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A Muslim culture of victimhood?

14 July 2005

Rachel Bloul

A Muslim culture of victimhood? This is the wrong diagnosis of a political, not religious or cultural, problem.

There is a very popular argument which sees the popularity of radical Muslim activism of the kind which finds its most extreme expression in bombing attacks, as being fed by a ‘culture of victimhood’ among Muslims in various places around the world. Such a culture of victimhood, it is said, nourishes anti-Western sentiments, and can more or less easily become the breeding ground of violent expressions of resentment.

As I reflect upon the latest bombings in London and the sociological profiles of those Leeds young men implicated in the attacks, the possibly pernicious consequences of the assumptions behind the ‘culture of victimhood’ argument become clear. The ‘surprise’ and ‘astonishment’ upon learning the identity of the ‘homegrown’ perpetrators as expressed by various acquaintances, informed bystanders and the like were echoed all over the media. But what is so surprising or astonishing?

There are two points that I want to discuss here.

Firstly, there is the question of perceived injustice and the role played by identification with perceived victims.

Why should we be surprised that some ordinary young British Muslim men committed these crimes? A stark contrast is drawn between supposedly ‘victimized perpetrators’ and these ‘ordinary young men’ who, while definitively of humble origins, were not by any means pathetic losers such as Richard Reid for one was portrayed to be. But why should ordinary young men not identify as Muslims with perceived injustices suffered by other Muslims (Palestinians, Iraqis, Chechens, the list could go on and on…)? I do not know what drove their identification with other Muslims whom they perceived as being victims of generalized injustices. What I do know is that one does not need to be a victim oneself to feel the victimization of others. And I do comprehend the possibility that any young people may empathize with perceived victims with whom they share a religion. In fact it is a fairly ordinary moral response to such a situation, which leads me to my second point.

There is in certain Islamist milieus a culture of jihad & martyrdom which I think is very different from a culture of victimhood. Victims are to a large extent disempowered by their victimization. Often the term victim has a certain aura of passivity and even inferiority. Victims often lack the resources to act. Jihadis committed to a bombing attack however are praised, probably see themselves as committing a praiseworthy deed on behalf of victims whom they see themselves as revenging. They have therefore a notion of self-worth (whether deluded or not is not the point here), of agency that plain victims do not have. This explains why perpetrators do not have an easy-to-assess profile – which has so perplexed analysts, why they can indeed be ‘ordinary young men’ with ‘nothing’ a priori predisposing them to bombing attacks. Nothing that is, except the identification with perceived victims, a desire to do something about it and a political assessment of the situation such that they feel themselves not only allowed to act, but maybe in a privileged position to act. They may feel a sense of obligation.

How such identification comes to be is easy enough to understand. Why these young men felt a need to do something as drastic as bombing attacks about it is another question. A question which has to do with a particular political interpretation of the situation and of what they saw, or were meant to see, as a possible and maybe necessary solution. So apocalyptic a scenario is something that various political “final solutions” share, and indeed we have seen far too many of those in the last century.

Dr Rachel Bloul, School of Social Sciences, The Australian National University

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