Suicide Bombers and the Prozac God: A Review of Dying for Heaven

Dying for Heaven: Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers–Why the Best Qualities of Religion Are Also its Most Dangerous
by Ariel Glucklich
(HarperOne, November 3, 2009)

Writing about suicide bombers is a crowded field, especially since 9/11. Two years ago, Martha Crenshaw, a prominent professor of government at Wesleyan University, wrote a mega-review of the top twelve books on this riveting but complex topic. She concluded her nearly 30-page essay by suggesting that:

Governments should also look to the future, in that the purpose and instigation of suicide attacks might change. Today’s threat stems from the powerful association between jihadist beliefs and suicide tactics, but radical Islamists do not own the method. —Security Studies (January–March 2007)

The new danger, according to Dying for Heaven author Ariel Glucklich, is pleasure. Not everyday frolicsome pleasure, but divinely mediated or holy pleasure, the unrecognized pathology that motivates suicide bombers. The best qualities of religion, according to Glucklich—trust in a life beyond this one, invocation of a source greater than human creativity or beneficence, for instance—are also its most dangerous.

While it may be easy to decode the thesis from a mere glance at the book’s title and subtitle, it’s not quite so easy to accept the premise. Dying for Heaven, released today, is at once conceptually misguided and systemically flawed; psychologizing religion in general and Islam in particular. Having mined myriad, often disparate sources, and writing from a lofty platform, the author is attempting to answer several metaphysical questions with some potentially physical, real-life implications on the ground. Of his book, Glucklich writes on the HarperOne site:

The obvious topic is whether Iran can be deterred from using nuclear weapons against Israel when they finally do acquire them. Can deterrence ever work with an actor who is completely committed to a religious life?

An Indologist by training, Glucklich has written highly acclaimed, prize-winning books that adroitly analyze the Hindu tradition and its mythic claims. He occupies a major academic post (professor of theology at Georgetown) and serves as an advisor to the US defense community as it attempts to cope with asymmetric warfare in the post-9/11 era.

God as Prozac: Religious Peer Pressure on Steroids

Dying for Heaven is about Iran and The Bomb,” states Glucklich in an author interview. This cosmological policy issue begins on the subatomic level with a reimagining of the role of the pleasure principle. Because pleasure is the central motivating force of the human experience, we are told, “religion has emerged and prospered as an institution in human history because of the way it controls natural pleasures—sex, eating, and money come to mind—and allows them to evolve in response to increasingly complicated situations.” (p.5)

The author then emblazons this thesis with a neologism, or what he claims to be a neologism: hedonics. In this case, religious hedonics, which he calls Prozac. Forget the happy pharmaceuticals, Prozac here is a stand-in for the mechanism by which institutional religion has functioned and shaped behavior for millennia. The Beyond, according to the author, has been misrepresented as the love principle, or the urge to participate in something greater than oneself; metaphysics has turned out to be pharmaceutics.

Since all humans, while prone to seek pleasure, cannot agree on its source, society must be regulated by law. Mystics, however, are anomic: they avoid contracts or duties in order to pursue ‘lawless’ love or charisma as embodied in the spiritual master—the ultimate duper. And here is the real danger: they often project pleasure and love not as individuals but in groups, with the result that “this love—a form of pleasure, in fact—can lead members of such groups to self-annihilate in acts of revolt or martyrdom.” (p.8)

This stream of consciousness does, of course, have a history. There is, for instance, happiness economics—a.k.a. hedonics—which focuses on how the pleasure principle impacts investment strategies and consumer preferences. But the oldest use comes from religious psychology itself when no less a mystic than Timothy Leary coined the term. Back in 1971, when he was still a professor at Harvard, Leary operated a Hedonic psychology laboratory where he postulated and tested his eight circuits of consciousness, all of which could be traced to tantric yoga.

Though neither Leary nor the Harvard Hedonic lab is mentioned in the book, is it mere coincidence that Glucklich himself earned his PhD at Harvard, focusing on, among other things, images and symbols in the phenomenology of dharma?

Humorless Muslims: A Recipe for Terror

It would be easy to dismiss Dying for Heaven as a mere trickster story if only this much were known about the thesis informing this bizarrely casual, yet deeply serious, treatise. But its author is claiming a two-fold explanation and then a prescription. He first lays out a mono-causal explanation of why most people do not understand how the pleasure principle connects to religious faith, “the ways in which pleasure can motivate us while eluding our conscious awareness” (p. 8), before offering a differential explanation of why certain religions are more prone to violence than others, in particular, “why religious suicides are more likely to emerge from Islam than Judaism, and why spiritual devotion is more dangerous than blind observance of religious law.” (p. 7)

The true culprits, now operating below the radar screen of American intelligence and defense department analysts, aren’t strict fundamentalists, but mystics. Not only can the Prozac effect of love be dangerous, but “in some situations the Iranian mullahs, with their Islamic laws, pose far less danger than a lovingly disposed spiritual master, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu.” (p.9) In other words, the book may be about Iran and The Bomb, but the real message is: don’t fixate on nukes when it is mystic who are the real kooks. 

Above all, the red alert on the threat posed by Jewish as well as Muslim and Hindu gurus would seem to undercut the earlier claim that “religious suicides are more likely to emerge from Islam than Judaism.” The justification for an emphasis on the Islamic difference, however, becomes clear in Chapter 7’s warning signs (read: policy prescriptions). Titled “Spiritual Love and the Seeds of Annihilation,” Chapter 7’s warning signs follow the explanation, in the preceding chapter, of why God’s love operates like Glucklich’s Prozac effect. It reverses all current policy, and the academic/think tank logic on which it is based: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and elsewhere, while dangerous, are not “self-annihilative.” (Even if Hezbollah has curtailed its suicide bombings, does anyone in American or Israeli intelligence think that they have been reduced as a regional, and possibly transregional threat?)

The real danger, according to Glucklich, is interior: “small scale groups that center on a spiritual master—a Sufi shaykh, for instance—are potentially annihilative”—and thus to be more feared than their Hindu and Jewish counterparts. Why? The logic is serpentine and convoluted. The pillar of any social order is respect for the law, for institutions of public exchange, which Sufi Muslims ignore while Hindu and Jewish groups do not:

Where a militant Sufi group might seek to undermine the political center of its country and is willing to self-destruct in the process, the Hindu and Jewish groups are trying to strengthen allies in the political universe. They are ‘right-wing’ activists within a democracy… In other words, the nontriumphal Islamic devotional-political groups are inherently destabilizing, while the Jewish and Hindu groups become destabilizing when they fail to rationalize defeat and turn to internal violence for those reasons only. (pp. 217-218)

If this dire diagnosis is correct, then what’s the remedy? You had better be ready for a laugh, because that’s the remedy: Laughter. Yes, laughter. But not at the analytic perversity and factual thinness of the author’s multiple claims for hedonics, recognizing and banning God’s love as Prozac for all ages. No, the strategy offered is to get prospective martyrs in the cause of master-inspired, rule defying, anomic religion to laugh. After quoting that noted Islamic scholar, Robert Spencer (author of Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t), who allowed that Muhammad do not laugh much (p. 328), Glucklich resorts to Franz Rosenthal’s 53-year-old monograph for evidence of humor as abundant in Islamic culture. Even were one to grant that the invocation of the hyper-scholarly Rosenthal in the same breath with the resolutely polemical Spencer is a wash for Glucklich, as he ventures to make generalizations far outside his field of expertise or competence, one would still have to cope with the following pronouncement:

The problem is not the absence of Arab or even Muslim humor, but its application to the most sacred values… True humor is unrestrained and potentially liberating. The few traditions about Muhammad’s sense of humor do not mitigate the extreme caution that attends Islamic joking about sacred matters. And that may point to the source of the problem. (p. 284)

Muhammad didn’t laugh enough. Muslims take themselves too seriously. Would-be suicide bombers are especially prone to be humorless. What then can we do? Glucklich’s prescription is clear: Make the culture of shahid into a form of Arab satire.

Because martyrdom is a unique form of entertainment, to put it crudely, comedy is the single most effective counterform. (p. 285)

That prescription, like the thesis of the book itself, would be a laughing matter were the author not intent on altering the way that the defense establishment—and not just academics or scholars of religion—think about ‘holy pleasure.’ Not God like Prozac, but God as Prozac! In other words, the metaphor of God as source and goal of pleasure, a three-dimensional image, should be replaced by God as nothing but the pill of choice for depressed Americans and suicidal Sufis alike. 

Sinister Sufis

Given the prominence of the author, the prestige of the publisher, and the likelihood that this book will be taken seriously at many levels by disparate audiences, I feel compelled to apply the author’s prescription to the field closest to my own: Islamic studies. Up till now, it has been dominated by scholars who make common cause with policymakers. They imagine that the Islamic danger focuses on terrorists who either operate within state borders, or are assisted by shadowy political players allied with the state. Their foremost representative would be Glucklich’s Georgetown colleague, John Esposito. In more than twenty books and for more than thirty years, John Esposito has written and warned about the nature of extremist Muslims, even while arguing that most Muslims, including those inclined to Islamic mysticism or Sufism, are not among the near-term threats to American interests or global security.

Let us suppose that in the wake of Glucklich’s book a sea change were to occur in both the academic and policy worlds’ conception of the danger of religion. God as Prozac creates a paradigm shift for defense specialists requiring them to find the suspect Sufi mystics before their entranced followers go ‘self-annihilative’ and take down the world with them, as they blow themselves into a state of divinely mediated pleasure. The first suspects who spring to mind are: Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, Hamza Yusuf, and Pir Zia Khan. All three are notable Sufi practioners in the diverse field of modern-day American Muslim pursuits of piety.

Shaykh Kabbani is probably the most visible. This citizen of Lebanon and head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, seems to lack, at least in his YouTube presentations, a deep, belly-laughing sense of humor. He must be hatching some dark plan of apocalyptic proportions, and an FBI alert on his activities would be warranted.

Next is Hamza Yusuf. He may be still more dangerous, since he is an American born convert to Islam. He also has a high profile on YouTube and offered a written reflection on Michael Jackson’s death. Yusuf has failed the test (distinguishing moderate from militant Muslims—though in all fairness his failure is self-professed) created by that pillar of American tolerance, Daniel Pipes, so he too warrants a surveillance wherever his followers come together in cells to meditate on the pleasure/love of Prozac/God.

And finally, below the screen of every law enforcement agency lurks the nefarious Pir Zia Khan. He is probably the most dangerous of all. Having few YouTube appearances to his credit he operates a workshop that sounds suspiciously like Leary’s eight levels of consciousness. It is called Seven Pillars, or the key to Green Hermeticism, which could just be slippery, Sufi jargon for Green Hedonics. Unlike Kabbani and Yusuf, he has a PhD from a program in religious studies. That might be the ultimate deception, luring people to think that such PhDs actually gain insight into the God/Prozac principle when in fact they are, to quote Glucklich, just one more agent for constructing new “ways in which pleasure can motivate us while eluding our conscious awareness.”

I fear that the danger of taking this book seriously far outweighs any from these Sufi subjects, as well as their Jewish and Hindu counterparts whom the author feels are the next wave of ‘inner’ terror to threaten unaware Americans. It is a pity that the long list of friends and colleagues who are acknowledged at the end of Dying for Heaven did not have the courage to tell Glucklich (or if they did, that he did not have the wisdom to hear) that the thesis he advances is a dystopic inversion of The Chronicles of Narnia—minus, alas, C.S. Lewis’ self-mockery and genuine sense of humor.

Dying for Heaven makes a mockery of both religion and death, transforming holy pleasure into a dirge of contradiction and Islamophobia. No laughing matter, it should be treated as a symptom rather than a solution to American (dis)engagement with Islam and Muslims.