Humiliation Theory and Terrorism

I cannot recommend highly enough this essay titled “A Matter of Pride: Why We Can’t Buy Off the Next Osama Bin Laden.”

The essay is a helpful addition to our understanding of what makes a terrorist “tick.” The authors (Peter Bergen and Michael Lind) first take issue with the “conventional wisdom” that “poverty leads to terrorism and violence.”

This view –that poverty leads to terrorism and violence– is widely embraced by analyst on the left and right. But what these two scholars claim is that when you examine the backgrounds of some of the most lethal terrorists ever known to humankind, many of them were poor or economically marginalized, but often hailed from middle-class, and even upper-class, backgrounds.

The writers cite Mark Sargent, a former CIA case officer and now a forensic psychologist, whose analysis of 172 Al Quaida operatives found something startling:

“he concluded that this was not a group of feckless, unemployed no-hopers. In his sample of jihadist terrorists, two-thirds had gone to college; they were generally professionals; their average age was 26; three-fourths were married; and many had children.”

Bergen, working with an LA Times reporter, uncovered a similar dynamic among terrorists from some of the most infamous terrorist acts of the recent past:
The 1993 World Trade Center bombing
The US Embassy bombings in Africa
The September 11th attacks
The Bali bombings, and
The London terror attacks

They found that 54 percent of the terrorists involved in the above plots had attended college (Compare to: 52 percent of Americans). One quarter of them had studied in the US or Europe. They found this dynamic held true for other parts of the Middle East. Other studies have shown that 57 percent of Palestinian suicide bombers have some post-high school education (Compared to a paltry 15 percent in the general Palestinian population). Fully one-third of Palestinian people live in poverty. However, only 13 percent of suicide bombers come from poor families.

“In fact, Palestinian pollster Kahalil Shikaki found that the readiness to commit suicide attacks actually rises with one’s education level.”

Then, the researchers broadened their scope and looked at revolutionary groups throughout the 20th Century:

“In West Germany, the majority of members of the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof gang) were middle class, like most of the members of Italy’s Red Brigades and the Weathermen in the United States. Notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal is the son of a wealthy Venezuelan lawyer. Militants in Latin American movements like Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and the Tupamaros and Monteneros likewise tend to be educated and from the upper strata of society. The “black bloc” anarchists who fly around the world to commit acts of vandalism in cities that host IMF and World Bank meetings are obviously affluent (just consider the cost of airfare alone). And Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro all hailed from relatively affluent families. Even Adolf Hitler was the son of a prosperous Austrian civil servant. He had enough money from his mother and aunt to live a bohemian existence in the expensive metropolis of Vienna in his youth.”

So, if economics is not the primary motivator that drives terrorism, then what is?

They suggest a compelling new idea: Humiliation.

They claim that what really leads someone to join a terrorist group is a feeling of ethnic, religious, or national humiliation. And they point back to Nazi Germany as “Exhibit A.” They argue that much of what motivated the Nazis was a perceived humiliation of their people and homeland:

“While economically weak in between the world wars, what really motivated many to embrace Nazism was that they lost World War I, and the conditions of that loss. Hitler’s goal, supported by much of the German elite and the vast Prussian officer class, was to reverse the verdict of World War I and proceed to create a Eurasian empire capable of dominating the world.”

So, the authors posit “Humiliation Theory.” They say the theory explains a great deal of what seems inexplicable to us from the oustide:

“The “humiliation theory” of radical violence helps explain why so many terrorists come from middle-class or wealthy backgrounds. Unlike economic deprivation, national or religious humiliation can be painful to all members of a community. In fact, communal humiliation is likely to aggrieve the affluent members the most, precisely because their freedom from a day-to-day struggle to survive liberates them to brood over slights to the community in which they are natural leaders.”

This analysis helps me put words to feelings I have had about our current “War on Terror” for several years now.

Unfortunately, the essay is short on actual prescriptions of how to reduce a sense of humiliation among terrorist groups. They claim that one thing that would help is ending the occupation of places like Iraq, the Palestinian West Bank, and Chechnya. And they claim we should hear the concern about US military bases in Saudi Arabia, and consider the sense that feeling that such an “occupation” is a humiliating desecration of a sacred space.

They also claim that Middle Eastern governments, like Saudi Arabia, must chip in by modernizing and reducing the perceived humiliation suffered by some of its own citizens, within its own borders, and at the hands of its own government.

But, the essay doesn’t say how to do any of this. (In reading more about this journal, it’s clear that they see this as their mission: put out new and cutting edge theoretical ideas, but not totally hatched plans for how to implement them…)

I don’t have any great ideas either. But as a minister and theologian, it seems that this idea of “Humiliation Theory” touches a deep and important truth. And, it seems to me, the issues are as much moral and spiritual as they are political and military. Perhaps that’s why we’ve so grossly misunderstood the dynamics of this war and modern terrorism itself.

Humility and Pride are healthy opposites. Humiliation and Pride are unhealthy ones. All three are predictable human behaviors. There is a healthy and appropriate kind of Pride. There is a healthy and appropriate kind of Humility.

And there is clearly a link between people’s ability to have both Pride and Humility, and their ability to develop stable, peaceful societies. Those who create a stable, democratic society have understandable Pride at having done so, but also often exhibit great Humility at knowing that they have not done it alone, and that democracy only flourishes when everyone works together for a common good.

Humiliation is different. It’s a “first cousin, once removed” of Humility. It’s impossible to see straight when you feel humiliated. When pride devolves into humiliation, it’s hard to predict the outcomes. Predictable behavior goes out the window. The first reaction is usually one of resignation and depression.

But no one can live in resignation and depression forever. And soon, other responses emerge: Anger, bitterness, lashing out….these are the things that eventually come from Humiliation.

This anger, bitterness, and lashing out may not make logical sense to the outsider. It may not even make total sense to the humiliated person either. But, as the authors of this essay suggest, Humiliation Theory “…may also explain why so many are willing to sacrifice innocent bystanders for their cause. They are fighting for an abstract idea of national, ethnic, or religious pride, not the masses.”

I think they are completely correct here. You see, one of the things that has been baffling to all of us here in the West is the WHY behind what terrorists do:

— Why would they fly planes into buildings?
— Why would they blow themselves up in the West Bank?
— Does their religion drive them to this?
— Their culture?
— A struggle of the poor vs. the rich?

Humiliation theory seems to suggest that it could be all of these things, but that humiliation cuts across them all and drives them to a deeper level. And, it’s an especially good theory for explaining why religion has been used by terrorists: the humiliation terrorists feel toward the “infidels” is not just cultural, but they are truly convinced that the humiliation feel is also a humiliation of their God too. They are mistaken in this, of course. But it doesn’t matter how clearly we can show the mistakes of their logic so long as they feel the humiliation deeply enough and have access to IEDs.

So, Humiliation theory helps me understand some of the “why” behind the terrorist’s misuse of their own great religious tradition.

But Humiliation theory also helps me understand why, so many times during the prosecution of this war, I instinctively cringe, and immediately know that we (the US/the West) have just done something else that will only exacerbate our problems in the region.

Humiliation Theory helps explain the “end” that was predicted by so many of us from the moment the war began:
That Iraq itself would become the largest breeding ground for the next generation of terrorist.

It helps explain the vitriolic reactions of the Muslim world to the stories of detainee abuse at Guantanamo. And, it helps us to understand why “Abu Gharib” was, and is, still such a big deal.

And Humiliation Theory helps explain the fallout, building even now, from the cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. Sadly, Saddam’s execution itself has become yet another example of “how not to fight a war.”

The day of the execution, I told friends I was certain another “unofficial” video of the execution would soon be found. I’m not psychic or anything. I just understand enough of how prevalent camera phones are in our internet world know it almost had to happen. (And, if I may digress: this dovetails nicely with Time Magazine’s thoughts about the “new” World Wide Web…)

Sure enough, within about five hours of telling my friends this, a disgusting and grainy video was burning up the World Wide Web. In it, executioners are heard to taunt Hussein with cries to “To hell!” and bystanders chant the name of Moqtada Sadr, a leading Shiite cleric. (Hussien is a Sunni…)

Again, in the world of the new internet and world wide web, we should not be surprised that a video has emerged.

However, we should be concerned that the content of video will simply cause further humiliation among the Sunni population of Iraq.

And, I fear, it most certainly will. And as it does, Humiliation Theory will again help to explain much of the reaction.

Humiliation Theory is a fascinating new lens through which we can not only view the Iraq War, but also the roots and causes of all modern global terrorism.

And if we’re really going to fight terrorism, and if we truly hope to defeat it, we’ve surely got to examine the role humiliation has in pouring more gas on the fire instead of putting it out.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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