The Humiliation Myth

Humiliation doesn’t explain terrorism; the spread of Political Islam does. A response to Peter Bergen and Michael Lind.

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Tagged Foreign PolicyIslam

As Peter Bergen and Michael Lind ably demonstrate in their recent article [“A Matter of Pride,” Issue #3], the notion that poverty causes terrorism–and that, absent poverty, terrorism would diminish radically–is a fallacy. Indeed, the “myth of deprivation” is so manifestly inadequate that it is worth asking whether its supporters actually believe it or whether, instead of confronting the complexities of terrorism’s causes and the difficulty of combating it, they prefer to mouth a platitudinous perspective that poverty causes all ills and that alleviating poverty (which will not happen soon) cures them. Bergen and Lind are also certainly correct that a sense of humiliation fuels terrorism. After all, the terrorist movements they discuss, as well as others, so often speak its wounded idiom and the associated, though analytically distinct, idioms of vengeance and justice for perceived wrongs.

Yet whatever the substantial virtues of Bergen and Lind’s analysis,
they seek to replace one misguided and reductionist master explanation
with another. The threat we face is not merely a humiliated Muslim
populace that can be assuaged by putting an end to the putative
humiliation. Rather, we are in a struggle with a powerful, highly
aggressive, and dangerous political movement, Political Islam. This is distinct from the religion
of Islam and its many non-Political Islamic adherents. Because of this,
focusing on the “humiliation” that we are said to cause Muslims
obscures the central issues regarding the real nature and magnitude of
the current threat.

The problems with the humiliation perspective of Bergen and Lind
partly mirror those of the poverty position. The authors take
humiliation mainly as a given and thus fail to investigate why
terrorists and their supporters feel so humiliated in the first place,
especially while other peoples and groups subject to similar or greater
indignities do not. For instance, while they note that many non–Middle
Eastern countries have not given birth to terrorist movements, they
fail to note that many of those countries have also suffered
substantial exploitation, domination, and all manner of indignities by
Western powers, which often exceeds anything experienced by Middle
Eastern countries. But, even assuming that Bergen and Lind are correct,
they still fail to explain what exactly humiliation is–because, far
from being an objective characteristic, as they seem to propose, it is
a subjective quality that manifests itself in different quantities and
intensities in different places, even in response to similar stimuli.
And unless we delve deeper to understand what makes some people more
prone to humiliation, we avoid the central issue and set ourselves up
for misguided policy decisions.

Nor do Bergen and Lind explain why humiliation in and of itself
leads to such disproportional will to violence and slaughter. For
example, they claim that humiliation is the master explanation for the
rise of Adolf Hitler and the politics he, with the willing aid of so
many Germans, pursued. Its historical absurdity aside, this argument
actually highlights the reductionism and untenability of their claim.
There is simply no way to explain how the “humiliation” of a lost war
(World War I) and a perceived unjust peace (Versailles) led Germans to
attempt the annihilation of an entire people (the Jews) who had nothing
to do with either; exterminate the mentally ill of Germany and
elsewhere; conquer the Eurasian continent; slaughter additional
millions of so-called subhumans (Poles, Russians, and others); turn
entire peoples into slave populations; create a vast concentration camp
system with more than 10,000 installations; and seek to destroy
Christianity–and that’s only a partial list of the Nazi regime’s
assault on humanity and Western civilization. Such an apocalyptic and
cataclysmic politics can come only from a mix of many other ideological
and other factors, including eliminationist anti-Semitism, a profound
racism that held the world to be composed of warring races in a
struggle for dominance and survival, and a strategic vision and the
opportunity to finally fulfill certain long-standing imperial
aspirations. Much the same can be said of today’s Political Islamic
terrorists who seek to destroy the West; of Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, who seeks a world “without the United States and without
Zionism”; and of Hamas, whose leader, Khaled Meshal, would desire to
“sit on the throne of the world.” In each case, a grandiose,
uncompromising, and apocalyptic vision of Islam is the motivating
force. Humiliation has played, at most, a tertiary part in producing
such hopes and plans.

This points to a third problem with Bergen and Lind’s singular
emphasis on humiliation: It ignores the other critical factors that
govern terrorist aspirations, especially the political-religious
ideologies that shape their political goals and through which they
understand the actions of Western powers. This is not to say that
Bergen and Lind make no mention of ideology. They do several times, and
they do see it as a critical factor. But they treat it only in passing,
and wrong-headedly. In their analysis, ideologies are principally an
outgrowth of humiliation and not the framework that governs people’s
understanding of their own situation in the world. Such a cursory
theory of ideology cannot explain why, for example, Arabs–and now with
the Islamification of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so many Muslims
worldwide–conceptualize the very existence of Israel as an intense
humiliation. Such a phenomenon can only be explained by plumbing the
worldviews of those who feel humiliated by a political fact that has,
objectively speaking, nothing to do with the vast majority of them.

Bergen and Lind also categorize the relevant ideologies as “radical”
and “revolutionary,” spread by “madmen and isolated sects” and
“revolutionary extremists”; in doing so, the authors render them as
extreme, unusual, artificial, or perhaps artifactual of something else
(namely humiliation). But the ideologies at issue are not in fact
obscure ideas but rather foundational political-religious worldviews,
grounded not in the minds of “madmen” but in extremely widespread
(though by no means universal) interpretations of Islam. They precede
and then evolve in conjunction with political developments and acts,
including (but hardly restricted to) those acts that are interpreted as

A fourth flaw in their analysis is that it treats terrorism as a
foundational problem and policy issue, when in fact it is but one very
serious manifestation of the most basic problem: Political Islamic
movements that threaten to extend the sway of a totalitarian
understanding of Islam and politics, and that use a variety of
political and violent means, including terrorism, to achieve their
ends. To be sure, there is nothing analytically wrong with focusing on
terrorism as a problem. But no treatment of the contemporary terrorism
that emanates from Islamic countries and groups can be deemed adequate
without an account of its relationship to the Political Islamic
movements and countries–and to their understandings of Islam–that
provide its followers and general sustenance.

Put simply, Political Islam, whatever its various manifestations,
collapses the distinction between religion and politics, holding that
politics must be subordinated to a fundamentalist understanding of
Islam. And it is animated by a death cult–an explicit glorification of
mass murder and of dying for Allah–exceeding that of any major, modern
political movement or regime save Nazism and perhaps Imperial Japan.
Both genocidal slaughter (as practiced or merely called for) and
totalitarian tendencies define the Political Islamic Sudanese regime
(which Bergen and Lind treat, despite its several genocidal onslaughts,
as having “not given birth ” to a radical ideology”), the Taliban, al
Qaeda, the Iranian leadership, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim
Brotherhood, and various lesser-known Political Islamic movements.
Terrorism is but one important and powerful tool in the Political
Islamists’ arsenal.

Related to this is a fifth problem, namely that Bergen and Lind
treat Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as stand-ins for terrorists in
general. This is misleading, as other terrorists and other Political
Islamic regimes have differing aspects and qualities. Bergen and Lind
make no mention, for example, of Iran, with its financing of and
support for the terrorists of Hezbollah and Hamas; its insistent drive
to acquire nuclear weapons; its expressed desire to annihilate Israel;
and its repeated threats to terrorize the Europeans should they not
kow-tow to its demands. The Iranian regime, in power for 27 years and
governing a wealthy, oil-rich country of almost 70 million people,
hardly suffers from humiliation. And so while their goals and
ideologies may be similar (despite their Sunni-Shia antipathies), Iran
cannot be understood by subsuming it into an analysis of a loosely
coordinated, deadly network of a few thousand terrorists.

As one deepens and broadens the understanding of these themes, the
picture of the conflicts becomes more complex and more intractable, the
policy prescriptions change, and the time horizons for dealing with the
problems lengthen. If indeed we are in conflict against Political
Islam, as I and many others believe, then we must look beyond
humiliation as a source of real solutions.

Of course, many actions of the West–the war in Iraq, the Israelis’
ongoing conflict with the Palestinians–fuel the Political Islamic
movements because they, their followers, and those Muslims vulnerable
to their appeals perceive any slight, let alone subjective setback for
Islam at the hands of the West, as humiliation. But this is not
humiliation as Bergen and Lind describe it. The relatively tame Danish
political cartoons that ran in 2005 unleashed a torrent of protests
among Political Islamists on three continents, threats of mass murder,
and actual violence and killings. What does this reaction have to do
with any reasonable sense of humiliation? Pope Benedict XVI’s strange
attempt at comparative religious enlightenment last September (in which
he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor’s deprecating
statement about Islam) was greeted by some leading Political Islamists
in different countries with calls to “hunt down,” kill, or imprison the
pontiff. What does such an outlandish response to a few words have to
do with any reasonable sense of humiliation? When else in modern
history have significant religious and political leaders called for the
Pope to be killed? And all because of a few objectionable words?

To be sure, we could adopt measures, along the lines that Bergen and
Lind propose, to reduce conflict points and thereby undercut some of
the Political Islamists’ appeal. But would such steps really be
effective in the long-term? Closing our bases and ending our “perceived
occupation of the sacred territory of Saudi Arabia,” which supposedly
inflamed the Political Islamists against us, did little to end
Political Islamic terrorism and their imperial and totalitarian
desires, plans, and existing policies. Moreover, much Political Islamic
violence and terrorism (as Bergen and Lind note in passing) is directed
at other Muslims who have more pluralistic, nontotalitarian, or merely
different Political Islamist understandings of Islam. Humiliation is
not the issue. An all-consuming, divinely ordained desire to impose
theocratic totalitarian control is.

Moreover, it is not clear that we can put the humiliation “genie”
back in the bottle. Whatever role it played in the emergence of
Political Islam, that ideology now powerfully exists and has a vibrant
life of its own, controlling countries and threatening to take over
others. To return to the example of Nazi Germany, whatever the multiple
causes of Nazism’s rise, by 1938 it was not within the Allies’ power to
pacify the Nazis and the majority of Germans who supported them merely
by reducing further “humiliation”; by that time, the humiliating terms
of Versailles had been reversed and Germany had already regained its
status as a great power. To be sure, Bergen and Lind acknowledge that
by 1938 “no concessions ” short of acquiescence” would have sufficed.
But they do not draw the policy conclusion that follows for today. We
must recognize that likewise “no concessions ” short of acquiescence”
will satisfy the Political Islamists. We must therefore fashion
policies with a clear-eyed view of the underlying political-religious
ideology that structures their enmity and aspirations, the varied and
widespread political manifestations their movements and governments
assume, and the broad and determined threat they pose to governments
and peoples that goes well beyond al Qaeda’s by-now-classical terrorist

Abandoning the Middle East to the Political Islamists and having
Israel capitulate (and ultimately surrender its existence) is the only
thing that will satisfy them–the only thing that will stop Political
Islamists, in Bergen and Lind’s language, from feeling “humiliated”
(and then only partly, given the growing number of Muslims in Europe).
Needless to say, this would be extremely self-injurious, not to mention
immoral. Instead, we should recognize the broad-based danger not merely
of terrorism, but of Political Islam. And we must realize that it can
only be defeated by active diplomatic, economic, and military
containment and, when practical, rollback by the United States and its
allies in Europe and in the Middle East. We should stop fixating on al
Qaeda and terrorism, narrowly construed, as the overwhelming problem
and recognize that the biggest danger is the Political Islamic colossus
and aspiring hegemon: the soon-to-go-nuclear Iran.

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Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. He is writing a book on genocide in our time to be published in 2008.

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