Childhood Origins of Terrorism

In the massive media coverage of the terrorist attacks, there has been no interest shown in why the terrorists felt they had to kill Americans. They were "Evil," as the President told us, and that has seemed to satisfy our curiosity as to their motives.

Lloyd deMause
New York Center for Psychoanalytic Training
Editor, The Journal of Psychohistory

In the massive media coverage of the terrorist attacks, there has been no interest shown in why the terrorists felt they had to kill Americans. They were "Evil," as the President told us, and that has seemed to satisfy our curiosity as to their motives. But if we are going to end this terrorism, it would be useful to understand what makes a terrorist, what developmental life histories they share that can help us see why they want to kill "American infidels" and themselves, so we can work to remove the sources of their violence and really prevent future terrorist attacks.

The roots of terrorism lie, I believe, not in this or that American political attitude but in the extremely abusive families of the terrorists. Children who grow up to be Islamic terrorists are products of an extremely misogynist fundamentalist system that strictly segregates the family into two separate areas, the men's area, often on the first floor, and the women's area, above the men, where the children are brought up and which the father rarely visits. Even in countries like Saudi Arabia today, women by law cannot mix with unrelated men, and public places still have separate women's areas in restaurants and work places, because, as one Muslim sociologist put it bluntly: "In our society there is no relationship of friendship between a man and a woman."

Girls are routinely treated abominably in fundamentalist families. When a boy is born, the family rejoices; when a girl is born, the whole family mourns. The girl's sexuality is so hated that when she is five or so the women grab her, pin her down, and chop off her clitoris and often her labia with a razor blade or piece of glass, ignoring her agony and screams for help, because, they say, her clitoris is "dirty," "ugly," "poisonous," "can cause a voracious appetite for promiscuous sex," and "might render men impotent." Her vagina is then usually sewed up to prevent intercourse, leaving only tiny hole for urination. The genital mutilation is excruciatingly painful. About a fifth die from infections, mutilated women must "shuffle slowly and painfully" and usually are frigid. Over 100 million genitally mutilated women are estimated to live today in Islamic nations, from Somali and Sudan to Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Although some areas have mostly given up the practice, in others-like Sudan and Uganda-the practice is increasing, with 90% of the women surveyed saying they planned to circumcise all of their daughters.

The mutilation is not required by the Qu´an; Mohammad, in fact, said girls should be treated even better than boys. Yet the women have inflicted upon their daughters for millennia the horrors done to them, perhaps re-enacting the widespread misogyny of men toward themselves as they mutilate their daughters while joyfully chanting songs like:

"We used to be friends, but today I am the master, for I am a man. Look-I have the knife in my hand. Your clitoris, I will cut off and throw away for today I am a man." As the girls grow up, they are usually treated as though they were polluted beings, veiled, rarely educated, and sometimes gang-raped when men outside the family wish to settle scores with the men in her family. As the President of Pakistan's Commission on Women concluded, "The average woman is born into near slavery, leads a life of drudgery, and dies invariably in oblivion." Even marriage can be considered rape for most, since the family chooses the partner and the girl is sometimes as young as eight. Wife-beating is common and divorce by wives rare-in fact, Islamic women have been known to have been killed by their families because they asked for a divorce. It is no wonder that the Physicians for Human Rights found 97 percent of women surveyed suffered from "severe depression."

It is not surprising that these mutilated, battered women make less than ideal mothers, repeating their own miseries upon their children. Visitors to families throughout Muslim societies report on the "slapping, striking, whipping and thrashing" of children, with constant shaming and humiliation as they are told by their mothers that they are "cowards" if they don't hit others. Physical abuse is continuous; as the Pakistani Conference on Child Abuse reports:

A large number of children face some form of physical abuse, from infanticide and abandonment of babies, to beating, shaking, burning, cutting, poisoning, holding under water or giving drugs or alcohol, or violent acts like punching, kicking, biting, choking, beating, shooting or stabbings.

Schools regularly practice corporal punishment-particularly the religious schools from which Taliban volunteers come-chaining up their students for days "in dark rooms with little food and hardly any sanitation." Newborn infants are often swaddled "like a mummy." Sexual abuse-described as including "fondling of genitals, coercing a child to fondle the abuser's genitals, masturbation with the child as either participant or observer, oral sex, anal or vaginal penetration by penis, finger or any other object and [child] prostitution"-is extensive, though impossible to quantify. In some areas, children are reported to have marks all over their bodies from being burned by their parents with red-hot irons or pins as punishment or to cure being possessed by demons. Children are taught strict obedience to all parental commands, stand when their parents enter the room, kiss their hands, don't laugh "excessively," fear them immensely, and learn that giving in to any of their own needs or desires is sinful.

The ascetic results of such punitive upbringings are predictable. When these abused children grow up, they feel that every time they try to self-activate, every time they do something independently for themselves, they will lose the approval of the parents in their heads-mainly their mothers and the others in the women's quarters. When their cities became flooded with oil money and Western popular culture in recent decades, they were attracted to the new freedoms and pleasures, but would soon retreat, feeling they would lose their mommy's approval and be "bad boys." Westerners come to represent their own "Bad Boy" self in projection, and had to be killed off. As one Islamist put it, "America is Godless. Western influence here is not a good thing, our people can see CNN, MTV, kissing." As one terrorist put it, "We will destroy American cities piece by piece because your life style is so objectionable to us, your pornographic movies and TV." Osama bin Laden himself "while in college frequented flashy nightclubs, casinos and bars [and] was a drinker and womanizer," but soon felt extreme guilt for his sins, and joined the extreme fundamentalist movement and preached killing Westerners for their freedoms and their sinful enticements of Muslims. Most of the Taliban, in fact, are wealthy, like bin Laden, have had contact with the West, and were shocked by "the personal freedoms and affluence of the average citizen, by the promiscuity, and by the alcohol and drug use of Western youth only an absolute and unconditional return to the fold of conservative Islamism could protect the Muslim world from the inherent dangers and sins of the West." Bin Laden lives with his four wives and fifteen children in a small cave with no running water, waging a holy war against all those who enjoy sinful pleasures and freedom that he cannot allow himself without losing his mommy's approval.

From childhood, then, Islamist terrorists have been taught to kill the part of themselves-and others-that is selfish and wants personal pleasures and freedoms. It is in the homes-not just later in the terrorist camps-that they learn to be martyrs and want to "die for Allah." When terrorist suicidal bombers who were prevented from carrying out their acts were interviewed on TV they said they felt "ecstatic" as they pushed the button. They denied being motivated by the virgins supposedly awaiting them in Paradise. Instead, they said they wanted to die to "join Allah," and had written letters to their mothers before going off to die "so she would know I was a martyr and she wouldn't be sad I died."

Since childhood is the key to eliminating all political violence, rather than pursuing a lengthy holy war against terrorists it might be better for the U.S. to back a new U.N.-sponsored Marshall Plan for them that includes Community Parenting Centers, in order to give their families the chance to evolve beyond the abusive family system that is producing the terrorism, just as we did for Germany after WWII for the families that produced Nazism.


Soraya Altorki, Somen in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 30; Mazharul Haq Khari, Purdah and Polygamy: A Study in the Social Pathology of the Muslim Society. Peshawar Cantt., Nashiran-e-Ilm-o-Taraqiyet, 1972, p. 91.

Mona AlMunajjed, Women in Saudi Arabia Today. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, p. 45.

Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994, p. 43.

Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey Into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa. New York: Harrington Park Pres, 1989, pp. 9, 38, 39.

Ibid, p. 81.

Cathy Joseph, "Compassionate Accountability: An Embodied Consideration of Female Genital Mutilation." The Journal of Psychohistory 24(1996): 5. Lindy Williams and Teresa Sobieszczyk, "Attitudes Surrounding the Continuation of Female Circumcision in the Sudan: Passing the Tradition to the Next Generation." Journal of Marriage and the Family 59(1997): 996; Jean P. Sasson, Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. New York: Morrow, 1992, p. 137;

Mona AlMunajjed, Women in Saudi Arabia Today, p. 14.

Ibid, p. 13.

Eleanor Abdella Doumato, Getting God's Ear: Women, Islam and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, pp. 23, 85; Peter Parkes, "Kalasha Domestic Society." In Hastings Donnan and Frits Selier, Eds., Family and Gender in Pakiston: Domestic Organization in a Muslim Society. New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corp., 1997, p. 46; Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor, p. 52.

Muhammad M. Haj-Yahia and Safa Tamish, "The Rates of Child Sexual Abuse and Its Psychological Consequences as Revealed by a Study Among Palestinian University Students." Child Abuse and Neglect 25(2001): 1303-1327, the results of which must be compared to comparable written responses for other areas, with allowance given for the extreme reluctance to reveal abuse that may put their lives "inreal, serious danger. (p. 1305); for problems of interpretation, see Lloyd deMause, "The Universality of Incest." The Journal of Psychohistory 19(1991): 123-165.

Deborah Ellis, Women of the Afghan War. London: Praeger, 2000, p. 141.

S. Tamish, Misconceptions About Sexuality and Sexual Behavior in Palestinian Society. Ramallah: The Tamer Institute for Community Education, 1996.

"Women's Woes," The Economist August 14, 1999, p. 32.

MSNBC, October 4, 2001.

Mazharul Haq Khari, Purdah and Polygamy, p. 107.

Samra Fayyazuddin, Anees Jillani, Zarina Jillani, The State of Pakistan's Children 1997. Islamabad Pakiston: Sparc, 1998, p. 46.

Ibid, p. 47.

Samra Fayyazuddin et al, The State of Pakistan's Children 1997, p. 51.

Muhammad M. Haj-Yahia and Safa Tamish, "The Rates of Child Sexual Abuse," p. 1320; Fatna A. Sabbah, Woman in the Muslim Unconscious. New York: Pergamon Press, 1984, p. 28.

Samuel M. Zwemer, Childhood in the Moslem World, p. 104; Hilma Natalia Granqvist, Child Problems Among the Arabs: Studies in a Muhammadan Village in Palestine. Helsingfors: Soderstrom, 1950, pp. 102-107.

Soraya Altorki, Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 72-76.

Lloyd deMause, "The Evolution of Childrearing." The Journal of Psychohistory 28(2001): 362-451.

Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor, p. 64.

MSNBC October 1, 2001.

Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Rocklin: Forum, 1999, p. 3.

Ibid, p. 4.

"60 Minutes," September 23, 2001.

Robert B. McFarland and John Fanton, "Moving Towards Utopia: Prevention of Child Abuse." The Journal of Psychohistory 24(1997): 320-331.

Lloyd deMause, "War as Righteous Rape and Purification." The Journal of Psychohistory 27(2000): 407-438.

© Lloyd deMause 2001.

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