The young would-be terrorist seeks to soothe, repair and avenge his personal grievances by identifying with a larger historical grievance, that of all Muslims. Thus petty personal grievance takes on a reflected glory and self-pity, the near-universal characteristic of adolescence, is ennobled
I can easily understand why someone might want to kill himself and why he might want to kill others; but I find it somewhat harder to understand why he would want to combine the two. I suppose that if you really believed that it would gain you immediate access to the perpetual pleasure garden that is the notion of heaven that most contemporary suicide bombers seem to have, it might just explain it; but that only pushes the problem one stage back, to the question of how it is possible for people truly to believe such a thing.
Until quite recently, of course, Muslims were not the champion suicide bombers of the world: that title, if I may so put it, belonged to the Tamil Tigers, who, as atheists, expected no personal reward for their sacrifice. But relegated to a small corner of the world, and with a comparatively modest goal in mind, the Tamil Tigers pursued their campaign of self-immolation with comparatively little publicity. They posed no threat to the fragile equilibrium of the world.
Most suicide bombers are young, of course: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the young will fall for anything. And one of the characteristics of the young is that they don’t really believe in death: not in the sense of final earthly extinction. That is because they can’t imagine a world without them.
I have examined thousands of young people who made a gesture in the direction of suicide. In many cases they were taking revenge on someone, usually their parents who did awful things to them such as asking them to turn their music down. I noticed something strange in the notes that they left behind—where they left any, that is: namely that they plainly conceived of themselves as hovering in attenuated form over their own funerals, observing their grieving parents with delicious Schadenfreude. Next time they—the parents—would know better. They would henceforth allow them to play their music at any volume they liked.
The tremendous epidemic of suicidal gestures among British adolescents was unleashed after suicide was decriminalised, becoming the second most common cause of emergency medical (as against surgical) admission to hospital. It is possible, of course, that this was a coincidence rather than causative: that life for adolescents became so much more difficult in the 1960s once they had gained much more freedom. At any rate, one of Terence Rattigan’s plays of the early 1950s has a scene in which the characters stand around discussing whether the police have to be called after one of them has tried to gas herself. Nowadays, we face a similar dilemma with regard to burglary: the police have only to be called if an insurance claim is involved, there being no other purpose to calling them. But, from the point of view of our mores, Terence Rattigan might as well have been writing about 4000 BC as within living memory.
But to return to the suicide bombers. I don’t generally read books by psychoanalysts—years of talking about themselves in training analysis generally undermines their ability to put themselves in their readers’ place, thus destroying utterly their prose style—but I made an exception recently for a book by a French-Tunisian psychoanalyst called Fethi Benslama. He practises in one of the areas of Paris most notorious for raising Muslim terrorists, so he must be presumed to know at least a little of what he is talking about; and his book has the attractive title Un furieux désir de sacrifice: le surmusulman.
This column appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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With relatively slight resort to psychoanalytical flim-flam, which has on my mind the effect that the lowering of a steel shutter has on a shop front (of course there is a psychoanalytical explanation for that, as there is for everything else), Professor Benslama writes as any man might who is possessed of experience and common sense. He offers various explanatory factors that operate on the would-be bomber or jihadist, particularly those brought up in the West.
For Professor Benslama, adolescence (and young adulthood) is not so much the age of idealism as of narcissism, self-importance and grandiosity. Whenever I hear a young person say that he wants to make a difference, my heart sinks: for he is not so much thinking of the minute particulars to which William Blake referred when he wrote of those who would do good, as of the much larger things more suited to his immense capacities.
The young would-be terrorist seeks to soothe, repair and avenge his personal grievances by identifying with a larger historical grievance, that of all Muslims, who feel the impotence of their polities vis-à-vis the rest of the world as a supposed injustice (injustices committed by Muslims are not felt so deeply, or at all). Thus petty personal grievance—perhaps even partially justified—becomes inflated and takes on a reflected glory of wide significance; self-pity, the almost universal characteristic of adolescence, is ennobled. Professor Benslama writes:
To the young who lack self-esteem, who have the feeling of worthlessness, of “being a piece of rubbish”, as one of them put it to me, [jihadism] gives not only the recognition of having suffered a prejudice, but of being an elect of God, unbeknown to himself and others. To comply with this destiny as an elect of God, he must inspire respect and fear, become a missionary for the cause, a hero before whom the gates of glory are opened. He can make his own justice, he is authorised to be above the law in the name of God’s superior law. The “piece of rubbish” becomes formidable. He must make himself fearsome and feared in his own family. A father said to me, “My son has become my father, he lays down the Islamic moral law for me … what is more, he takes himself to be God’s father, wanting to protect him, having first immersed himself in drugs and delinquency.”
Jihadism is the means by which a susceptible young person goes straight from being nothing in the eyes of the world to being of the greatest possible significance, a person of the type whom powerful states spend time, money and energy seeking out and combatting as equal to equal. If this is combined with an adolescent’s imperfect grasp of the finality of his own death, the attraction of suicide bombing becomes a little clearer.
Among other things, suicide bombing is a shortcut out of social nonentity. The desire to mark oneself out from the great herd of humanity has become all the more important in the modern world of celebrity culture, in which not to be known to millions is to cease truly to exist; but to mark oneself out in any worthwhile or positive way is a slow, effortful and painful process that is by no means guaranteed of success. The choice of a startling but conceptually easy goal is one solution to this problem.
I came across a prisoner, for example, whose stated goal in life was to make himself the most difficult and feared person in the whole prison system. He was of above average intelligence but not of sufficient intelligence or talent to succeed brilliantly in some more conventional and worthwhile ambition. His reach exceeded his grasp, and so he made himself fearsome and feared, just as the jihadist described above did in his own family. What the man lacked (thank goodness) was any kind of religious ideology to allow him to believe he was seeking other than personal ends: for, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out, it is ideology that turns Macbeth into Hitler.
Professor Benslama recognises that there are problems inherent in Islam, particularly of the Sunni variety, that lead to the creation of what he calls the “Supermuslim”, that is to say the Muslim who claims to be more Islamic, more devoted to the faith, than all other Muslims who, compared with him, are mere hypocrites, time-servers and backsliders. There is prestige but no authority in the world of Sunni Islam, hence the possibility of the Supermuslim; it is open to anyone to say what, within quite a wide range of possibilities, is licit and illicit.
People all too easily believe that the lengths to which someone will go are proportionate to the justice of his cause, which is why they imagine that in a more just world there would be no such phenomena as suicide bombing. Psychoanalysts believe many strange things, but Professor Benslama does not believe that.
Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.