Sex, Salvation, and Violence in Radical Islam

A friend wrote to correct me recently, after I posted my theological reading of the current crisis in Islam, caused by a growing number of groups committed to the use of violence to pursue their religious (and political) goals.

My reading is fairly simple: It is that “mainstream” Muslims delude themselves in trying to make the crisis “Unislamic” when all of its markers–proof-texts, idioms, images and models–are drawn from a selective reading of Islamic history and tradition. Unfortunately, Islam lacks a central authority structure that would permit it to define what is “orthodoxy” and what isn’t. Its إمامة‎ (imāmah) is a barnyard of bleating goats each claiming some splinter of tradition to lend authority to a religious opinion. It (if it deserves to be called a coherent it) possesses neither wisdom nor theological acuity nor imagination.

Usually the discussion of religious experts is no more than text-quoting without context–a theological slanging match between factions–as if the whole prior tradition of Islam, which once rivaled the Hellenistic rabbinical schools for philosophic depth, came to an end around the same time Europe was waking from its long medieval slumber. Islam at the teaching and preaching level is now virtually illiterate. Its imams are at the service of popular opinion, of all stripes, from the Yemen to Santa Barbara, and service opinion like mechanics service cars. If all politics is local, then Islam is all politics.

It is one of the deficiencies of Islam that there is no tradition of outing stupidity and charlatanism amongst the clergy–no Elmer Gantry, no Chaucerian Pardoner, no Rabbi Copperfield–or Tuckman. To be honest, this is rather surprising. Fictional clergy in Western literature have traditionally been used to mark the gap between the virtues and values enshrined in a religion at its best, and the shortcomings of human nature as they represent it.

Islam thus lacks the “teaching authority” (magisterium) of an ancient hierarchy like the Catholic church, which can point to a longstanding tradition of development and accommodation of its religious views. Islam lacks as well the theological and hermeneutical sophistication of the liberal Protestant and Jewish traditions, which do for those faiths what hierarchy does for Catholicism. Simply put, Islam is a horticultural mess and it is within such untended gardens that confusion and violence grow like weeds.

But to keep track of my main point: Islamic violence must be called Islamic. To say that Islam owns it, produced it, and has to solve it is not saying that all Muslims agree with the tactics of ISIL, contract killers in Paris, or child killers in Pakistan. Most people–Muslim and non-Muslim alike–are torn between horror at the grotesque images they see of severed heads being held aloft “in the name of God, the compassionate,” and total confusion at what long-term goal Muslim-on-Muslim violence is supposed to achieve. We are looking at real blood, real guns, real heads. But we are also looking at men and groups who, once they have exhausted their video clip seem to have all the strategic savvy of Gaston and Pierre or the Keystone Cops.

To say that Islamic violence is specifically Islamic is to say that there is no convincing social analysis possible without first acknowledging that these things are not imported from the West, are not responses to deliberate strikes against Islam, and are not really analogous to modern outbreaks of violence in Judaism or Christianity. The proof of that (as I said in a previous post) is that Christians don’t kill Christian children and Jews do not blow up Jewish schools. No one is denying a general pattern of religious violence since the beginning of religion, which is tantamount to saying, from the beginning of our species or its predecessors.

Religion begins in violence. Its archetypes and myths are saturated in blood–the predations of Ishtar, the cannibalism of the Greek Titans, the binding of Isaac, the crucifixion of Jesus. Its holy books are full of violence.

Islam is no exception. It is the rule. It’s important to say however that no religion but Islam seems suicidally bent on making violence a permanent part of its contemporary world-view and operations manual. There seems to be no doubt that, at least as represented by its most visible adepts, Islam is the religion which brings us into closest contact with the religion of our vicious tribal past. Religions may begin in violence. But they usually do not survive through violence.

Tracking it Down?

But I started by talking about my friend’s contention that we can pinpoint within Islam the source of the trouble, and for that reason we should be careful not to tar Islam in general with the sins of the few. I agree with most of what she says, but I feel that the risk in pinpointing is to trivialize the scale of the problem, to ignore the peripheral sympathy for extremism within the Muslim community, and to force the finger to point elsewhere for the ultimate causes of what we see happening around us today.

The pinpointing argument is that terrorism is chiefly (she says 90%) from the Salafi school of thought, which originates in the West-friendly (or dollar friendly) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but spreads out along a vast Sunni-Islam network. Salafism is complex: the simplest thing one can say about it is that it grew up as a sectarian movement in the nineteenth century to oppose certain core European ideas, such as democracy, secularism, and other political and religious trends that were seen as dangerous to the ideals and beliefs of Muslims.

There are Salafist “Purists” who focus on non-violent da’wah, education, others who define education as being, essentially fiq and Quranic instruction, others who support authoritarian regimes (Madkhalists), and others who believe that in order to defend core doctrines such as God’s oneness (tawhid) and reject shirk, taqlid, ijtihad, and bid’ah (the vices sins, and errors), endless jihad is the only way to serve Allah on earth. Others within this loose confederation (which becomes looser) simply want to exterminate the Shīʿah.

The difficulty with pinpointing is that even if it were possible to trace all extremist Muslim ideology to the sands of Arabia and one anti-colonial movement that has grown with cancerous ferocity in our day, we still would not have described the present situation.

The fact is, there are literally thousands of young Muslims in Central Asia, in Turkey, and living as second generation citizens in Britain and France and Germany who are simply attracted by the rigidity, simplicity and purity of the Salafa tradition or its kindred ideologies. It speaks to the young and satisfies the old–which is always the case with war and battle. It requires energy and action. It creates a Manichean division of the world into good and evil spheres, the things God wants and the things (and people) God hates.

It is too simple to assume that Salafism by itself explains the pathology of violence in Islam today.

Jannah (Paradise) and its Discontents

Violence is a seductive and effective solution to both personal and social stress. It has been since the time of Cain.

Cain (קַיִן), you’ll recall, is a violent man. His murder of his brother is a simple solution to a problem that Freud would later describe as a particular kind of stress, sibling rivalry. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam the story of Cain is the story of the first murder. But even at this basic level, it is intended to show that virtue does not long endure in the world: Adam failed. His first-born son failed. Almost everyone after him fails as well. What is truly remarkable about the Hebrew Bible is how few heroes, in the classical mode, there are in it. That is why it’s easy to remember their names. And even those who are put forward as patriarchs are not spotless exemplars of human conduct. Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, Solomon–whatever else we know about them–are morally ambiguous in Hebrew. But not in Islam. Islam possesses the names, but seldom the story, the rounded character, or the critique. We can agree on Cain because history makes him not only the first killer but also the first penitent and a symbol of a long line of men who would reject the commandments of god and his prophets “slaying prophets, messengers as well as the righteous people.” (Q5.31-32)

For Sigmund Freud, the tale of Cain and Abel is half a story, the unwritten part of which involves the killing of Adam himself (or an equivalent primeval father) out of sheer sexual frustration and the desire to become emancipated males with rights over the daughters of the moon. Sex and violence are hence joined in our earliest history. There ensues, in the tale Freud analyzes, thousands of years of rivalry, bitterness, jealousy and “mayhem” “until the whole world runs with blood,” and God, in order to save humankind, destroys most of it. Freud saw more clearly than almost anyone in his day that religion is the sublimation of violence through myth, ritual, and morality. But at heart, it is still fundamentally a perduring neurosis, a delusion.

By reducing action and history to story and ritual we substitute what is most primal and hence most violent and passionately real in us: our desire for pleasure and our suppression of both physical and existential pain. Christianity, for example, teaches that the violent death of Jesus was brought about by the sins of the world, and that in some sense God required the death of his own son as a substitute for the death of every sinner. The Christian teaching about the body and blood of Christ is based on that story, and Christians, in many denominations, reenact it once a week in their Eucharist–an unbloody celebration of a bodily passion and death using symbols of life in place of death.

But for Freud and many psychologists since his time, what is essential is the substitution of the unbloody for the bloody. And even this substitution has a prototype in God’s demanding a ram rather than Isaac as a sacrifice. For almost anyone with an ounce of psychology, it is impossible to read Genesis without some awareness that it is the primitive story of how humankind learned to sublimate violence out of fear of its consequences, symbolized most poignantly as the wrath of God. God could do more damage than we ever could. Fear him, fear the terror of what he might do if he wanted to.

It has been a long time since scholars thought that books like Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism could be applied uncritically to religious phenomena. No doubt Freud privately worried about it himself, because when it comes to religion Freud is at his most speculative, sometimes his most unsteady. When Freud’s explanations were invoked, (all too often in the years after the Second World War) they were used as nostrums to explain everything from Hitler to the death camps.

But it would be useful to know what Freud would say about a religion that he scarcely mentions in his major writings.”The founding of the Mohammedan religion seems to me to be an abbreviated repetition of the Jewish one,” he wrote, “but Islam lacks the profundity which in the Jewish religion resulted from the murder of its founder.” This willful arrogance toward Islam, which is repaid in Islam’s ignorance of Freud, is a shame because I think Freud, had he bothered, would have pointed to Islam as partial corroboration of one of his key points about the role of violence, death and sexual desire in religion.


Among other things, Islam requires the sublimation of sexual desire in exchange for future happiness and fulfillment. In a minor way, it is repeated in every traditional Muslim marriage process: the bride and groom meet (or their marriage is arranged), then stay apart, in blissful anticipation of a touch of paradise on their wedding night. For unmarried males not even this glimpse of eternal happiness is possible.

The idea of Paradise (جنّة‎ Jannah) itself is predicated not on mere images of virgins and young male ocupantes, but on the belief that the Arab luxury of the sultan’s tent will be extended to all alike, and for all eternity, but particularly to the men, if they manage to pass the tests of Judgment. There will be no shame in sexuality. Every desire will be fulfilled. Everyone will be 33 years old, except for the bespoke virgins, who will be younger and the “immortal youths” who will serve the guests at a perpetual banquet table, bejeweled, drinking out of golden goblets and sweating perfume.

It is nothing new to say that the Islamic Jannah is essentially an erotic fantasy, a pleasure feast for males. What is not so obvious is that violence in the real world of sexual frustration and disappointment is a natural response to pleasure deferred.

“Islam” David Yeagley wrote just over a year ago “is Freudian libido unleashed.” He may be right.

In radical Islam, undirected sexual energy is being expressed in gruesome ways: in child rape, in the killing of children, the beheading of foreigners, mass conversions and forced marriages. In normal cultural context, libido can be expressed directly (sexually) but often in sublimated ways–in art, music, business, comedy, athletics–what Freud calls (often) “substitutionary satisfaction.”

But in Islam, sublimation is removed. When this happens, what analysts of Freud’s day called “mayhem” occurs: incest, cannibalism, random murder, rape. The taboos that society had erected for its own preservation. These protections are periodically threatened by war, of course, as Freud knew. But society persuades itself that war is not murder and through this mechanism the erotic and libidinous aspects of war are further removed form consciousness.

In the sort of religious extremism we are now seeing, “civilized inhibition” has been removed from the picture. Young, literal-minded paradise-hungry men are desublimating violence: the beheading of an infidel, the killing of unbelievers, Muslims or their surrogates, is a ticket to the gates of the blessed. Bodily dismemberment—-decapitation, the chopping off of body parts, the compulsive delight in blowing a human body to pieces–are not acts of terror but pornographic-religious acts with specific libidinous effect.

In some cases, as with Boko Haraam in Nigeria (but also increasingly in Iraq and Syria) the de-sublimation is directly sexual: the rape of teenage girls, and in the backwater of Pakistan, the beating or disfigurement of women and the torching of girls’ schools–all designed to preserve the male fantasy of an opulent, guilt-free Paradise.

This pathology does more to explain what is going on than lack of education, poverty, political ideology and (even) religious doctrine. The Islamic radicals want now what they can’t wait to have: Dying is a small price to pay for glory as it exists in Jannah. Young (on average about the age of all the citizens of Paradise), sexually starved, and true believers in the promise of a hereafter in which all their desires will be satisfied, the jihadists (wherever they come from, whatever the source of their belief) do not see violence and death as we do. For them it is a sacrament. For others, perhaps, it is the reinstatement of real blood and flesh for the tokens of bread and wine.

6 thoughts on “Sex, Salvation, and Violence in Radical Islam

  1. The master reaches into the font of wine and wisdom – a most impressive display of intellectual fireworks.

    Nonetheless, the violence of the Mideast peoples is recent and short compared to the centuries of mayhem dispensed through the Christian portals, each European country more brutal than the next. Further, the intrusion of the West during our own time in support of Israel and the Saudis, ever-escalating until now there is ambient civil war throughout their lands – what would the US landscape look like in similar circumstances? Correct – the American civil war, which was not pretty – and with today’s gun culture it would be off the charts. Violence and sex are hardly the reserve of Islam.

    If we would only stop prodding the wound, perhaps it might heal, But our agenda is to build F-35’s and sell them to the Saudis, not harmonize the species, so we have 20 year olds, allegedly horny too, bearing Kalashnikovs, as tar babies.

    And Goebbels cackling in his grave as another Kristallnacht is “documented” by a perverted press.

  2. I welcome this series of essays because, like many, I’m struggling to come to terms with events and place them in a context I can make sense of. Of late I have found myself in the company elsewhere of less-savory authors who rant from the right. I attempt to argue there is no need to lose our way like that, but must also admit I add my own criticisms of what I feel is not acceptable about Islam. I have no wish to slide down my own slippery slope and see a sorry ape in a reflecting pool at the bottom. I certainly abhore 99% of what the extreme right chooses as its causes and complaints.

    What I need to decide is if it is justified to make the assertion that Islam, via sharia law, claims the right to order the civil lives of all, believers and unbelievers alike. More importantly, that it clearly mandates the death of apostates, as well as either submission or conversion on the part of others. These seem obvious, as these items are mentioned often, but at issue for me is to ensure this is not a poor characterture. That is, that these items of faith are no product of strange interpretation, or later addition, but are a core teaching: a tenet of Islam.

    If these are indeed the tenets of Islam, subscribed to and shared by most any major school of thought within it, to me this means there can be no distinction between “extremist” and mainstream Islam, for I find these teachings quite extreme. And if this is “Islamic” in the same sense you mentioned, then how can we expect Islam to “own” and ever solve anything, unless the door is finally opened to questioning freely if Mohammed dreamt, imagined, made up, or actually heard anything at all.

    Too, the striking oneupmanship of Islam in terms of “absolutist packaging” (direct angelic dictation of the whole, not “divine inspiration” of a succession of authors) as compared to the Judaism and Christianity around it in its day, I find astoundingly worrisome and unfortunate. To my eyes, it appears designed with express purpose to confer truculance in authority, and in mission designed foremost not to win souls, but to conquer land and exert control.

    To confess further the tenor of my current thinking, I hold that if there is any group of any inspiration – religious, political, or criminal – who reserve the right to extinguiish my life unilaterally, that constitutes a punishable offense. What I mean to say is, does not a combination of (1) publicly stating adherence to (2) the tenets of Islam (3) constitute a clear death threat, with full intent to act? If so, that is illegal. Were one to make a similar assertion on some other basis, say, political, in most Western countries arrest and prosecution would quickly ensue.

    I am aware that I have a greatly simplified view, am probably foaming more than a bit at the mouth, and could be in need of some sound, better informed reasoning. Please continue with this series. You mentioned a golden age? Anything helpful in terms of what Islam could become (and soon)?

  3. I’ve always thought that Cain was set-up. YHWH was only interested in blood sacrifices. As temple Judaism was attempting to remove its pantheon an important Goddess would have been the Goddess of agriculture. Now there is no deity to give those sacrifices, so we have to get rid of Cain the farmer and bring back the wandering herders of the past. Now we salt the story with jealousy and voila — murder. (Then there is the tale of Jeptha’s daughter…..) It seems some human sacrifice is permissable.

  4. Pingback: Sex, Salvation, and Violence in Radical Islam | The New Oxonian

  5. Pingback: Killing Heretics: Now and Then | TaborBlog

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