"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What's Behind the ISIS Mindset?

As I've noted previously, I am engaged in a project of examining ISIS propaganda and its uses and abuses of "memories" of "the Crusades." As I've been engaged in this, I came across the work of the historian and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier, editor of this recent collection, The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History (Oxford UP, 2010), 296pp., which contains a number of essays of note.

I began with an essay by Farhad Khosrokhavar, a French scholar whose work has focused especially on Iranian and other contemporary Islamic contexts. His essay in the present work, "The Psychology of the Global Jihadists" is especially useful, not least for showing profound differences between Christians and Muslims on the questions of "fundamentalism" and its relationship to violence.

He begins with two factors in the psychology of jihadists: the desire for revenge against perceived (and sometimes actual) slights or attacks by the West; and a desire, equally Western in nature, to be a "star" or "celebrity." Undergirding both of these is a sense of resentment and loathing.

He further notes three other factors: internalized humiliation and an attempt to reverse this in a disproportionate manner; victimization; and "narcissistic recognition" through global media (141). I find it striking how he notices parallels between a totalized Islamic psychology of victimization at the hands of the West, and a totalized "othering" of Islam in the eyes of the West. We are closer, and more similar, than either wishes to admit.

This victimization is dangerous precisely in its absoluteness: "absolute victimization...legitimizes the use of absolute violence against 'godless' societies" that reject Islamic beliefs. If you have the slightest doubt about this, read the latest issue of the ISIS propaganda magazine, Dabiq

Victimization leads to jihad, understood in apocalyptic terms, says Khosrokhavar, and this apocalyptic worldview is also abundantly illustrated by picking up any issue of Dabiq. But this is an apocalypse of limited utility: the point of violence is to provoke an apocalyptic counter-violence from the West whose goal is not to inaugurate the end of the world, but to totally transform the West into an idealized vision of Islam: apocalypticism as instrumental, not eschatological, in other words.

The desire to overcome humiliating victimization leads to a "counterhumiliation [which] merges with a politics of death, and thanatos becomes the focal point. The reasons are as much psychological as instrumental" (146). Thus the jihadist searching for martyrdom is searching not just for a counter-humiliation of the West (by killing some of its citizens), but also for a narcissistic triumph over the West, which will guarantee their eternal celebrity by broadcasting their attacks far and wide and keeping their names alive after death. Here Khosrokhavar forces upon us a question I have asked before in the aftermath of ISIS attacks: should we not severely curtail coverage of them, and stop printing the names of the attackers if, as this author claims, "the world media are thus the magic ingredient of the jihadist self-image" (148). Martyrs achieve fame twice over: in Western media, and among fellow Muslims in the umma. 

Khosrokhavar ends with an interesting if often counter-intuitive argument: jijadists are quintessentially modern creatures of secularization. Had Islam not encountered secularization, with the latter's drive towards some kind of radical purity and purgation of all so-called sacred beliefs and practices, but instead remained within its traditional contexts, then such an Islam would not have been forced to adopt a counter-strategy of radical purity and purgation by jihad in which even most other Muslims (to say nothing of Eastern Christians, traditionally tolerated under Islamic dhimmi laws, as I have shown on here repeatedly) are found wanting, and thus also fit for extermination as insufficiently Islamic. Thus the jihadist response to secularization is an equally utopian vision rather than a desire or an effort to rebuild historical Islamic institutions and cultures.

This author's work on humiliation is supplemented by an earlier, shorter chapter co-authored by Bettina Muenster and David Lotto, "The Social Psychology of Humiliation and Revenge," in which they note the burgeoning research by psychoanalysts in the late 20th century. Humiliation forces one to feel helpless at the hands of unjust treatment meted out in public. These three factors lie behind the generation of narcissistic rage leading to revenge. It is possible, they conclude, for revenge to be averted with sincere apologies and a search for forgiveness, but this is by no means guaranteed.

Several authors in this collection draw attention to the work of Vamik Volkan, especially his 1998 book Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism, which I have found fascinating even if it was written before the rise of ISIS. Volkan, now retired as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at the University of Virginia, has, avant la lettre, provided a helpful way of understanding why ISIS has so constantly harped on the Crusades and uses this language incessantly in Dabiq. 

Volkan writes that "I use the term 'chosen trauma' to refer to an event that causes one large group to feel helpless and victimized by another group. A group does not really 'choose' to be victim­ized and subsequently lose self-esteem, but it does 'choose' to psychologize and mythologize—to dwell on—the event  For each generation, the description of the actual event is modified....Once a trauma becomes a chosen trauma, the historical truth about it does not really matter" (my emphasis).

I would apply this to the invocations of the Crusades. Volkan's notion of chose trauma is, to my mind, the best way to date of understanding what is going on by constantly referring to "the Crusades": a chosen trauma useful for buttressing group identity, and useful for creating a totalized mythology about the West and its "crusader armies" of our time.  In doing so, they make it abundantly plain that historical truth is irrelevant.

As I continue to read Volkan, I shall have more to say about his several books.

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