The search for moral security

THE SUICIDE BOMBER who carried out the September 9, 2004, attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was Heri Kurniawan, known as Golun, a 30-year-old from the village of Cigarung in west Java. As he travelled to Jakarta to carry out the attack that killed nine and injured 180, he left behind a wife who was nine months' pregnant with their first child. Police found a letter Golun had written to his wife asking her and their child's forgiveness and asking that the child be named Jundullah – "soldier of God".

The suicide bomber who killed herself and 21 others in a restaurant in Haifa on October 4, 2003, was 29-year-old Hanadi Jaradat, a graduate of Jordan's Jarash Law School and a trainee lawyer from Jenin. Amar Alfar, the 16-year-old who killed himself and three others in a market in Tel Aviv on November 1, 2004, probably knew his action would help trigger another Israeli incursion into the Gaza refugee camps, perpetuating the cycle of death, misery and desperation of his family, friends and his fellow Palestinians.

The actions of these individuals defy our conventional explanations of terrorism. Most theories of terrorism and "asymmetric warfare" claim that terrorism is a tactic of the weak against the strong, that despite a serious imbalance of forces, the terrorists aim to gain conventional power and influence through unconventional means.[i] Yet it is hard to imagine that Jaradat or Alfar seriously viewed their actions as leading to Palestinian empowerment, after the second intifadah has emasculated the Palestinian Authority, divided the Palestinian people further and strengthened the hardline position of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Others argue that acts such as these are inspired by a deluded fanaticism that weds uncompromising religious extremism with an emotional commitment to violence.[ii] But this fits uneasily with Jaradat's legal training or reports of Golun's quiet, deferential and thoughtful manner. Another explanation is one of nihilism and despair – the cause of most suicides – but this seems unlikely when one sees the defiance and determination in the video recordings of suicide-bombers-to-be.


CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE is even harded to understand because it seems so alien to our way of thinking and acting. As a father-to-be, I find Golun's voluntary suicide, in the knowledge he would never see his child, that his wife would be left in poverty and that his child would never know a father, incomprehensible. Jaradat's professional training and Alfar's youth should have brought an optimism about life and its potential to make things better and more secure for themselves and those they loved.

We assume that one of the most basic drives of human beings is the search for physical and material security for ourselves and for those we care about. But the builder of the bomb Golun detonated at the Australian Embassy is a Malaysian, Western-trained chemical engineer, who has chosen a fugitive life building bombs over his academic career, leaving behind his wife and family whom he will probably never see again. Golun has left his wife and child to poverty and social marginalisation. Jaradat's and Alfar's acts, quite apart from putting an end to their own lives, have brought even more violence and misery to the Palestinian people.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher who lived through the chaos of the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War, built his political philosophy on a conception of security that has become dominant in modern society. In his 1651 masterpiece, Leviathan, Hobbes argued that humans unconstrained by laws would, through competition for wealth and pre-eminence, create a persistent state of insecurity that would ultimately prevent them attaining either:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things that require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.[iii]

Hobbes's conception established a total and binary opposition between peace, a state of physical and material security allowing the pursuit of higher goals, and war, a pervasive, debilitating sense of foreboding of "every man, against every man".

For WAR, consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known ... For as the nature of foul weather, lieth not in a shower or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war, consisteth not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.[iv]

In this conception, Hobbes was being faithful to the etymology of the word "war", which derives from the old French guerra, meaning "confusion", discord", and "strife". According to a long Western tradition, then, insecurity and security are mutually exclusive physical and material conditions that fundamentally determine the nature and quality of human life.

In Hobbes's theory, "man is a creature civilised by the fear of death".[v] Hobbes's entire system of civil society and the state are built from a single, "purging emotion" – the fear of death. The Hobbesian conception of security builds an intimate dynamic between physical and material security, in which unconstrained acquisitiveness and competition lead to physical insecurity, and in which physical security is the essential precondition of humans' bounded pursuit of material and other achievements.[vi] This conception has informed our understanding of the human condition and the widespread popularity of Abraham Maslow's argument that only physiological necessities precede security in the hierarchy of human needs[vii]demonstrates that most people find this conception to be intuitively correct. The priority of physical and material security has informed domestic and international natural and positive law, providing a widely recognised basic right to self-defence that trumps most other rules, norms and considerations.[viii] According to this conception, war is only justified when it is required to re-establish conditions of physical and material security or forestall physical or material insecurity.

This is not a framework of motivations that can explain the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Even if Osama bin Laden did miscalculate the resolve of the American response,[ix] it is hard to see how he could have rationally anticipated any consequence that didn't involve a worsening of his and his followers' physical and material security. But neither can they be interpreted as the acts of an irrational, foaming-at-the-mouth fanatic: the record of bin Laden's public statements since 1994 reveals a remarkably clear world view and a steady resolve to give it effect.[x] These and other al-Qaeda attacks made no attempt to limit casualties, as have the campaigns of other terrorist groups; clearly their intent was not to force a negotiated compromise that would redress their grievances and increase their influence.

Analysts pore over each statement made by bin Laden and his deputy, Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, looking primarily for two things: indications of their locations, the condition of the organisation and intended targets of attack; and for trends in religious and doctrinal rhetoric. What is little noticed or commented on is their statements' unrelenting and passionate moral discourse. Neither man has made a statement over the past decade that has not had, as its central theme, the violence against, dehumanisation and exploitation of Muslims, or the naked self-interest of those wielding structural power or advantage, or the uncaringness, hypocrisy and corruption of the West. All of these statements seethe with moral rage. Arguably, that is what makes them so influential among disaffected Muslims around the globe. Most importantly, it is only by becoming attuned to this moral rage that we can begin to comprehend the framework of motivations that has inspired the religious violence that has come to monopolise our attention.

The pioneering work of several terrorist scholars has called attention to the overwhelming feelings of individual and collective humiliation that motivate many religious terrorists.[xi] Mark Juergensmeyer argues that suicide bombing in particular is an act of "de-humiliation" and personal empowerment. Most important as a motivator of individual religious terrorists, he writes in Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2002), "is the intimacy with which the humiliation is experienced and the degree to which it is regarded as a threat to one's personal honour and respectability".[xii] Sheik Ahmad Yassin and Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi, leaders of the Muslim militant group Hamas killed by Israeli missile strikes early in 2004, justified Hamas bombings as acts of self-defence, defined as the defence of honour and dignity in addition to the protection of one's wellbeing.[xiii] But these insights take us only so far. How was Golun's humiliation assuaged by killing nine people who turned out to be fellow Indonesians? Why would Jaradat feel empowered by dying among 21 people she would never meet?

I think that religious terrorists such as bin Laden, Golun and Jaradat are motivated by a perceived need to protect and assert their moral security, and that this motivation is prior to and more urgent than concern for their physical or material security. The groundbreaking work of American sociologists George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman helps us understand why.[xiv] They suggested that each individual's sense of self is constructed through a constant process of interaction with others. "Societies everywhere," they write, "if they are to be societies, must mobilise their members as self-regarding participants in social encounters. One way of mobilising the individual for this purpose is through ritual; he is taught to be perceptive, to have feelings attached to self and a self expressed through face, to have pride, honour and dignity, to have considerateness, to have tact and a certain amount of poise."[xv]

Mead's and Goffman's work provides clues to the nature of moral security. Through social interaction, a primary motivation of each individual is to project his or her moral character, defined by qualities such as honesty, probity, integrity, social-mindedness, "breeding" and interpersonal sensitivity, and to have that conception of moral character affirmed in the reactions of his or her interlocutors. To them, "the self is in part a ceremonial thing, a sacred object which must be treated with proper ritual care and in turn must be presented in a proper light to others. As a means through which this self is established, the individual acts with proper demeanour while in contact with others and is treated by others with deference."[xvi]

Human life is therefore partly a moral career: an everyday campaign to affirm one's moral standing in society, and, by monitoring how one is treated by others, to achieve an existential understanding of the moral self. By acting morally, each individual incorporates and exemplifies the moral values of society; by affirming his or her moral standing in this way he or she reinforces the moral structures of society. Unproblematic interactions that fulfil these functions constantly provide individuals with predictability in their social world and ongoing reassurance of their worth and honour. But if an individual's assertions of his or her moral self are not affirmed by the reactions of interlocutors, the reaction is one of anger and resentment. As Goffman wrote in 1952: "Many gods have been done away with, but the individual himself stubbornly remains as a deity of considerable importance. He walks with some dignity and is the recipient of many little offerings. He is jealous of the worship due him ... perhaps the individual is so viable a god because he can actually understand the significance of the way he is treated, and quite on his own can respond dramatically to what is proffered him. In contacts between such deities there is no need for middlemen; each of these gods is able to serve as his own priest."[xvii]

A repeated lack of affirmation of an individual's projected moral persona, with no extenuating circumstances, explanations or apologies, leads to a crisis of moral security, prompting both the individual's questioning of his or her moral self-conceptions and resentful judgements about the moral character of the interlocutors. Persistent disjuncture between moral self-conceptions and social reactions can lead to disillusion with social morals and to alienation.


THE STATEMENTS OF religious militants suggest that moral security is affected by both interpersonal and inter-societal interactions. An individual's moral self-respect is tied to respect for the moral system that his or her actions exemplify; consequently people are highly sensitive to how other cultures interact with their own. Humans expect what Goffman calls rituals of homage and forbearance also at the collective, cultural level: non-performance of the former are taken as slights; of the latter, as violations.[xviii] The morally disillusioned often impugn the morality of the non-observant culture, relying on metaphors of pollution and reacting with disgust and increasing militancy. As Osama bin Laden wrote in his Letter to the American People in October 2002: "Your forces occupy our lands spreading your ideology and thereby polluting the hearts of our people. You have laid siege on our holy places, mocking the sanctity of our mosques ... You promote immoral acts in all their forms directly and indirectly ... you open the door for your tourists, encouraging them to join you in these immoral acts, spreading filth upon whoever comes in contact with you."[xix]

Since the 19th century, several non-Western cultures have been thrown into prolonged crisis by the challenge posed to their esteem and measures of self-respect by Western culture and the forces of modernity. In Japan, China, India and the Islamic world, intellectual movements have agonised over how to respond to the all-embracing dominance of the West. The major debate has been between those advocating a Kemalist rejection of their own culture and a wholesale adoption of Western practices in order to compete with the West on its own terms, and those who argue for a disciplined return to the core precepts of their own culture as a means of social empowerment.[xx] Movements championing the latter in each of these cultures attract those worried about the extinction of their culture by the forces of an alien, Western modernity and by corresponding internal processes of moral corruption.

These are anxieties that have not been resolved. Relentless change driven by development and globalisation has resulted in ongoing social ferment and the questioning of more and more social structures in many non-Western societies and cultural enclaves. A growing body of literature shows a close correlation between regions of great social dislocation and change, and communal or religious extremism and violence.[xxi]According to sociologists, the removal of traditional social and cultural structures leads to an expansion of individuals' sensitivity and competitiveness over status issues.[xxii] This evidence suggests that concern for moral security becomes more salient in conditions where individuals are less able to ensure their physical and material security. Close adherence to strict moral codes, bitter critiques of those not adhering to these moral codes and cultural and moral assertiveness become ways of reclaiming a sense of moral agency and status. Many who seek to defend their moral security are contemptuous of what they perceive to be the passivity of their ethnic or religious kin; this is often behind their rejection of scriptural injunctions to moderation and their emphasis on the militant aspects of their theology.[xxiii]

For those who see their moral security and that of their culture or society persistently violated by implacable external forces and internal laxity, the embrace of fundamentalist religious doctrine is a prominent reaction. Strict adherence to the clearest possible signs of morality becomes a way of clarifying and reasserting moral self-worth and staking a claim to some of the most prominent social markers of moral affirmation and respect. Strict religious doctrine provides a clear moral order for those who have lost or left behind traditional social structures and feel threatened by social fragmentation, the assault of an alien morality and culture, and the passivity and laxity of their own people. The perceived marginalisation of their families and communities by the surrounding society often makes second– or third-generation migrants to the West or the cities in their own countries react with anger and turn to fundamentalism and social withdrawal, and militancy.[xxiv]Religious doctrine provides justification for their moral anger at their perceived dehumanisation, inequality, exploitation or non-acceptance at the hands of uncaring others who use their power and advantage for self-interest. Religious injunctions can also legitimise the urge to strike back, to take revenge, to assert pride in their culture.

Violent metaphors and images of war and destruction are central to most religions and form an integral part of those religions' abilities to stir the imaginations and gain the passionate commitment of adherents.[xxv] By placing the perceived denial of individuals' and societies' moral security on a universal stage of good versus evil, religion ennobles individuals' feelings of moral and status insecurity. The image of a universal struggle between good and evil clarifies the world for those who are confused or feel disempowered, clearly separating the world into two sides, each identified with complete virtue or absolute depravity. As bin Laden said in 2001: "These incidents [ie the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon] divided the entire world into two regions – one of faith where there is no hypocrisy and another of infidelity, from which we hope God will protect us."[xxvi]

Manichean images of religious war provide generalising stereotypes that make the link between terrorists' deeply personal feelings of moral insecurity, humiliation and dishonour and their acts of indiscriminate killing. Simply by being a member of the other group, a victim who is unknown becomes someone against whom the terrorist has a "virtual" interpersonal grievance.

A state of war means violence is seen not as terrorism but legitimate self-defence. Because of the universality of the struggle, those who live in peace can only do so by explicitly or tacitly participating in a moral war against the oppressed group. Morality and fairness dictate that those who live in physical and material security while acquiescing in a war against others must be made to feel their victims' insecurity. This view was reiterated by bin Laden a year later: "Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? ... You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb."[xxvii]

By attacking his or her perceived oppressors' physical and material security, a religious militant regains a sense of agency and control and asserts a claim to moral security.


A WORLDWIDE INCREASE in piety and overt religious observance among members of most religious faiths since the 1970s suggests that the disruptions of globalisation and friction between Western and non-Western cultures have challenged the sense of moral security of millions of people. Within most faiths there have been outbreaks of militancy and violence over the past two decades but only small proportions of the believers have turned into terrorists. Why do some become violent when most have just become more pious?

The concept of moral security, like conceptions of physical or material security, holds within it a dynamic of moderation and extremism. Most of us think of our own security in relative terms: we desire a certain amount of security, but realising that greater levels of security entail significant inconveniences and compromises, we are prepared to live with an "acceptable" level of insecurity.[xxviii] But like other relative qualities, security is a condition that people want in different amounts; it is also a quality that can breed obsessiveness. So it is with moral security. An acceptable level of personal and social morality for many may be insufficient for some. Measures that most regard as sufficient to preserve cultural pride and uphold moral standards are often seen as cowardly compromises by a fanatical few. Often what occurs is a splitting of a religion into factions, wherein each side sees itself as the holder of the "true" faith and the other as deviant.[xxix] This is a dynamic that also sees proponents of secularism and syncretism, or any form of compromise, as dangerous adversaries.

The increasing contemporary allure of most religions may also contain a dynamic that gives rise to fundamentalism and militancy. Most of the major religions have, or have acquired, a dialectic logic of expansion and defence. Integral to Christianity and Islam in particular is a requirement to proselytise, to expand the community of the faith potentially until it embraces all of humanity. But deep within both faiths is also a corresponding dread of losing members of the faith to other religions. The penalties for apostasy are both spiritual and physical. The global increase in religious observance and especially Christian proselytisation has touched off defensive reactions in most other religions. Hence Hinduism and Buddhism, possibly the two faiths most doctrinally accepting of confessional diversity, have both given birth to aggressive and often violent groups seeking to defend their religious communities against what they see as "forced and unethical" conversions by Islam and Christianity.[xxx] Most militant religious movements stress the theme of defence, an emotionally powerful claim designed to convey images of an existential threat to which all believers are obliged to respond.[xxxi]


THE TWO MOST prominent responses advocated as a way of addressing religious violence are, on the one hand, enforcement actions against the terrorists, and on the other, "draining the swamp" from which terrorists recruit through programs of development and education and the resolution of conflicts such as that between Israelis and Palestinians. Both impulses draw on the Hobbesian conception of security: we seek to re-establish our physical and material security by attacking the sources of insecurity and bolstering the physical and material security of those inclined to join the terrorists. These policies fail to take into account considerations of moral security as a major driver of religious violence.

Even among non-militants, there has been growing anger at the West's arrogance, hypocrisy and misuse of power since before September 11, 2001 or the Iraq war.[xxxii] This reflects a growing sense of moral insecurity with both globalisation and Western actions to assert power and implement its vision of a global order. It also reflects a growing popularisation of the politics of international relations, as by virtue of the communications revolution, increasing numbers of people have felt morally affected by world events and have reacted in moral terms.

Whatever the future of the "War on Terror", these dynamics will continue and possibly intensify until the moral and cultural consequences of globalisation and the maintenance of world order are considered. Such processes need to begin taking seriously issues of cultural pride and moral security. Cultures and moral systems are not fixed: they evolve, often in reaction to each other. We need to begin building the international and domestic conditions of cultural co-existence or we will continue to experience the violence of cultural confrontation born of moral insecurity.

[i] See, for example, Yonah Alexander, David Carlton and Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism: Theory and Practice, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979; J. Bowyer Bell, On Revolt: Strategies of National Liberation, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976 ; Walter Laqueur, The Age of Terrorism, Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.

[ii] Such thinking lies behind the term "Islamofascism", which constructs parallels between Hitler and Muslim terrorism to argue that the latter, like the former, cannot be bargained with or expected to moderate its violence, but must be confronted and destroyed. See Alexander Downer, "Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia", speech to the National Press Club, July 15, 2004.

[iii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Michael Oakeshott, "Introduction" in ibid., p. xxxvi.

[vi] Hobbes spends some time in Leviathan and also in his history of the English Civil War, Behemoth, discussing the disruption and insecurity caused by religion. For Hobbes, religion is a product of human incapacities to understand parts of their physical world, and religious discord and violence happens when humans differ in their interpretations of religious scriptures. His solution is the propagation of civic religion, authoritatively determined by the state, as a way of eliminating religious violence.

[vii] See Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, (second ed.) New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1970.

[viii] Security theorists Ole Waever and Barry Buzan coined the influential term "securitisation" for the process whereby an issue is redefined as an existential threat as a way of mobilising resources for and overcoming resistance to addressing the issue. See Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 1998.

[ix] There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not bin Laden intended to draw US forces further into the Middle East as a consequence of the September 11, 2001, attacks; some argue it was a colossal miscalculation, while others have cited bin Laden's previous statements as evidence that he intended to provoke the US attack on Afghanistan.

[x] See Anonymous, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, Washington: Brassey's, Inc, 2003.

[xi] See Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998; Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

[xii] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, p. 195.

[xiii] ibid., p. 80.

[xiv] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society, ed. Charles W Morris, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

[xv] Erving Goffman, The Goffman Reader, ed. Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman, Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, p. 110.

[xvi] ibid., p. 30.

[xvii] ibid., p. 32.

[xviii] ibid, p. 115.

[xix] Osama bin Laden's "Letter to the American People", posted on the Waaqiah website, October 26, 2002.

[xx] Some argued for a compromise: the adoption of Western methods, but imbuing them with local cultural characteristics.

[xxi] See, for example, Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002; Gilles Kepel shows that in its early days, Muslim extremism was almost exclusively a phenomenon among recently urbanised Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa and south Asia; see Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, trans. Anthony F Roberts, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 2002.

[xxii] Alexander Smith and Raymond Tatalovich, Cultures at War: Moral Conflicts in Western Societies, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003, p. 25.

[xxiii] Zionist terrorist groups such as the Haganah and Irgun were strongly motivated by disgust at the Jews' passive acceptance of their fate at the hands of the Nazis, while Arab extremists who went to Bosnia and Chechnya to fight often claimed that they would show the Bosnians and Chechnyans "how Muslims can fight".

[xxiv] For example, many militant Muslims who have congregated around extremist leader Abu Hamzah at London's Finsbury Park mosque are second– or third-generation immigrants from Muslim countries.

[xxv] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, p. 6.

[xxvi] Statement by Osama bin Laden, broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite television, October 7, 2001.

[xxvii] Statement by Osama bin Laden, broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite television, November 12, 2002.

[xxviii] For example, if I was really serious about my personal security, road fatality statistics would have convinced me long ago never to venture onto the road.

[xxix] Mark Juergensmeyer, "Is Religion the Problem?", Levinson Lectures, Centre on Religion and Democracy, University of Virginia, November 7, 2003.

[xxx] Christians have been attacked in India by Hindu groups, while Christians in Sri Lanka have been attacked by Buddhist militants. See also Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds), Fundamentalisms Observed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

[xxxi] Many Muslim militants stress the defensive nature of their jihad, thereby making direct reference to Islamic jurisprudence that enjoins that defence of the community of the faithful is an individual duty for each Muslim, not a diffuse community obligation.

[xxxii] See Pew Research Centre, Views of a Changing World, June 2003, Washington: Pew Research Centre, 2003.

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