Islamist Suicide Terrorism and Erich Fromm’s Social Psychology of Modern Times


  • Emad El-Din Aysha


Mainstream social science has struggled to explain the appeal of suicide terrorism to so many Muslim youths, relying as it does on standard socio-economic indicators and research meant to identify suicidal tendencies. The existential emphasis is missing. This commentary is inspired by the work of clinical psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) and his investigation of the social psychology of modernity, as well as how this intermingles with existential fears related to mortality (death-related fears) and the passage of time (the end of the world or apocalypse). Modernity, explained Fromm, makes one feel small, insignificant and isolated in the larger scheme of things. This demands a violent response, often involving self-sacrifice, to reassert the balance, which allows Islamists to take advantage of death-related anxieties and exaggerate the sense of confrontation with the world through apocalyptic prophecies. Current psychological research on death and studies of terrorism and religious extremism both confirm many of Fromm’s findings and expand on them. In this commentary I argue that the religion of Islam, far from being a source of suicide terrorism, has historically restrained both suicidal tendencies and political violence directed at civilians, but it is the slow yet sure encroachment of modernity that has eroded these theological and communitarian defences. Other problems, such as household politics, gender roles, and theological teachings concerning death likewise feed this process, as documented by Arabic researchers in contexts other than political violence.