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What is it that drives Terrorists? We know it isn’t the down trodden swelling the ranks of Islamic fundamentalists.

The bitterest opponents of Western civilization are not shut out of its fruits.

Most new recruits are educated and well off.

Empirical studies of radical fundamentalism undermine strict materialist explanations. Those who turn to fundamentalism are not the earth’s most wretched, or those who have nothing else to turn to. As anthropologist Scott Atran summarizes: 

“Study after study finds suicide terrorists and supporters are educated and well-off. They also tend to be well-adjusted in their families, liked by their peers, and compassionate to those they see themselves as helping.”

Atran interviewed hundreds of supporters of jihadism. He concludes that the jihadi story is far more likely to appeal to “bright and idealist Muslim youth than the marginalised and the dispossessed.”

Many other researchers echo his conclusions.


Model Young Egyptians


Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo, described Islamic recruits of the 1970s as “model young Egyptians. If they were not typical, it was because they were above the average for their generation.”

Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower states that besides their urbanity, cosmopolitan backgrounds, and computer skills, Al Qaeda recruits share a fondness for Arnold Schwarzenegger films.

The men who came to train in Afghanistan in the 1990s were not impoverished social failures. Most of the Al Qaida recruits were from the middle or upper class, most from intact families. They were college educated, with a strong bias toward the natural sciences and engineering. Few of them were products of the religious schools.

Many had trained in Europe or the U.S. and spoke as many as five or six languages. They did not show signs of mental disorders. Most were not even particularly religious when they joined the jihad.




What does it give them? Not easy answers to the problems of life in a complex world, or some other such condescending description. Here and there a few may take consolation in visions of paradise. But neither the ability to endure, nor the ability to kill and die, is normally born from such crude calculations.

For his recent film Suicide Killers, French filmmaker Pierre Rehov interviewed would-be terrorists whose bombs had failed to explode. “Every single one of them,” he relates, “tried to convince me it was the right thing to do for moralistic reasons. These are kids who want to do good.”

Some forms of life serve as their own reward, for they meet desires not filled by anything else.

Louise Richardson, author of What Terrorists Want, argues that terrorists are rational actors with considered goals and calculations. “The viewpoint of the terrorist is rational; he sacrifices himself for something higher. Here there is no great difference to soldiers who have been sacrificing themselves for their fatherlands for centuries.”




The impulse behind terrorism then is neither instrumental (martyrdom as the quickest trip to paradise) nor nihilistic (a general urge to destruction in a world where creation seems futile).

Rather, it has roots in the same impulse that fuels the desire for heroism. The desire for transcendence. Or a refusal to stay mired in the world where nothing seems real.

To be human is to have needs for transcendence over and above daily experience. Needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfill.

Skeptical readers will see those needs as trick. But the idea the religion lulls us into enduring a miserable present for the sake of a make-believe future depends too much on the view of religion as a opiate.

Rather, the urge for transcendence expresses two drives. One is to criticise the present in the name of the future, to keep longing alive for the ideas the world has yet to see.

The other is to prove our freedom, and dignity, by having a hand in bringing those ideals about.




To be sure, some have always viewed the present life as the gateway to a future one. And they look to a martyr’s death as the quickest way of passing from one to another. This has driven Shiites to bomb markets in Baghdad just as it has driven Christians to bomb abortion clinics in Florida.

But for many of the faithful, the willingness to die for an idea is much less instrumental. It is not just about finding the quickest way to heaven. Where everything else can be explained by interest, the willingness to give up your life may seem your only chance to live it in dignity.

In her book Terror in the Name of God, political scientist Jessica Stern writes:

“It is part of human nature to desire transcendence – the kind of peak experience that most of us encounter all too rarely through contemplation of beauty, love, or prayer. As odd as it sounds, a sense of transcendence is one of many attractions of religious violence for terrorists, beyond the appeal of achieving their goals.”

“More broadly, it is not just the accomplishment of their goals that terrorists seek; it is also the act of pursuing them.”




The most acute discussions of Islamic terrorism have focused on wounded dignity. Muslim cultures have been the object of particular humiliation. Once far superior than Europe in any measure of science or civilization, the Islamic world has fallen steadily behind.

To what extent this humiliation is the product of prejudice is a matter of much debate, but the experience itself is clear. The rage soaked language of young Muslim men, in particular, is the demand to reclaim lost dignity.

If Muslim history has a particular experience of humiliation, the needs for dignity are those we all share. In studying the common ground between religious terrorists in fundamentalist Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities, Stern and others emphasize the centrality of the experience of humiliation.

This is neither irrational nor mystical but simple the desire to experience the sort of freedom that makes us feel most alive. What looks like a longing for death is less a crude desire to enter another world than a desire to overcome the constraints of this one.




This is the sort of conclusion that makes peoples hair stand on end. If suicide terrorists are acting on impulses we view as heroic, shouldn’t we abandon the heroic itself? Instead of transcendental values, should we appeal to material ones?

While they may provide only the lowest common denominator, it’s a denominator on which we can all agree. Better to be vulgar and inoffensive than deadly.

Few things command more consensuses these days than the idea that the path to global peace lies in abandoning strongly held beliefs, whether moral or religious, in favour of increasing consumption.

All it takes is a picture of fused-together scrap iron and body parts in the wake of a suicide bombing to begin to believe that anything that prevents moral passion this destructive has got to be preferable to it. Let those whose lives are untouched by mutilation and murder worry about life without a soul.

Yet perhaps we are not aiming high enough.

Some form of consumerism may be needed to lift the world’s poor out of poverty. Growing material wealth may placate the regions of the Middle East, although there is no guarantee.

Regardless, that shouldn’t stop us trying to reform our own culture, making it more capable of meeting our needs for truth and freedom.

Creating an alternative to fundamentalism that doesn’t oblige us to accept the current Western order as final, much less right.


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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