For Love of the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Terrorism

Paperback (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $15.77
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 34%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (8) from $15.77   
  • New (3) from $15.77   
  • Used (5) from $15.89   


Ruth Stein's pioneering study explains suicidal terrorism from a psychoanalytic perspective. The author argues that most Islamic extremists undertake destructive and self-destructive actions not out of blind hatred, not even for political gain, but to achieve an explosive merger with a transcendent awesome Father, God. The extremist is thus motivated more by his love for God than his hatred of the infidel. The contemporary Islamic terrorist kills "God's enemies" to express his intoxication with and complete submission to the God-idea. Stein further shows that this same leitmotif of filial submission and sacrifice runs through patriarchal monotheism in general.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Stein was] a brilliant and original thinker . . . After the September 11, 2001 suicide bombings, President Bush declared that the perpetrators 'hated' Americans. Ruth Stein suggests that this was not the case. Rather, the suicide bombers were driven by love of God."—Richard A. Koenigsberg, Library of Social Science

"This superb book, based on a great deal of original scholarship and the marvelous integration of socio-political, relational psychoanalytic, and Lacanian thought, is illuminating and a delight to read. Stein has more success than any other I have read in this field in stepping inside the unconscious mind of the terrorist. Her argument is carefully crafted and the understanding of evil that emerges is remarkably profound." —Peter Fonagy, University College, London

"With this highly original and deeply thoughtful analysis of fundamentalism and destructiveness, Ruth Stein offers a most innovative and incisive use of psychoanalytic theory as well as its daily practice. Rare among psychoanalysts, Stein is able to keep a dual focus, to move persuasively between clinical vignettes and the sociocultural world . In so doing, she illuminates the perverse adoration of and submission to a powerful father figure as a solution to the problem of self-hate and the pathology of patriarchal power. Even as readers will be drawn to Stein's prose, sparkling with brilliant insight and imagination, they will be arrested and compelled by Stein's unflinching examination of the dynamics of fundamentalism. Her nuanced efforts to distinguish the sacred from the submissive, ritual from rigidity, to define where religion ends and fanaticism begins, challenge us to struggle with a level of discomfiting complexity that is too often avoided. For Love of the Father is a book that above all strives to let us use psychoanalysis at its most creative edge to 'live the questions' we cannot yet answer."—Jessica Benjamin, New York University

"This book is the major psychoanalytic statement we need on this issue. Until we understand the terrorist mind we will be unable to combat it. Here is the first step toward such an understanding. Ruth Stein shows that the psychoanalytic way of thinking about political and religious issues is alive and well—and of utter importance to our understanding. The book is replete with striking insights into this dark subject. A must read." —Walter A. Davis, Ohio State University

"In this scholarly and compelling exploration of the psychology of religious fundamentalism, Ruth Stein provides us with an account that is breathtakingly original. Combining a sophisticated and clinically grounded command of psychoanalytic thinking with a broad interdisciplinary reach and a direct examination of the writings of Islamic terrorists, Stein's analysis displays a depth of understanding that resonates at both intellectual and emotional levels. She has an uncanny ability to put into words insights that possess a kind of primordial plausiblity, and that capture the passion and urgency of fundamentalist experience, while at the same time subjecting it to rigorous and exacting analysis."— Jeremy D. Safran, New School for Social Research

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804763059
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 11/23/2009
  • Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Stein is Associate Professor in New York University's Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. She is the author of Psychoanalytic Theories of Affect (1991; 1999).

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt


A Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Terrorism
By Ruth Stein

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6305-9

Chapter One

Evil as Love and as Liberation

The Mind of a Suicidal Religious Terrorist

The letter to the hijackers that was found in Mohammed Atta's luggage in the car that was left at Logan Airport before the World Trade Center attack is a striking document. A highly revelatory testimony, it may provide us with some understanding of how the mind of a suicide killer works. As psychoanalysis, indeed society, faces the emergence of new kinds of mass-destructive attacks on human beings, we must seek whatever additional knowledge we can about the states of mind that are conducive to such attacks. In particular, I believe, we should try to comprehend the mentality behind intensely religious self-sacrifice. We need to learn more about the psychodynamic issues involved in a decision that caused (and may go on causing) horrible suffering and grief to masses of people. We need to inquire what are the themes linked with and explanatory of this kind of evil.

In their anthology of studies by religious theorists and political scientists who authenticated and translated the letter from the Arabic, Hans Kippenberg and Tilman Seidenstricker describe the letter asa collection of rituals. The purpose of the letter and the mandated rituals, in their view, was to transform a young Muslim into a warrior, instilling spiritual motives that create inner peace, fearlessness, obeisance, and lack of feeling during the killing. But the letter is more than a document tracing the initiation and transformation of a man into a warrior. Had it only been a means of contacting and fortifying the minds of terrorists about to commit an act of mass destruction, we would expect such a document to be filled with a raging rhetoric of hate, a cry to destruction and annihilation. Instead, we hear a voice that reassures, calms, calls for restraint and thoughtful control, and appeals for a heightened consciousness in its readers. One might say that this is the voice of a wise father, instructing his sons in the steps they are to take on a mission of great importance, and reminding them of the attitude suited to accomplishing that mission. The letter calls for the terrorists to wash and perfume their bodies; to clean and to polish their knives; to be serene, confident, patient, and smiling; and to remember and renew their intentions. It reminds them that the task before them demands their attentiveness and, even more, their devoted adherence to God.

The letter frequently mentions love of God and God's satisfaction with the act to be accomplished. Essentially, it details some things that have to be done in order for the terrorists to gain entry into God's eternal paradise. We know that these acts involve the murder of human beings, those who are considered the enemies of God, as well as the self-annihilation of the terrorists themselves, who are going to be tools for the elimination of other humans. But the letter does not spell this out. While doing the work of killing and destruction, the doer, God's faithful servant, must remember to make supplications to God wherever he finds himself and whatever he does. Basically, the letter describes a ritual at the end of which the supplicant is to receive God's approval by doing what pleases God-purifying the world of contaminating infidels. Again, this is not mentioned in the letter. What is indeed stressed is that, if one is to merge with God, the most elevated Being human thought can envision, one has to perform the act accurately and mindfully.

How can we explain the tone of the letter? Can it teach us something about the state of mind in which the terrorists were steeped, either by themselves or by others (by special "training," including the formulating and reading of the letter we are studying)? What is the mental atmosphere of anticipating and preparing for such a destruction of other and self? What is the place and role of a smiling, calm, confident state of mind with which one passes from life into death, a state of mind so diametrically inverse to the turmoil, terror, and rage that would be the expected accompaniments to committing such destruction?

The Son's Supplicating Love for the Father

I have always been deeply impressed by the intimate, loving discourse a believer holds with God while praying and supplicating. Particularly poignant to me is the theme of a son praying to his God-father. One can practically hear the sweet plaintive murmur of the Psalmist, "My God, so numerous became those who hunt me, so many are those who stand over me, who say to my soul, you have no redemption in God, and You, my God, giveth back to me my breath and saveth me with Thy love." And one is riveted not only by the music but also by the lyrics of Jesus Christ's love songs to God in Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew, "Dein Mund hat mich gelabet mit Milch und süser Kost" (Your mouth has fed and replenished me with milk and the sweetest nourishment). Both the psalm and St. Matthew are profound works of great beauty and inspiration, where joy and pain intertwine.

The letter to the terrorists does not speak of hatred. It is past hatred. Absurdly and perversely, it is about love. It is about love of God. We can palpably sense the confident intimacy of a son close to his father and the seeking of a love that is given as promised and no longer withheld. If this feeling is sustained inside one, it does not have to be demonstrated externally. The letter is a reminder: "Everywhere you go say that prayer and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers. And the angels protect you without you feeling anything"; and, "You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage [in heaven] is very short." Inasmuch as nothing further is said about that marriage, and particularly whom one will marry (the famous paradisiacal virgins are not mentioned at this point), the idea that the marriage is that of the son(s) to God does not sound absurd at all.

The thought that there might be a root affinity between the theme of a son's love for his divine father and the underlying theme of the letter feels quite unpleasant. Do these motifs of religious devotion and intimate communion and of using "God" to inflict mass killing and destruction spring from the same psychic source? And do they bear on the image of the father as the one who opens windows to the outer world, and who offers-to his daughter as well as to his son-liberation from domesticity and the mother's absolute power? Is there any similarity between the father of freedom and creativity and the father who loves those who kill his enemies and chooses those killers as his accepted sons? In both cases, the "father" not only dispenses empowerment and inspiration, he also imparts a sense of joy and fulfillment, the joy of deliverance from a too-enclosing life and the opportunity to identify with ideals. Jessica Benjamin's words thus acquire an added resonance: "Identificatory love is the relational context in which, for males, separation and gender identification occur. The strong mutual attraction between father and son allows for recognition through identification, a special erotic relationship.... The boy is in love with his ideal. This homoerotic, identificatory love serves as the boy's vehicle of establishing masculine identity and confirming his sense of himself as subject of desire."

What we have here however, is identificatory love that goes awry and is amplified and perverted by divine aloofness and difference. The state of ecstasy that comes with doing God's will and the rapture of merging with Him is known to be a joyous experience. "Those who dismiss 'evil cults' have no idea how rapturous this state can be and how no other pleasure can compare with it," said a disciple in Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's community, when describing "true bliss and abundant joy." William James 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 in "the ecstatic merger of leader and follower." Obviously, the shadow of an anonymous guide and leader who issues loving paternal injunctions falls upon the letter and is 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. Human beings have always sought such states, often through religious or secular mysticism, with the help of cultural rites, drugs, oxygen deficit (through rapid breathing), sleep deprivation, or some other form of an imposed ordeal. These states may also be experienced in such familiar activities as song, dance, sexual love, childbirth, aesthetic effort, mechanical flight, artistic and intellectual creation-and going to war. 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.

Such a smooth passage from life to death obscurely connects in our minds with a mutation, a sweetening of dying, either by loss of self or by "well-intentioned" killing, in a sickening marriage of love and murder (a combination we read about in the reports of some serial killers and murderers). When such a state of mind prevails, love can smoothly glide into murder. We are faced with a most hateful action that is performed in a spirit of devotion, a kind of beatitude that culminates in literally killing, not only others but also the self. Obviously, this is not the misfortune of being killed during a battle, or an outburst of murderous rage. Neither is it the choice a martyr makes to sacrifice his life when being assaulted by heathen torturers. What we have here is martyrdom that is murderous; militancy that is sacralized; a symbiotic, simultaneous killing and dying, where approaching intimacy with God the Father requires becoming one with one's victims, "marrying" them in death and destruction. The language of the letter belies explanations for the terrorist acts as secular political actions, pointing to a transcendent mystical experience of a special nature. This mystical experience, I suggest, hosts the transformation of self-hatred and envy into love of God, a Love-of-God that promotes the obliteration of those parts of the self that are antagonistic to the sense of compulsory purity.

Robert Jay Lifton, in his illuminating study of what he calls "death imagery," talks about universal symbols of pollution and defilement as signifying being contaminated and soiled with "death-taint and total severance." Purity, on the other hand, signifies "life-continuity and unbroken connection." The process of purification would then represent the transformation from death to life. In the cases where purification means killing-paradoxically, by purifying the defiling elements so as to wrest life out of death-one arrives at death once again (I talk about these phenomena at greater length in the next chapter). The detachment from and contempt for human life displayed by the terrorists, coupled with a fervent, extreme love for God, is substantially different from the "love" many a serial killer has professed feeling for his victim(s). Serial killers speak about their inchoate longing to enter the other, particularly the other's body, even (or especially) after the victim's death. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader who inspired the momentum of the suicide bombers against Israel, seems to articulate the difference between the serial killer and the suicide bomber: "Love of martyrdom is something deep inside the heart. But these rewards are not in themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah's satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah."

The Father, Hypermasculinity, and the Disappearing Woman

Let us consider again the transformation of (self-) hatred into love of God. We know from the press that Mohammed Atta had an overbearing, self-confident, successful, moderately religious father, who, on being told what his son had been involved with, expressed disbelief at the idea that his son, whom he used to scorn for not being manly enough, could execute such an act. People who knew him, the press tells us, say that Atta was painfully shy with women. We read in his will, written in 1996, that he requests that no pregnant woman or other unclean person should approach his body, and that his genitalia be washed with gloved hands. In the years leading to the attack, taciturn, humorless, introverted Mohammed Atta had become increasingly pious and austere, frequenting Hamburg's Big Mosque. He was, witnesses tell us, a dour presence in school and in the house of his German hosts. Atta, who was often repulsed by people's small pleasures, was also harsh and demanding toward himself in matters of religious observance, with no smile to lighten his sullen face. In particular, everything having to do with the sexual body was felt by him to be defiled and therefore untouchable.

One afternoon I found myself in a massive mujahideen demonstration in Trafalgar Square in London in November 2000, where a young British convert to Islam was holding a speech. The argument this man employed to explain why he had converted to Islam and joined the mujahideen had to do, as I had anticipated, with sexuality. He stridently lashed out at the rottenness of Western society, a society "poisoned by homosexuality, adultery, fornication, sexual license." He was screaming, with rage and fear, that sexual sinning must come to an end for it destroys the world. The new light he was seeing, the Truth he found in Islam, he said, helped him find a remedy to the sexual ills of British society. His discourse, centered on sexuality, was antisexual, antiheterosexual, and manifestly antihomosexual. As Catherine Liu put it: "Mohammed Atta's phobic reaction to sexually integrated society is a symptom of his being both inside and outside of secular modernity. It is his negation and wish to annihilate this complex configuration that becomes the measure of absolute violence.... Atta's murderous mindset has everything to do with contempt for women. The cult of purity is maintained psychically at the expense of real women."

Clearly, women do not exist in this "masculine" letter (even the famous virgins are mentioned here in one auxiliary phrase that speaks of their waiting for the heroes in their beautiful clothes, hardly a very sexual or intimate description). The culture of hypermasculinity and the ideal of warriors who purify the world of contaminants (whom bin Laden contemptuously equates with women), absolve these men of the need to articulate the desirability and potential power of women. If there is no acknowledged emotional need for woman, there is no dependency and no envy. There is only a liberation from the primordial fear of being tempted to lean on a woman and thereby become softened, engulfed, and emasculated. Modern, strong women typify a world out of order and threaten the sexual security of these men. The banishment of women reinforces the pervasive homoerotic grouping among Islamic extremists, where the desired loss of individuation that is feared with women is given free reign and finds its place in a devout submission to God. This shift (from women to homoerotic bonding around an idealized male divinity) marks a specific regressive-transcendent trajectory that is altogether different than falling into an engulfing maternal womb. The frightful sliding "down" toward the feminine and maternal can be replaced-or even, shall we say, superseded-by an ecstatic soaring "upward," toward the heavenly Father, who is imagined to be waiting there to redeem his sons' troubled souls and sweep away the doubts of their former selves. It seems as if the primitive father of Freud's primal horde has been resuscitated or, better, is still alive, and has come to embrace his sons-provided they unite against "woman," that is, against the feminine principle of pleasure and softness (found both in Islamic women and in Western society, which is seen as feminized). Instead of rebelling against the oppressive Father and against the frenzied death the Father demands, there is a giving up of oneself to Him, a total submission.


Excerpted from FOR LOVE OF THE FATHER by Ruth Stein Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Evil as Love and as Liberation: The Mind of a Suicidal Religious Terrorist 21

2 Fundamentalism as Vertical Mystical Homoeros 45

3 Purification as Violence 61

4 Regression to the Father: Clinical Narratives and Theoretical Reflections 74

5 The Triadic Structure of Evil 102

Appendix A Mohammed Atta's Letter 143

Appendix B From Dr. Ali Shariati's After Shahadat 149

Notes 157

References 191

Index 211

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)