A few days ago, we reviewed the book „The Banality of Suicide Terrorism. The Naked Truth About the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing“ here at Citizen Times (in German). Now, we speak with the author Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, who is a psychoanalyst and Arabist with a specialisation on Islamic terrorism.
Citizen Times: Welcome to Citizen Times. I discovered your work on line at frontpagemag.com and familysecuritymatters.com. I found it thought provoking and very interesting. To begin with could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hartevelt Kobrin: First of all let me say I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you. I have a long-standing interest in Islam and its role in Europe. My doctorate was in comparative literature where I studied Romance and Semitic languages, semiotics and translation theory. One of my main interests was in biblical typology focusing on the ahadith or legends about Musa/Moses in Old Spanish in Arabic script, called aljamía.
Citizen Times: Why aljamía and Moses?
Hartevelt Kobrin: I was trying to understand and very curious about how the three Abrahamic faiths got along in Spain. This was at a time when the fantasy of the “Golden Age of Spain” was being heavily promoted. My dissertation advisor had written Muslim Spain, a five hundred page history published by the University of Minnesota and there is not one word of jihad in it! Everything was given a good spin. The giving of the Law at Sinai makes divine will manifest in human discourse so Judaism, Christianity and Islam look to Moses as its key legal figure.
Being Jewish and already having written on Sephardic culture and Ladino, I wanted to be even handed and balanced in approach. I had already studied in Mexico, Brazil, Portugal and Israel, so I decided to study Arabic and specifically, aljamía. It was the late 70s and early 80s. There was an upsurge in Middle East terrorism. I kept tracking that on my own but I also began to encounter a lot of political correctness even though the term hadn’t come in to being. There was also considerable anti-Semitism in Middle Eastern Studies. Martin Kramer has documented this in his book „Ivory Towers on Sand“.
I wrote the dissertation and several articles, which were translated into German. Surprisingly there was interest in this last enclave of Muslims in the West during medieval times, the Moriscos, who were forced converts to Catholicism. They were ultimately expelled from Spain beginning in 1609.
Often when people hear about this, they fail to note that the Muslims had come on jihad in 711 AD to conquer Spain. So the Morisco expulsion was very different from the expulsion of the Jews who were targeted first and foremost in 1492. Moreover the Sephardic population was not agrarian like the Moriscos.
Citizen Times: How did the German connection come about?
Hartevelt Kobrin: It came about through my co-dissertation advisor and department chair Prof. Wlad Godzich who was a colleague of Prof. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. I was invited to present my work in Siegen and then also at his seminars in Dubrovnik. I then met Prof. Ulla Link who was editor of kultuRRevolution. She wanted to do an article about my work because she recognized that the Turks and the Kurds were not integrating and this was in the early 80s. Aljamía was a linguistic communal strategy for adapting like a creole, speaking the language of the other but written in the sacred script of the Quran. You can see by the cover of the magazine here that there were concerns about Muslim women and the veil even back then though my essay did not treat this topic.
Citizen Times: Do you know German?
Hartevelt Kobrin: As a child I was spoken to in both Rumanian and Yiddish by my maternal grandmother. Later, I had my requisite German for my studies along the way and I took German at Northwestern University as a teen. I have had a long standing interest in Germany as well.
I attended Niles Township High School in Skokie Illinois. As you may know the neo-Nazis marched through Skokie. We had the highest number of Holocaust survivors in the country; many of my friends were children of second families of these survivors. This was before Elie Wiesel’s Night became well-known. No one spoke about the Holocaust. As you can see I have been interested in communal identity as well as individual identity formation processes. I, myself, came from a completely assimilated Jewish family and never was sent to Hebrew school. I even went to church with my father; he did not convert but was very involved in Christian Science. That will make you a psychoanalyst! The first article I ever published was on the Holocaust and it took me four years to research it.
Citizen Times: What made you decide to become a psychoanalyst?
Hartevelt Kobrin: It came about by a circuitous route before I became a psychoanalyst, my best friend during these years was brutally murdered and I wound up on a training analyst’s couch. I took to it and found it very helpful. I essentially shifted focus from researching communal identity during the middle ages to contemplating the sense of individual identity. I went on to develop a clinical expertise in Post Traumatic Stress. My interests just evolved. A lot of people think that it was a huge shift but it wasn’t really and I continued to write and research on my own once I went into private practice.
In the clinic I went from working with victims to contemplating the mind of perpetrators. This led me into terrorism and my background in Al-Andalus really helped a lot. I had traveled and studied in the Middle East.
Moreover Freud had a big identification with Sephardic culture and knew quite a lot about Islam. His generation along with Melanie Klein whose Object Relations Theory is the best for understanding paranoia and even Bion on group psychology – they all experienced war first hand. So their psychologies are spot on. Bion was a WWI tank commander. Believe me being inside a Bradley, which I have experienced, you get to know group dynamics in an intimate way. While some argue that you can’t use psychoanalysis for this kind of terrorism, in fact there are many psychoanalysts from the Middle East in Europe. In my work I rely on psychologists who are from this part of the world. Furthermore, the West essentially co-opted Freud whose thinking was not very western in many ways. That has been part of its appeal. I am a post-Freudian and consider psychoanalysis a subfield of semiotics.
Citizen Times: Tell us about your book – The Banality of Suicide Terrorism.
Hartevelt Kobrin: I realized that conflict extended beyond land, politics and religion, that I needed to look at nonverbal communication – the way terrorists bond with people in the world through violence. Terrorism speaks a universal predatory language. In this age of multiculturalism we are still more alike than we are different. So the irony is that I learned all these languages, each time thinking that I could understand human behavior better and finally in January 2002 after 9/11 I started writing a series of articles when I slowly realized I was developed a theory of imagery to explain the suicide attack site as a crime scene related to serial killing by proxy. The suicide bombers are the weakest link; they are preyed upon by their own umma, Muslim community, just as the female is preyed upon in honor killing. The bomb makers and handlers etc. are the serial killers.
The image of the body parts and murder-suicide means that the behavior is very early developmentally because it is part object representation of the mother’s body and a death fusion. They can look like adults but they are very confused about their identity. I have written about this at length on line so I won’t go into detail here. I do want to say that I am fortunate to be able to work with Joan Jutta Lachkar who is a leading authority on the abuse of women and an expert in object relations theory. I consider her to be one of the best on paranoia. What we are dealing with is paranoia, not too much more than that. However, paranoia and its aroused terrors are terrorizing to people. People easily develop an identification with the aggressor under these conditions with its pull of sadomasochism.
The book was seven years in the making at two different publishing houses before Potomac brought it out. By the way, there two other German connections. After the Pope’s comments at Regensburg, the first publishing house which ironically deals in books for law enforcement, broke the book contract. They feared that they couldn’t protect their staff. There is a chapter on Christian Ganczarski, the Al Qaeda German convert who was involved in the El Ghriba Djerba Synagogue bombing on April 11, 2002 in which 14 German tourists, 5 Tunisians and 2 Frenchmen were tragically murdered.
Citizen Times: How has the book been received?
Hartevelt Kobrin: It is doing quite well thank you and has been reviewed by the Midwest Book Review as “a fine survey for any college-level psychology or social issues library.” It’s being picked up as a textbook. I explore the mother-child relationship as key to the suicide attacks. The female is so completely devalued in these Arab Muslim shame-honor cultures, which spawn suicide bombing that you can actually read the traumatic bonding of the mother in the imagery. In shame-honor cultures the mother assumes heroic proportions which is an overcompensation for being such a devalued female. The male terrorists can not understand how they could be born from such a denigrated female body while the female terrorists have merely internalized male hatred of the female as self-hatred.
I sketch out the link between the devalued female and the suicide attack site. Interestingly enough, I see a parallel with the kamikazes since they were told in their pilot’s manual not to fear death because when they were in meters of their target, the face of their mother would appear. They would be reunited with her in death and hence, be “reborn”. In classic borderline psychopathology this was a way to reassure such fragile personalities under a mask of bravado. Japanese culture is also shame-honor oriented. One of the differences though with Islamic suicide bombing are the ideologies of Islam fit like hand in glove providing a girdle for these fragile personalities whereas with the Japanese the fit does not seem to be as tight.
Yet there are many things that we can do in the West in order to stop suicide bombing. The last chapter deals with how to stop this violence. We must focus on the devalued little Muslim girl, helping her to feel strong in a positive identity in order to try to reduce the intergenerational transmission of trauma. We must educate and aid the prenatal mother because she is the key to the time when the mind of the baby is formed in utero while living under a death threat of the honor killing. This is counter productive for a group who desires a fully functioning effective citizenry, that is a citizenry which does not have the need to blame, hate and murder the other. Vamik Volkan the famous Cypriot Turkish Muslim psychoanalyst writes that the need to hate and the need to have an enemy is in place by age three, learned behavior in the home. Despite how Islamic suicide bombing has spread like wild fire, we should not feel at a loss because that is what the terrorists want us to do – give up hope. No one has the right to take away our hope.
Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin: The Banality of Suicide Terrorism. The Naked Truth About the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing, Washington, DC: Potomac Books 2010, 192 pages, 21.99 Euro.
Buy it at: Amazon.