The shame that turns ordinary people into terrorists

Below is an article I wrote which was published in the Johannesburg Star newspaper on 28 May 2011.  I'm interested in brainstorming how we could communicate directly to foreign militaries and their proxies intervening in the Arab and Muslim world that foreign military behaviour needs to be more sensitive to local cultural and religious contexts.  Any ideas?



Americans celebrated loudly after al-Qaeda's Saudi leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed by US special forces in a raid on his hideout in Pakistan on May 1.

New Yorkers gathered at Ground Zero — the site of al-Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in 2001 — to show their joy.

However, Western politicians have made it clear they are aware that Bin Laden's death will not signal the end of terrorism in the name of Islam. So, the US already anticipates "following it up with a few more", in the words of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Could this translate into continued missile strikes from US military drones to root out al-Qaeda's "support network", which lurks in Yemen and Pakistan, according to President Barack Obama, or into more torture victims behind locked doors at the US's offshore prison camp, Guantanamo Bay?

Perhaps the US imagines that the demon of Islamic terrorism will be vanquished through such measures. But such hope has already been revealed as fond illusion following the killing of more than 90 people in a suicide bombing of a frontier constabulary fort at Shabqadar, Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman said the attack was the "first revenge for Osama's martyrdom".

The language of vengeance follows the manner of Bin Laden's death and its reporting. An unarmed man was assassinated. The media seemed to revel in the bloody killing, almost gleefully appropriating the allegedly military term "double tap" used to describe the use of two shots (one to the chest and one to the head) that guarantees the death of the human target.

Obama was reported to have watched the assassination live on a televised satellite feed. The dead body was later dumped at sea, demeaning and humiliating his family, according to some imams and his son.

Research into the views of terrorists has found that one of the main drivers of political violence is humiliation.

Harvard University lecturer Jessica Stern spent 10 years interviewing perpetrators of religious terrorism all over the world. She talked to the foot-soldiers and the decisionmakers of extremist Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups.

The results, published in her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, revealed humiliation is the most commonly cited reason — although not the only one — for becoming a religious terrorist.

Humiliation has been described as the experience of being placed against one's will in a situation where one is made to feel inferior; where, according to German scholar Evelin Lindner, "the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, made helpless".

Many Arabs and Muslims can recount examples of such experience at the hands of Western militaries and their proxies. The taunting of Afghan women in front of their families by US soldiers in Afghanistan has been widely reported, as have the strip-downs of Palestinian men to their underpants at Israeli checkpoints.

During and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, US soldiers commonly put bags over the heads of Iraqi men when they arrested them in front of their families. More broadly, racial and religious discrimination is experienced by Arab and Muslim diaspora communities in Western societies, which can create groups of unassimilated, disenfranchised young Muslim men, and from which the home-grown bombers who killed 52 people in London in July 2005 emerged.

The discrimination and abusive behaviour directed at these Arab and Muslim communities at home and in the diaspora is experienced as deep humiliation, acute loss of dignity and, possibly, trauma, according to peace-building activists Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind.

These feelings in turn can lead to a drive for vengeance at any cost. Stern believes that after experiences of humiliation, for which specific other individuals and groups can be blamed (justifiably or otherwise), religious terrorists seek to simplify and sanctify their lives through participating in what they perceive as heroic acts to purify the world.

In this context, what could be described as "evil" can arise when the pain of trauma grows so great that its victim can no longer sustain the feeling and becomes susceptible to perpetrating terrible acts.

Of course, neither experiences of being shamed, nor terrorist activity, are confined to the Arab world; just as such humiliation is not caused solely by the West.

But shame clearly provides great motivation.

Until Western counterterrorism policies and practices avoid producing gratuitous humiliation in the Arab and Muslim world, Islamic terrorism will likely persist.

When reflecting on the value and effects of their military ventures in the Arab world, as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Western and Israeli armed forces must train their military personnel better about the customs and religious sensitivities of the communities encountered during intervention. Their warfare strategies must seek to avoid producing unnecessary humiliation.

In addition, Western countries need to thoroughly integrate Muslim communities that they host.

Finally, Western leaders must listen to political Islam, which entails recognising and addressing the present unequal balance of power between the West, and the Muslim and Arab world.

Views: 221


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Comment by Arif Khalil on June 9, 2011 at 1:22pm

I should have returned to you (dear shaya gregory poku) through personal message... that states are inhuman creation by humans... they have no guts or feelings for individuals... the arab governments are no different from any other government... brutal, excessive use of force, violence, torture, killings... just see what is going on in the west... and on the same pattern 'humanized face' and all the 'dirty work' done 'underground' :-)) 


essentially the violence has its own culture, you cannot learn from each other anything different :-(

Comment by Shaya Gregory Poku on June 9, 2011 at 10:35am
Question: Does anyone know how Arab governments deal with local/foreign Arab terrorists? How different is it from how the West has done it, and what (if anything) can we learn--culturally--from them?
Comment by Jason Gladfelter on June 8, 2011 at 4:38pm
I haven't really refined my language here, but I just wanted to mention something:

I totally agree that shame and humiliation are strong factors in determining roots of one's actions. I also agree that in regards to terrorist recruiting and "events" these emotions are prevalent. One aspect seems missing, and that is "taught humiliation". In some cases humiliation is felt, but not directly and has been taught by 'recruiters'. In this way, humiliation and shame are effective tools to "convert" some good people into bad people, if you will. What is the ratio of direct humiliation to taught? I don't know. Yet it seems that as long as humiliation and shame are wide pathways to terrorism, so to will these be tools of the trade for terrorist recruiters. Going a step further (and out of my field) one could say humiliation and shame are under control by the individual. In some cases this may seem, and probably is, an extreme stretch. But in cases such as teaching shame, it makes sense. The families of victims of 9-11 didn't feel shame and humiliation; at least I've never heard this. Yet bin Laden's family feels them--this is interesting....
Comment by Arif Khalil on June 7, 2011 at 1:14pm

No Antonia this not gonna happen... both warring parties are equals and wanna talk the language of power the sufferers will be us as always... the people with weak leaders. Weaker enough not to change their leaders :-)) actually.

John Vaughn has put it rightly we cannot sanitize this war. I have been looking at the development of laws of war and the role of the US in undermining these efforts. And how it decides about the accused... they are pragmatists :-(

Comment by Jaroslav Petrik on June 7, 2011 at 12:51pm
Antonia, you're not the first one who came up with the idea of humanizing US warfare. Check the entire HTS (Human Terrain System) controversy (wikipedia has a primer; a good bibliography can be found here I think I agree with John Vaughn -- there are limits to giving war a human face, for its inherent nature has more to do with death than life.
Comment by Jean de Dieu Alingwi on June 7, 2011 at 5:20am

Remember this, those who are humilating have been humiliated yesterday and those being humiliated are preparing to respond or revenge. it means that today all of them are for cycle of violence, a war that will have no end. taking that into account, can the language of vengeance and humuliation resolve a crucial probleme like terrorism or it is expanding it? yes, if the use of force can help impose his will on the other, can that facilitate the settlement of good relationship? can that bring the other behaviour as you like or restablish confidence between people? I believe engaging in that matter in that way is just accepting a permanent insecurity to both sides. one said strong leadership yes and also foreign policy strategies of envolved nations should  be looked at to regain confidence and restablish good relationship among leaders to oneside and average people to another.

I am ending my thought by this wisdom from my tradition that says "the stick breaks the bone but not the behavior".

Take care,


Comment by An activist for peace on June 7, 2011 at 2:18am
We would agree to any notion that stops violence whether this is done to stop militants, terrorist whatever names because killing is killing. We are also convinced that like Riffat Ghani said, "killing innocents is not what they we cant count the terrorist among Muslims..." This should make sense to all policy makers that approve military action against their perceived opponents.
Comment by Riffat Ghani on June 7, 2011 at 2:05am

Terrorism is not the act of true Muslim. Killing innocents is not what we are.  So we cant count the terrorists among Muslims. That is what our religion taught us.

Drone attacks which are mostly common in Pakistan nowadays is done by the American army. Have they ever thought that the missiles which we are striking is only hitting the people whom they are sure are terrorist. Never. Many innocent children and women are dieing in seconds without even realizing whats happening. The fact is that we cant ruin the whole country just for the bunch of few people.

It is impossible for any nation to bring peace in there country by inviting others to there homeland and asking for help. Strong leadership is the basic solution.

Comment by Assen Ahmed Assen on June 7, 2011 at 1:58am
I think this is a very good article. Militaries should respect the culture and norms of the host society. Good observation and critical ideas to be considered by US government or other western countries. Good work
Comment by Vaughn John on June 7, 2011 at 1:47am
Thanks for a thought-provoking piece Antonia. The process that leads to "terrorist, "freedom fighter" etc is a complex one and I believe that humiliation, shame, brutalisation must be key factors in a broader process of dehumanisation.  Militarism is premised on strategies of dehumanisation and cannot work without this. For this reason I disagree with the suggestion that: "Their warfare strategies must seek to avoid producing unnecessary humiliation" - Warfare is inherently humiliating and dehumanising and we should not be advocating for sanitised versions of it. 

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