By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
For those—like me—who’d never really given any thought to singer Ariana Grande before the terrorist atrocity at her concert in the British city of Manchester, it took a few minutes to figure out the correspondence between her audience and the target selection of suicide bomber Salman Abedi.
Eventually, it dawned. Grande’s primary audience consists of girls in their teens and younger. If Abedi wasn’t aware of that before arriving at the Manchester Arena venue, he surely would have worked that out in the moments before he detonated himself.
In the name of a global Islamic caliphate, Abedi set out to slaughter young people—more precisely, teenage girls. Islamists violently detest any expression of “permissiveness” among women; from an early age, females in their grip are trained to think of themselves as servants and as child-bearers only. Disobedience inevitably dispenses a beating that varies from “light” to “heavy,” depending on which Islamist preacher their household suzerain happens to follow.
You saw this misogynistic hatred on display in Manchester, in the terrible, incessant screams forming the soundtrack to the first images of the atrocity—the outside explosion, the hordes of kids fleeing for the exits as pink balloons floated eerily among them.
I won’t pretend to have an answer to the question of how a person can bring themself to carry out such an abomination. (The guttural Hebrew word for terrorist atrocity, piguah, has special resonance here.) I will, however, observe that not every expression of evil is uniform.
For example, when you examine the process of genocide—be it the Nazis in Poland, or the Hutu militias in Rwanda—you see that its practitioners almost always execute the killing in groups, and that the group setting reinforces their morale. They can see and feel the camaraderie just by looking around them.
By contrast, a jihadi like Abedi carried out his operation alone and died alone; whether or not he was part of a larger jihadi cell doesn’t change this.
For a Western jihadi, camaraderie doesn’t manifest in day-to-day contact with his fellow Muslim warriors in training camps or on frontlines—in his case, for most of the time, the source of his inspiration is geographically remote and is encountered in a virtual reality. When he strikes, he does not have the option, as the genocidal murderer does, of simply obliterating the next town or village and moving on; he must select his target carefully, and above all, he must execute a spectacle that forces a terrified world to ask whether killers like these have any boundaries.
Ideas play a key role here, in desensitizing jihadis to the humanity of non-Muslims and in influencing their choice of targets. Venues that encourage such licentious behavior as dancing and consuming alcohol are particularly favored, as evidenced in Bali, Tel Aviv, Paris, Orlando and many other places. In those establishments, of course, illicit sex flourishes. In no time at all, moral values decay, and even our own children mimic our degeneracy—for example, by donning lipstick and going to a pop concert unaccompanied.
In Islamist literature, this panic is given exquisite expression in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In 1949, Qutb spent the better part of a year studying in Greeley, Colorado—a conservative, church-going town with a prohibition on the sale of liquor. But to read Qutb, you’d think he was living above a sleazy nightclub in Hamburg or Amsterdam.
“The American girl,” Qutb once wrote, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.” After a church dance, he wrote fervidly of “enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire.”
Whether his description of that particular dance was accurate or not, we shall never know, but it doesn’t take a Freudian to notice the unrequited desire that enveloped Qutb’s own mind. This kind of desire, when fused with hatred of relaxed sexuality and expressions of femininity, can be devastating once it is incorporated into an ideology of conquest—as jihadism indubitably is.
In his book “Terror and Liberalism,” Paul Berman offered a telling insight into what it was about Western, liberal society that enraged Qutb. “What agitated him most of all,” Berman wrote, “was the split between the sacred and the secular in Western liberalism.”
It’s worth noting that Berman doesn’t believe it was Qutb’s “prudishness” that underwrote his judgments. “He saw the theological implications of liberal social values,” Berman wrote. “He invoked the Islamic term jahili, which means the heathen ignorance that prevailed in Arabia before the time of Muhammed, or that prevails in any pagan society—and he applied that term to modern liberal society, too.”
For Islamists, the price of ignorance is punishment for the ignorant. Those “who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul,” wrote Qutb. Right there, we have an inversion of the Western moral tradition that judges acts by their consequences and their motives, and separates the innocent from the guilty according to law and custom, rather than the “word of God” as interpreted by a clique of leaders.
Was Salman Abedi familar with these words of Qutb’s? Doubtless, he encountered some form of them, assuming he consumed jihadi propaganda. Perhaps this sense of being blessed, the awareness that he was far from alone in finding the female form so grotesquely offensive—even if he was alone in the moment of death—led him to take his murderous intention to its bitter conclusion. Thus, were we all afforded yet another unwanted glimpse into the mind of our enemy.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.