Explosions in the Syrian city of Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by the militants of Islamic State group on a People's Protection Unit (YPG) position in the city center, Oct. 20, 2014.(Tablet Magazine; original photos: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

The psychoanalyst Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin takes the view that, in order to make sense of the violent jihadis, it is fine and good to look at studies and analyses of Islamist ideology such as the ones that I have been writing—but really we ought to peer a little more deeply. She laid out her argument in Tablet magazine a few weeks ago. You can find it here. It is stimulating to read. A deeper look, in her estimation, will bring us into the subterranean zones of psychology.

She emphasizes the appeal of sadomasochism, which she describes as “the thrill of violence, power, and control that comes from inflicting pain on others”—though for some reason the second half of the word and the peculiar thrill of having pain inflicted upon oneself seems not to figure in her analysis. She tells us about “the debilitation of growing up in a shame-honor culture,” which impedes maturity. She describes a syndrome that she calls “the maternal drama,” which makes it hard for children in “Arab Muslim culture” to separate from their mothers and leads to “a perversion.” She touches on a few other matters—a difficulty in developing an individual identity, as opposed to a group identity, and so forth. “My theory,” she tells us, invoking her own research and the findings of neuroscience, “is that terrorists may not fully develop empathy”—which does seem to be the case. But mostly she points to the sadomasochism, the “shame-honor culture,” and the “maternal drama”—the three factors lying “at the heart of Islamist terrorism.”

This kind of analysis puzzles me. I have no trouble accepting that terrorists are shaped in some degree by sadomasochistic impulses, by shame-honor considerations, and by difficulties in breaking away from their mothers. But isn’t everyone shaped by factors of that sort? Even people who do not go around chopping off other people’s heads may have their sadomasochistic moments. I worry about discussing something as vague as “Arab Muslim culture,” too. It seems to me that, if Arab Muslim culture were the origin of the terrorist problem, the problem would remain more or less constant, given that, by Arab Muslim culture, Kobrin must surely have in mind something steady and traditional, handed down through the generations, like a fondness for thick coffee, and not the fads of the day. But terrorism is not a constant. Terrorism does seem to be a fad, in the way that crime waves are a fad, but, in any case, is something that comes and goes.

Back in New Left days, everyone in my various circles studied Wilhelm Reich. This was one of our own fads. We took up Reich because he appeared to have identified the psychological sources of Nazism. We liked to imagine that, if only we could understand the psychological roots of German Nazism, we would be able to understand, as well, the dark mystery of why Americans insisted on voting for Richard Nixon. My patience for this kind of inquiry ran out, though. I began to reflect that, if Germans became Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s because they were afflicted by authoritarian upbringings and by regrettable mothers who cloaked them in psychological armor, Germans in other eras ought likewise to have become Nazis, given their own mothers and the authoritarian upbringing and the armor. But Nazism has not been the German norm.

I do not dispute that Nancy Kobrin has described psychological realities. A deranged male sexual energy radiates visibly from the Islamic State. It merits analysis. But this is also true of motorcycle gangs. To generate a terrorist movement, some additional factor has to be at work, capable of igniting the various combustible elements that float about in the soup that is human nature. I think the additional factor is the phosphorescent quality of certain millenarian and paranoid doctrines, as promoted by some kind of political party. No doctrine, no terror. I cannot prove the validity of my contention, but I note a point in its favor. To write the history of psychological disorders would be extremely difficult—to show the history of hidden sadomasochistic impulses, or of, say, perversions between mother and children. But it is entirely possible and even simple to write the history of deplorable and nihilist ideas, their conception, gestation, blossoming, pullulation, and consequences.


An anecdote from Paris, some days ago: A visiting delegation from the Kurdish resistance movement in Syria brought bouquets of funereal flowers to the offices of Charlie Hebdo in a gesture of homage to the victims. Likewise to the kosher grocery store a few blocks away. And, in order to ensure that everyone took notice of the floral tributes, the visiting Kurds posed for photographs: a female military commander from the Kurdish military resistance, or People’s Protection Units, clad in military fatigues, standing with a female political leader from the Protection Units’ political command, the Democratic Union Party, together with friends from the French anti-racist left. You can read about this event on the website of the admirable French magazine La Règle du Jeu, here. A minor news item. But it merits an observation.

Regles du Jeu

Left to right: Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, Khaled Issa, Asya Abdellah, Nassrin Abdalla, commander in Kobani of the women’s protection unit, and Aline Le Bail-Kremer, spokesperson for SOS Racisme. (Photo: Blaise Cueco)

You will recall that, in the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria, the People’s Protection Units spent four months putting up an extraordinary resistance to a siege by the Islamic State. Soldiers from the Free Syrian Army arrived to lend support, and so did the Kurdish Peshmerga of Iraq. After a while, the United States launched an extended bombing campaign, together with air forces from friendly Arab countries (as part of the larger operation that led to the capture and barbaric killing of a Jordanian pilot). And the Islamic State lifted its siege.

No one regards the success as a turning point in the war. The Islamic State is formidable because, in addition to the fanatics who serve as foot soldiers, it deploys a different set of fanatics among its officer corps, veteran officers of the Baathist army of Saddam Hussein, who know what to do, militarily speaking. So, the Islamic State beat a disciplined retreat. The Kobani they left behind is a landscape of rubble and corpses. Photographs by Jack Shahine, here, will give you the idea.

Still, the Kurdish forces did prevail, and this is doubly notable because of the political history of the Democratic Union Party and its People’s Protection Units—Syrian organizations that are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, of Turkey, whose own record, in the past, could not have been worse. But the PKK has changed. Or seems to have changed. Or so I have argued in Tablet, here. The Democratic Union Party and People’s Protection Units have, in any case, worked up a record of their own in northern Syria, and their record has sometimes been bad, but more often seems to have been good, under the circumstances. I mean their record for adhering to their own proclaimed principles of liberalism, in a left-libertarian version. And in Paris just now the Syrian Kurdish military and political resistance leaders, by making a couple of political gestures in conformity with these principles, have openly demonstrated that what we are regularly told about the Muslims of the Middle East is not necessarily true. We are told that everyone despises blasphemers and hates the Jews. Only, not everyone does. We are told that that everyone wants to lock up women in the home, or, at minimum, prevent women from competing with men. Only, not everyone agrees.

It is, however, true that, in the Middle East, the Kurds have never figured as a big power, or even a medium power. You could argue that, realistically speaking, the minority status of the Kurds should lead us to temper our applause. Some years ago, when I was spending a lot of time in Paris, I used to ruminate over this question. I had the honor of participating in the activities of a group that called itself the Circle of the Anti-totalitarian Left, which put out a first-rate magazine and held some well-attended meetings. The participants in the Circle of the Anti-totalitarian Left took the view that Islamists and Baathists were equivalent evils. And the participants took the view that Saddam Hussein deserved his fate, even if George W. Bush was responsible for inflicting it upon him. These were enlightened opinions, I thought.

A United Nations of the minoritarian, the defeated, and the marginal.

Only, I did begin to notice that, among my comrades in the anti-totalitarian circle, nearly everyone seemed to belong to a marginal population of one stripe or another, with a history of being persecuted. A number of Algerians were active in the circle—and the Algerians turned out to be Kabyles instead of Arabs. The French people in attendance in the meetings turned out to be, upon closer inspection, Jews and Protestants, which is to say, members of ancient French minority groups. Not all of them, but most. The meetings took place in a hall provided by a friendly Protestant minister. There were Iranians, too—who proved to be Bahais. And there was a cluster of Kurdish exiles. The Circle of the Anti-totalitarian Left turned out to be, in sum, a United Nations of the minoritarian, the defeated, and the marginal.

But so what? The Middle East has always been the sort of place that, if you were to work up a color-coded map of its ethnic and religious variations, would look kaleidoscopically chaotic. Algeria is an Arab country, but its Kabyles might conceivably be a majority, depending on how you define Kabyles and Arabs. The Bahais figure within an Iran that, if you break down the statistics, may contain barely a majority of Persian Shia. As for the redoubtable Kurds, it is getting harder to believe that statelessness will forever be their national destiny. I draw a policy conclusion. In faraway America, we ought to adopt, for own benefit and everyone else’s, the shocking new strategy of treating our friends as friends, even if our friends have enemies. The Kurds in Paris just now, the Kurds in northern Syria, the Kurds in Iraq—these people are our friends, not just militarily. These people are our friends philosophically. Shouldn’t this count for something?


To read more of Paul Berman’s analysis for Tablet magazine, click here.