“How can we conceptualize the sacrificial desire that has taken hold of many young people in the name of Islam?” (p. 9). This is the opening question of the essay by Fethi Benslama, a psychoanalyst of Tunisian origin who has been working for years in the northern banlieue of Paris. The question is generally answered through the notion of radicalization, but to the author this term risks covering up the problem rather than explaining it. After all, “the concept of the dog does not bark” (Spinoza).
The first part of the essay, then, proposes to test the symptomatic (and not simply securitarian) value of the notion of radicalization, a value that should be sought in the very etymology of the word, in that “root” (radix), lost on earth, that the ultra-Islamist tries to find again in paradise. Two-thirds of radicalized people – observes Benslama – are between 15 and 25 years old, an age that corresponds to a “moratorium period of adolescence” (p. 41). In contemporary societies this condition of liminality is prolonged indefinitely.
The “greediness of ideals” (p. 44) that is typical of it can lead to intense moments of depression and elation that endanger the mental health of the subject. In extreme cases, “radicalization is, from the subject’s point of view, a way of ‘healing’” (p. 51). This passes through the annihilation of one’s singularity, along a series of steps that lead to self-sacrifice as the final expression of the “supreme narcissism of the Lost Cause” (Lacan).
A frequent objection to this reading is that most jihadists do not exhibit disturbed psychological profiles. For the author, nonetheless, this is an optical illusion: if it is true that the radicalized no longer shows clear signs of imbalance, this apparent equilibrium is due to the fact that, in him, the subject has given in to the automaton.
This said, one has still to explain why the ‘sacrificial path’ today fascinates in particular the Muslim youth. The answer, articulated in the second part of the essay, calls into question Islamism as an “anti-political utopia” (p. 67), an absorption of the political into the religious more than a mere politicization of religion. Faced with the challenge well-summarized by Bonaparte’s contemptuous remark to the sheikhs of al-Azhar, that is, whether the Qur’an teaches how to melt cannons, the solution expounded by several Islamic thinkers would consist in the gradual invention of the “super-Muslim”, whose existential imperative is no longer to ‘become’ but to ‘re-come’, to return to a supposed original purity. Yet, in this passage from Islam to Islamism – Benslama observes – a fundamental quality is lost: humility. Because the jihadists “decide to submit to God only by submitting God to them” (p. 94). In the final pages, the author tries to outline a possible way out, which in his view would consist in the switch from an organic belonging to community to a reflected belonging to society; the Tunisian revolution and the ‘unfettered word’ brought by it would currently be the most advanced expression of such a switch.
As one can guess even from these lines, this essay’s perspective is very original. Therefore, it is regrettable to notice some haste in fact checking, especially on the Arab side: a phantom ouma, ‘mother’, as the etymology of umma (p. 89), the feminist Hoda Sha‘rawi removing her veil on her way back from a feminist conference “in Paris or Rome” (p. 124), a paragraph rather extrinsic on the so-called fatwa on breastfeeding...
The major limit, despite the validity of the empirical observations, remains however the reduction of religion to a pure illusion meant to escape the anxiety of finitude. Rather than this reductionist approach, the author might well have worked out an intuition – which is actually quoted – by Lacan who, reversing the famous formula by Dostoevsky, wrote: “If God is dead, nothing is permitted.” Lacking the figure of the Other who allows or forbids, man is abandoned to his desire and guilt. To the point of surrendering, indeed, to a “furious desire of sacrifice”.
[This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal