The connection between religious faith and mental disorder is, from the standpoint of the tolerant and the “multicultural”, both very obvious and highly unmentionable…The relationship between physical health and mental health is now well understood to have a strong connection to the sexual function, or dysfunction. Can it be a coincidence, then, that all religions claim the right to legislate in matters of sex? – Christopher Hitchens.
Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same system. – Albert Camus.
The transgressions of suicide murder arouse a thrill that sometimes takes an overtly sexual form. – Paul Berman.
If the world is to have a future, it lies in the hands of women. – A. C. Grayling.
During one of Bill Hicks’ many incendiary raps he takes on the persona of a John Hinckley type lone gunman; a child of an oppressive and overbearing religious upbringing. “Where’s the tower? Where’s the gun? Where’s the tower? Where’s the gun?” he robotically intones, before adding, “My penis made me a bad boy. BLAM! BLAM! My penis made me a bad boy: that’s what they told me! BLAM! BLAM!” Like much of Hicks’ work, this little drop of improvisation contains within it a lightning bolt of acid truth. Anyone who doubts the proposition that sexual repression leads to violence need only consider the case of Dr. Kafeel Ahmed. Dr. Kafeel Ahmed, need I remind you, is one of the young men who tried to blow up Glasgow airport with a 4X4 packed with explosives. The same man who doused himself with petrol and set himself alight when he realised his private martyrdom mission had gone to the wall. While incurring the third degree burns that eventually killed him, Dr. Ahmed tried to fight off the brave men who did their level best to put an end to this cowardly act of self-immolation. He spent the rest of his short life dying slowly in Glasgow hospital, at the expense of the very West he had sought to attack with such callous brutality. He had suffered horrific burns over his entire body, with one (rather notable) exception: his genitalia. It’s a curious fact that failed suicide bombers have been found with their tackle tenderly wrapped in tissue or cotton like a baby about to be abandoned. Why? To protect them for the virgins in paradise of course. Stifle your urge to titter brothers and sisters. We in the West can only laugh at such ridiculous beliefs because we (on the whole) don’t know what it’s like to believe (actually believe; really believe) in something as patently absurd yet seductively alluring as the promised houris.
There is a potent thread of schizophrenic sexuality running right through modern radical Islam: both an attraction to and repulsion to sex, and a similar internal wrestling with the dark but enthralling spectre of modern, emancipated women. This, of course, is a symptom bound up with a wider attraction/repulsion towards the modern world as a whole. Pulled by longing and pushed back by disgust, the Islamist relationship to modernity could be characterised as a kind of cognitive dissonance. Egyptian born Sayyid Qutb, the man who laid down the ideological framework for modern jihadism, spent significant time in the USA, and his writings gave voice to a deep mental struggle with the theological implications of the modern world, one that echoes down the generations of militant Islamists who followed him. When Qutb visited America (in the late ‘40s) it was beginning to experience its post-war consumer boom. Yet Qutb looked around him and saw only vice and corruption; institutionalised immorality and bankrupt spirituality. One prominent factor in his growing rejection of modernity, liberalism and humanism was his exposure to the beautiful, healthy, independent, strong women of America. “A girl looks at you,” wrote the pious, lonely bachelor (and presumable virgin), “appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.” His fears reverberated deeply with Islamists the world over – from figureheads like Al Zawahiri and Bin Laden, down to the luckless foot soldiers like our Ahmed – who, almost to a man, exist, as it were, with one foot in the Islamic world, and one foot in the West.
It is both simple minded as well as mistaken to think of these men as ‘medieval’ or as ‘barbarians’. Despite their explicit rejection of many tenets of modernity – secularism, democracy, rationality, tolerance, female emancipation, materialism and individualism – despite the couching of their ideology in potent images of the uncorrupted primitive, despite their claims (often shamefully repeated by liberal apologists) to be speaking and fighting for the poor and oppressed Muslims of the world, they are, paradoxically, as much a product of the modern world as you or I am. Men like Bin-Laden simply could not have existed at any time before now. Most of the Islamists who have attacked us have either grown up or been educated in the West. The nineteen hijackers of 9/11, for instance, were sufficiently Westernised to remain undetected in America for years. All, therefore, were wrestling with the meaning of ancient pieties in the context of the rapid pace of change in the modern world. Qutb’s struggle is their struggle. The sophisticated and highly self-conscious use of modern multi-media technology, including advanced propagandistic techniques, is likewise modern in the extreme. Even the ideology – which harks back to the imagined purity of the Muslim caliphate – is animated by peculiarly modern ideas. Nowhere in the ancient world of Islam does the idea exist that violent overthrow of the current order, swiftly followed by the instillation of strict Islamic law, will eventuate in peace and prosperity. This kind of all-embracing, totalising system; a one size fits all answer to humanity’s ills, is an inheritance from 20th century totalitarianism, which is itself a latent by-product of Christian eschatology – for it is only with Christ and his followers that the idea of history leading inexorably to an end-point comes into the world. In the ancient world history was seen as an endless series of cycles without beginning, end, or point. Christ and his followers, however, believed they were facing an ‘End Time’; a culmination and resolution of disparate spiritual and historical forces; a period of tumultuous violence resulting in the ultimate victory of good over evil (you know – like Lord of the Rings).
If the history of fascism, fanaticism, and terrorism in the 20th Century has anything to teach us, it’s that this kind of pathology – a retreat into comforting fantasy and conspiratorial illusions when faced with the brute fact of the modern world – leads to violence; violence directed inward, outward, or (as in the case of suicide bombing) both. Cognitive dissonance will seek to resolve itself, by silence if need be. The capacity for suicide, like the capacity for murder, evolved and resides in all of us. “Beneath it all,” as Phillip Larkin wrote, “desire of oblivion runs.” Religious and secular political ideologies do a great job of commandeering these death-wish impulses: urging righteous, disenfranchised, sexually repressed young men into seemingly counter-intuitive battle with stirring tales of martyrdom and noble sacrifice. What we are essentially facing with Islamic fundamentalism, then, is a messianic, eschatological death-cult. And as everyone after Freud knows, sex and the death-wish are curious bedfellows; inextricably linked in an icy psychological embrace.
So fear of sex and a love of death, I put it to you, go hand in hand. Here, for instance, is Lawrence Wright on Osama Bin Laden,
He was rarely angry except when sexual matters came up. When he thought one of his half brothers was flirting with a maid, Osama slapped him. Another time, when he was in a cafe in Beirut, one of his brother’s friends produced a porno magazine. Osama made it clear that neither he, nor any of his brothers would ever have anything to do with the boy again. There seems never to have been a moment in his entire life when he gave way to the sins of the flesh, venal or ribald behaviour, the temptations of liquor, smoking, or gambling. Food held little interest for him. He loved adventure and poetry and little else but God.
Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri, a follower of Qutb and right hand man to Bin Laden, sought a similar sexless austerity in his life: this being a man who spent his lonely nights during the Afghan jihad composing passionate, epic love poetry – to his mother. Or then there’s Mohammed Atta, a man who hated women so much he wrote a will explicitly forbidding any woman who was “pregnant” or “unclean” (i.e. menstruating) to attend to his body, and stating, furthermore, “I don’t want any woman to go to my grave at all during my funeral or on any occasion thereafter.” When you learn this is the same tight-lipped, buttoned-up individual who spent his lasts nights before September 11 playing slot machines in a sleazy strip-club, you can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. When you read that he also wrote, in the same will, “the person who will wash my body near my genitals must wear gloves on his hands so he won’t touch my genitals,” you will forgive me if I consider my point made. Scratch the surface of violent Islamism, and you can be sure to find ugly sexual dysfunction lurking not far beneath. Nobody could seriously argue for a straightforward connection between the pious, puritanical fear of sex and the flying of aeroplanes into buildings – the factors motivating such an action are obviously complex, and legion – but that there is a connection is, I think, undeniable.
If we examine what’s on the other foot, so to speak, this strange attitude towards women and sexuality begins to seem more explicable. Most Islamists, after all, have roots in societies where women are, to all intents and purposes, cut off from the public sphere. Half of all women in the middle east are illiterate. Most have no rights whatsoever; being unable to vote, own property, or even work. As a result they remain mere chattel to be passed from father to husband. In such societies – where men are kept apart from the consoling and tempering presence of women – it is easy for violent impulses to foster. Ed Husain, in his fascinating memoir The Islamist, chronicles a long, slow process of de-radicalisation after years of teenage extremism. One of the most potent elements in the final shedding of his Islamist skin is – paradoxically – a visit to the very same middle east his idealistic teenage self claimed to be fighting for. His experiences there are illustrative enough to warrant quoting at some length:
Despite fitting in perfectly, on the outside at least, and living in a country that had segregated every public institution and banned women from driving on the grounds that it would give rise to licentiousness, I was repeatedly astounded at the stares [my wife] Faye got from Saudi men and I from Saudi women.
Faye was not immodest in her dress. Out of respect for local custom, she wore the long black abaya and covered her hair in a black scarf. In all the years I had known my wife, never had I seen her look so dull. Yet on two occasions she was accosted by passing Saudi youths from their cars. On another occasion a man pulled up beside our car and offered her his phone number. In supermarkets I only had to be away from Faye for five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they walked past. When Faye discussed her experiences with local women at the British Council they said, ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia.’
After a month in Jeddah, I was becoming seriously worried for Faye’s well-being. I heard from an Asian taxi driver about a Filipino worker who had bought his new bride to live with him in Jeddah. After visiting the prominent Balad shopping district, the couple caught a taxi home. Some way through their journey, the Saudi driver complained that the car was not working properly and perhaps the man could help push it. The passenger obliged. Within seconds the Saudi driver had sped off with the man’s wife in his car and, months later, there was still no clue as to her whereabouts.
We heard stories of the abduction of women from taxis by sex-deprived Saudi youths. At a Saudi friend’s wedding at a luxurious hotel in Jeddah, women dared not step out of their hotel rooms and walk to the banqueting hall for fear of abduction by the bodyguards of a Saudi prince who also happened to be staying there.
Why had the veil and segregation not prevented such behaviour? My Saudi acquaintances, many of them university graduates, argued strongly that, on the contrary, it was the veil and other social norms that were responsible for such widespread sexual frustration among Saudi youth.
At work, the British Council introduced free internet access for educational purposes. Within days the students had downloaded the most obscene pornography from sites banned in Saudi Arabia, but easily accessed via the British Council’s satellite connection. Of course we appealed to the students not to abuse the facilities, but to no avail. In Syria, where unrestricted access was the norm, not once did I encounter such difficulties.
Segregation of the sexes, made worse by the veil, had spawned a culture of pent-up sexual frustration which expressed itself in the unhealthiest ways. Millions of young Saudis were not allowed to let their sexuality blossom naturally and, as a result, they could see the opposite gender only as sex objects.
Using Bluetooth technology on mobile phones, strangers sent pornographic clips to one another. Many of the clips were recordings of homosexual acts between Saudis, and many featured young Saudis in orgies in Lebanon and Egypt. The obsession with sex in Saudi Arabia had reached worrying levels: rape and abuse of both sexes occurred frequently, some cases even reaching the usually censored national press.
Clearly, this is not a healthy situation for young middle-eastern men to be in, and it only raises the obvious point that there is a clear connection to be intuited between the level of repression in any given society and its treatment of that society’s women. From Algeria, to Iran, to Sudan, to Afghanistan under the Taliban, we can see that whenever and wherever Islamism takes root in the world, grossly prurient repression quickly follows. When the mullahs find themselves in power it is the women who suffer first; it is the women who suffer most. From genital mutilation, to harsh physical punishments (and even death sentences) for being the victims of rape, to the stoning of adulterers in Saudi Arabia – it seems to me that the harsh treatment of women in the Islamic world should be the primary animating force of feminism the world over. Let us have no more puerile talk of “but that’s their culture”. Would anyone in the West dismiss another lynching in the American south as ‘their culture’? Western feminists seem more concerned with the ramifications of the ‘sexual revolution’ and its continuing impact on Western women. While this is perfectly admirable – the fight for female emancipation is not over in the West, despite proclamations to the contrary – it ought to be balanced by a deep concern for the plight of women in the rest of the world. Women in the West are still exploited, still trafficked into prostitution and pornography, still earn less than their male counterparts, still remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of corporate and parliamentary power. However, in contrast to large swathes of the globe, the journey toward freedom has at least begun. In many parts of the world that journey is not even off the starting blocks.
What’s especially galling about societies that deign to keep women ‘in their place’ is that they are (to carry on with the pedal analogies) merely shooting themselves in the foot. Is it just a coincidence that the most prosperous nations on earth are also those where women have the most freedom? If history shows us anything, it shows loud and clear that one of the surest moves towards a route out of poverty is the emancipation of women, and that women’s subjection at the hands of men remains a major sticking point in the world’s continuing disaster. What chance does a society stand, if it refuses to take advantage of the skills, the talents, and the economic might, of half its populace? In those African countries where women are given even the most basic education, for example, instances of child mortality are known to fall, HIV infection rates to drop, and GDPs to rise.
I ought to point out, at this juncture, that the patriarchal domination of women and sexuality isn’t just a problem confined solely to Islamic nations. Indeed, until very recently the subjection of women was a human universal, and trace elements of this can still be seen all over the world. Anthropologists point to our mammalian nature: in those animals where males cannot absolutely guarantee paternity, they will seek to dominate females in order to maximise the chances of their genetic material being passed on, and not somebody else’s. After all, to spend one’s life attending to needs of a rival’s genes (and research suggests that this is the case in at least 10% of our children) is a complete waste of time and energy as far as evolution is concerned. One of the ways in which this need for control manifests itself in human beings is religious ritual. The fertility rites of tribal cultures and folk religions offer us a window into the past, and they show that attempts to control sex and the line of paternity are nothing new. Sexuality and spirituality have been bound together since the dawn of man. What is new, however, is the attitude religion takes toward human reproduction, and the way this reveals itself in the taboos and prohibitions generated. The ancient world, despite having its own curious (to us) customs surrounding sex, was nonetheless awash with (admittedly phallocentric) images of sexuality, and nowhere does one encounter the idea that sex is bad, or ‘sinful’, or dirty. It is monotheism, frankly, that has a problem with sex, and an attitude towards the sex life of its adherents that is – to put it mildly – unhelpful.
It has been present from the start – laid down in the stern, admonitory books of the Pentateuch, with their bizarre rules regarding nakedness, menstruation, infidelity, homosexuality, and genital mutilation – and (because Christianity and Islam are both, in their own ways, variations on the theme of Judaism) it is still with us now. When my father speaks of my sister’s homosexuality as “not natural” he is unwittingly displaying the vestigial traces of these ancient prejudices. These attitudes are, naturally, somewhat understandable within the context of the pitifully ignorant times in which they were written: we simply didn’t know any better (which only begs the question of why God – who “spake unto Moses” – didn’t know any better either. He, of all people, should’ve known perfectly well what, for instance, menstruation actually was. Besides which, if sex is such a bad thing, why did God make us so horny? That’s tantamount to torture!). However, to carry such taboos into the modern world – now that we know so much more about our own physiology; now that we have glimpsed our own reflection in the mirrors of biology and psychology; now that we have made such obvious progress in the area of sexual ethics – is not only intellectually unforgivable: it poses a serious obstacle to ethical and humanitarian progress. When the Catholic Church tells its African congregation that condoms are more sinful than spreading AIDs, it oversteps the mark; ceasing to be a mere matter of belief and becoming an action that will have very stark real-world consequences for humanity as a whole. Many of our fellow humans will needlessly die as a direct result of beliefs that belong – like Alchemy, Phrenology, Monarchy, Marxism, and Fascism – to the dustbin of humanity. We have no way of accurately calculating the damage, pain, and violence that has resulted from millennia of old virginal men telling people that “their penis made them a bad boy”, and we are only really beginning to unwind that damage, but is now within the grasp of every thinking person to reject bad ideas about sex and to fight them wherever they find them – before they blow up in our faces.
It is odd that neither the church nor modern public opinion condemns petting, provided it stops short at a certain point. At what point sin begins is a matter as to which casuists differ. One eminently orthodox Catholic divine laid it down that a confessor may fondle a nun’s breasts, provided he did it without evil intent. But I doubt whether modern authorities would agree with him on this point. – Bertrand Russell