The Contrast between Fundamentalist Thinking and Violence of Terror | Henry Abramovitch

“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.”
― Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery.

Fundamentalism and religious suicide raise the strongest, archetypal emotional reactions. We feel shock, rage, helplessness, revenge and more. It causes a break in fabric of our ordinary lives and a flashbulb memory of the moment of the explosion. It is designed to get our attention and does so brilliantly. Terror, nevertheless, is something that happens very close and yet very far. We read about it in newspaper or on TV, now internet, in a way that remote and yet intimate. But as a prologue to my talk, I want to share some of my close encounters with terrorism

My Death

My first reaction to the recurring violence and suicide bombings is a relentless confrontation with “my death”. Everyday I wake with a lingering sense that this day will be my last. This death anxiety is no paranoid fantasy but very much based on synchronous events and many near misses:  A horrid devastation occurred in a popular café, meters away from where I regularly attend demonstrations against the Occupation of West Bank and Gaza. A second bomber entered another popular café near my office. He asked only for a glass of water, which aroused the waiter’s suspicion, and in the ensuing struggle, the bomb failed to detonate. Another bomb, which with a certain poetic justice killed only its perpetrator, young Palestinian woman, seeking revenge for the death of a family member was targeted at a bus which runs right past my house. One of the most distressing occurred, when I was showing an analysand out of my office, a voice distorted by a loudspeaker called out to us, “Please remain indoors!” Stepping back we watched together as the bomb squad robot examined and disarmed a suspicious object lying across the street. At that moment, we were no longer analyst and analysand, but victims of a participation mystique of helplessness that seemed to break down the boundaries between us. This chronic death anxiety may even give daily life an “as-if” quality of a provisional life, something that normally typifies puer aeternis. If the next time the door opens, you feel a twinge of anxiety, then I will have succeeded in infecting you and your psyche with the pervasive anxiety which living under the shadow of terror entails.



In popular imagination, in political science and according to the Global Terrorism Index, fundamentalism is directly linked to terrorism. As NY Times writes:
Any person with a sincerely held belief or ideology can become a fundamentalist, seeking purity, control and dominion over those who do not share their beliefs. If proselytizing others does not change the world, violence can become the next step.

… fundamentalist religion or ideologically based beliefs can morph into terrorist acts

The Global Terror Index  notes that [since 2001] religious extremism has overtaken national separatism to become the main driver of terrorist.

The connection between fundamentalism and religious terror is most infamous to a unique sect of Islam. Although fundamentalism and terror may occasionally feed off each other, and come together, it is my argument that from a psychodynamic perspective, fundamentalism and terrorism represent distinct phenomena.

 In fact, the term “fundamentalism” was first used by American evangelical Christians in pamphlets and later in books to describe the fundamentals of Christianity. The term fundamentalism arose series of essays published  by Reuben Torrey 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The term "fundamentalism" entered the English language in 1922, and

 is often capitalized when referring to the religious movement. The concept  of fundamentalism was championed to strongly counter a newly rising liberalism within Protestant and perhaps all fundamentalists are acting out against some opposition who is perceived as dangerously less virile and straying from the true path.

The views of these first fundamentalists were passionate, intolerant and extreme. However they were not violent and so not directly connected to terrorism.

I will now first discuss fundamentalism and then go on to discuss depth psychology aspects of terrorism, including clinical illustrations.

Ordinary life is full of anxiety. What to do? Moral choices of how to act? Such dilemmas includes “moral anxiety” which Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor and author called the ”grey zone” in which there is no simplicity of black and white but moral ambiguity of right and wrong. Living in the grey zone is never easy and I first encountered it in interviews of prisoner physicians who had to find their way between collaborating with their Nazi overlords and serving their patients.

Fundamentalism is an attempt to escape the grey zone by simplifying the world via binary categories us/them, right/wrong that seek to annihilate anxiety of ambiguity.

It is an escape from individuation process by heightening of recollectization, being drawn away from individual identity but regressively into a collective identity..

Fundamentalism is typical of organizations or regimes in which all power rains and down from above and no criticism from below is tolerated. The authoritarian leader  who  is almost always male, identifies himself with the Self. His stance acts to to weaken his disciples and deprive them independent capacity of judgment. As a result, followers, yield up their conscience to the Great Man who drawing on his sacred authority instructs them about purity and victim psychology.

Likewise Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom gives a moving testimony of how psychologically attractive fundamentalism can. I do not have to choose. Someone else who knows better and invested with divine like knowledge will decide. Fundamentalism, therefore, always have regressive pull back to a time when other great figures made all the important decisions, The Great Father or The Great Mother.

Contemporary fundamentalism is most often identified with extreme, exclusivist forms of religion. In fact, fundamentalism as a psychosocial phenomenon may appear anywhere need for certainty takes hold. This is certainly the case in Freudian psychoanalysis and sadly, even Jungian analysis in which dogmatic, fundamentalist thinking dominated and loyalty to the Master and his ideas become the supreme values, being more important that patient’s welfare


Terror, in contrast to monolithic fundamentalism, has many aspects. It is important to contrast between instrumental, or political terror in which violence is chosen as a specific strategy for political gain and “spiritual terrorism”. Zealots, Jacobins, Many successful political terrorists, whether from Irish Republic Army, Fidel Castro, Mao, Kenyatta, South African Liberation Movement headed and others went on to become revered head of states, including two PM of Israel, Menahem Begin and Moshe Shamir. Yet their terrorist acts did not delegitimize them.  These leaders advocate terror as a political weapon but do not personally use terror. They send others to carry out such suicide attacks. They never do so themselves. Once the violence has achieved its goal, it ceases. It is a conscious strategy and not connected to archetypal fantasies. In contrast, religious terrorism and spiritualized killing are based on the unconscious fantasy.

Suicide Terrorism, in contrast, to other forms of terrorism, is a religious act of self sacrifice. But in the other way, it is motivated by unconscious desire for perpetrators to merge with their victims.

The symbolic beginning of merging occurs when terrorist disguises   himself as his victims as in Jerusalem when Islamic bomber dresses as ultra orthodox Jew with kippa and tzizit (fringes). Gideon Aran how  “The  explosion joined them together: their blood was mingled, their body tssues, and clothing were interchanged, and the limbs fused together. “ he goes on to that some say their souls rose to heaven in a blazing glory. It was hard to separate the  final number of victims and there was disturbing postmortem intimacy between attackers and victims..

The murderous attack on others followed by self destruction and doing both simultaneously blurs distinction between the attacker and the victim. Aran 2018, p.159 goes on: “The disguised human bomb is not only a hybrid ceaure – walking dead, Arab and Israeli, a conspiring enemy and an innocent citizen – but also a fluid creature, formless and invisible. These characteristics add to the subversive potential of the human bombs. Thus he becomes a sort of ghost, elusive and evading capture, whose uncanny presence is both frightening and repugnant, abominable. The human bomb, like a demon, is seen as illusory and deceptive. As such, he is said to control mysteriously mighty forces, inaccessible to ordinary mortals.”

Likewise some reports claim that human bomb and victim are looking at each other, sharing a gaze at moment of explosion, recreating a Medusa like moment.

There continuum in the process of  merging. First the bomb puts the bomb around him becoming  one with his explosives. Later when he detonates he fuses with his victims wiping out any distinction between them. The secret desire is  to become in a god like state of unity, without the  tension of opposite as in the fundamental Jewish prayer, Hear O  Israel, the Lord our God, our God is One. Or There is no God but Allah..

Another type of  merging has to do with the construction of aggressor-victim dynamics. While the suicide bomber is in one sense the initial the aggressor, but by blowing  himself, he turns himself into an ultimate victim. The victim initially fully victim, but in the eyes of the aggressor he is the aggressor.

. The unconscious goal of terrorist is create a temenos fusion with intended victim. A participation mystique of a dark union.. an illusion of community . The gaze of terrorist and victim is heightened since human bombs are instructed to look in front of them at the moments before detonation. which Ruth Stein in her book, For Love of the Father: Psychoanalytic Study. of religious Terrorism, calls “identificatory love”, the fusion with the ideal object “The terror minded dissociates, as he put it. He or she is cut off from the capacity for imagination and curiosity. The drive is to ally with an external power that demands perfect allegiance to its rules. In the most extreme cases, the individual even dissociates from the body. As one male patient told him, “My body?—my body is a tool, not really a part of me, expendable, it is a booster rocket on my way to heaven.”

Terrorist and victims are also linked through the process of sacrifice. Just as the terrorist sacrifices himself, so be creates sacred individuals who are now seen as sacred. Prior to the act of violence both the human bomb and his victim were rather ordinary people. Now they are martyrs in the collective memory.

What makes suicide terrorism so unique from other types of violence is how perpetrator is both aggressor and victim; and how his act with it sense of ultimate merging is also terminal sacrifice.


The first connection between fundamentalism and terrorism is the destructive role of the leader. If in fundamentalism, the leader enforces ideological loyalty, in terrorism, he sends his devotee to kill as an act of self sacrifice. In their eyes, terrorism is seen as an act of purity and purification. Unlike political terrorism, spiritual terrorism is not instrumental, designed to achieve a specific goal but rather to inflict pain, or protest as a goal in its own right. Conscious feelings of hate are linked to compensatory unconscious sentiments of admiration and even love. Thus Muslim extremists despise the West but are unconsciously attracted to it.

There is a remarkable surviving document of suicide bomber, one of the pilots who crashed into World Trade Center. The letter to the hijackers that was found in Mohammed Atta's luggage in the car that had been left in Logan Airport before the World Trade Center attack1 is a striking document. A highly revelatory testimony, it may provide us with some understanding of how the mind of a suicidal killer works.

  • Mohammed Atta came from Westernized if traditional Egyptian family (his parents married at 14). His father was a lawyer and said to be strict yet two of Atta’s sisters were both modern professionals: a physician and a professor. Atta himself was an architect doing Masters in Germany. At some point, he had a religious conversion
  • His note survived because his flight from Portland, Maine to Boston (whence the attack occurred) was delayed and there was no time to transfer his bags where his note was found.

The first thing about the note is sense of psychic constriction and psychic numbing. Next, is fanatical obedience and anticipate distractors. Another dimension is that this is his destiny. What is meant to be.

Item 12 indicates the yearning for merger:

12) Bless your body with some verses of the Qur'an [done by reading verses into one's hands and then rubbing the hands over whatever is to be blessed], the luggge, clothes, the knife, your personal effects, your ID, passport, and all your papers.

Ata’s goal as we discovered was to merge his plane with World Trade Center so there was no difference between the plane and building, between Muslims and Americans.These merger fantasies also erupt in the victims of terror as body merges with body.

Confronting Evil

The terror bombings also force all of us to confront evil, both the evil done to us, and the evil that necessarily arises in occupying another people. Jungian psychology has much to say about evil, both personal and archetypal,

I want to draw a distinction between archetypal evil and personal evil. Archetypal evil is an unconquerable, supra-human force that function in a way similar to the monsters of Greek mythology, or the Devil in Christianity. Personal evil such as cruelty can and should be resisted. The ever-present danger is to be drawn into the clutches of archetypal evil under the control of the victim-victimizer archetype. In this pattern, an endless cycle of violence is created in which victims of violence victimize others out of a consuming sense of their own victimhood. The dehumanizing acts of one side draw out an inhuman response by the other. As Jung wrote: “When evil breaks out at any point in the order of things, our whole circle of psychic protection is disrupted. Action inevitably call up reaction and in the matter of destructiveness, this turns out to be just as bad as the cause and possibly even worse, because the evil must be exterminated root and branch.” (CW 10, para. 411.) It is important that most Israeli analysts have a direct connection with Holocaust, either as child survivors, Kindertransport, children of survivors, Auschwitz survivor or indirectly living a society permeated by holocaust imagery. So that we have all lived and worked in the shadow of that archetypal evil.

This idea is illustrated from my clinical work with Palestinians and Israelis done under the shadow of terror. One can see residue of the merger fantasy in the dreams of victims of terrorist attacks.

When a suicide bomber explodes, their body is literally mixed up with those of her victims. This horrendous loss of boundaries between the bodies of victims and victimizers reflects a psychic equivalent, in which the perspectives of victim and perpetrator, or even, observer and victim become fused. This psychic merging can be seen in dreams in which the dreamer is drawn against their will into the vortex of the violence, as both perpetrator and victim. A student of my analysand, an educational specialist, was blown apart in the horrendous attack at the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. Soon after, my analysand had two dreams. In the first, she dreamed that the walls of her house was suddenly destroyed and all that was left was a hidden pile of old photographs. In normal times, such a dream might be understood to personal issues connected with the breakdown of her marriage, or inner feeling of being exposed. But following the funeral of her murdered student, the dream clearly had a collective significance, indicating the abrupt loss of security, which a home is supposed to provide.  As analysts, parents and teachers we often feel complicit in the deaths of our analysands, children and disciples, shamed we somehow did not protect them from their fate. This negative participation-mystique in the terror itself was reflected in her second dream:

“In my dream, I had bombed an educational institution in the Old City of Jerusalem, at which I had studied. In the next scene, I was helping children escape from the building that was in danger of collapse, until someone came to stabilize it.”

Before discussing the dream let me amplify the Holy City of Jerusalem. The Old City of Jerusalem, with its massive, stonewalls, and magnificent,  decorated gates is a physical mandala at the Center, holding together the 4 quarters: Christian, Armenian, Jewish, Muslim. The name, Jerusalem, itself means “peace” and known as the place where heaven and earth meet.

[It includes the holiest places for Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the remnant of the 2nd Temple known as “The Wailing Wall”, the Church of Holy Sepulcher containing the tomb of Christ, built and maintained by Russian Orthodox Church and the El Aqsa or as it is called in Qu’ran, the “Farthest Mosque” and Dome of the Rock whence Mohammed went on his night journey to heaven; all are within short walking distance of each other. It is place of pilgrimage even if many like Jung’s strange visitors at the beginning of the Septem Sermones [ said, "We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought'. ] (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 190-1). ]

Jerusalem is over generations has been a natural symbol for the Self; at its best holding together the opposites, pointing to something Higher. At its worst, gripped by violence committed in the name of a jealous God. I must confess that I have my own love affair with this beautiful and terrible city.

Returning to the dream. The dreamer, although not based in the Old City, would have spent considerable time there. In this dream, my analysand is both attacker and rescuer, seemingly caught in a Sysphisian endeavor. Again in normal times, one might see a cycle of destructive rage and the compensatory, reparative rescue fantasy, with the analyst saving the psychic structure from collapse under the weight of her own destructiveness. But in the shadow of the bombing, the dream also reflected her sense of being complicit in the events, that somehow, irrationally, she occupies both sides of the victim-victimizer archetype. A similar sense of psychic confusion is reflected in the dream of another analysand:

“”There is terrible fighting between Israelis and Palestinians and I do not know which side I am on. In a large field, a plane strafes the center again and again and again… The Queen’s guards prepare to storm a school.”

Not knowing which side one is own points to psychic confusion, even a refusal to choose sides and so implicitly, the urgent need for a third perspective. The ambiguous image of the Queen’s guard about to attack a school highlights this ambiguity: are they aggressors or rescuers, or both? With terrible negative synchronicity, when I gave an earlier version of this talk, in an atmosphere reminiscent of the dream, the siege of the school in Beslan, North Ossetia resulted in the death of hundreds; two bus were bombed in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, killing over a dozen people. Another bomb exploded in Moscow. The image of the ‘a plane strafes the center again and again and again’ which in a personal sense might be understood as the paternal sky aggression turned inwards, now seems as the archetypal damage done to the Self by the repeating cycle of violence and counter-violence. Under the control of the victim-victimizer archetype, there is an actual and imminent danger of being possessed by the shadow. This danger was poignantly illustrated in the dream of another Jewish patient:

“In this dream, a friend asks me to pick him up and take him by car to an undisclosed destination. Suddenly, we are in the middle of an Arab village. My friend reveals to me that he is a suicide bomber who will blow us up along with the villagers in an act of revenge. I awake in horror.”

This dream points out clearly how a weak ego can be taken over and commandeered by the shadow into committing immoral acts.  It is an extreme version of how terrorist and victim can merge in the world of dreams. In a different sense, it can be seen as a “big dream” in that it predicted the coming of a secret Jewish underground which sought to kill innocent Palestinians in retaliatory vengeance. For suicide attacks.

During times of terror, there is an ever-recurrent threat of “re-collectivization, in which an individual is swallowed up in collective identity. Jung introduced this term in the context of the dissolution of the persona writing, “For the development of personality, then, strict differentiation from the collective psyche is absolutely necessary, since partial or blurred differentiation leads to an immediate melting away of the individual in the collective…through his identification with the collective psyche, he will inevitably try to force the demands of his unconscious upon others for identity with the collective psyche always brings with it a feeling of universal validity “godlikeness” – which completely ignores all differences in the personal psyche of his fellows…the suffocation of the single individual, as a consequence of which the element of differentiation is obliterated from the community.” (CW 7, para. 240).  Re-collectivization occurs when a person due to the stress of the individuation process is re-absorbed back into the collective identity of his group. It can provide a wonderful and profound sense of belonging and togetherness that the abdication of individual ego may bring about. But the process ‘can be a numbing, soul destroying experience – a robot-like fate imposed by a society in which individual capacities are numbed, destroyed or turned away from the task of creation’ (Friedlander p. 138) But during suicide bombings, things became intense,  unpredictable and the boundaries of identity and non-self swept away. The process of individuation undermined by the collective undertow of each terror incident.

 The state of ecstasy that comes of doing God's will and the rapture of merging with it", said a disciple in Rajneesh's group, when describing "true bliss and abundant joy".16 William James17 called the ecstasy found in doing God's will the "joy which may result . from absolute self-surrender." Such a religious experience of transcendence bathes one in a sense of truth that is absolutely convincing and sublime. And it usually involves both a disciple and a guide (social scientist Charles Lindholm terms it "the ecstatic merger of leader and follower").18 Obviously, the shadow of an anonymous guide and leader who issues loving paternal injunctions, falls upon the letter and is obviously part of the liminal state of transcendence we are dealing with here. Being immersed in such an altered state of attention and receptivity engenders a sense of profound psychic unity and ineffable illumination. Such a state can be so intense and all encompassing that it makes time and death disappear.19 We know that in such states the self feels uniquely alive, integrated, and in touch with larger, cosmic forces. We also know that one who creates rituals for manufacturing experiences of transcendence can thereby create a bond that allows group-sanctioned action, including violence and even murder, to be committed with ease and even joy.  The terrorist will give his life because he believes he is filled with God. He will lay his life down because he has a passport to eternity. He will kill others – the infidels – all those unworthy of God. He can kill with impunity – no guilt, with a clear conscience – because his faith is a sure thing. As a warrior he will go to his grave because he has a God-given body that pumps with certainty. This is his world: a holy circle of absolute conviction, a wheel of fire that consumes doubt as it rolls in the only direction it knows. Life and death, they become the same thing: a purifying path through any destruction in life, a renewal through sacrifice, even, if absolutely necessary, the sacrifice of one's children.

Thus the unconscious impulse to merge with the victims reflects a conscious desire to fuse with the Self or Divinity. It is a moment in which there is no past and no future. This desire is clearly reflected in Mohammed Atta’s Last Letter:

When I gave an earlier version of this talk, I made slip saying “death” instead of “thanatos”. A member of the audience commented and it made me think about the difference. Death implies grief, but also mourning and some possibility of rebirth.

Thanatos does not. It is death-like through and through. At times, I feel overwhelmed by the hopeless of thanatos, that there will never be an end to the suffering but doomed to pass on this terrible heritage to the next generation.

To conclude: Fundamentalism seeks of unity of ideas and conformity; suicide terrorism emerges from group conformity and seeks a merging of a totality without distinction but with psychic fusion.

Using Jung’s dichotomy, we might say that fundamentalism is introverted in essence,, psychic energy going inward; terror is extravert in its outward focus;  You may study the Bible by yourself but there is no point of suicide bombing by yourself.  Fundamentalists look at each other and feel shared unity. Suicide bombs by necessity look on their victims and be seen by them. This gaze is also one of intimacy but the intimacy of the gaze of Medusa.

Fundamentalism may change over time; suicide bombing  never can; it is a moment outside of time.


Abramovitch, Henry (1997). ‘Temenos Lost: Reflections on Moving’ Journal of Analytical Psychology 42:569-84.

Abramovitch, Henry (2002). ‘Temenos Regained: Reflections on the absence of the Analyst’ Journal of Analytical Psychology 47:583-97.

Mandelstam, Nadezha (1999).  Hope Against Hope. New York: The Modern Library. (Quoted in Angela Connolly, ‘Psychoanalytic Theory in Times of Terror’ Journal of Analytical Psychology 48:407-31. 

Friedlander, Albert (1987). “Destiny & Fate” in Contemporary Jewish Thought. (Eds. Arthur A. Cohen & Paul Mendes-Flohr) New York: Scribners Sons.

Gorkin, Michael (1986).Countertransference in cross-cultural psychotherapy: The example of Jewish therapist and Arab patient. Psychiatry 49(1): 69-79.

Gorkin, Michael; Masalha, Shafiq; Yatziv, Gabi (1985). Psychotherapy of Israeli-Arab patients: Some cultural considerations. Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 8:215-230.

Gorkin, Michael (1996). Countertransference in Cross-cultural Psychotherapy: Reaching across boundaries of culture and class: Widening the scope of psychotherapy.

Pérez Foster(Eds.), RoseMarie Moskowitz, Michael , Javier, Rafael Art, Reaching across boundaries of culture and class: Widening the scope of psychotherapy, Lanham, MD, US: Jason Aronson. (pp. 159-176).

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