London attacks of July 7 that left 56 people dead, including the four bombers, three of the attackers were ethnic Pakistanis born in Britain, the fourth a British citizen and convert to Islam born in Jamaica.

The strike that followed two weeks later, in which the four bombs did not explode, was carried out by an intriguing crew that the police say included a British resident born in Somalia, an Ethiopian who apparently posed as a Somali refugee to gain legal residency in Britain and a British citizen born in Eritrea who acquaintances say was radicalized in prison. The nationality and legal status of the fourth would-be bomber has not been disclosed.

The police still say they have not found conclusive evidence linking the two attacks, although the explosives used in both cases, as well as other elements of the episodes, appear to be similar.

None of those identified so far as being involved in the two attacks are believed to have been a battle-hardened veteran of Chechnya or Iraq, and most of them are too young to have been trained in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, which were destroyed in 2001. They may have learned their bomb-making techniques and terrorist strategies at home, investigators and intelligence officials say, although the officials caution that they do not yet know the extent of the support network behind the attacks or whether either involved a foreign mastermind.

Britain's most senior counterterrorism official himself anticipated what was happening over a year ago. In a little-noticed speech to a conference in Florence in June 2004, Peter Clarke, the counterterrorism chief of Britain's police force, pointed out "the complete change, the recalibration" that Britain was making in investigating the new threat.

The shifting nature of the threat was made apparent early last year with Operation Crevice, one of Britain's largest counterterrorism operations ever, Mr. Clarke said. Seven hundred officers thwarted what they believed was a plot to construct a large bomb intended for a site somewhere in London. In more than two dozen police raids, more than half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which can be used in making bombs, was seized and eight ethnic Pakistani British citizens were arrested.

"Before this there was the perception that the international terrorist threat was something that came from abroad," Mr. Clarke said in the speech. "It came from the Maghreb. It came from the Middle East. It came from Chechnya. It came from Afghanistan. These individuals, however, were all British citizens."

"The parameters," he said, "have changed completely."

"If we take one or two leaders away," he added, "very quickly they are replaced and the network is reformed."

He called the homegrown trend "deeply worrying." Equally worrying, he added, was that the "key conspirator" in the plot revealed by Operation Crevice was only 22 years old, and that others were 18 and 19.

A confidential British government assessment of the emerging threat from young British Muslim radicals, prepared last year for Prime Minister Tony Blair, concludes that poverty is not an indication of radicalism, that students and young professionals from working- and middle-class backgrounds "have also become involved in extremist politics and even terrorism." Those recruits, the report warns, "may have the capability for wider and more complex proselytizing."

Extremist organizations have set up outlets on university campuses and, if banned, simply open up again under different names, said the document, whose contents were first disclosed in The Sunday Times. The document divides young extremists into two broad categories. The first category is "well-educated undergraduates" and those "with degrees and technical professional qualifications in engineering" or information technology. The second is "underachievers with few or no qualifications, and often a criminal background."

In particular, the report said, "Muslims are more likely than other faith groups to have no qualifications (over two-fifths have none) and to be unemployed and economically inactive, and are over-represented in deprived areas."

The idea that the terrorist threat is increasingly homegrown and transcends both ethnicity and direct links to a global Qaeda conspiracy is welcomed by Pakistan, which has been accused of not doing enough to root out the remnants of Al Qaeda. Three of the four bombers in the first London attack were of Pakistani descent and at least two had spent time in Pakistan.

"When the first bombing happened and everyone focused on Pakistan, we said, 'You may be making a mistake if you have a unifocal view,' " said Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's ambassador to Britain, in an interview. "It's much more mixed up than people think. What you're seeing is something very lethal and it has nothing to do with ethnicity."

"We are seeing a lot of local groups that seem to have a random pattern, no operational linkage or even inspirational linkage," she said. "Some may claim to be Al Qaeda, some not, and that is foxing everybody."

Earlier attacks reflected some of the same elements found in the London bombings. First came Casablanca, then Madrid.

In May 2003, a dozen young, poor, undereducated men, all born and reared in the same slum in Casablanca, Morocco, attacked five sites there, four apparently chosen for their Jewish connections. Forty-two people died, including the attackers.

"It was local guys thinking global," said Olivier Roy, author of the book "Globalized Islam."

"They didn't target a symbol of the Moroccan government," he added. "They inscribed their actions in a global perspective. I'm not sure the ethnic Pakistanis involved in the first London attacks have anything to do with Pakistan."

The train attacks in Madrid in March last year represented more of a blend. While most of those involved were Moroccan, some were from other countries. Some of the attackers were radicalized Muslims, others common criminals.

The most senior member of the team, and the suspected local leader of the cell, was a Tunisian who aspired to be a fashion model but became a successful real estate agent before turning radical.

The Madrid plotters included native Spaniards, who had no connection to global jihad, including a former miner who was arrested on charges that he stole and handled the explosives used in the operation and a 16-year-old nicknamed "The Gypsy" who was given a six-year youth detention sentence last November after pleading guilty to transporting explosives. In searching for the mastermind of the Madrid attacks, the Spanish authorities have focused on a number of foreign-based suspects, including an Egyptian and a Syrian.

In London, investigators are trying to determine whether the cells involved in the attacks were homegrown or had any operational link to a wider network.

Investigators say that while they see the terrorism threat in Europe as more homegrown, the inspiration is increasingly Iraq. In the past several months, a number of European countries have uncovered cells of native-born men poised to travel to Iraq to fight alongside the insurgency.

In an interview published in Le Parisien on Friday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy of France said at least seven Frenchmen had been killed while fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.

The ever-shifting nature of the threat has made it increasingly challenging, in Britain and elsewhere, to come up with a strategy to combat it. Police and intelligence officials acknowledge that they are still too focused on threats linked to clearly identifiable ethnic radical groups, both domestic and international, and not enough on homegrown blends.

In a cover letter to the 2004 British report on counter-terrorism, Sir Andrew Turnbull, the cabinet secretary and one of Mr. Blair's closest aides, said the goal of Britain's strategy was "to prevent terrorism by tackling its underlying causes, to work together to resolve regional conflicts to support moderate Islam and reform and to diminish support for terrorists by influencing relevant social and economic issues."

But, he added, "without being clear about the nature of the problem, one can only tentatively identify possible responses in general terms."


when it comes to fanatic ideologies, watch the movie "Rope" by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Jimmy Stewart.

one of the best movies of AAAAAALL TIIIIIIIME.




Yes, but I think this is where their "thinking" goes wrong. The more successful and long-lasting revolutions where the ones that went without a shot: Fall of the Berlin Wall, End of Apartheit in South Africa, freeing India of UK imperialist rule, etc. The moment you take up arms you should really think twice wtf you are doing.




"But if we turn a blind eye to countries that oppose those ideals, whether because they're "allies" or because it is economically advantageous (child labor in China, for example) then we appear to be hypocrites. We simply want those ideal conditions for ourselves, and fuck you all if you must suffer so that we can enjoy the good life. Shut up, make those shoes and give us some oil."

So what to do with countries that don't share our 'values'?

The Left offer a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't approach'.

If you maintain trade embargo with a Cuba, establish economic sanctions against an Iraq as a punishment for foul behavior, or generally isolate a country you don't like, the Left shrieks that we are denying the people of those various countries vital things they need.

If you open up trade in hopes that the economic benefits will create prosperity and hopefully change or in hopes that important goods will make it to the masses, the Left shrieks that we are exploiting the domestically oppressed people and supporting the oppressive government.

In light of these competing ideas, what do you suggest?


If you want to fight an ideology, you need a competing ideology (or set of beliefs and ideas).

You need to get ideas into the heads of those that are waiting to be converted into fanatics by an ideology that will help them avoid capture by that competing ideology.

I lament the bashing on the so called left simply because they are somewhat big hearted. You can open up the economic borders and still fight an extremely aggressive ideological war, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Think a little more creatively...

Also, don't imagine that the existence of a competing ideology, or the fact that is has demonstrable success has any effect within the notion of ideological warfare.

Think of fanaticism as a virus. People can get fanatic about religion, politics, ideologies or plenty of other issues. You can be protected from certain forms of fanaticism by learning how to think critically, for yourself, as well as being shown the problems caused by different types of fanaticism.

I won't say it is a guarantee, but while fanaticsm is quite possibly pursued by those with the time for leisure and education, it is also because they are fertile soil for the growth of various concepts due to the concepts and beliefs expressed in society around them.

This is all a fascinating area, and somewhat complex, and probably completely ignored with respect to "immunization" as opposed to fighting the promotion or effects of a competing ideology.



"If you want to fight an ideology, you need a competing ideology (or set of beliefs and ideas)."


"You need to get ideas into the heads of those that are waiting to be converted into fanatics by an ideology that will help them avoid capture by that competing ideology."

And - as many argued w/r/t opening up trade with China - part of providing an alternative ideology is creating an opportunity for economic prosperity from an external source in hopes that economic liberalization will ultimately lead to political liberalization.

But how can that be accomplished if our willingness to let a country to what it has a comparative advantage in a trade situation is reflexively labeled an exploitation of the regualr guy and support for the oppressive ruling elite?

"I lament the bashing on the so called left simply because they are somewhat big hearted."

I don't, because rather than focus on pragmatic goals that always involve managing trade-offs, they spend most of their time lamenting that there is no utopian solution, which wastes everyone's time. Big hearted means little if you are naive.

"You can open up the economic borders and still fight an extremely aggressive ideological war, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Think a little more creatively..."

I am game for that - so what do you suggest? How do we actively promote trade with a country whose 'values' we abhor and still earn the blessing of all those that want us not to 'exploit the oppressed'?

"Think of fanaticism as a virus."

Already do.

"People can get fanatic about religion, politics, ideologies or plenty of other issues. You can be protected from certain forms of fanaticism by learning how to think critically, for yourself, as well as being shown the problems caused by different types of fanaticism."

Yes, you make a good point - and that learning how to think critically was once referred to as the 'liberal arts', which doesn't exist in the kinds of places that are breeding fanaticism. And, truthfully, as a concept, it has diminished even in Western learning (see any humanities department in nearly any university).

"I won't say it is a guarantee, but while fanaticsm is quite possibly pursued by those with the time for leisure and education, it is also because they are fertile soil for the growth of various concepts due to the concepts and beliefs expressed in society around them."

Yes - it certainly is a leisure pasttime, and it comes from inherent cultural philosophies (ie, they don't have to wander far off the reservation in their own culture to get immersed in radical ideas) and the 'fertile soil' of relativism (ie, people actually giving them the space and tolerance to explore radicalism because of a desire of absolute non-judgmentalism).

"This is all a fascinating area, and somewhat complex, and probably completely ignored with respect to "immunization" as opposed to fighting the promotion or effects of a competing ideology."

I agree, and it may be the only way the Middle East can transform. But we are lucky, we Westerners - between the bookends of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (and I'd throw in the Reformation), we get a pretty good 'immunization', though it is hardly perfect. Muslim society has no such advantages - in fact, it has gone the opposite way (it was, of course, once a culture of great learning and progress).


Well, some violent revolutions have also held. Castro in Cuba has been there for what, 50 years? The French revolution saw the beheading of plenty of rulers and held up nicely, leading to the formation of their current republic. Those where also "inside" jobs, with the people rising against their own rulers. Without the support of the inhabitants of the country, establishing a long-lived, stable government, much less a democratic one, is a tough job. Hopefully, Iraq will some day be an example of this.


Thunder, I'm suggesting that it makes no difference whether the ecomonic sanctions are put in place, or not, with respect to the concept of ideological warfare.

Both stances are good cannon fodder for the "enemy" ideological stances. It is not reasonable to blame liberals because they don't have a solution that is any better or worse.

Honestly, I'm not willing to suggest what should be done. If the CIA or some other agency wants me to wage ideological warfare on an ideology that I happen to be against, I'd be happy to devise long term strategies to combat fanaticism.


That's an excellent question; and one for which there isn't a single easy answer.

One idea, in the case of China for example, would be for western corporations to treat their local Chinese employees to conditions similar to those enjoyed by their U.S. counterparts. I don't mean to match salaries, but more to give them decent working conditions and benefits.

Don't hire children; don't have them work 100 hour weeks; give them a salary that allows them to live confortably in their country. Have doctors available for health care for their families.

In short, give them a real idea of what our "Western Lifestyle" is all about. Don't exploit them as near slave labor.

This works better if you can get many nations to agree to support it. Get North America, the EU, South Korea and Japan all on it. Countries with "inhumane" condition want access to that market? Fine, add taxes. Or, taking it to the other side, don't tax "bad" nations or corporation; but give tax break to "ethical" or humane ones.

That way, companies get "rewarded" (via less tax) for good behavior and populations of second-world or third-world countries learn what respect for a human being means. Hopefully, given a taste of what it's like, they'll become a pressure for change from within.

...more later, kids want daddy. :slight_smile: