The misogyny of terror

The misogyny of terror
7 min read
04 Jun, 2018
Comment: Trivialising misogyny's role in terrorism's wider context is dangerous, writes Otman Aitlkaboud.
The Manchester Arena attack was thought to be aimed specifically at women and girls [Getty]

June 3, 2017 was a Ramadan night when the pious filled mosques across London in devotion to faith and contemplative prayer.

It was also the night terrorists Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba, intoxicated by substance and the zealotry of their fanaticism chose to strike at the heart of London.

Continuing an assault on the capital, first begun by Khalid Masood in March, and not seen since 2005, the London Bridge attackers targeted innocent revellers enjoying end of week drinks in London's Borough Market area.

Two weeks later, Darren Osborne, not making the distinction between a crazed fanatic and the peaceable chose to emulate those whom he despised, mowing down innocent Muslims in his June 19 Finsbury Park terrorist attack - proclaiming at the time of his attack "I want to kill all Muslims" and that "I've done my bit".

The mass outpouring of grief and unity that had followed May's Manchester Arena terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert undermined the fantasies of Osborne and the Islamic State group of internecine violence and mass reprisal attacks on Muslims.

In this depraved vision, Britons reeling from a terrorist attack aimed at young women and children would no longer make a distinction in where to direct the source of their retribution, forcing besieged Muslims into the arms of IS and indigenous Britons into that of an insurgent far-right.


While the exposition of terror and its motivations have been picked apart since 9/11, attention is now being made not only to the ideological origins of terror but also its perpetrators' historical relationship with violence - and particularly that directed at women.

The precursor of the barbarity inflicted by Rachid Redouane on the innocent of London Bridge was the violence meted out to his Irish wife, a situation that had become so oppressive that she filed for divorce not long before the attack.

Darren Osborne, also recently separated from his wife, was known for his violence and temper, having been handed a two-year conviction for violence. Those who knew Osborne spoke of him often being seen to shout at his wife in public: "he's quite a shouty person, always shouting at his wife and kids".

David Anderson QC, author of the Home Office Intelligence Review on the Manchester and London terror attacks, in an interview for a BBC documentary, speaking of the Manchester terrorist Salman Abedi's historical infringements talks of these as being quite "small things" on his record. One involved hitting a woman while he was at college, which was dealt with by a reprimand and no criminal process or conviction being sought.

The strict patriarchal impositions enforced by IS in its declining territory emanate from the same well of toxic masculinity that have influenced other men to carry out their own acts of barbarity

Of Salman Abedi's 22 victims, 17 were women, 10 of whom were children and teenagers. Abedi's prior assault being described as one of the "small things" in his past, even in the aftermath of his calculated attack targeting young women and girls, is revealing.

Trivialising misogyny's role in terrorism's wider context has the danger of placing it as emblematic rather than a significant driver of radicalisation. Nazir Afzal walked out of his role as head of the national body for police commissioners after failing to convince his board to designate the Manchester Arena attack as specifically aimed at women and girls.

Afzal, who oversaw prosecution of the Rochdale grooming gang in 2012, in his recent NewStatesman piece talks of how "Gender terrorism pervades every society" and "men never call it that, because it would then need a national and international response".

But the truth is that restrictive attitudes towards women and its mutation into violence and terrorism is a global problem - the psychotic results of which are seen with false piety by the volunteers of the Islamic State group, who see no incongruity in the strictures they impose through the separation of sexes, and the capture and rape of women in the name of their "caliphate".

The strict patriarchal impositions enforced by IS in its declining territory emanate from the same well of toxic masculinity that have influenced other men to carry out their own acts of barbarity.

In June 2015, Dylann Roof told the nine faithful who he massacred during a church Bible class in Charleston, South Carolina: "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." While Roof's massacre of innocent African Americans testified to his deep-seated racism, it did not betray his sexism and sense of entitlement that he saw as his birthright.

Roof was the modern-day embodiment of America's dark history of lynching, in which black men were routinely killed with impunity by white men who professed in their extrajudicial murders that above all they were protecting white women from being raped.

Roof's egregious positions were bolstered still further by his violent home life, where he experienced gendered control and his stepmother endured significant bouts of violence at the hands of his father.

Sociologists have termed Roof's supposed "benevolent sexism" as being one of the drivers of the terrorism that he'd hope would ignite a race war in America. And the atrocity in Charleston is not the only recent attack in which racism and militant sexism have intersected.

Elliot Rodger's reign of terror on Isla Vista in May 2014 claimed six lives. It was motivated by his inability to engage with women he desired - the manifesto he wrote gives us an insight into his troubled mind.

He targeted the Alpha Phi sorority, "the hottest sorority of UCSB", because within it were "the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender… hot, beautiful blonde girls… spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches". Rodger's racial complex and skewed racial entitlement was also revealed: "How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half-white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves."

The credence given to Rodger's sexism, but also racism, inspired copycat killings in North America by followers of movements like that of the "beta male" and "Involuntary Celibates", or "Incels" - subcultures whose insecure men feel entitled to sex and to scorn women who "deprive" them of it.

The level of thwarted entitlement they harbour transcends age and borders, and is as rife in the self-loathing members of incel forums as it is with devotees of fundamentalist jihad

On Valentine's Day this year, Nikolas Cruz, a member of a white nationalist group, pledged in a YouTube video that "Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten" before massacring 17 students and staff members at his high school in Florida.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis shared Nazi paraphernalia on social media, shot and killed 10 at his school in Texas on May 18. His first victim was reportedly Shana Lewis, a girl who publicly rejected him a week before the shooting following four months of daily harassment.

On April 25, Alek Minassian killed 10 people, ploughing his rental van into a majority-women crowd in Toronto. The 25-year-old had proclaimed in a Facebook post: "The Incel Rebellion has already begun… All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!"

Spurned young men are quickly becoming North America's most deadly demographic, but the level of thwarted entitlement they harbour transcends age and borders, and is as rife in the self-loathing members of incel forums as it is with devotees of fundamentalist jihad.

Misogyny's ubiquity, its manifestation in both East and West, seen in its most extreme form at a children's concert or an American school, is abetted by societies that do not take male violence against women and girls seriously.

Minassian's supposed links to a jihadist plot gained more traction in the days following the attack than his publicly stated desire to kill women. Terrorists from Salman Abedi to Darren Osborne have a history of violence and a track record of mistreating women - yet their previous violence against women is seen as inconsequential.

"Having a history of violence might help neutralise the natural barriers to committing violence," suggests Paul Gil, a senior lecturer at UCL who studies "Lone Wolf" attacks.

The construction of an identity dependent on an ill-defined sense of masculinity having been somehow thwarted is a source of considerable suffering globally; it's high time that we start seeing the links between male violence - both professed and committed in the domestic sphere - and terrorist fanaticism.

Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.

Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.