Issue #4, Spring 2007

The Humiliation Myth

Humiliation doesn’t explain terrorism; the spread of Political Islam does. A response to Peter Bergen and Michael Lind.

As Peter Bergen and Michael Lind ably demonstrate in their recent article [“A Matter of Pride,” Issue #3], the notion that poverty causes terrorism–and that, absent poverty, terrorism would diminish radically–is a fallacy. Indeed, the “myth of deprivation” is so manifestly inadequate that it is worth asking whether its supporters actually believe it or whether, instead of confronting the complexities of terrorism’s causes and the difficulty of combating it, they prefer to mouth a platitudinous perspective that poverty causes all ills and that alleviating poverty (which will not happen soon) cures them. Bergen and Lind are also certainly correct that a sense of humiliation fuels terrorism. After all, the terrorist movements they discuss, as well as others, so often speak its wounded idiom and the associated, though analytically distinct, idioms of vengeance and justice for perceived wrongs.

Yet whatever the substantial virtues of Bergen and Lind’s analysis, they seek to replace one misguided and reductionist master explanation with another. The threat we face is not merely a humiliated Muslim populace that can be assuaged by putting an end to the putative humiliation. Rather, we are in a struggle with a powerful, highly aggressive, and dangerous political movement, Political Islam. This is distinct from the religion of Islam and its many non-Political Islamic adherents. Because of this, focusing on the “humiliation” that we are said to cause Muslims obscures the central issues regarding the real nature and magnitude of the current threat.

The problems with the humiliation perspective of Bergen and Lind partly mirror those of the poverty position. The authors take humiliation mainly as a given and thus fail to investigate why terrorists and their supporters feel so humiliated in the first place, especially while other peoples and groups subject to similar or greater indignities do not. For instance, while they note that many non–Middle Eastern countries have not given birth to terrorist movements, they fail to note that many of those countries have also suffered substantial exploitation, domination, and all manner of indignities by Western powers, which often exceeds anything experienced by Middle Eastern countries. But, even assuming that Bergen and Lind are correct, they still fail to explain what exactly humiliation is–because, far from being an objective characteristic, as they seem to propose, it is a subjective quality that manifests itself in different quantities and intensities in different places, even in response to similar stimuli. And unless we delve deeper to understand what makes some people more prone to humiliation, we avoid the central issue and set ourselves up for misguided policy decisions.

Nor do Bergen and Lind explain why humiliation in and of itself leads to such disproportional will to violence and slaughter. For example, they claim that humiliation is the master explanation for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the politics he, with the willing aid of so many Germans, pursued. Its historical absurdity aside, this argument actually highlights the reductionism and untenability of their claim. There is simply no way to explain how the “humiliation” of a lost war (World War I) and a perceived unjust peace (Versailles) led Germans to attempt the annihilation of an entire people (the Jews) who had nothing to do with either; exterminate the mentally ill of Germany and elsewhere; conquer the Eurasian continent; slaughter additional millions of so-called subhumans (Poles, Russians, and others); turn entire peoples into slave populations; create a vast concentration camp system with more than 10,000 installations; and seek to destroy Christianity–and that’s only a partial list of the Nazi regime’s assault on humanity and Western civilization. Such an apocalyptic and cataclysmic politics can come only from a mix of many other ideological and other factors, including eliminationist anti-Semitism, a profound racism that held the world to be composed of warring races in a struggle for dominance and survival, and a strategic vision and the opportunity to finally fulfill certain long-standing imperial aspirations. Much the same can be said of today’s Political Islamic terrorists who seek to destroy the West; of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seeks a world “without the United States and without Zionism”; and of Hamas, whose leader, Khaled Meshal, would desire to “sit on the throne of the world.” In each case, a grandiose, uncompromising, and apocalyptic vision of Islam is the motivating force. Humiliation has played, at most, a tertiary part in producing such hopes and plans.

This points to a third problem with Bergen and Lind’s singular emphasis on humiliation: It ignores the other critical factors that govern terrorist aspirations, especially the political-religious ideologies that shape their political goals and through which they understand the actions of Western powers. This is not to say that Bergen and Lind make no mention of ideology. They do several times, and they do see it as a critical factor. But they treat it only in passing, and wrong-headedly. In their analysis, ideologies are principally an outgrowth of humiliation and not the framework that governs people’s understanding of their own situation in the world. Such a cursory theory of ideology cannot explain why, for example, Arabs–and now with the Islamification of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so many Muslims worldwide–conceptualize the very existence of Israel as an intense humiliation. Such a phenomenon can only be explained by plumbing the worldviews of those who feel humiliated by a political fact that has, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the vast majority of them.

Bergen and Lind also categorize the relevant ideologies as “radical” and “revolutionary,” spread by “madmen and isolated sects” and “revolutionary extremists”; in doing so, the authors render them as extreme, unusual, artificial, or perhaps artifactual of something else (namely humiliation). But the ideologies at issue are not in fact obscure ideas but rather foundational political-religious worldviews, grounded not in the minds of “madmen” but in extremely widespread (though by no means universal) interpretations of Islam. They precede and then evolve in conjunction with political developments and acts, including (but hardly restricted to) those acts that are interpreted as humiliating.

A fourth flaw in their analysis is that it treats terrorism as a foundational problem and policy issue, when in fact it is but one very serious manifestation of the most basic problem: Political Islamic movements that threaten to extend the sway of a totalitarian understanding of Islam and politics, and that use a variety of political and violent means, including terrorism, to achieve their ends. To be sure, there is nothing analytically wrong with focusing on terrorism as a problem. But no treatment of the contemporary terrorism that emanates from Islamic countries and groups can be deemed adequate without an account of its relationship to the Political Islamic movements and countries–and to their understandings of Islam–that provide its followers and general sustenance.

Put simply, Political Islam, whatever its various manifestations, collapses the distinction between religion and politics, holding that politics must be subordinated to a fundamentalist understanding of Islam. And it is animated by a death cult–an explicit glorification of mass murder and of dying for Allah–exceeding that of any major, modern political movement or regime save Nazism and perhaps Imperial Japan. Both genocidal slaughter (as practiced or merely called for) and totalitarian tendencies define the Political Islamic Sudanese regime (which Bergen and Lind treat, despite its several genocidal onslaughts, as having “not given birth ” to a radical ideology”), the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Iranian leadership, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various lesser-known Political Islamic movements. Terrorism is but one important and powerful tool in the Political Islamists’ arsenal.

Related to this is a fifth problem, namely that Bergen and Lind treat Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as stand-ins for terrorists in general. This is misleading, as other terrorists and other Political Islamic regimes have differing aspects and qualities. Bergen and Lind make no mention, for example, of Iran, with its financing of and support for the terrorists of Hezbollah and Hamas; its insistent drive to acquire nuclear weapons; its expressed desire to annihilate Israel; and its repeated threats to terrorize the Europeans should they not kow-tow to its demands. The Iranian regime, in power for 27 years and governing a wealthy, oil-rich country of almost 70 million people, hardly suffers from humiliation. And so while their goals and ideologies may be similar (despite their Sunni-Shia antipathies), Iran cannot be understood by subsuming it into an analysis of a loosely coordinated, deadly network of a few thousand terrorists.

As one deepens and broadens the understanding of these themes, the picture of the conflicts becomes more complex and more intractable, the policy prescriptions change, and the time horizons for dealing with the problems lengthen. If indeed we are in conflict against Political Islam, as I and many others believe, then we must look beyond humiliation as a source of real solutions.

Of course, many actions of the West–the war in Iraq, the Israelis’ ongoing conflict with the Palestinians–fuel the Political Islamic movements because they, their followers, and those Muslims vulnerable to their appeals perceive any slight, let alone subjective setback for Islam at the hands of the West, as humiliation. But this is not humiliation as Bergen and Lind describe it. The relatively tame Danish political cartoons that ran in 2005 unleashed a torrent of protests among Political Islamists on three continents, threats of mass murder, and actual violence and killings. What does this reaction have to do with any reasonable sense of humiliation? Pope Benedict XVI’s strange attempt at comparative religious enlightenment last September (in which he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor’s deprecating statement about Islam) was greeted by some leading Political Islamists in different countries with calls to “hunt down,” kill, or imprison the pontiff. What does such an outlandish response to a few words have to do with any reasonable sense of humiliation? When else in modern history have significant religious and political leaders called for the Pope to be killed? And all because of a few objectionable words?

To be sure, we could adopt measures, along the lines that Bergen and Lind propose, to reduce conflict points and thereby undercut some of the Political Islamists’ appeal. But would such steps really be effective in the long-term? Closing our bases and ending our “perceived occupation of the sacred territory of Saudi Arabia,” which supposedly inflamed the Political Islamists against us, did little to end Political Islamic terrorism and their imperial and totalitarian desires, plans, and existing policies. Moreover, much Political Islamic violence and terrorism (as Bergen and Lind note in passing) is directed at other Muslims who have more pluralistic, nontotalitarian, or merely different Political Islamist understandings of Islam. Humiliation is not the issue. An all-consuming, divinely ordained desire to impose theocratic totalitarian control is.

Moreover, it is not clear that we can put the humiliation “genie” back in the bottle. Whatever role it played in the emergence of Political Islam, that ideology now powerfully exists and has a vibrant life of its own, controlling countries and threatening to take over others. To return to the example of Nazi Germany, whatever the multiple causes of Nazism’s rise, by 1938 it was not within the Allies’ power to pacify the Nazis and the majority of Germans who supported them merely by reducing further “humiliation”; by that time, the humiliating terms of Versailles had been reversed and Germany had already regained its status as a great power. To be sure, Bergen and Lind acknowledge that by 1938 “no concessions ” short of acquiescence” would have sufficed. But they do not draw the policy conclusion that follows for today. We must recognize that likewise “no concessions ” short of acquiescence” will satisfy the Political Islamists. We must therefore fashion policies with a clear-eyed view of the underlying political-religious ideology that structures their enmity and aspirations, the varied and widespread political manifestations their movements and governments assume, and the broad and determined threat they pose to governments and peoples that goes well beyond al Qaeda’s by-now-classical terrorist means.

Abandoning the Middle East to the Political Islamists and having Israel capitulate (and ultimately surrender its existence) is the only thing that will satisfy them–the only thing that will stop Political Islamists, in Bergen and Lind’s language, from feeling “humiliated” (and then only partly, given the growing number of Muslims in Europe). Needless to say, this would be extremely self-injurious, not to mention immoral. Instead, we should recognize the broad-based danger not merely of terrorism, but of Political Islam. And we must realize that it can only be defeated by active diplomatic, economic, and military containment and, when practical, rollback by the United States and its allies in Europe and in the Middle East. We should stop fixating on al Qaeda and terrorism, narrowly construed, as the overwhelming problem and recognize that the biggest danger is the Political Islamic colossus and aspiring hegemon: the soon-to-go-nuclear Iran.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

The Bottom Line by Dan Feldman and Sarah Altschuller

Read More »
Issue #4, Spring 2007
Post a Comment


I’ve been trying to make my way through the tangle of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s response to Peter Bergen and Michael Lind, but his muddled, unsupported rant has defeated my comprehension.

Goldhagen claims to address the Bergen/Lind “humiliation thesis,” but immediatelyóin his first two sentencesóconflates humiliation with poverty. Never mind that Bergen and Lind don’t equate the two or claim a causal relationship between them (although they do acknowledge that poverty can make humiliation thrive). In fact, in their discussion of Nazism they expressly deny a connection between German poverty during the Great Depression and the German sense of humiliation; they also take care to point out that “recent research [demonstrates] that terrorism is a largely bourgeois endeavor” and that “many terrorists come from middle-class or wealthy backgrounds.”

Goldhagen goes on: “[E]ven assuming that Bergen and Lind are correct, they still fail to explain what exactly humiliation is–because, far from being an objective characteristic, as they seem to propose [my emphasis], it is a subjective quality that manifests itself in different quantities and intensities in different places, even in response to similar stimuli.” Bergen and Lind, of course, propose nothing of the kind: they make clear at every turn that humiliation is a subjective response to an historical situation.

Mysteriously, Goldhagen argues that “In [Bergen and Lind’s] analysis, ideologies are principally an outgrowth of humiliation,” something the authors simply never claim. He also claims that the Bergen/Lind analysis “treats terrorism as a foundational problem and policy issue,” but he doesn’t bother to define what he means by “foundational,” an adjective he reserves for what he calls “Political Islam,” evidently a catch-all term for “foundational political-religious worldviews, grounded ... in extremely widespread (though by no means universal) interpretations of Islam.”

Here is the real nub of Goldhagen’s ire. If terrorism is seen as a “foundational” problem, it clearly must be dealt with as a violent extremism that is not specific to Islam, but related instead to the subjective sense of humiliation that springs from a variety of ideologies and historical situations.

Seeing terrorism this way might encourage us to identify sources of humiliation and attempt to address them, even if it means changing our own modus operandi. What if the United States did not maintain more than 700 military bases in about 130 countries? What if access to clean water were declared a human right instead of a privilege accorded to those who can afford to pay for privatized water systems? What if the Israeli government chose to tear down its “protective” wall and withdraw from the occupied territories? What if the richest nations stopped propping up proxy autocracies around the world? According to Goldhagen, such changes in behavior would only embolden “Political Islam,” that is, those “Others” who seek to “sit on the throne of the world,” that is, the throne which is already occupied (thank you very much) by the inheritors of the old Western empires.

That would be a kind of humiliation Goldhagen simply could not stand.

Mar 13, 2007, 6:31 PM

I don't find the argument "tangled." The basic point, which seems correct to me, is that humiliation isn't a passkey to understanding and solving Islamic terrorism. It may be a syndrome, but can't its sufficient cause. This has to be sought in the ideology of Political Islam.

The reason why humiliation can't be an adequate explanation of terrorism is that any particular instance of experienced humiliation itself requires an explanation--humiliation isn't simply a biological fact, but an interpretation of experience. Clearly, then, the interpretive framework at hand to apply to experience is more fundamental than any specific instance of experienced humiliation. (For example, how much of the humiliated identity is group-based, how much an individual matter? What form of deference is expected that, when not forthcoming, provokes humiliation?)

Presumably, the alternative to humiliation that we who wish to stem Islamic terrorism would like to spread in Islamic lands (since we can hardly desire to plant triumphal satisfaction there by, say, our abject surrender to Islam as such) would be something like " their recognition of our due respect."

Okay, so what constitutes "due respect" to Islamists? Do they have any republican traditions that make of due respect something that can be shared equally among those of different religions and sexes? This we could offer them and remain who we are, but clearly it wouldn't count for them so long as they remain who they are.

So can Western unbelievers possibly offer anything to Islamists that, given their interpretive criteria, would count as a humiliation-averting due respect other than our submission, that is, our acknowledgment of the legal dominance of Islam? I don't see what. If they feel, as they do, that they are divinely entitled to this form of respect, it really doesn't take much to humiliate them.

What about to Muslims generally, the unislamist, or the not-yet Islamists--what could we offer them that would be a more potent satisfaction than the satisfaction Islamists offer them of extracting respect in the form of righteous submission? If we had tickets to prosperity for them, that might be distraction enough for many. But we don't.

So focusing our efforts on alleviating Muslim humiliation in the hope of combatting Islamist terrorism seems unlikely to bear much fruit.

Mar 15, 2007, 11:13 PM
A Questioner:

Perhaps Messrs. Bergen, Lind and Goldhagen all suffer from that American philosophical disease known as reductionism. American scholars seem to believe that complex causes can be reduced to either a single one or to some kind of good-evil dualism. Perhaps these scholars believe that if they can reduce complex issues to a single cause, they can eliminate it. I'm afraid that they are engaging in wishful thinking and that constructing a policy to deal with complexity must be characterized by the same.

May 6, 2007, 5:09 PM
Hal -Modern Man:

What concers me is the attitude, inherently subj -

ject, that you have been humiliated and thus gives you the license to react in any you choose. I see a connection here, however indirect, in the assertion

of the rapist that he rather than the "rapee" is the

victim because her behavior or dress was respon-

sible, not he, for his assault, however heinous.

Jul 24, 2007, 5:57 PM
Hal- Modern Man:

The above should be read as "inherently subjec-


Jul 24, 2007, 6:25 PM
Michael Messenger:

It is very simple, terrorist have hijacked a religion, Christianity.

Now they are deceiving the world with a "master of intrigue"(Daniel 8:24-25)as their head, calling themselves "Christians" while they violate the ten commandments of G-d and destroy the angelic family of Christ and for a fricking pretense, make long prayers and sing Christian songs on stage to make it appear as if they are a huge righteous group of non-doughnut eating holy of holies.

Does Prince William next in line to the throne as King of England frighten anyone else who is a true believer in monotheism and Christ?

I do not want to go through another 7 years of this horsefodder.

Psalm 91

Jan 21, 2012, 11:58 AM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.