The Sport of Terrorism

by Paul L. Heck (March 2, 2015)

Terrorism has no religion and no nation. But does it have a sport? In 2013 Dr. Abd al-Raheem Ghareeb of Morocco’s National Institute for Commerce and Management conducted a detailed survey of a phenomenon in his country known as ultras: extremist football fans. They go to the stadium to make a spectacle, not to view one. They provocatively confront opposing fans. And it can spill out into the streets where ultras have been known to battle one another sometimes in large numbers. Some have even threatened players and coaches on their own team for letting them down. These fans have a hankering for violence. Can they tell us something about terrorist violence?

We’re talking about football, but we’re also talking about the drivers of hatred and violence.

People across the globe take football very seriously. (The US calls it soccer.) For the ultras, devotion to one’s team is the ultimate loyalty. It’s not just about cheering on the home team. It also means active opposition to other fan groups. The stadium becomes a place to pursue violence. Some say they’re willing to die and kill for their teams. And loss of life has resulted. This is hooliganism: disorderly mayhem at sporting events. Hooliganism is found the world over. It gives people a high and a taste of transcendence. Normal standards of behavior no longer apply. It’s a moment without limits or constraints. Transcendence of the ordinary. Hooliganism is about seeking a thrill. The ultras in Morocco are more purposeful than this. Their violence is about finding meaning in life, and it is organized. Some are willing to fight and die for their team.

Of course, no one would say extremist fans do what they do because they belong to a particular religion. But there is a pious factor in the mix. The piety of ultras is not a religious piety, but group violence requires pious devotion to the group. You can attack other groups because of your reverence for your own group. Your group is your god. Indeed, it’s through hostility to other groups that you confirm your loyalty to your own group. Violence becomes the goal of this piety. One group exists only by virtue of the violence it uses against other groups.

Let’s first have a look at the study.

In 2013, Dr. Ghareeb surveyed 1703 football fans. Twenty-seven percent had experienced aggression in the past, eighteen percent think about seeking revenge, fifty percent say they cannot control their language in the stadium, nineteen percent have engaged in violence and destruction in the past, and nine percent go to the stadium with knives. Ghareeb found that many of them feel a greater sense of belonging to their team than they do to their family or even to the nation. In other words, their identity has become swallowed up in their team and its fan group. This makes them ready to sacrifice for the group: money, time, and also a willingness to defend one’s team and its symbols physically. These fan groups have a distinct penchant for violence that makes them gang-like.

Typical members of these football gangs are ready to contribute to its cause. They come up with simple but innovative ways to market their team’s symbols. They’re keen to cooperate for a cause greater than themselves. That’s a basic human desire. Yet they’re also provocative. They’re looking for a fight. They boast online of stealing the symbols of other teams. They have been known to parade their colors on the turf of other fan groups and to destroy their symbols. It’s as if they feel they have to annihilate the existence of others in order to be sure of their own existence.

They are cooperative for a purpose but also have a distinct desire for violence.

Ghareeb has noted that many extremist fans are unemployed and did not finish school. Or they might still be in high school but have a violent character that is combined with (or perhaps the product of) their limited financial means and lack of future prospects. This generates frustration. The term in Arabic (iḥbāt) is stronger than frustration. It suggests despair over one’s existence and worth. As a result, these fans take great pride in the team medallions they wear around their necks. It gives them a concrete identity. And yet they go to the stadium not to watch so much as to create a spectacle. It’s all about being antagonistic. They start by stealing the signs of the other team and turning them upside down. But it’s not just good fun. They attend without a ticket to show that they are not subject to the rules of the stadium. Before going to the match, they pop pills that induce a wild rage. They hate the Royal Institute of Football because it sets down rules that criminalize their behavior and way of life.

Ghareeb insists that increasing stadium security won’t fix the problem. This fan extremism, he says, is not exceptional behavior. It’s a widespread phenomenon with roots in society. Extremist fans don’t come from another planet. They are “products of our own societies” with all its illnesses and failings. He points to the use of drugs, the failure of the educational system, family breakdown, the absence of centers where youth can hone their talents and find meaning, the inability of the religious establishment to connect with youth, the indifference of the rich and influential in society, and the unwillingness of people to go beyond angry facebook sloganeering and actually take the time and make the effort to organize positive activities. One might also ask whether youth have come to expect too much from the system. Do they expect their lives to be handed to them by society’s decision makers without their own initiative and effort? At the same time, one cannot deny the limits. It is not always possible to participate in society in positive and effective ways. Too many doors are closed. Initiative is discouraged. Resentment simmers against family and nation. They call for obedience but offer nothing in return. We’re not talking about a case of disobedient sons who do the opposite of what they’re told. Or maybe we are. In any case, it amounts to a real protest of the status quo.

Extremist fans may be the byproducts of society’s failures, but according to Ghareeb, the inner nucleus of the ultras are politically aware. They’re on top of the latest developments at home and abroad. It’s a political phenomenon as much as hooliganism. The fact that football has a political side is hardly surprising in a country where politicians associate with teams as a way to bolster their popularity. But the politics of ultras is not about patronage. It’s about violence. When normal routes to political change are blocked, violence becomes a means to express discontentment. It’s worth noting that ultras do not express hostility towards the symbols of national identity in Morocco. Indeed, they sometimes claim such symbols for their cause. Amidst their unruliness, they sometimes chant for the King, the Moroccan (Western) Sahara, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. In other words, a phenomenon that is not religious can take on a religious character. Ultras rage against the system, but they see it as serving a noble purpose. They are the true defenders of the nation’s principles. In their minds, they are the ones willing to sacrifice and even die for the nation even if vicariously on the stage of the football stadium, the only place where they are able to express themselves freely.

And yet fan extremism is not just a way to express oneself freely in a society that puts limits on freedom of expression. The stadium is not just a place of protest. It also becomes a moral free zone. It’s about transcending all the normal standards of society, including its moral code. There’s a desire to overcome the boredom of our earthly existence through behavior that transcends its rules. But the thrill-seeking here is different from that of bungee jumping. It involves hatred of the other and a need to assert oneself by attacking the other. It’s a deadly boredom at work. It’s not just protest. It’s hatred. And this hatred becomes purposeful on its own terms. For ultras, it’s the basis of existence.

What can we say about all this?

Terrorist violence has been given a religious labeling. It would be odd to do the same with the ultras. They’re just football fans. How can it be religious? If you can get people to put their lives on the line, you have to offer them transcendent meaning of some kind. This is true for soldiers in a secular army. It’s true of religious terrorism. It’s true of football fans gone wild. Violence of this kind is not random. It’s organized. And it offers meaning. It is a way to protest the status quo, and so it only makes sense if those involved see society as oppressive. Those involved are the down and out. They are the marginalized. They’re drop outs. The system is broken. No one is helping. Or at least they believe so. They’re the victims.

And they’re also the heroes who are ready to sacrifice all.

And there are psychological factors in the mix. Violence in the stadium is a way to express virility when other channels for doing so are closed. The young male wants to demonstrate his worth to society, and yet he’s unable to find work and provide for a family, let alone get married. Violence becomes his means to demonstrate his virility and thus his worth to society. This violence is also a way to demonstrate his loyalty to a cause. And here, although we’re talking about football fanaticism, the cause still has a transcendent purpose. It does so because as a form of protest (protest of the status quo here on earth), it positions itself in opposition to this all-too-worldly realm. And so it becomes transcendent. Yes, football fanaticism of the extremist kind can offer transcendent meaning. And in this sense, as with terrorism, it can make a claim on religion.

We’re not saying fan violence is religious any more than terrorist violence or any kind of violence. Indeed, it is difficult to say that violence of any kind is religious. Violence is a product of human perversity that religion seeks to heal by offering a vision of transcendence based on love. One is willing to sacrifice for the sake of love, not for the sake of hatred. The latter is the product of distortions in the human soul. In that sense, hatred is not rationally purposeful. It is destructive whereas religion is rationally purposeful and productive in people’s lives. (It wouldn’t have staying power if it were not.) It offers a transcendence beyond hatred — beyond this world entirely and not in opposition to it. The point here is that fan violence, which is not called religious, offers a compelling parallel to terrorist violence.

Yes, violence in society is a way to protest the status quo, but it’s also fed by a deep-seated hatred towards the world that can become a goal on its own. There may be things in the world we need to protest, but do we do so out of hatred or out of a desire to build up society? Can we only protest if we have hatred in our hearts? Or can we do so out of love? What lies at the basis of our existence?

The ultras may have reasonable grievances, but they exist because they hate. They may have particular targets: other teams and their ultras or Morocco’s Royal Institute for Football. But their hatred becomes a purpose on its own. In this sense, violence in the stadium no less than terrorist violence is more than a form of political protest. It’s more than male bonding. It’s about hatred. We provoke a battle with opposing fans because they are not us. Hatred becomes the purpose. Of course, it’s a false purpose. But it can become the purpose of one’s life, and that makes it transcendent. And in this sense, it can easily enter into a parasitical relation with religion, which, too, offers transcendent purpose. Football is not religious. Football fanaticism even of the extremist kind is not religious, but it can make a claim on religion. It can parade as faux religion. The same is true of terrorist violence. It is not religious, but it can suck on the blood of religion, feeding off its transcendent purpose, as a way to authorize its violent extremism. The formula is simple: group violence needs a transcendent vision to get people to kill and be killed; religion is a transcendent vision; and so group violence remixes the light of religion into darkness.

Since religion is susceptible to being twisted in this fashion, we need to be ever vigilant even (or especially) when we have nothing to do with the violence that is perpetrated in the name of religion. We need to say again and again that this is not religion—and to make the arguments why it is not religion. Yes, it’s tiresome. But we all need to take on this responsibility. It’s vital for our common life together. We need to make sure that the piety of group violence is never mistaken for religion. It’s not just about giving religion a good name. It’s about knowing the truth of violence.

For this reason, there is a need for our Muslim brothers and sisters, even if in no way implicated in terrorist violence, to continue to denounce it. We need the same from our Christian brothers and sisters and our Jewish brothers and sisters and our Buddhist brothers and sisters when violent groups feed off these traditions for the sake of a faux transcendence. We all need to say that this is not the transcendence of God. Hatred is not our transcendence. Violence may offer meaning, but it is not our meaning. Our transcendence comes from serving the other. Our transcendence is love. Our transcendence is God.

Yes, we need to struggle, all of us, to clarify true from false transcendence. Both are a thrill.

There is a compelling parallel between fan violence as discussed above and terrorist violence as it exists in the Middle East. Both are based on a hatred of the other. We need to discuss hatred. Violence against others doesn’t make sense without a wider rhetoric of hatred. Why are there acts of violence against Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Why are there acts of violence against blacks, gays, and atheists? Why do people have to downplay who they are in order to survive? Why are there acts of violence against Arabs and against Americans, simply because of who they are? Such violence only makes sense because there’s a larger pool of hatred that makes sense of such violence.

And the rest of us are implicated. We can say we’re against hatred, but we can be subtly influenced by the rhetoric. If we are not outraged as much at violence against other groups as we are at violence against our own group, we have been influenced by the rhetoric. We’re talking about the banality of evil. We don’t take part in the killing, but we only get outraged when our own people are killed. We might perversely relish the violence of other groups, because it makes us feel good about ourselves, but we’re not too outraged about their dead. Hatred is extremism. It is the basis of violent extremism. Hatred is the heart of the issue.

The extremism of hatred exists in different degrees. I am now going to speak about expressions of hatred that are at play in Islam. It should first be said that Islam is a positive presence in the world, as are Judaism and Christianity. All I am noting is that the last decades have witnessed the rise of a deep-seated hatred towards the West in some Muslim circles. One can speak of political factors that may have contributed to it. But it has taken on a life of its own. One can find something similar in some Jewish circles and in some Christian circles. Hatred has been successful in making a claim on religion. One can find something similar in atheist circles. All of this needs to be discussed. Here, I’m raising questions about the rhetoric of hatred in relation to terrorist groups that claim the mantle of Islam.

Let’s think back to fan violence. It’s a kind of organized group violence that offers meaning, but it’s a faux meaning because it’s a meaning that requires acts of violence. This describes terrorist violence. How did such violence become Islam? Or how did Islam became a driver of such violence? There are many factors. Here, we focus on the wider phenomenon of hatred that is needed to make sense of the group violence that has claimed the mantle of Islam.

There are three levels.

The first is low-intensity hatred towards the West that has been simmering for some time in sermons and the media. This hatred is not deeply rooted. Indeed, it may be combined with admiration for the achievements of the West. But it’s there and it’s not difficult to find. To be sure, there may be reasons to decry some of the policies of western governments, but the rhetoric in question is not limited to one western government or another. It is about the West as the other, as perverse, as morally degenerate, as evil. Those affected by this low-level hatred may feel a certain satisfaction when US soldiers are killed or when US society is harmed in some way, but they do not take recourse to Islam to justify such violence. They hate the US. They may be impressed by its achievements, but theirs is a non-faith-based hatred towards the West. They’ve been taught that the West is the source of all their problems. They feel shame that they are dominated by foreign powers and that their own leaders willingly collaborate. There seems to be a certain self-delusion in this perception of national shame. Nations pursue their interests partly through diplomatic relations. Is that foreign domination? To be sure, more powerful nations have more sway, but there’s always a negotiation. Diplomats from countries within the traditional Muslim homelands are often very successful at the game. But it’s perceived as exploitation and manipulation. The West is out to destroy Islam!

When President Morsi was removed from power in July 2013, the US was blamed. (Of course, supporters of his removal claim the US backs the Muslim Brotherhood.) Many had tied their hopes to the Arab Spring in Egypt. Finally, it was felt, the Islamist vision of democratic society would soon be realized. And then suddenly it was aborted. All hopes were dashed. It caused a crisis for many. And the US was to blame. The rhetoric of hatred against the US made it natural to accuse the US of denying Muslims their democracy. Who else could be to blame? The US is the problem. The attribution of evil to the US can take on religious coloring. After all, we’re only righteous because they’re evil, no? And yet this low-level hatred, which can take on a religious coloring, has no religious argument to make. There’s nothing in Islam that says you must hate the US. Yet this low-level extremism can make sense of acts of violence against the West. It is the enemy. To be sure, some in the West have a similar view of Islam, and such hatred of Islam can create a climate of indifference towards — or even passive support of — the ambiguous deployment of violence in the Middle East by the US.

The second level of hatred goes further in the claim it makes on religion. It’s not simply a hatred of the West that can take on a religious coloring. It’s a hatred that recognizes religious arguments for violence against the enemies of Islam, but it stops short of saying that such violence is a religious duty. There is a distinctly religious sense to such arguments, but they do not quite make it a religious duty to commit acts of violence against others. For example, the killing of the journalists in Paris in January 2014 prompted discussions in some Muslim circles about the process of punishing those who insult Islam. They did not say it is a duty to kill those who insult the Prophet Muhammad, but they did ask whether one is to be killed for doing so without first being given the chance to repent. Again, it wasn’t a call for violence, but it did suggest religious support for violence against those seen as the enemies of Islam. It’s just a question of whether they need to be allowed time to repent. Similar discussions followed the killing of the Jordanian pilot. The question at stake was that of reciprocity as a criterion of punishment: As the pilot had used “fire” against Muslims, so fire was to be used in punishing him. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and fire for fire. Of course, the desire for violence is one thing, the way violence is discussed another. Football fans feel frustrated, become unruly, and also chant for their national principles: the King, the Western Sahara, and the Prophet Muhammad.

The desire for violence against others is a human perversity, but by its very nature it requires a kind of transcendence that is easily found in religious sentiment. What is it that can heal the hateful heart?

The third level is one that goes beyond the extremism of hatred to violent extremism. It makes violence a duty: a function of group piety (devotion to the group). Similarly, for some ultras violence is a function of devotion to the group. Here, violence becomes a religious duty. Here, we are talking about a hatred that calls for the killing of others labeled as infidels and apostates. They are the enemies of God. This high-level extremism has a particular history in Islam, but it is relatively new. There are many factors, but at heart this intense hatred comes out of a utopian call for the purification of society of all that is not clearly Islam. Of course, the definition of what is clearly Islam is very narrow. As a result, fellow Muslims are often the objects of the purification process. Behind this high-intensity hatred is a fear that God will remove his favor from a society that is not religiously perfect. This vision legitimizes, even demands, acts of immorality and ultimately violence against those who are deemed to be religiously deficient.

What is it that makes us successful in the eyes of God? What does it mean to be religiously successful?

It is worth noting that the high-level hatred is but the more activist vision of the mid-level hatred — just at the mid-level hatred feeds off the low-level hatred. Both mid-level and high-level hatred thrive off a religious concept (or a perversion of it) known as “loyalty and disassociation” (al-walā’ wa-l-barā’). The concept reminds me of extremist football fans: total loyalty to one’s fan group and active opposition to all others. The two terms are in the Qur’an, but high-level hatred activists twist the original meaning. (One could call it taḥrīf of a kind.) In the Qur’an, one is called to be loyal to God and to disassociate from Satan. Fair enough. But the idea gets narrowed with hatred. You are to be loyal only to fellow members of those who are saved because they have correct beliefs, and you are to disassociate from all others, including fellow Muslims not part of the saved group. Here dissociation is not simply about living in a faith-based ghetto apart from the taint of idolatry in the larger society. It is also about active opposition, even antagonism, towards infidels. The condemnation is often applied to Muslims as much as to non-Muslims. It’s more than religion. It’s a kind of piety that demands enmity towards others. It’s a hate-based piety. It’s the transcendence that violence offers: Total loyalty to the group is confirmed by one’s willingness to kill and be killed for the group, which is confused with God. It’s not about loyalty to God but about loyalty to a group that functions out of deep-seated hatred towards the West and those who do not disassociate from it. This hatred must be on display as antagonism and attack. It’s not unlike the outlook of the ultras.

The violence will only go away when the hatred goes away. There is a growing sense that the battle has commenced. But the battle is a battle of hatred and not one of principle, let alone religion. How can we treat the hatred? Economic development? Greater justice and equality in society? All that is good. But such things have to be framed in terms of true religion. If not, faux religion will continue to have its way even amidst growing prosperity. Hate mongers usually aren’t the poor. And ideas matter even when everyone is well fed. There are questions of security in the short-term, but if we hope to deal with violence in the long term, we will all need to consider the sense of transcendence that motivates us. Can we affirm and affirm again and again that our transcendence is one of friendship and not of hatred. Our religion is one of friendship not of hatred. Believers might feel troubled at being called upon again and again to make this clear, but we need to figure it out together. What is the transcendence at the root of violence? What is our transcendence, which we live by day-to-day? When we put human perversity aside, we can say we’re friends, not enemies.

And that’s not simply a wish-washy way to feel good. It’s our transcendence. It’s who we are.

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