The terrorist murders in Paris and San Bernardino, California draw our attention once again to the psychological and emotional underpinnings of terrorism. There are two points of departure in considering this issue. One is to query the psychology of the individual terrorist. We ask what motivates him or her to kill strangers and innocents in the service of a political or religious cause. There are undoubtedly many motives at play for example, a terrorist is frustrated by his social circumstances, he believes that that murdering is righteous, he is attracted to terror because it is exciting and dangerous, or because it affords him money, power and access to women. The second point of departure is to explore the socio-emotional dimensions of terrorism, that is the feelings associated with groups and their collective experience and history. Here we would ask what social experiences predispose people of a particular culture to see terrorism as a legitimate a form of expression. My colleagues call this the “socio-analytic” dimension, distinguishing it from a psychoanalytic one.
In this spirit, one common trope is that the people in the Arab world feel humiliated by their lack of power. In, . Dominique Moisi writes that, “The dominance of humiliation in the Arab-Islamic world has many causes, but the first and most important is a sense of historical decline.” This reference to “humiliation” and its relationship to “decline” can help provide a psychological account of why individuals may feel little compunction in killing innocent people. The psychoanalyst suggests that people are ashamed when they agree with the judgment of those who shame them. By contrast, when humiliated, people feel unjustly attacked by those who humiliate them. This attack is persecutory so that a would be terrorist is already, in his own mind, a victim. The terrorist lacks compunction because his own victimhood is morally outrageous.
Now as I write this, I can feel my reader tugging at my sleeve. Doesn’t such an explanation psychologize what is often quite purposeful and rational behavior? As the saying goes; “one person's 'terrorist' is another's freedom fighter.” Moreover, explanations such as Moisi's run the risk of what the Literary scholar Edward Said, called “,” the presumption, first advanced in the age of imperialism, that people and their cultures in the East were uncivilized and irrational. Orientalism, according to Said, presented the East, particularly the Islamic East, as an “other,” unconnected to the history and development of the West and thus not part of a shared human history. This is reflected in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poetic line, “Oh east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” In this sense, asserting that the Arab world feels humiliated could itself be degrading and humiliating. It estranges those of us in the modern West from the Arab East, as if we could not possibly share their experiences.
I think it is best therefore to draw on Arab sources for insight. I am drawn here to Samir Kassir’s brilliant book, . He was a Palestinian Lebanese intellectual and journalist, assassinated by Syrian intelligence in 2005. The book is an exposition of the experience, meaning and roots of what he calls “the Arab malaise.” He writes movingly of what he calls the “gaze.” “The Arab malaise is inextricably bound up with the gaze of the Western Other – a gaze that prevents everything, even escape. Suspicious and condescending by turns, the Other’s gaze constantly confronts you with your apparently insurmountable condition, ridicules your powerlessness, foredooms all your hopes, and stops you in your tracks time and again at one or other of the world’s border-crossings. You have to have been the bearer of a passport of a pariah state to know how categorical such a gaze can be. You have to have measured your anxieties against the Other’s certainties – his or her certainties about you – to understand the paralysis it can inflict.”
I think Kassir is describing the experience of feeling inferior in the presence of the “western other.” Now it is certainly part of our shared humanity to imagine how any of one of us would respond to such an experience. If I then put myself in the situation he conjures up, I can imagine feeling despair, and from that emotional place responding with either resignation or rage. But rage is a feeling closely connected to humiliation. It activates humiliation, or to put it another way, humiliation is the tinder for fire’s rage. The terrorist lights the fire. I propose therefore, that Dominique Moisi’s proposition, that humiliation is a dominant emotion in the Arab-Islamic world, is at least consistent with Kassir’s social psychology.
But Kassir’s argument is more complex. Moisi’s conception that humiliation is triggered by the Arab world’s sense of its decline is incomplete. It leads too readily to the idea that people in the Arab world are attached to their ancient history and almost mythical memories, for example of Islam’s golden age. From the eighth to thirteenth century, Muslim rule extended as far west as Spain, the caliphate governed a pluralistic empire, and Islamic scholars made great advances in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. In this conception, the Arabs are hopeless romantics fixated on the past. Indeed, the idea that the East is romantic is another one of Orientalism’s trope.
Kassir, by contrast argues that the decline of the Arab world is an entirely modern story. I want to explore this particular idea further. Kassir notes that the Arab world experienced its own period of enlightenment and modernization in the 19th century, triggered first by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, and later by the Ottoman elite in Istanbul. “The old empire changed totally in three decades- dress included-so much that it became (even if just for two years) a constitutional state. All the advantages of technological civilization- railway, electrification, steam navigation – were adopted east of the Mediterranean pretty much at the same time as they were in the north. Daily life was transformed in Istanbul and the large Arab provinces alike, and a parallel cultural revolution put the Ottoman elites in sync with Europe.”
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, this particular period of modernization, called the “nahda” in Arabic, came to an end within the Arab world proper, though not in Turkey. Yet after World War II, the tempo of modernization picked up yet again, particularly in Egypt, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He removed the king, suppressed the Muslim brotherhood, built the Helwan steel works and the Aswan dam, nationalized the Suez Canal, and instituted land reform. By 1960, as Kassir notes, “the veil had become sufficiently rare to make its appearance noteworthy.”
Moreover, Nasser was one of the most important leaders world-wide in the third world’s struggle against colonialism. This gave him great standing in the Arab world, and was one reason why, in 1958, Syria united with Egypt to form the short lived “United Arab Republic.” However one evaluates the politics of the struggle against colonialism, there is little doubt that it was part and parcel of a modernizing movement within third world countries. The struggle was not over whether to modernize, but rather over who would control the process. This is why such countries as Egypt, Cuba, Mexico, Iraq, and Malaysia, nationalized banks, railroads and oil fields, all often owned by foreign companies. This is also one reason why third world leaders such as Nasser found socialism, as a model of modernization, attractive. As an economic doctrine it provided a rationale for the public sector owning what Lenin once called the “commanding heights” of the economy.
But Egypt, the bellwether of the Arab world, experienced political and economic obstacles to development, never fully embracing a planned or a market based economy. From 1961 to 1973, as Egypt took on the shape of a socialist society, the state dominated the economy, the share of the private sector in GDP was low, and the government pursued import substitution policies. As Farrukh and Dobronogov write, “Egypt invested heavily in public infrastructure and social services (such as health and education) but could not sustain high economic growth. Business efficiency and labor productivity stagnated, as the country’s development plans aimed at physical output targets, (a method of socialist planning-LH) and its industrial exports were oriented mostly towards communist countries with low quality requirements.”
After 1973 the economy grew faster due to increasing revenue from oil sales, more remittances from abroad, and an “open door policy”, which allowed a greater role for the private sector. But the resulting market development was unbalanced as well. While commercial activities grew, the trade deficit rose to 1/5th of GDP, inflation increased, industrial employment fell, the state bureaucracy grew and the number of poor families grew significantly.
There were food riots in 1977, and the Muslim brotherhood, once suppressed by Nasser, responded by providing social services to the poor. This set up a conflict between the Brotherhood and the regime. When Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, the Brotherhood, empowered by their political base among the poor, “resorted to open confrontation with the regime.” As , the political economist notes, “The regime tried to placate the Muslim brothers by passing a constitutional amendment in May 1980 which…made Sharia the principal source of legislation.” At the same time, Sadat, “Made widespread arrests of Islamist activists,” after which a Brotherhood offshoot assassinated Sadat. Mubarak assumed power, and the conflict between the Brotherhood and the regime intensified. Between 1992 and 1997 radical Islamist groups assassinated prominent people and tourists, and took control of an area of one million people in Cairo (Imbaba) by enforcing sharia law, collecting taxes and terrifying residents. “All this happened under the auspices of a government that claimed to be protecting its population.”
These political and power struggles stymied Egypt's modernization. While in 1960 Egypt and South Korea were at comparable levels of development, by 2010, per capita income in the latter was five times the former. Indeed, one trigger for the rebellion in Tahrir square in Cairo, the epicenter of the Arab Spring, was the feeling, shared by millions of Egyptians, that their society was stagnant.
There are three ways to code this very brief story; 1) It is a tale of a people resisting modernization, 2) A tale of a people responding to a failed or flawed modernization process (Kassir’s argument), or 3) The intersection of the two. I favor the third, that is, a stalled modernization process legitimates the fundamentalist resistance to modernity. The modernizing elites are not "delivering the goods," reducing their political legitimacy.
I find this third option plausible because we know that the Great Depression triggered anti-modern currents in the very heart of Europe only eighty-five years ago. The Nazi celebration of the “folk,” the evocation of the symbols of “blood and soil,” their contempt for democracy, and their proclamations of superiority, have many social-psychological features in common with Islamic fundamentalism. For example, reporting on his experience as a young political Islamist, notes that he saw, “Everyone along religious lines and all non-Muslims as inferior.”
But fascism is a very modern phenomenon. Indeed Hannah Arendt, the great theorist of totalitarianism, argued that the loneliness induced by mass society, and people’s experience of their resultant superfluity, prepared them for totalitarian domination. In Arendt’s conception, under certain conditions crises of modernity can trigger contempt for human life. In this sense modernity is more fragile, more vulnerable, than our enlightenment tradition once presumed. Indeed, the very concept of “post-modernity” contains within it a critique of the enlightenment tradition and a skepticism about the claim that rationality is a reliable guidepost for human affairs. This critique provides a fertile ground for the rise of different versions of fundamentalism and primitivism in many settings around the world, not just Arab ones. In this sense, to once again underline Kassir’s argument, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a very modern phenomenon. It is as much a part of the West’s as it is of the Arabs’ history and experience.
This account of stalled modernization helps account for the role that the image of Israel plays in the Arabs' narrative of their past and future. Consider the impact of Israel’s victory over the combined Arab armies in the six-day war of 1967. Said Aburish writes in his 2004 book, , “The six day war.. was so unexpected in its totality, stunning in its proportion, and soul destroying in its impact that it will be remembered as the greatest defeat of the Arabs in the twentieth century….The Arabs are still undergoing a slow process of political, psychological and sociological recovery…Even comparison to the “lost generation of post-World War I is apt. The Arab generation which was lost as a result of the 1967 war didn’t die in the trenches or rebel against an already disintegrating Ottoman empire.. They had become a lost generation because they lost their honor and because they were as much to blame as their leaders and the governments their leaders ran. The setback was enormous and all-inclusive…It was the Arab people and the most popular Arab leader in at least five hundred years, Nasser, who lost the 1967 war.”
The objective observer can be forgiven for wondering how the tiny sliver of Israel, with six million Jews can undermine a generation of leaders in an Arab world of 367 million people. One simple answer is that Israel is more than itself. Instead, it has become the Arab world’s symbol of its own underdevelopment. They see in Israel the upside down reflection of their own image. This is why people in parts of the Arab world believe that only Israel’s defeat can restore their honor and set the stage for Arab renewal. Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, of course understood this and could make peace with Israel only after he restored Arab honor by crossing over the Suez in the Yom Kippur war. This is also why the Palestinians, like Israel, are a symbol. They surely have suffered mightily, but in parts of the Arab world their material suffering is less motivating than their victimhood. This is why for example they have been treated so shabbily in parts of the Arab world, for example in Lebanon.
Sadik Al-Azm shows in his passionately rendered book, , that the Arab world had difficulty drawing pragmatic lessons from Israel’s victory in the six-day war. This makes sense if Israel is a symbol in the Arab world’s confrontation with its own seemingly intractable stagnation. The underlying question is overcoming stagnation, not Israel. As he writes, “Our use of the term “nakbah” [disaster] to indicate the June (six-day) War and its aftermath contains much of the logic of exoneration and the evasion of responsibility and accountability, since whomever is struck by a disaster is not considered responsible for it, or its occurrence, and even if we were to consider him so, in some sense, his responsibility remains minimal in comparison with the terror and enormity of the disaster. This is why we ascribe disasters to fate, destiny, and nature, that is, to factors outside our control and for which we cannot be held accountable.” He suggests for example, that Arab leaders overestimated the U.S. role in shaping Israel’s victory, and underestimated the Arab soldier’s lack of technical education and sophistication.
Overcoming humiliation and cultural renewal
Al-Azm raises a very fundamental question. How can a nation transcend defeat so that its citizens have a vision of a future that stimulates their personal and collective ambitions and hopes? Moreover, when defeat is chronic, as represented by stagnation, what are the levers of political and cultural renewal? The history of nations coping with defeat is not encouraging. Germany, in the aftermath of World War One, succumbed to the idea that it had been “stabbed in the back” by communists and Jews. This set the stage for Hitler’s rise. Post World-War Two West-Germany found a future in a peaceful Europe united with France, Japan, in a resolute pacifism combined with a disciplined focus on building its export industries. But both of these countries were defeated totally, while their victors occupied them for many years.
I suggest that we consider religious culture as resource for renewal. In launching the Iraq War the Bush administration in the U.S. posited that individuals throughout the Arab world had democratic aspirations. This must be true, witness the Arab Spring. But aspirations are like topsoil readily washed away unless protected by the sturdy roots of plants and underbrush. Saddam Hussein’s terrifying domination of the Iraqi population undermined any institutional and cultural supports that could sustain democratic practices after he was overthrown.
I am drawn here instead to the Sufi tradition in Islam with its links to Islamic mysticism as an alternative to the resurgence and revival of Salafism and Wahhabism, both extreme versions of Islam. These Islamic traditions rely on the literal interpretation of the Quran. Israel’s victory in 1967 strengthened these extreme currents in Islam, reinforcing the region’s turning away from, rather than toward, modernism.
Literalism imposes great burdens on the social and psychological development of a culture. Of course, one danger of literalism is familiar. There are passages in the Quran, which if taken literally, condone the killing of non-Muslims, for example;
[005:033] “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter,” or
[004:089] “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of God (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.
But literalism also has an insidious and more sustained consequence. , a convert to Islam and an Islamic scholar argues that puritanical reformists, “favor an opaque literalism which denies the efficacy of our speculative, intuitive, and imaginal faculties.” In other words, literalism blocks thinking and suppresses a person’s subjective response to his or her own experience in confronting a text. This is why as he argues, “the rise of violence, punctuated by the events of September 11, 2001, are the latest symptoms of an underlying illness, a cancer which has been eating at the collective moral and intellectual body of the international Islamic community.”
Literalism contrasts with esotericism, a tradition associated with mystical currents in all religions. It presumes that a text has hidden as well as surface meanings. My readers may be familiar with the Jewish Kabbalah as a text dedicated to uncovering the hidden meaning of texts as by implication the world of spirit. The Muslim text, , preserved and transmitted by Sufis, is similar in character.
One strand of modernization theory, often neglected by scholars who confuse modernism with secularism, connects mysticism to modernization. David McClelland the scholar of “the achievement motive” in modernizing settings, called this “positive mysticism.” Strikingly, one mediating force between mysticism and modernization turns out to be science. As David Bakan points out, science just like mysticism, presupposes that there is a difference between the manifest appearance of the physical world and its hidden structure. Today in physics the hidden structure is mathematical, and some physicists propose, that it is entirely so. The mathematicians among the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras and his students, were also mystics.
To interpret a text or a physical appearance, the reader or scientist has to bring his or her “intuitive or imaginal faculties” to bear. In this sense rationality as a model of how thinking takes place, does not fully describe the actual scientific method, since scientific discovery, like text interpretation, is a creative process, engaging the imagination and intuition. Isaac Newton, the great physicist and mathematician of the enlightenment was also an occultist and alchemist and wrote a chapter in his on the mathematics of Solomon’s Temple.
The act of interpreting a text also mediates between mysticism and modernity. As the history of the protestant reformation suggests, once people have direct access to sacred texts, for example, the Bible, and are free to bring their own interpretative powers to their understanding of it, they learn to exercise their individual initiative as readers and thinkers. The idea that a text has esoteric meanings opens the door to the thinking subject. This openness was one source of the rise of individualism in early modern Europe, an essential building block of a modernist culture. This suggests that mystical currents in any religious tradition are one vehicle for sustaining a dialogue with modernism without necessarily succumbing to all of the West’s versions of it.
What I am suggesting is that the Sufi tradition, which has strong roots in Morocco, in Sunni and Shia communities throughout the Arab world, in the West, and in Iran, might provide a cultural counterpoint to Salafism. In a study of Sufism in Indonesia, writes, “Sufism once associated with the strongly rural sector of Indonesian society, clearly has not died out.. .in the period of Indonesia’s most rapid economic development under the New Order government, Sufism has inspired new enthusiasm even in the sectors of Indonesian society most intensely engaged in modernization and globalization: the urban middle and upper class.”
In addition, in contrast to Salafism, Sufism is a more pluralistic tradition, depends on the decentralized relationships between individual teachers and their students-- the Sufi order-- and highlights the role of the subject in gaining access to both God and knowledge of the divine. This suggests to me that as an indigenous religious tradition, it establishes a basis for engaging with modernism without subordinating Islamic culture entirely to Western traditions. Indonesia is a Muslim society that has in fact made a transition to democratic forms of government. No one can predict how this engagement would unfold, but it is an avenue worth exploring and advancing.
The potential role of Sufism returns us helpfully to the issue we broached in this post’s beginning; the link between humiliation and shame. Recall that the psychoanalyst, Carlos Sluzki, argued that in experiencing humiliation a person rejects the appraisal of those who judge his performance or character to be wanting. But in experiencing shame a person internalizes this appraisal, and the standards they represent, by holding himself accountable for his failed performance. Humiliation externalizes, shame internalizes. This suggests that shame in turn sets the stage for learning and development. If this is a useful model of psychological growth, it suggests that people, stung by humiliating experiences, can develop themselves by transforming humiliation into shame.
But to do this, a person must also have some internalized ideal, a belief, to harness shame to learning. Shame is the vehicle for the journey to the ideal. Without such an ideal, a person will simply feel despair. This process of using shame is one conception of what Freud call the “Oedipal” struggle. In Freud’s conception, a young boy at some point is ashamed of his finitude when compared to his powerful father. Freud’s metaphor of the “castration complex”—the boy's penis is small -- describes just this experience. But the boy develops as a person when he transforms his shame into a wish to become like his father. The father becomes the boy’s ego-ideal. But of course it his father.
Perhaps this model of development can be applied more broadly, or in a socio-analytic way. As Lumbard writes, “When, however, one intellectual tradition is abandoned outright, there is no basis for the evaluation of another intellectual tradition and none of the fertile ground that is necessary for effective assimilation. Recovering the Islamic intellectual tradition is thus an essential, if not the essential, step to ameliorating the malaise which Muslims and non-Muslims alike have long bemoaned and decried. When this has occurred, Muslim peoples will be better prepared to engage Western civilization without surrendering to it altogether or opposing it outwardly while capitulating inwardly.”
I take this to mean that the Arab world, can develop socio-culturally if its people and leaders can build on a tradition they already own and whose ideals provide them with a productive way to engage with modernism. In this way they can tolerate their shame long enough to unleash their creativity.