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Toxic Masculinity Must Be Included In the Conversation If Mass Terrorism Is To Be Eradicated

By Rafia Zakaria

June 14th, 2017

LAST Sunday, a little over a week after the recent terrorist attacks in London, a group of Muslim women published a letter in the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The letter, about 900 words in sum, argued for recognition of the link between violence against women and other forms of hate.

“Hateful ideology is a vehicle for a toxic masculinity that seeks solace in extreme violence,” the women wrote, and the only solution to truly fight terror is to “include women in the debate who may be able to help counter how young men are raised or being indoctrinated to hate”.

The letter, which was signed, among others, by the head of an anti-extremism group called Inspire and a former politician from the Labour Party, also called attention to the fact that the fight against terrorism in Britain is a generational struggle and battling it at the community level requires the active participation and inclusion of women.

There is evidence supporting the link that the letters’ authors sought to establish between acts of terrorism and mass killing, and intimate and domestic violence.

Indeed, the perpetrators of many recent terrorist attacks have been found to have had a history of domestic violence. Mohamed Bouhlel, the Nice attacker who ploughed a truck into a crowd of people last July killing over 80, had a history of domestic violence. According to newspaper reports, Bouhlel was known to the French authorities for subjecting his wife to domestic abuse. She left Bouhlel some two years before the attack. Neighbours reported that he became even more depressed and then unstable and aggressive. Others reported that Bouhlel was known to have a short temper and for shouting and breaking things when he was angered.

The perpetrators of many recent terrorist attacks have been found to have had a history of domestic violence.

Similarly, Khalid Masood, the man who carried out the attack on Westminster Bridge in London a few months ago, reportedly had violent confrontations with the mother of his daughters, especially when one of them converted. He was also known to have been abusive towards his wife Farzana Ishaq. One of her relatives said that he was very controlling and monitored everything she did and kept a close eye on where she went. Three people were killed when Masood drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. It seems that those who can justify violence against their loved ones, particularly the women in their life, have little problem justifying mass violence.

Given these examples, one can describe domestic violence as a kind of ‘intimate terrorism’ in which power, control and violence are used to terrify those within the realm of the family. Men who engage in this behaviour imagine that this power and control makes them ‘manly’.

This belief is the sort of ‘toxic masculinity’ the women refer to in their letter. Those within its purview do not perceive the infliction of violence as immoral or problematic, let alone cruel or sinful. Resultantly, the women and children who are in their power live in fear of them.

In societies like Pakistan, where few believe it is their business to speak out against domestic violence, this kind of intimate terrorism is not even considered a crime.

The same mechanics of justification that are at the root of intimate terrorism, the idea that the abuse is ‘for the good of the women’ to correct her or to teach her a lesson, lie at the heart of the justification of terrorist acts. Terrorists, obsessed with appearing manly and powerful, are not bothered with the fact that they are cutting short the lives of the hundreds of innocent people they kill. Instead, they convince themselves that killing many innocent people is somehow a correction for society, for the larger good. The psychological need for control, the attraction towards simple solutions to what are complex social problems, the hyper aggression and attraction to portraying outward ‘strength’ are all pathologies shared by the intimate terrorist and the mass killer.

In writing the letter, British Muslim women have made an important intervention. Anti-terrorism efforts and the debates around them, particularly those in Western countries, have got stuck in largely meaningless typologies which suggest ambiguous characteristics such as ‘suspicious behaviour’ and ‘increasing religiosity’ as the basis for identifying future attackers. While these typologies have given livelihoods and even notoriety to the swarms of terrorism ‘experts’ all over the frightened Western world, they have done little or nothing to actually prevent terrorist attacks.

It is time that these superfluous theories which rely essentially on religion as an explanation for all terrorism are rejected for a deeper, more community-driven understanding. Identifying a central attraction to violence and a belief that violence is crucially connected to masculinity is a move away from the somewhat clichéd ‘religion is the problem’ approach taken by the UK authorities.

While it is true that not all domestic abusers are terrorists in the making, it is essential to recognise that it is violence and violent tendencies, a pro­clivity to criminality, that are central especially to those terrorist acts committed by lone wolf terrorists.

It is unclear whether the letter published in the Sunday Times will actually have any effect on terrorism policy in the United Kingdom or in the larger Western world. While many Western Muslim men are routine fixtures in the army of terrorism ‘experts’ seeking to influence anti-terrorism policies in Western countries, most Western Muslim women have not been central to the debate.

The most recent among the avalanche of attacks in the UK may have changed that. If mass terrorism is to be eradicated, those who have been fighting against intimate terrorism, and the toxic masculinity that justifies it, must be included in the conversation.


Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.