Inside Looking Out


After the Übermensch, the Übermuslim. Here, translated from a recent article in Le Monde, is a prominent academic’s illuminating psychoanalytical view from inside the minds of the jihadis. It’s complicated.

Le Monde | Fehti Benslama
Equating Islamist radicalization with a cult phenomenon is problematical

Fehti Benslama

Fethi Benslama is a psychoanalyst, professor of psychopathology at the University Paris-Diderot, and a member of the Académie Tunisienne. On the 12th of May, he publishes “A furious desire to sacrifice: The Supermuslim”. In line wth his previous works, “Islam under Psychoanalysis” (Flammarion, 2004) and “Declaration of Rebellion: A Guide for Muslims and Non-Muslims” (Flammarion, 2011), he reflects on how one should think about the sacrificial drive of youth in the name of Islam.

The great majority of studies do not address the psychological dimension, or a fortiori the psychopathological, of radicalization — which is usually considered phenomenologically as a fact that belongs to the conscious will of the agent, to the exclusion of the unconscious. […]

Trying to think about what happens to someone when he takes the fatal decision to jeopardize himself and others, forces us to abandon both the behavioural perspective and the stereotyped formulæ of the radicalized themselves, and take into consideration what induces someone to destroy himself and set everyone around him on fire. While psychoanalysis identifies the symptom as a compromise solution in itself, one that serves some purpose for the subject, the attempt to treat the symptom with radicalization also has its logic: to obtain healing by a very particular route, one that requires tackling the internal danger by creating a greater danger for others, even though it lead to death. It is something that I have observed clinically: the symptoms disappear when the subject is overtaken by the belief that he has been given a divine mission. […]

This effect also allows us to understand the success of radical Islamism amongst converts. Loss of identity is not the sole prerogative of the children of migrants or muslim families; it is what explains the fact that 40% of radicalized young people are converts. I would say that these people pursue radicalization without giving a thought to where it might lead. The outcome doesn’t matter, as long as it brings with it “the solution”. The press have reported cases of jihadis who ordered over the internet publications such as “Islam for Dummies”. It takes great ignorance to let these fantasies inhabit the subject’s innocence, and pursue their realization without fear or doubt. The investigating judge, Marc Trévidic, of the antiterrorist centre in Paris, has said several times that some returnees from combat zones, whom he had interrogated, were unaware of the Five Pillars of Islam! It is possible that this category, described as “converts”, are very much in the mould of the born-again, those who rediscover a lapsed faith either by themselves or with the help of their families.

Let us be aware, nevertheless, that some who engage in the combat zones are not looking fist and foremost for spirituality or religious conversion. They want to stand against the cruel acts of oppression committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. For others, departing for the mysterious Orient acts as a romantic rite of passage. I have been astonished to observe, when reading accounts of the Crusades, the extent of the similarity between the crusaders’ and the departing jihadis’ mental states. Could jihadism be a crusade in reverse? Today, radical Islam is the most widely sought product in cyberspace, the most exciting, the most comprehensive. It is a catch-all model for the guidance of the desperados themselves, and of their world.

Equating islamist radicalization with a cult phenomenon is problematical. Of course, some aspects are comparable, such as the phenomenon usually referred to as “brain-washing”, but the essential differences are obvious. In the cult, the individual subjugates himself to the fantasies or the delusional theory of the guru, to economic or even sexual exploitation. As for the jihadi, he clings to a broad collective belief, that of the identity-myth of Islamism, sustained by the reality of a war in which he is invited to take an heroic part in return for material and sexual favours, and powers both real and imaginary. The blend of myth and historical reality is more toxic than delirium.

The promise of radicalism therefore deals with the stalemate in the juvenile’s development, and opens the possibility of a crossing-over at once individual and collective, physical and metaphysical, mythic and historic, of which I would like to highlight the principal motifs.

Without being exhaustive, one can identify some of the fundamental factors at play in the narcissist’s own auto-seduction by means of the promised ideals of radicalization. This seduction constitutes a fundamental dimension of the attraction that radicalization exerts on the young, as emphasized, rightly, by Philippe Gutton (Adolescence and Jihadism, L’Esprit du temps, 2015).

The Wounded Ideal

Identity-justice is the cornerstone of the radical mind-set. It goes to the heart of the fragility of identity experienced by the young. It works as a solder for the threatened fragments of the self through unity with a group of peers, in order to form a community of faith, sharing the same moral emotions. The effect of the group is to produce the illusion that together one can share the same body. Identity-justice rests on the theory of the “wounded Islamic ideal” and the harm done to muslims, present and past. The “wounded ideal” is that of the muslim community’s lost principle of politico-theological sovereignty, with the abolition of the Caliphate and the carving up in 1924 of the last muslim empire, the Ottoman, by the colonial powers.

Let’s remind ourselves here that the first Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1928. We can say that the Islamist movements were born out of the trauma of that era, and that they sent a shock-wave through the masses. As for the injuries inflicted on muslims, these were the wars ancient and modern in the Middle East: Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. Images of destruction, of massacres, of dead and mutilated children are instrumentalized in the call to redress the wrongs. There are young non-muslims who respond to this call. But for the majority, the jihadi programme consists in projecting the wrongs done to the muslim community, suffering from prejudice, onto the life of the individual. The aim is that the wounded ideal should absorb the subject, and that the wound speak and act through him, like a ghost in the body of a zombie. He is called to become an avenger of the ideal, or rather, of the outraged divinity. The case of the brothers Kouachi in the attack on Charlie Hebdo is paradigmatic in this regard. There are young people whose deficient self-image leads them to seek the personification of some collective ideal, the fulfilment of which comes as martyrdom. […]

The compulsion that makes a muslim overbid himself in attempting to become even more of a muslim, leads to what I call the “Supermuslim”. […] Supermuslim is a diagnosis applied to the psychic life of muslims who have been impregnated by Islamism and haunted by guilt and sacrifice. They must atone and repent, purify themselves, and seek out the authentic life. If, in principle, there is room to distinguish between the tendency towards the Supermuslim and his actual embodiment, in reality their boundary is porous and the crossing unforeseeable, even if the predisposition is more prevalent than the fruition.

Specifically, we can see the path to the Supermuslim in the adherents for whom it is no longer enough to live the religion just in the context of tradition, which is founded on the notion of humility. Indeed, one of the highest significations of the name ‘muslim’ is ‘the humble’. It is the fundamental ethical centre of Islam. With the Supermuslim, it is on the contrary a question of demonstrating pride-in-faith to the rest of the world: Islam Pride. This leads to public demonstrations: blood on the brow, prayers in the street, symbols on body and clothes, the rise of rituals and observances bearing witness to continuous proximity to Allah, and evoked on every occasion.

The Supermuslims wish to speak for God in this world, while broadcasting their hatred for anyone not sharing their beliefs of fire and brimstone. One could just as well call them “The Allahants”, since they pant incessantly, “Allahu akbar”. [Puns only in French: ahanant, panting — Ed.] This invocation, which should in principle remind him who utters it of his benign insignificance, has here become a demonstration of arrogance, of a power without restraint. They kill while panting. They submit themselves to God, only in submitting Him to them.

This is why the figure of the Supermuslim attracts accomplished and aspiring delinquents; they are converted through the desire to become outlaws in the name of the law, a law supposedly above all others, whereby they ennoble their antisocial tendencies and sacralize their murderous impulses. The Supermuslim seeks the pleasure of a mystical union with God, while the ordinary muslim claims to be interchangeable with his Creator, to the point of being able to act in his name, to become His voice and His hands. This is not the mystical union with God, impermanent and completely untainted by arrogance, as in Sufism. Whereas the muslim seeks God, the Supermuslim believes that God has found him.

Recurrent Fear

The anguish of many muslims comes from living in a world where secularization – whose products, moreover, they consume – causes them to feel alienated, not precisely themselves. The misery that stems from this perception of self as inauthentic, is the source of muslims’ despair. Seeing themselves inexorably swept along to godless exile in the West is a recurrent fear that comes out in discourse and in the relentless pressure to build minarets everywhere, like nails driven into the soil to prevent it from making off: whence the desperate quest to stop the drift in summoning up pious ancestors. For Islamism has produced the deeply inauthentic notion of the greater-than-self: an ancestral super-ego made flesh in the figure of the Supermuslim. Like any figure, it comes in many more-or-less classic guises, amongst which is that of withdrawal from the world; but the most flamboyant is that of having done with the world altogether, and participating in its end. It is this that attracts committed youth into jihadism.

Where does the Supermuslim come from, historically? Historical trauma propagates a very long wave, especially when an ideology relays it to the masses in order to establish a ready-made ideal. This is the principal task of Islam. Consequently, successive generations transmit the trauma and prejudice, so that individuals live life as the inheritors of infamy, whether they know the facts or not. The year 1924 marks the end of the last Islamic empire after 624 years; the abolition of the Caliphate, in other words, the principle of sovereignty in Islam; and the foundation of the first secular state in Turkey. The Ottoman lands were carved up and occupied by the colonial powers; the muslims went from masters to underdogs in their own countries. It was the collapse of a regime of fourteen hundred years, the end of the illusion of unity and power. Then came the melancholy dread of the dissolution of Islam in a world it no longer governed.

A symptom of this historical fracture was the birth in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood, which embodied the theory of “the wounded Islamic ideal” of restoration and vengeance. Islamism promises the re-establishment of the Caliphate through the defeat of the nation-states. It conveys the memory of trauma and projects it onto the disastrous contemporary world of populations suffering the fate reserved for them by their governments, by Western military interventions, and by civil wars. The historical collapse was accompanied by an unprecedented shock to notions of muslim identity. It’s a fact that the Enlightenment arrived on Islamic soil by gunboat. Equally, muslim elites would become “partisans of the Enlightenment” and of their own political emancipation, considering that the Western Enlightenment permitted a disinterment of those forgotten by Islam in the name of a universal alliance against “the forces of darkness”. They would oppose the cadres of the “anti-Enlightenment”, who demanded the restoration of the theocracy and the return of the prophetic tradition, in the name of Islam as the sufficient and complete solution to all problems. The watchword of the Muslim Brotherhood is, “Islam has an answer to everything.”

A systemic dissonance then appears in the relation between the muslim and the state. Some want to be citizens of a state: muslims, but separate from the theological order — those whom I call “detached muslims”. The others want on the contrary more and more to affirm their muslim identity, again and yet again: whence the emergence of the Supermuslim. Islamism appears therefore as a defence of Islam, one so fierce that it wishes actually to become Islam. It has mobilized all the antibodies of a system perceiving itself to be in distress. But the response has become auto-immune, in the sense that it now destroys what it seeks to preserve. This is why the Supermuslim has two enemies: the enemy without, the westerner; and the enemy within, the westernized muslim, who is definitively out of joint with the Caliphate: he who refuses all submission, from politics to religion, and who wants to be the citizen of a nation. The Supermuslim regards him as an “Islamoid”, worse than a westerner, a counterfeit to be flushed out and eliminated.