Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Debunking the Sexual Repression Theory of Terrorism

Andrew Sullivan approvingly links to an Ian Buruma article that attempts to resurrect one of the less persuasive theories about the origins of Islamist terrorism-- that sexual repression in Islamic countries leads to distorted, sexually-frustrated personalities that are prone to violence. Exposure to the permissive and sexualized West "provokes a mixture of rage and envy" that causes some to express their violent urges in terrorist acts against the West, or against Israel. Three weeks after 9/11, anthropologist Lionel Tiger put forward a similar argument in Slate, although in his case he emphasized the role that polygyny plays in limiting the sexual prospects of underprivileged men in parts of the Islamic world.

Citizen Cain would not deny that the differing sexual mores of Islam and Western countries could promote rage and envy among some Moslem men, nor that certain manifestations of terror-- such as the promise of sex in the afterlife for suicide bombers -- arise uniquely out of a particular social-sexual ideology. No doubt, sexual repression and segregation of men and women in some Islamic cultures has far-ranging cultural and psychological impacts.

But as an explanation of the motivations for terror, this theory just doesn't fit with the evidence. If sexual repression promoted terror, one would expect that it would also promote a variety of other violent expressions. If Islamic terrorism were caused by a generalized frustration among Islamic men, it would stand to reason that Islamic countries would be generally more violent than more sexually permissive countries. Is it so?

Bernard Lewis is a favorite among conservatives, and isn't usually accused of taking an excessively positive view of Islamic peoples. But here he is in his influential September 1990 Atlantic essay:
There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations.
Hmm. Dignity? Courtesy toward others rarely equaled in other civilizations? Doesn't sound to me like a culture riven by violence. Lewis continues:
And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country -- even the spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion -- to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions.
Okay, so that doesn't sound so good. But it doesn't seem, in Lewis's telling, that this "rage and hatred" is driven by sexual frustration. After all, it's hard to see why sexual frustration would be especially powerful during periods of "upheaval and disruption." Lewis, rather, attributes this rage and hatred to the challenge that the West poses to Islam as an alternative source of values and social organization, to the (correct) identification of the West as the source of "cataclysmic changes" that threaten traditional ways, and to the humiliation of a proud civilization bested economically, scientifically, and militarily by the West.

Is Lewis's assessment right? Beats me. But it provides no support for the theory that sexual repression is at the heart of Islamic rage.

If a generalized sexual frustration drives terrorism, surely it should also drive other forms of crime. And yet, here's Robert D. Kaplan, describing a 2002 trip to Yemen:
The Arab world, while afflicted by political violence, had little or no common crime. In this sense, Islam had risen to the challenge of urbanization and modern life, and was a full-fledged success.
Kaplan again:
For decades millions of Muslims have been pouring out of the villages and leaving behind, you know, a situation where religion was just a natural outgrowth of age-old practices. And rushing into these pseudo western cities where there was bad sewage, bad plumbing, you know, electricity and water systems were decaying and where family life was under attack. And in order to keep crime rates low, to keep family life stable-- which they did successfully-- they had to reinvent religion in starker, more ideological austere terms. This worked. So you have these cities in the Muslim world with millions of people, poor, downtrodden yet random crime is very low, almost nonexistent because the intensification of religiosity has worked but it's produced an ironic situation. There is now a fertile . . . [petri] dish to call it that for the emergence of disease germs like terrorists.

No generalized rage here, in Kaplan's version. Just an intense religiousity that reinforces traditional family life and social order, but that also incubates in its followers a willingness to commit terrorist acts to defend or promote or impose their religion. Is he right? Again, Citizen Cain doesn't know. But at least Kaplan's explanation, unlike the sexual repression hypothesis, accounts for both the low crime rates in many Islamic countries and the existence of terrorism.

Kaplan might be prone to over-generalization, or he might just be wrong about the low crime rate in Islamic countries? What do the statistics say? Let's turn to the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control for an Epidemiology of Violent Deaths in the World. This publication does not distinguish between Islamic countries non-Islamic countries, or between sexually repressive and sexually permissive countries. But it does break out homicide data by region, including the "Middle Eastern crescent." In 1990, this region had an age-adjusted homide rate overall and for males that were lower than the world averages, and lower than the United States. Overall rates of violent death were high, but as the result of the Iran-Iraq war, not as a result of homicides.

The proponents of the theory that Islamic sexual repression leads to terrorism lack an explanation of how this causation could work without also promoting high rates of non-terrorist violence. So can we please move on and think more sensibly about what the real sources of terror are, both in Islamic culture and in our own policies?