The Anatomy of Propaganda Within Religious Terrorism

by Roderick Hindery

Hitler, Religious Terrorist or Other? (1)

Hitler, Religious Terrorist or Other? (1)

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.
Read verses of the Quran into your hands and
rub them over your luggage, knife, and all your
papers. Check your weapons, perform ablution
before you leave your apartment, and remember
God constantly while riding to the airport. Take
courage and remember the rewards which God
has promised for the martyrs.

Binary Thinking

According to historian Richard J. Ellis, political and other cultural extremists often divide people into “the just and the hopelessly corrupt,” “the righteous and the unrighteous,” or what Fredric Jameson (one of the foremost contemporary Marxist literary critics) calls “the familiar self, as opposed to the alien self.” This conspiratorial them-against-us mentality is in alignment with the simplistic thinking often attributed to the negative aspects of fundamentalism, which exist in many political and religious groups. Among many Muslim fundamentalists–such as Sayyid Qutb (author of Islam the Religion of the Future) and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam (Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor)–Israel, the United States, and the West in general are perceived to be a single source of evil. In a similar vein, Safar al Hawali (dean of Islamic studies at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca) adds that the United States intends to destroy Islam. For the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the former Iranian Shiite religious leader and politician) the world was either Muslim or non-Muslim, the latter equated with apostasy and death.

All of these proponents of binary thinking have impacted Muslim terrorists in general and, in Azzam’s case, Osama bin Laden in particular. On the final page of the suitcase document possessed by Muhammed Atta, non-Muslim believers are called “allies of Satan and brothers of the devil.” Each of these depictions resembles other political and religious fundamentalist beliefs–the binary worldviews of which exemplify their indoctrination, propaganda, and frequent threats of apocalyptic catastrophe.

Dualistic thinking can be accurately ascribed to these Muslim teachers; however, its presence is hardly attributable to the whole of Islam any more than it is unique to Islam. Although fundamentalists among Muslims, Hindus, and Christians are renowned for such positive traits as fervor, sincerity, and commitment, many of them also propose a simplistic, Manichean division of people into two classes.

Radical political and cultural fundamentalists, on the left as well as right, similarly categorize people into two groups. John Kenneth Galbraith (author and professor of political economics) states wryly that such simplistic dualism manifests preference for “orderly error than complex truth.” New religious “cults” and other groups are also criticized for conversion tactics combined with indoctrination. Not all of their propaganda results in mass physical terrorism, such as Aum Shinri Kyo’s use of sarin gas in Japanese subways. However, these groups employ forms of conceptual and emotional manipulation (oversimplification, deception, and mass suggestion) that routinely precede physical forms of terror.

In brief, inside newer religious sects as well as within traditional religious, political, and other cultural groups there is always the possibility that people will use dualistic thinking, indoctrination, and terrorist propaganda rather than appeals to compassion and reason. Religious and political forms of terror have staged history, just as binary thinking is a familiar backdrop.

Religious Terrorism Targets Youth

The U.S. public was once more familiar with the training of terrorists than at present. Judy Woodruff reported on PBS’s Frontline in the 1980s that youth were the Ayatollah Khomeini’s prime target. Where else could one find such vulnerable sincerity, fervor, hunger for action, and commitment to live or die for a cause? Similar indoctrinations under the Taliban and al-Qaeda may have resembled what Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul labeled as indoctrination by saturation and “Blitzkrieg”–so globally pervasive have terrorist centers and cells become. Like Khomeini, Sayyid Qutb is well known for his impact on Muslim, Arab youth. The typical age of the religious terrorists involved in the tragedy of September 11, 2001, spanned the early twenties. None of these young people became terrorists in action without previous indoctrination of their minds and emotions. Religious and secular terrorists enlist youth because they perceive them as more readily swayed by indoctrination and propaganda.

Targeting youth for indoctrination is, like binary thinking, hardly unique to terrorists who utilize Islam. The indoctrination of youth stands in high profile within groups whose religious context is non-Muslim as well, whether they are Catholic or Protestant Irish, Hindu militants, or self-immolating Buddhist monks. It also stands in high profile among new religious sects as well as new political, military, and ecological movements. Numbers swell as members’ age scales descend into the twenties. Concentrating on youth constitutes no anomaly within the educational history of larger religious groups and other power structures, just as contemporary religious wars, terrorism, and propaganda have been prefigured for centuries in religious inquisitions.

Hitler claimed to promote his propaganda in the name of Catholic tradition.

Hitler claimed to promote his propaganda in the name of Catholic tradition. (1)


In sum, repetitive, self-hypnotic formulas; binary thinking; and targeting youth represent three elements in which religious terrorism overlaps with religious indoctrination. Previous inattention to these tactics has invited such severe consequences that it is imperative for political and religious adherents to scrutinize not only suspicious looking or unknown allied sects but also their own traditions for the structure of propagandas so historically interwoven with terrorism. To run one step ahead of indoctrination and propaganda is to remain two steps ahead of religious and political terrorism.

Five features are associated not only with terrorist propagandists but also with other agents of misinformation and manipulation. These methods are even harder to recognize because they don’t always lead to physical destruction.

Unwarranted Certitude

Behind dogmatism and authoritarian thinking lies anxiety that is driven by an unrealistic appetite for unwarranted certitude. Roman Catholics aren’t the only religious believers who advocate forms of infallibility. Abstracting from beliefs in the certainty of religious leaders, there are other cultural fundamentalists who often speak and act as if their whole group is faultless even if they don’t describe such behavior as dogma. In each case the problem is less a belief in divine guidance and more the drive to substitute authentic evidence with a posture of absolute certitude. Such infallibility is defended more by intense passion than by tradition, as in the high-pitched emotions expressed at gatherings of religious, political, and other cultural fundamentalists.

Whereas doubt constitutes a healthy function within normal processes of humanistic thinking and principles, authoritarian thinking attempts to resolve doubt by transforming it into certitude, either through fiat or through emotional overkill. Believers thereby often become uncompromising in proportion to the self-perceived weakness of their convictions. In short, their voices grow louder when they are less sure of their footing; they become more authoritarian when they are less willing to admit errors. This includes mistakes not only in abusive behavior and coverups but also in doctrinal teachings.

In early stages self-deception and propaganda, like the terrorism that they expedite, can be recognized through doctrinaire denials of error often coupled with impassioned pretense to unwarranted certitude. Wisdom, on the other hand, matures in the measure in which we recognize that acknowledgments of error among leaders strengthen credibility as much or more than they weaken it.

Unmodified Self-interest

Linked to pursuits of unreasonable certitude is the unmodified self-interest that lies at the essence of ideology. Bias in favor of individual and collective selves transforms reasonable human belief into intransigent ideology. Capitalists blur the lines that separate working theories from ideologies whenever they subordinate ideals like initiative, efficiency, or the creation of wealth to the narrow worlds of their own individual selves or corporate collectivities. Socialists transmute theories about fair social distribution into ideologies whenever they refuse to test their ideas pragmatically and instead proclaim, like Marx, that all programs and movements are ideological except their own. Religious and other believers mutate their tenets into ideology in the dualistic measure that they exclude interactions with the rest of the world.

Deceptions by Others

Deceptions by others are as difficult to recognize as self-deception. Why? Because they are so routinely accompanied by sincerity, enthusiasm, and apparent good will. All these elements comprise positive traits which religious fundamentalists share with other persons of both good and dubious will. After all, Nazis and neo-Nazis have been sincere and enthusiastic just as later terrorists have placed the welfare of others above their own. When positive qualities camouflage deception, it isn’t easy to single out propagandists or terrorists from advocates who respect human truth, freedom, and life. Positive traits and good ends may camouflage methods that are morally dubious as well as counter-productive.

Exploitations of Emotions

Exploitations of emotions are similarly taxing to recognize. Emotional manipulation works with unique effectiveness for religious indoctrinators because they so often disclose the truth–sometimes even the whole truth–for questionable motives. Truthful and positive actions help religious and other propagandists go undetected in their ventures to control and manipulate the feelings of others. Granted that People’s Temple leader Jim Jones preached accurately about racial equality and self-discipline, yet the intimidation with which he proposed these messages promoted blind submission to his own claims of authority. The assertion that laudable messages to his disciples were used for emotional manipulation is supported by his effective call for their mass suicide.

Religious and other indoctrinations succeed the more they can be internalized through self-deception.

The slavery of women to men or the subordination of lower economic classes to wealthier ones have become most invasive in the measure that women and lower classes have cooperated by imposing it upon themselves. Capitalist and socialist subordinations of the many to the few remain most effective when subjects delude themselves that everything will either trickle down from the rich to the poor or else will become inherited by a future socialist proletariat. Meanwhile, regard for generations in between the economic extremes gets cast aside.

Misled Intellectuals

Intellectuals, religious literati included, have often been targeted as prime candidates for indoctrination and self-deception. Propaganda and self-delusion comprise equal opportunity maladies for “intellectuals,” meaning people with special analytical skills and experience in assessing or interpreting data. The historical fact that intellectuals have been misled and coopted so consistently within movements which they should be able to see through clearly rests on the delusion that they are immune to the viruses of propaganda or terrorism. Regardless of their special skills, intellectuals remain people–no more important than others and no less vulnerable to indoctrination and manipulation. Cases in point: the inevitable presence of intellectuals among Nazis, Maoists, present cells of al-Qaeda, and other political and religious groups.

The question “why are intellectuals vulnerable?” is partly answered by “why not?” Intellectuals stand equally subject to negative emotions such as hubris, fear, resentment, or subtle loathing toward self and others. Second, intellectuals suffer from common psychological aberrancies, collective pressures, or temptations to class exclusiveness. Third, intellectuals live in the realm of ideas based on terrains that are less yielding, unlike technology and finance that are based on facts. More malleable than durable goods, ideas can more easily be bent and twisted whether in guileless error or in self-indoctrination. Lastly, societal misconceptions that intellectuals are superior or immune to religious propaganda and terrorism enhance their social impact as propaganda’s Trojan horses.

Current resurgences of religious terrorism present occasions to examine what distinguishes authentic advocacy from coercive indoctrination and propaganda and the mental and physical terrorism that they both embody and expedite. These exploitations often highlight the use of repetitive formulas and self-hypnotic meditation, binary thinking, and the targeting of youth. Terrorist propagandas can also be recognized in five features which may be less visible in terms of physical consequences: unwarranted certitude, unmodified pursuits of self-interest, deceptions by self and others, exploitation of emotions, and alliances with misled intellectuals.

By contrast, in humanist traditions–as well as religious traditions that in various measures honor human values like truth, honesty, and freedom–the best defense against indoctrination and terror is aggressive pursuit of critical thought and feeling. Those who think critically begin by identifying their own assumptions. They mature by avoiding exploitations like those described above and by testing their views against opposing viewpoints. Progressing forward in discerning the anatomy of religious propaganda, they remain ahead of the physical and mental terrorism that religious and other propagandas have so often manufactured. Aggressive critical thought produces freedom’s best defense.

Roderick Hindery is emeritus professor in comparative and social ethics at Temple University at Philadelphia, adjunct professor at Arizona State University, and has taught in the departments of history and religious studies at California State University at Fullerton and Northridge. He is the author of Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? and Comparative Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions.

Bibliography for: “The anatomy of propaganda within religious terrorism”

Roderick Hindery “The anatomy of propaganda within religious terrorism”. Humanist. 01 Sep, 2011.

(A summary of this article is available in the menu to the left as “Identifying Religious Terrorism through Profiles of Propaganda.” Or click here.)


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