Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sexual abuse and terrorist activity: is there a connection?

Jessica Stern, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and author of The Ultimate Terrorists, gave a talk recently at the University of Maryland that I attended. Part of the talk covered the same ground as her article "Mind Over Martyr: How to Deradicalize Islamist Extremists" (Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2010; link here [full text requires subscription]).

Rather than summarize the whole talk or article, I'll focus on one point. Stern writes:
"One element worth the potential impact of sexual abuse on radicalization. Much has been written about the role of radical madrasahs in creating terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere.... Outside of the Pakistani press, however, little note is made of the routine rape of boys at such schools. Also troubling is the rape of boys by warlords, the Afghan National Army, or the police in Afghanistan. Such abuses are commonplace on Thursdays...because Friday prayers are considered to absolve sinners of all wrongdoing. David Whetham, a specialist in military ethics at King's College London, reports that security checkpoints set up by the Afghan police and military have been used by some personnel to troll for attractive young men and boys on Thursday nights. The local population has been forced to accept these episodes as par for the course: they cannot imagine defying the all-powerful Afghan commanders. Could such sexual traumas be a form of humiliation that contributes to contemporary Islamist terrorism?"
The answer is not known, but in her talk Stern mentioned that several jihadists she has interviewed have hinted at this. The Western press has reported in recent years on the rape of women and girls in war zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Scholars who study the intersection of gender and conflict also have written about the sexual exploitation of women and girls. But the fact that males can be and are victims of sexual exploitation has not been as widely discussed (except in the context of the clergy abuse scandal), and the possible connections to terrorist recruitment and behavior have not been investigated.
Note: See also the Frontline (PBS) program "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan"; link here.


Anonymous said...

Hello LFC,
I am Jessica Stern's web manager. She has a new book coming out next month, DENIAL: A Memoir of Terror. You can read about it here: I thought you might be interested in reviewing an advanced copy. If so, please email with your name and mailing address. Thank you.
Best Regards,

LFC said...

Thanks for the info, Karen.