Sex and the suicide bomber

The tales have tantalized the Western press, but it wasn't visions of black-eyed virgins in paradise that motivated the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Published November 7, 2001 8:22PM (EST)

With the attacks of Sept. 11, new attention is being paid to the motives of suicide bombers. Tantalizing accounts of virgins in heaven awaiting the bombers have been circulating, and stories about the sexual motives of the suicide bombers have filled the Western and Israeli presses. It is falsely assumed that Islamic promises of sexual delights in paradise explain the odd willingness of young men to commit suicidal acts of violence.

In reality, political -- not sexual -- frustration constitutes the most important factor in motivating young men, or women, to engage in suicidal violence. The tendency to dwell on the sexual motives of the suicide bombers belittles these sociopolitical causes. We are not sure how many wives Osama bin Laden has (probably four by the last count), but many of his companions and key advisors are married and have access to sexual delights in neighboring cities and towns. These men are well-off and can afford several spouses. We can't call them sexually deprived, and can't attribute their resentment to frustration. Their young recruits, however, often come from poorer families, and many come from societies where there is little hope for social reform. Some, in the case of the Palestinians, have relatives or close friends who were killed by Israeli soldiers during the long years of West Bank revolt. Even if they also happen to be sexually frustrated, the political motivation is primary.

This is not to say that some fanatical clerics, in their desperate search for martyrs, may not engage in religious exploitation of sexual deprivation among uneducated youth. Some Islamic fundamentalists do in fact portray very rosy pictures of the delights of heaven to reduce the fear of death among the young men. Just as Christian martyrs in history were all too eager to die in order to taste the happiness of the hereafter, in some parts of the Middle East extreme forms of devotion prevail, feeding the ranks of suicidal terrorists.

But while the vision of heavenly black-eyed virgins might offer some of these young men solace, it is not why they are sacrificing their lives. It is often assumed that Western social mores and sexual behavior deeply trouble Muslims. It is said that Muslims harbor antipathy to the West purely for the sexual and social liberties that prevail in Western democracies. Thus, all manners of Muslim political behavior become reduced to expressions of sexual frustration and to the desire to engage in limitless and guilt-free sex in paradise. In fact, Islam has traditionally been much more tolerant of bodily pleasure than Christianity.

The early Christian encounters with Islam were quite unpleasant; the Prophet Mohammed was found to be scandalously earthly in demeanor and behavior, and the new religion did not present what Nietzsche dubbed as "the ascetic ideal" of Christianity. When "The Arabian Nights" was published in 1850, erotic references were excised to protect Western sensibilities.

Mohammed was, it is said over and over again in early Islamic sources, "but a human being," and he was not timid in indulging in earthly pleasures, taking several wives during his life. Original Islam, not to be confused with the puritanical Islam of the Taliban and present-day Saudi Arabia, was a permissive religion that did not fear sexuality, as Christianity did. Companions of the prophet bragged about his sexual prowess and referred to his love of certain dishes and of horses. This, of course, contrasts with Jesus who, if we are to believe the chronicles of his life in the New Testament, never had sex and never indulged in sensual pleasures. (This same asceticism was embraced by such key Christian figures as St. Augustine, who avoided chewing his food because culinary pleasure was inconsistent with his pious views.) Mohammed once expressed his surprise when one follower pledged to devote himself to God and never marry, because there are no vows of celibacy, not even by clerics, in the religion. In Islam, there is a belief that sex, and all other earthly pleasures, are to be enjoyed fully by humans provided that moral boundaries are respected (no adultery, rape or sexual battery). There are no monks in Islam. Indeed, the main force behind Islam's rapid spread as a faith was that it did not present unattainable ideals for believers, much more so than the clichéd and customary references to "jihad" and the sword.

Of course, Islam has changed over the ages, and many contemporary Muslims are educated along rigid, Puritanical standards. And though reports are exaggerated, sexual frustration is prevalent among the Middle East youth of today. In the past, early marriages for men and women provided for a legally and religiously sanctioned arrangement that, in theory at least, provided for the fulfillment of the sexual desires of the young couple. But now the high cost of living and insurmountable housing shortages in most Middle East cities have prevented most officially engaged couples from consummating their marriages. Many couples wait for years, and engagements are often broken. Furthermore, the increasing educational pursuits of women have also raised the marriage age of urban women. As Wilhelm Reich revealed in his analysis of Nazi youth, "The Mass Psychology of Fascism," an army of sexually frustrated youth may become available for extremist political agitation and mobilization.

But sexual frustration has been overly emphasized in the Western and Israeli media as a motive for terrorism. Israeli experts on terrorism assert that suicide bombers are lured to the cause by the promises of black-eyed beauties in paradise who ostensibly will receive the martyrs upon their death, and they swear that one suicide bomber in Israel was found with a Kleenex tissue wrapped around his penis. This, we are told, was because he wanted to preserve himself for the orgies in paradise. The Quran, however, contains no admonitions about shielding genitals with protective tissues.

Of course, Israeli officials love to dwell on tantalizing accounts of sexually deprived young men driven by orgiastic fantasies because such accounts are politically useful. Instead of focusing on the impact of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and of the subjugation of a demoralized population, tales of 72 black-eyed nymphs in heaven catering to the martyrs' long-frustrated desires are sure to win attention from the Western press.

Though young men in Middle East societies do not live in the sexually stimulated environments of the West, they do not lead the celibate and puritanical lifestyles that they often claim to when interviewed by American journalists. Brothels proliferate in much of the region, and prostitution has consistently been accepted in Islamic history for the elites and masses alike. So much so that a book of tax revenue from the Abbasid Empire (A.D.750-1259) -- the dynasty that ruled the Islamic world when Arab civilization was at its peak -- shows receipts from houses of prostitution. The image that the Middle East, through its governments and religious establishments, projects to the outside may not coincide with the reality on the street.

For example, it is not uncommon for young Middle Eastern men to have their first sexual encounters with fellow men. In Islamic societies, there are no calls for death for homosexuals. To be sure, men who are seen to possess feminine characteristics may be mocked or ridiculed but they rarely, if ever, face the widespread physical attacks that homosexuals have suffered on American streets. In classical Christian theology, homosexuals deserve only one fate: eternal damnation. The Quran, on the other hand, is more nuanced. There are two scant references to homosexuality in the Quran, and the interpretations of the passages vary. Historically, the homosexual/heterosexual categories in Islamic societies have not been as sharply drawn as in the West; people easily moved in and out of the two categories with little stigma attached.

And while physical contacts between young men and young women are strictly prohibited in most Middle East countries, in reality many men and women manage a measure of sexual experimentation that varies depending on social class and location. Of course, this is not publicly admitted. Religious and political elites would claim that the high moral standards they design and impose are strictly followed.

In other words, the hypocrisy that one associates with those Catholics who are willing to violate many of the dictums of the church also exists among Muslims. After all, Islam prohibits alcohol consumption but almost every Middle East family seems to know at least one alcoholic. The lives of the Sept. 11 hijackers tell a similar story; ostensibly they were religious fanatics, and yet they consumed alcohol, frequented adult video stores, and some were regulars at strip joints and were willing to shell out $300 for lap dances.

The harsh social regimen that prevails in Saudi Arabia today or in the Taliban's Afghanistan does not resemble anything in Islamic history. Those two countries preach pernicious versions of misogynistic fundamentalism with a heavy emphasis on sexual phobias. Gender mixing is often presented as the most worrisome danger facing the nation. According to the ruling ideologies of the two regimes (which have much more in common than is assumed, although one is a "friend" of the U.S. and the other an "enemy"), illicit sexual practices are to be fought at all costs because they are capable of bringing down the entire social and political order. In Arabic, the word fitnah may refer either to the extreme beauty of a woman or to sedition, thereby implying that the sexual charisma of a woman may bring about civil war in a society.

The teaching in Saudi and Taliban educational systems has produced an unhealthy social and sexual environment where fear and suspicions are sowed between the sexes. And both regimes rely on heavy-handed moral enforcers, the "virtue militias" that roam the streets looking for those who are not sufficiently pious. Punishment may vary, ranging from chastising or clubbing the offender to imprisonment. These moral militia squads have emerged as the most unpopular aspects of both the Saudi and Afghani governments.

The social environment in such Middle East societies is clearly unhealthy and dysfunctional. But this has less to do with Islam than with these oppressive governments, which cynically use religion as a tool of repression. Those precarious governments have struck dangerous alliances with the most fanatic elements of the religious establishment, which impose a monopoly over the educational system of the country, and promote a misogynistic and intolerant version of religious indoctrination.

It is not the 72 black-eyed virgins dancing in the heads in the would-be Islamic martyrs that should concern the West. Even if one succeeds in bringing about a radical change in the sexual life of Middle East men, the violent conflict will continue because the root cause of suicidal bombings is not sexual frustration, it is despair and deprivation. If prosperity and hope prevails in the Middle East, even the most charismatic warrior-preachers will not be able to find willing recruits.

By As`ad AbuKhalil

As`ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and Research Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of "Bin Ladin and Taliban: The New American War Against Terrorism"

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