Terrorism: Psychology and Politics of Clash of Civilizations

The following piece taken from an interesting book on terrorism narrates a specific mode of understanding terrorism: the way it looks at Western modernity.

Some modern-day terrorists are motivated by Occidentalism–a rejection of, and hostility towards, the values of the West, Occidentalism, which played a significant role in the events of September 11, takes the form of “a cluster of images and ideas of the West in the eyes of its haters.” Four targets of Occidentalism are: the city, reason, the bourgeoisie, and feminism. 

To some extent, the city symbolizes all the facets of modern urban civilization: commerce, diverse populations, artistic freedom, sexual license, scientific pursuits, leisure, personal safety, wealth and power. A negative reaction to the city can hold religious meaning: urban sinfulness, as contrasted with the purity, self-denial, and obedience of idealized rural simplicity. The wealth of the city can incite their rage and envy. Images of an urban skyline, most notably that of Manhattan, evoke for these people the greed and selfishness of the marketplace. 

Reason, as exemplified by science and higher education, contrasted with natural spirit, warmth, feeling, community, and relationship. Reason is seen as cold, fragmented, essentially corrupt, and lacking idealism. Many who reject reason as a governing principle wish to link religion more closely with public life.

Fundamentalists who aspire to heroism reject the settled bourgeoisie. Everyday workers are characterized as cold, decadent, mediocre, lifeless, and rarely heroic, in contrast to the holy warrior who submerges himself or herself in a mass movement that leads to greatness. Honor gained from self-sacrifice in the war against the West is the antithesis of bourgeois fear. 

The fourth and final target of Occidentalism is feminism. Occidentalism, which exalts manhood, opposes the freedom of women. Female sexuality is a provocation to holy men and to those who seek exaltation through death for a higher cause. Revealing images of Western women in movies and advertisements, which represent an unreachable and sinful world, are enraging.

Terrorists are described as action-oriented, aggressive and stimulus-hungry, with tendencies to use the psychological mechanisms of “externalization” and “splitting”. They are likely to have experienced psychological damage during childhood that has led to a self-concept in which the perceived good and bad aspects of their personalities are projected onto others. The rhetoric of terrorism is highly attractive to such persons.

Source : Barry S.Levy and Victor W. Sidel (ed). Terrorism and Public Health, Oxford, New York, 2003.


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