The Childhood Origins of Terrorism
“He who washes my body around my genitals
should wear gloves so that I am not touched there.”
—Will of Mohammed Atta
Because so much of the world outside the West has for historical reasons fallen far behind in the evolution of their childrearing practices, the resulting vast differences between psychoclasses has recently turned into a global battle by terrorists against liberal Western values. In order to understand this new battle, it would be useful to know what makes a terrorist—what developmental life histories they share that can help us see why they want to kill “American infidels” and themselves—so we can apply our efforts to removing the sources of their violence and preventing terrorism in the future.
The roots of terrorism lie not in this or that American foreign policy error but in the extremely abusive families of the terrorists. Children who grow up to be Islamic terrorists are products of a misogynist fundamentalist system that often segregates the family into two separate areas: the men’s area and the woman’s area, where the children are brought up and which the father rarely visits.1 Even in countries like Saudi Arabia today, women by law cannot mix with unrelated men, and public places still have separate women’s areas in restaurants and work places, because, as one Muslim sociologist put it bluntly: “In our society there is no relationship of friendship between a man and a woman.”2 Families that produce the most terrorists are the most violently misogynist; in Afghanistan, for instance, girls cannot attend schools and women who try to hold jobs or who seem to “walk with pride” are shot.3
Young girls are treated abominably in most fundamentalist families. When a boy is born, the family rejoices; when a girl is born, the whole family mourns.4 The girl’s sexuality is so hated that when she is five or so the women grab her, pin her down, and chop off her clitoris and often her labia with a razor blade or piece of glass, ignoring her agony and screams for help, because, they say, her clitoris is “dirty,” “ugly,” “poisonous,” “can cause a voracious appetite for promiscuous sex,” and “might render men impotent.”5 The area is then often sewed up to prevent intercourse, leaving only a tiny hole for urination. The genital mutilation is excruciatingly painful. Up to a third die from infections, mutilated women must “shuffle slowly and painfully” and usually are unable to orgasm.6 Over 130 million genitally mutilated women are estimated to live today in Africa alone, and genital mutilation is practiced by Islamist families from 40 countries, from Somali, Nigeria, Oman and Sudan to Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.7 A recent survey of Egyptian girls and women, for instance, showed 97 percent of uneducated families and 66 percent of educated families still practicing female genital mutilation.8 Although some areas have mostly given up the practice, in others—like Sudan and Uganda—it is increasing, with 90% of the women surveyed saying they planned to circumcise all of their daughters.9
The mutilation is not required by the Qu´an; Mohammad, in fact, said girls should be treated even better than boys.10 Yet the women have inflicted upon their daughters for millennia the horrors done to them, re-enacting the abuse men inflict on them as they mutilate their daughters while joyfully chanting songs such as this:
We used to be friends, but today I am the master, for I am a man. Look—I have the knife in my hand…Your clitoris, I will cut it off and throw it away for today I am a man.11
As the girls grow up in these fundamentalist families, they are usually treated as though they were polluted beings, veiled, and sometimes gang-raped when men outside the family wish to settle scores with men in her family.12 Studies such as a recent survey of Palestinian students show that the sexual abuse of girls is far higher than elsewhere, with a large majority of all girls reporting that they had been sexually molested as children.13 Even marriage can be considered rape, since the family usually chooses the partner and the girl is as young as eight.14 The girl is often blamed for her rape, since it is assumed that “those who don’t ask to be raped will never be raped.”15 Wife-beating is common and divorce by wives rare—in fact, women have been killed by their families simply because they asked for a divorce.16 In Afghanistan, anthropologists report that “domestic violence is regarded as the main entertainment of village life, and women routinely display bruises and scars they have received at the hands of their husbands. (The term for a husband who does not beat his wife is ‘a man with no penis.’)”17 It is no wonder that Physicians for Human Rights found that “97 percent of Afghan women they surveyed suffered from severe depression.”18 Anthropologists report Muslim families extraordinarily violent:
Inside the nuclear family, men and women confront one another in a continuous struggle for violence….For men, the task is to subdue the wife or, failing that, to humiliate her. The husband has the trump card in this battle, since he can take a second wife, thereby shaming the first and all her lineage. The woman’s response may be violent… should she fail to drive out her co-wife, she may vindicate herself by poisoning her husband, and men with two wives who die of ‘cholera’ are often rumored to have been murdered.19
It is not surprising that oft-mutilated, battered women make less than ideal mothers, reinflicting their own miseries upon their children. Visitors to families throughout Muslim societies report on the “slapping, striking, whipping and thrashing” of children, with constant shaming and humiliation, often being told by their mothers that they are “cowards” if they don’t hit others.20 Physical abuse of children is continuous; as the Pakistani Conference on Child Abuse reports:
A large number of children face some form of physical abuse, from infanticide and abandonment of babies, to beating, shaking, burning, cutting, poisoning, holding under water or giving drugs or alcohol, or violent acts like punching, kicking, biting, choking, beating, shooting or stabbing…21
Infants are often left to scream for long periods, so “one of the most persistent sounds of village life is that of wailing babies. When a new baby arrives, the older one is roughly banished from the breast [and must] compete with other children for pieces of dry bread to snack on during the day. Within the household, as without, the strong take from the weak…his older siblings regularly take from him by force and laugh at his impotent tears…There is no notion of sharing or co-operation among children [who are] met with immediate anger and a variety of physical punishments ranging from a simple slap across the face to more elaborate procedures such as tying the child to the bedpost for the day or hanging him upside-down from the ceiling for a while.”22
Islamist schools regularly practice corporal punishment—particularly the religious schools from which terrorist volunteers so often come—chaining up their students for days “in dark rooms with little food and hardly any sanitation.”23 Sexual abuse—described as including “fondling of genitals, coercing a child to fondle the abuser’s genitals, masturbation with the child as either participant or observer, oral sex, anal or vaginal penetration by penis, finger or any other object and [child] prostitution”—is extensive, though impossible to quantify.24 According to the recent survey of Palestinian students, boys report having been used sexually even more often than girls.25 Children are taught strict obedience to all parental commands, stand when their parents enter the room, kiss their hands, don’t laugh “excessively,” fear them immensely, and learn that giving in to any of their own needs or desires is horribly sinful.26 All these abusive childrearing practices are very much like those that were routinely inflicted upon children in the medieval West.27
The ascetic results of such punitive upbringings are predictable. When these abused children grow up, they feel that every time they try to self-activate, every time they do something independently for themselves, they will lose the approval of the parents in their heads—mainly their mothers and grandmothers in the women’s quarters. When their cities were flooded with oil money and Western popular culture in recent decades, fundamentalist men were first attracted to the new freedoms and pleasures, but soon retreated, feeling they would lose their mommy’s approval and be “Bad Boys,” too independent of her. Westerners came to represent their own “Bad Boy” self in projection, and had to be killed off, as they felt they themselves deserved, for such sins as listening to music, flying kites and enjoying sex.28 For the terrorist, pleasure itself is forbidden: “No mercy can be shown evil; the righteousness of the good is absolute.”29 As one put it, “America is Godless. Western influence here is not a good thing, our people can see CNN, MTV, kissing…”30 Another described his motives thusly: “We will destroy American cities piece by piece because your life style is so objectionable to us, your pornographic movies and TV.”31 Many agree with the Iranian Ministry of Culture that all American television programs “are part of an extensive plot to wipe out our religious and sacred values,”32 and for this reason feel they must kill Americans. Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of Islamist terrorism, describes how he turned against the West as he once watched a church dance while visiting America:
Every young man took the hand of a young woman. And these were the young men and women who had just been singing their hymns! The room became a confusion of feet and legs: arms twisted around hips; lips met lips; chests pressed together.33
Osama bin Laden himself “while in college frequented flashy nightclubs, casinos and bars [and] was a drinker and womanizer,” but soon felt extreme guilt for his sins and began preaching killing Westerners for their freedoms and their sinful enticements of Muslims.34 Most of the Taliban leaders, in fact, are wealthy, like bin Laden, have had contact with the West, and were shocked into their terrorist violence by “the personal freedoms and affluence of the average citizen, by the promiscuity, and by the alcohol and drug use of Western youth …only an absolute and unconditional return to the fold of conservative Islamism could protect the Muslim world from the inherent dangers and sins of the West.”35 Bin Laden left his life of pleasures, and has lived with his four wives and fifteen children in a small cave with no running water, waging a holy war against all those who enjoy sinful activities and freedoms that he cannot allow in himself.
From childhood, then, Islamist terrorists have been taught to kill the part of themselves—and, by projection, others—that is selfish and wants personal pleasures and freedoms. It is in the terror-filled homes—not just later in the terrorist training camps—that they first learn to be martyrs and to “die for Allah.” When the terrorist suicidal bombers who were prevented from carrying out their acts were interviewed on TV, they said they felt “ecstatic” as they pushed the button.36 They never mentioned as a reason for their violence any political dispute with the West, and denied being motivated by the virgins supposedly awaiting them in Paradise. Instead, they all said they wanted to die to join Allah—to get the love they never got. “God is great! Death to Americans!” means “Mommy is great! Death to my Bad Boy self!” As they plan their suicidal missions, the terrorists entertain a powerful fantasy of merging with their mothers. Sometimes this takes the form of a fantasy of a return to the maternal womb; as they prepared to die they said they felt “we were floating, swimming, in the feeling that we were about to enter eternity.”37 Mothers of martyrs are reported as happy that they died because they then could feel like their sons would never leave them. As one mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber who had blown himself to bits put it, “with a resolutely cheerful countenance,”
I was very happy when I heard. To be a martyr, that’s something. Very few people can do it. I prayed to thank God. I know my son is close to me.38
The son had been about to graduate from the university, about to separate from his mother, to individuate, to self-activate. She was happy about his suicide because now her son would always be “close to her,” like a comfort blanket.
The imagery of the terrorists also often betrayed the source of their martyrdom in their overwhelming sense of sinfulness: ”The moment your first blood spurts out, all of your sins are forgiven.” Like serial killers—who are also sexually and physically abused as children—terrorists grow up filled with a rage that must be inflicted upon others. Most even preach violence against other Muslim nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia “for not being sufficiently fervent in the campaign against materialism and Western values.”39 A fantasy analysis of their choice of words reveals constant use of terms of sexual attack that advocates a defiant rape of others in order to restage their own sexual abuse: “It’s time to penetrate America and Israel and hit them where it hurts most” and “Americans must be attacked for desecrating our holy places.”40 Their excitement about the “spectacular explosions” inflicted upon others is also sexual in origin; as a psychiatrist who interviewed many terrorists reported:
We have to study their fantasies to understand these men. The sexual importance is sometimes striking. For some, when a bomb goes off, it is like an orgasm…One fellow told me he felt ‘liberated’ every time he heard a bomb explode. Some others told me they would place a bomb, then sit out on a balcony and listen. When the ‘boom’ came, it was a great relief.41
The orgasmic explosions outside themselves are necessary, according to those who interviewed them, because they “externalize their feelings of inadequacy” that are the result of severe child abuse, joining terrorist groups “to provide a sense of identity” and “share their feelings of deprivation [and] a sense of imminent danger.”42 Being violent terrorists replaces the sense of shame they felt since childhood with an illusion of self-respect for being a “real man.”43
Huntington has conclusively shown that Islamic groups have both historically and recently been many times more violent toward their neighbors than other religious groups, so if nothing is done about the childhood origins of their violence then Islamic terrorism toward the West is certain to escalate in the coming decades.44 If prevention rather than revenge is our goal, rather than pursuing a lengthy military campaign and increasing the number of future terrorists, it might be better for the U.S. to back a U.N.-sponsored Marshall Plan for them—one that could even include Community Parenting Centers run by local people (like the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) who could support more humane childrearing practices45—in order to give them the chance to evolve beyond the abusive family system that has produced the terrorism, just as we provided a Marshall Plan for Germans after WWII for the families that had produced Nazism.46
1 Soraya Altorki, Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 30; Mazharul Haq Khari, Purdah and Polygamy: A Study in the Social Pathology of the Muslim Society. Peshawar Cantt., Nashiran-e-Ilm-o-Taraqiyet, 1972, p. 91.
2 Mona AlMunajjed, Women in Saudi Arabia Today. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, p. 45.
3 The New York Times October 19, 2001, p. A19.
4 Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994, p. 43.
5 Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey Into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1989, pp. 9, 38, 39.
6 Ibid, p. 81.
7 Fran P. Hosken, The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females. Lexington: Women’s International Network News, 1993, pp. 27, 279-286; Efua Dorkenoo and Scilla Elworthy, Female Genital Mutilation: Proposals for Change. London: Minority Rights Group, 1992, p. 21; Ellen Gruenbaum, The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropolo-gical Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, p. 11.
8 Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Even: Women in the Arab World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980, p. 34; for additional references, see Lloyd deMause, “The Universality of Incest.” The Journal of Psychohistory 19(1991): 157-164.
9 Cathy Joseph, “Compassionate Accountability: An Embodied Considera-tion of Female Genital Mutilation.” The Journal of Psychohistory 24(1996): 5. Lindy Williams and Teresa Sobieszczyk, “Attitudes Surrounding the Continuation of Female Circumcision in the Sudan: Passing the Tradition to the Next Generation.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59(1997): 996; Jean P. Sasson, Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. New York: Morrow, 1992, p. 137; http://www.path.org/Files/FGM-The-Facts.htm.
10 Mona AlMunajjed, Women in Saudi Arabia Today, p. 14.
11 Ibid, p. 13.
12 Eleanor Abdella Doumato, Getting God’s Ear: Women, Islam and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, pp. 23, 85; Peter Parkes, “Kalasha Domestic Society.” In Hastings Donnan and Frits Selier, Eds., Family and Gender in Pakiston: Domestic Organization in a Muslim Society. New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corp., 1997, p. 46; Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor, p. 52.
13 Muhammad M. Haj-Yahia and Safa Tamish, “The Rates of Child Sexual Abuse and Its Psychological Consequences as Revealed by a Study Among Palestinian University Students.” Child Abuse and Neglect 25(2001): 1303-1327, the results of which must be compared to comparable written responses for other areas, with allowance given for the extreme reluctance to reveal abuse that may put their lives in serious danger (p. 1305); for problems of interpretation of sexual abuse figures, see Lloyd deMause, “The Universality of Incest.” The Journal of Psychohistory 19(1991): 123-165 (also on www.psychohistory.com in full).
14 Deborah Ellis, Women of the Afghan War. London: Praeger, 2000, p. 141.
15 S. Tamish, Misconceptions About Sexuality and Sexual Behavior in Palestinian Society. Ramallah: The Tamer Institute for Community Education, 1996.
16 “Women’s Woes,” The Economist August 14, 1999, p. 32.
17 Cherry Lindholm, “The Swat Pukhtun Family as a Political Training Ground.” In Charles Lindholm, Frontier Perspectives: Essays in Comparative Anthropology, p. 20.
18 MSNBC, October 4, 2001.
19 Charles Lindholm, Frontier Perspectives: Essays in Comparative Anthroplogy, p. 49.
20 Mazharul Haq Khari, Purdah and Polygamy, p. 107.
21 Samra Fayyazuddin, Anees Jillani, Zarina Jillani, The State of Pakistan’s Children 1997. Islamabad Pakiston: Sparc, 1998, p. 46.
22 Cherry Lindholm, “The Swat Pukhtun Family as a Political Training Ground.” In Charles Lindholm, Frontier Perspectives, pp. 21-22.
23 Samra Fayyazuddin, Anees Jillani, Zarina Jillani, The State of Pakistan’s Children 1997, p. 47.
24 Ibid., p. 51.
25 Muhammad M. Haj-Yahia and Safa Tamish, “The Rates of Child Sexual Abuse…,” p. 1320; Fatna A. Sabbah, Woman in the Muslim Unconscious. New York: Pergamon Press, 1984, p. 28; Bruce Dunne, “Sexuality and the ‘Civilizing Process’ in Modern Egypt..” Doctoral dissertation, Georgetown University, 1996.
26 Soraya Altorki, Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 72-76.
27 Lloyd deMause, “The Evolution of Childrearing.” The Journal of Psychohistory 28(2001): 362-451.
28 Time, October 22, 2001, p. 56.
29 Martha Crenshaw, “The Subjective Reality of the Terrorist: Ideological and Psychological Factors in Terrorism.” In Robert O. Slater and Michael Stohl, Eds., Current Perspectives on International Terrorism. Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1988, p. 24.
30 Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor, p. 64.
31 MSNBC October 1, 2001.
32 Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vx. McWorld. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995, p. 207.
33 The New York Times, October 13, 2001, p. A15.
34 Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Rocklin: Forum, 1999, p. 3.
35 Ibid, p. 4.
36 “60 Minutes,” September 23, 2001.
37 Nasra Hassan, “Letter from Gaza: An Arsenal of Believers.” The New Yorker, November 19, 2001, p. 37.
38 Joseph Lelyveld, “All Suicide Bombers Are Not Alike.” New York Times Magazine, October 28, 2001, p. 50.
39 The New York Times, October 22, 2001, p. B4.
40 EyeSpy, October 2001, p. 61.
41 Gustave Morf, cited in Gerald McKnight, The Mind of the Terrorist. London: Joseph, 1974, p. 149.
42 David E. Long, The Anatomy of Terrorism. New York: Free Press, 1990, pp. 20-21.
43 James Gilligan, Preventing Violence. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
44 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 257.
45 Robert B. McFarland and John Fanton, “Moving Towards Utopia: Preven-tion of Child Abuse.” The Journal of Psychohistory 24(1997): 320-331. McFar-land’s Parenting Centers in Boulder have reduced child abuse considerably; they will soon be replicated in Boulder’s sister city in Tajikistan with local parents running the Parenting Center.
46 Lloyd deMause, “War as Righteous Rape and Purification.” The Journal of Psychohistory 27(2000): 407-438.