Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about radicalization and “homegrown terrorism.” Need a primer? Catch up here.
Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer and award-winning journalist specializing in Islamic extremism in the West. She is author of “Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy In the West” and is currently writing a book about domestic abuse and terrorism.
The attacks on 9/11 changed the world the way we knew it. Yet still, we struggle to understand, asking, first “why do they hate us,” to later, in ever more urgent voices, “how do we make it stop?”
The conspicuous fact is that there are no simple explanations or straightforward solutions. If we are going to defeat Islamist terrorism, we need to change the ways that we approach the threat. This means recognizing that the core impulse behind radical Islam is less about hate and more about honor; less a rage against others and more a personal, self-directed shame.
Terrorism is born of a cocktail of psychological influences that combine in various ways to make someone vulnerable to violent behavior and to radical ideologies. Yet to date, we’ve paid far too little attention to the commonality of many significant traits among terrorists: a history of having suffered (and frequently inflicted) domestic abuse and bullying; an absent father; an overbearing mother; a patriarchal family that values male honor and machismo; and a lifelong struggle to reconcile the demand for honor (respect) with a history of humiliation.
That these also describe the background and makings of a pathological narcissist is no coincidence. Most terrorists display a degree of pathological narcissism, defined by grandiosity; fantasies of power and superiority; and feelings of inadequacy, humiliation and shame. Omar Mateen, for instance, phoned a local news channel to be sure they knew about the Orlando shooting. Osama bin Laden considered himself the new prophet. And Anders Breivik, who slaughtered 77 people in Norway in 2011, called himself the “Grand Commander of the Knights Templar.”
Many of these factors, particularly violence in the home and an emphasis on honor, are not uncommon in orthodox Muslim families — a fact that further explains the susceptibility of some Muslim youth to a religious movement that, through violence (and martyrdom), guarantees them honor, respect and even fame.
In this, Omar Mateen offers a near-textbook example. Bullied as a child, subjected to debasing corporal punishment by his parents, he wanted to be a policeman but failed the Police Academy exam. Like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Breivik and others, Mateen spent long hours working out. He boasted falsely of knowing Tsarnaev and being related to bin Laden. He allegedly beat his first wife, striking out when she failed to perform “wifely” duties. And he harbored homosexual urges — shameful for a religious Muslim, given Islam’s fierce condemnation of homosexuality, and for a man who aspires to be a macho example.
Experts on violent crime emphasize the close relationship between honor and violence in response to disrespect or shame. As psychiatrist James Gilligan notes: “The most powerful way to shame anyone is by means of violence — just as the most powerful way to provoke anyone into committing violence is by shaming him.” Parse the profiles of nearly any terrorist, and you will find nearly the same stories. Strikingly, these stories are often also those of your typical domestic abuser. The difference, in the terrorist’s case, is his pursuit of honor through a supposed higher cause.
This is where jihadist recruiters come in. Lured by the charms of a terrorist agent, someone like Mateen is easily enticed. Jihad, after all, promises both honor and a violent revenge. In subjugating, humiliating and destroying those who disregard the Prophet Mohammed or Islam more generally, jihadists prove their “worth” to all of their abusers: fathers, racists, bullies.
But it doesn’t stop there. For Western Muslims feeling humiliated by social ostracism, these recruiters extend comradeship, welcoming them into the “brotherhood” with enchanting tales of valor and purpose, and the chance to be warriors beloved by Allah.
But where is the West’s seduction? Are war video games an appropriate influence? Does reality TV instill self-confidence and pride, or does it teach bullying, shame and us-against-them mentalities? When we push Muslims away through alienation and discrimination, we drive them straight into the open arms of radical Islamist terror groups, wherever they may be.
This doesn’t mean we must change our society to become more “sensitive” to the demands of radical Islamists. Doing so potentially endangers Western democracy and freedom. Rather, we must create a counter-narrative, as omnipresent and alluring as the Islamists’ own, that extols the joys and the empowerment that equality and freedom can endow.
Most crucially, we will have to reach young Muslims earlier than the Islamic State can, with as wide and deep a reach: online, in schools, in mosques, in the street. And we must be watchful of people — particularly children — who show signs of domestic violence or bullying and express, either through actions or on social media, support for sharia law, terrorist groups, terrorism, a preference for religious over civil law or similar ideas typical of Islamism. It is up to us, as Americans, to decide who will embrace them.