How the sexual torment of Islamic radicals helps explain the genesis of jihadi violence.
- By Simon CotteeSimon Cottee is a visiting senior fellow at the Freedom Project, Wellesley College. He is the author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.
In January, the U.S. government released 49 new documents seized in 2011 from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Among the items — the fourth and final batch of bin Laden documents made public since 2012 — is a letter addressed to a senior colleague in North Africa in which the now-deceased al Qaeda leader raises “a very special and top secret matter”:
It pertains to the problem of the brothers who are with you in their unfortunate celibacy and lack of availability of wives for them in the conditions that have been imposed on them. We pray to God to release them. I wrote to Shaykh/Doctor ((Ayman)), [al-Zawahiri], and I consulted with Shaykh ((Abu Yahya)) [al-Libbi].
Dr. Ayman has written us his opinion … As we see it, we have no objection to clarifying to the brothers that they may, in such conditions, masturbate, since this is an extreme case. The ancestors approved this for the community. They advised the young men at the time of the conquest to do so. It has also been prescribed by the legists when needed, and there is no doubt that the brothers are in a state of extreme need.
It is well-known that bin Laden was a fastidious and overbearing micromanager. But few would have suspected that it extended this far. And although it has been widely reported that he was in possession of a porn stash at his Abbottabad compound, it will no doubt come as a surprise that bin Laden, the foremost jihadi of his generation, had thought long and hard (no pun intended) on the issue of masturbation, as has current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Bin Laden’s edict, though, raises more questions than it clarifies: If knocking one out in times of “extreme need” is permitted, how does one define the emergency of “extreme need”: Is it a week, a month, or a mere day of celibacy? Alas, bin Laden’s letter doesn’t shed any light on these burning questions.
All of this is good, harmless fun, of course. But the sexual torment of jihadis is no laughing matter, and may even help explain the genesis of their violence.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the evolutionary biologist and world-famous atheist Richard Dawkins poured scorn over the notion that the 19 hijackers were motivated by thoughts of injustice. On the contrary, he insisted, what they really wanted was to get laid. Referring to the “martyr’s reward of 72 virgin brides,” he claimed that “testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next.”
A more nuanced version of this argument holds that suicidal jihadi violence is rooted in the sexually repressed atmosphere endemic across the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West. In both, sexual activity outside of marriage remains taboo — especially for women. According to this argument, the stigma and barriers attached to premarital sex create a frustration that, in some men, boils over into murderous violence. As Christopher Hitchens succinctly put it in his anti-theist polemic God Is Not Great, “[jihadis’] problem is not so much that they desire virgins as that they are virgins.”
This argument draws support from a rich reservoir of anecdotes about jihadis and their ideologues. For example, the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, who is widely credited as a formative ideological influence on bin Laden, was notoriously disgusted by sex. Yet, few subjects so vigorously aroused his interest and fascination. In one of the articles he wrote about his experience studying abroad in the United States between 1948 and 1951, he registered his revulsion at “the American temptress,” with her “expressive eyes and thirsty lips,” “round breasts … full buttocks … shapely thighs and sleek legs.”
In the same article, he expressed his shock at a dance in a church, where “the atmosphere was full of desire.” The novelist Martin Amis contended that Qutb’s sexual desires, which he was unable to satisfy, “made him very afraid, and also shamed him and dishonoured him, and turned his thoughts to murder.”
The so-called ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, was also obviously sexually repressed. He willingly enlisted in a mission that would end his life and those of countless others, but he was terrified of women, refusing to date them or to even shake their hands. In his will, he instructed that his body be prepared for burial by “good Muslims” and that no woman was to go near it. Women, for Atta, as for Qutb, were dangerous and dirty: a source of sin and spiritual contamination.
One of the big problems with linking sexual repression to jihadism, however, is that not all jihadis are sexually frustrated. Moreover, of all those countless Muslims who are sexually frustrated very few become jihadis. There can be little doubt that Atta was sexually tormented — but for every Atta, there is an Abdulaziz al-Omari, another of the 9/11 hijackers, who was married and had a daughter. It is of course possible that al-Omari was sexually bored with his wife. But, unlike Atta, he was not a virgin, and there is no evidence that he was sexually repressed.
Another problem with this linkage is that it forecloses the countervailing possibility that exposure to sex — as much as sexual repression — can be a cause of murderous religious violence.
One of the most striking facts about the current wave of European jihadis in Syria and Iraq is their prior secularism, before their conversion to militant Islam. According to the French sociologist Olivier Roy, “they almost never have a history of devotion and religious practice.” On the contrary, they engaged in drinking and dope-smoking, and many had a criminal record before becoming jihadis.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed 86 people last year in a horrific truck rampage in Nice, France, had a criminal record. He also reportedly drank alcohol, used drugs, gambled, and neither prayed nor fasted. And according to French prosecutor François Molins, he had a “wild” sex life, dating both men and women. One former classmate recalled: “Mohamed was a womanizer, a sexual obsessive. … It’s all he talked about —that was his principal characteristic.”
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s rapid radicalization remains shrouded in mystery. But it would be unwise to discount the role of his reportedly rapacious sexuality and the possible shame he may have internalized about this in his transformation into a jihadi killer.
Sexual torment also features in life stories of female members of terrorist groups. Mia Bloom, in her extensive research on women and terrorism, argues that women’s involvement is driven by a range of overlapping motivations, including revenge, redemption, relationships, and respect. Discussing the Chechen “Black Widow Bombers,” who commit suicide attacks against Russia, Bloom points out that many were victims of rape. This, she observed, inflicted an additional wound: the shame of sexual degradation. Paraphrasing one woman who had abandoned her suicide mission at the last minute, Bloom writes: “If you sacrificed your life in the name of Allah and killed some infidels, you would go straight to heaven regardless of your previous sins.”
The fixation of Western female Islamic State supporters with sexual propriety may also betray a deeper sexual discontent. In early 2015, I conducted a year-long investigation into a prominent female British Islamic State recruiter and propagandist who left East London for the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, in late 2014. This 22-year-old woman, who was born into a Pakistani Muslim family, had lived a very secular life for most of her teenage years and reverted to Islam just two years before her departure for Syria.
According to her testimony, expressed in an audio recording of her “reversion” story, she had previously been something of a sexual libertine. It was clear that this had shamed her. Among the various subjects that most animated her in her many and now-defunct pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts, sexual modesty was foremost. So it is possible that this women’s defection to the Islamic State wasn’t an “escape” from patriarchal family control, still less a quest for sex, but an escape from sex and the corruption of a sexually permissive society to which she had once succumbed.
Sexuality is so fundamental to a person’s sense of self and self-identity that any account of radicalization that does not take it seriously must be considered inadequate. Jihadism, of course, cannot be reduced to sexuality. But neither can sexuality — repressed or untethered — be wholly discounted as a possible catalyst in the development of jihadi zealots. And bin Laden himself clearly saw it as an important factor regulating their effectiveness.
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