17/01/2013 13:28 GMT | Updated 19/03/2013 05:12 GMT

The Mind of the Religious Terrorist

"We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little Hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!"

Tolkien's Gollum would have been a prime target for a religious terrorist recruiter. He is obsessed by the loss of a sacred treasure that defines his identity, obsequious yet angry in its pursuit, reduced to a split personality that goes down dark holes, addicted to being manipulated. Should Gollum be pitied, loved, redeemed or cast out?

The real-world question is what do religious terrorists want? In answer to this question Tolkien's magical world might not be irrelevant. Because while there are many paths that lead to violence in the name of God, and no fixed steps, the final mind-set shows commonalities despite different starting points. And that common mind-set contains a social imaginary, inhabits a split mythical world that contains a powerful set of symbols; it goes down the darkest of holes.

Roger Griffin's Terrorist's Creed: fanatical violence and the human need for meaning (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012) provides some fascinating insights into how that world is constructed. His thesis rests heavily on the concept of nomos, originally the Orphic God of divine order. It is used here as a shorthand for the sociologist Peter Berger's "sacred canopy", that structure of social and cosmic order which gives meaning to life, a religious world-view. A nomos provides a shield against the despair and terror of meaninglessness and lost identity. "We wants it, we needs it" so we will kill and sacrifice all to retrieve it, reconstruct or invent it in what Griffin calls a "mazeway resynthesis". Because someone has stolen it: Romans and their Jewish collaborators in the case of the Jewish resistance, the Zealots and their much feared terrorist wing, known as the sicarii.

The religious terrorist mind creates and inhabits this new world in which the individual regains power and significance and finds a totalising identity. Rebirth into this new personality demands a quest for purification to avoidance of contamination - by the "sneaky little Hobbitses" and their decadent Western world. This world profiles itself in distinction to particular religions and political ideologies: democracy and elections, gender relations, education for women. These become but the hydra-heads of the snake that must be destroyed to ensure survival and victory.

"Purification" entails a radical division of the world into the pure and impure, those on the path of God and those who are not and must be destroyed. Splitting occurs inside the individual as well as outside. In the terrorist's binary world, the needy impotent soul in search of meaning is transformed into the warrior hero, often playing a role in an apocalyptic fantasy. Anything is permitted, terrible slaughter of innocents is justified, by the pursuit of personal and social purification, in the name of the nomos. Attacks notably target symbols of impurity as well as terrorising the enemy.

This is a sobering analysis. It does not leave the easy way out by saying that the religious terrorist is mad or cowardly, taking actions that are inexplicable, the cliched responses to terrorist atrocities. The point is that within the terrorist's creed extreme violence can be a logical consequence of its premises. The Norwegian court found that Breivik did not engage in "delusional behaviour" but pointed to his being part of an ideological sub-culture that shared his core beliefs.

Two other outcomes of this analysis need noting. Firstly, a mind-set that constructs a quasi-modern, or at least an eclectic ,bipolar narrative about the world, can be no less a source of terrorist violence than one that evokes a utopian golden age from the past. Secondly, nothing in Griffin's compilation of case studies brands religion as the prime mover of terrorist acts. Rather the terrorist mindset suggests an elective affinity for religious symbols through concepts of purification, martyrdom, and the creation of new Manichean sacred canopies. But many suicide bombers are pathetically ignorant of their faith and its sacred texts. The intellectual and theological content of the religious terrorist's creed is often minimal.

So how helpful are these insights? Not very in the short term. But they suggest lessons for religious education if not for de-radicalisation. Meaning and purpose imply mundane practices such as gainful employment. Education for religious pluralism needs to equip youth to feel at ease, yusr, with diversity and ambivalence, seeing secularism as neither entirely bad nor entirely good, seeking a reconciliation with the modern world rather than a dfensive identity based on its rejection. And it needs a rich religious education and respect for sacred scriptures. As Ed Husain says in his book The Islamist: "There was an elasticity, nuance and plurality in the message of the Koran that Islamists had somehow overlooked, in the process reducing our noble faith to terrorism, anger, and conflict".