Terrorists and serial killers


Nowadays, terrorism and violence is routinely linked with Islam and Muslim culture. Whether in the media, the cinema or literature, the stereotypical terrorist is a Muslim or at least an Arab or Persian character (and this also applies to Arab media and arts). It is true that this is largely a reflection of what has been a trend of events in recent years and especially ever since 9/11, however, what is interesting is the linkage between violence and Islam in particular (or violence and Arab culture). Christianity for example has seized this opportunity to rebrand itself as the religion of peace to regain some of its lost control over Western culture, it is evident that Western culture today is struggling to get rid of what it perceives as the Islamic threat and many political entities are playing their cards accordingly. This has always been the case however, in the sense that Islam and Arabs have always been perceived as barbarous by the West and to a large extent, Western ‘civilization’ has always constructed itself by contrasting itself with Islam or what is generally termed as the ‘Orient’.

But if we were to compare Western culture and Muslim/ Arab culture, not only in the past but today also, I think the Western culture will come out as the more violent of the two. A violence that is almost culturally institutionalized. If we compare Western literature and Arabo-Muslim literature, we’ll find a large body of Western works dealing with themes like crime, blood-thirsty mythical creatures like vampires and werewolves, mysterious secret societies engaging in witchcraft etc. Modern literature is no different, crime stories are very popular with Western readers, the criminal is often depicted as somebody who is very intelligent and even glamorous, somebody who is worthy of admiration if not respect. The cinema is no different, how many Hollywood films deal with the Mafia, organized crime, serial killers and other sick plots (the sickest I’ve not seen recently is the Saw series, I couldn’t cope with the sickness of the plot). And as for TV series, the majority of the most successful ones are about crime investigation. As for Arabo-Muslim culture, the landscape is markedly different; literature-wise, our heritage lacks a crime stories tradition like that in Western literature, I don’t know of any renowned Arab/Muslim serial killers and our movie productions are almost exclusively romantic comedies, realist war/ revolution tragedies or family sagas. Only recently have the Egyptians started copying the Hollywood action and thriller movies and somehow the result seems so at odds with Arab reality. We just don’t see or hear of ordinary people carrying guns and shooting at each other in the street and in daylight!

This is not to say that there are no murders taking place in Arab/Muslim countries (that would be like when Ahmadinejad declared that there are ‘no gays in Iran’), but murder is not culturally glorified like it is in Western culture, it does not fascinate us like it seems to fascinate them. It is a curious dichotomy I think, because Arab societies undergo an immense amount of stress and pressure on a daily basis, there are very few if not at all outlets of frustration and anger (although it is tolerated to display outbreaks of anger in public) and life generally is so much harder than in Western countries. And yet, we do not seem to breed serial killers nor do we seem to invent myths and legends about blood thirsty creatures like zombies and vampires (the only violent story I remember was about the Ghoul who devours little unruly children, but it makes me laugh now). I wonder why that is? Is there something we could infer from terrorism in Arab/Muslim countries and serial-killers and popular crime fiction in Western countries? I wonder if there is some research in sociology which looked into these trends.

There are people who will say that it is only a question of time before we go the same way, that more and more bodies are cropping up murdered every other day here in Algeria (one has only to read the national press), that even when the problem is not detected does not mean that it is not there (many cases of murder and manslaughter go unnoticed because we tend to perceive any death as a fatality and Allah’s will and not attempt to look for its causes. Autopsy is seldom performed on corpses in Algeria for example). And all these factors may well explain the apparent disparity between Arab/Muslim and Western countries crime-wise. But I still think that serial killing and random shootings are a typically Western phenomenon and product of the way their society is constructed perhaps as much as and in the same way as terrorism is the product of the way our society is constructed. What I don’t understand fully is the underlying factors which give serial killers on the one hand and terrorists on the other.

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4 thoughts on “Terrorists and serial killers

  1. This is an interesting read, it’s pretty obvious that the more we travel the more we learn, and when we look back at some events in the past and connect them with the present, anyone can see the whole picture.
    Back in the 80’s the now so called Taliban were called Mudjahidines in the western mass media
    for obvious reasons.
    I understand that the point you’re trying to make is about the inherent violent western societies and how criminals are some how glamorised.
    But I think even if Arabs do not produce Hollywood style violent movies, we know that they’re watched all over the Arab world.

    • I understand that the point you’re trying to make is about the inherent violent western societies and how criminals are some how glamorised. But I think even if Arabs do not produce Hollywood style violent movies, we know that they’re watched all over the Arab world.

      That’s another topic (globalization) – the culture of the stronger will always become dominant. But the indigenous culture (in this case Arabo-Muslim) is different, only time will tell if or how it will resist.

      I guess my global point is the way a society expresses violence and its motives for doing so could be reliable way to understand the values it holds dear. If we consider war accounts for example in old Arab poems, we’ll find that they do not glorify killing as much as they glorify honor, restraint when in a position of power and courage etc. It’s just so alien for our culture to perceive murdrers as clever individuals with somewhat super-human aptitudes. But Western movies are taking care of that now.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts and analysis, as I am doing a talk radio show tomorrow on aspects of violence in the USA in the aftermath of the Boston bombings. BTW, I have an Algerian friend who lives in Paris & as a youth was an admirer of Franz Fanon, so your perspective interested me. The one question that jumped out at me reading your piece: Is it possible there are serial killers in Arab countries who go unidentified because of what you refer to as the absence of autopsies and investigations into murders? I remember hearing about a book which hypothesized that serial killers were responsible for many children going missing at the turn of the last century in New York City. Public awareness of a phenomenon always heightens reporting and connecting the dots.

    • Welcome Zakee.
      I don’t have an answer to your question. We just started getting statistics from Algerian police but there are not enough details. The press doesn’t ask “is this a serial murder?” question and the people don’t have this concern either.

      Wonder how your talk show went. It would be good to compare it to a similar show on the recent shooting in New Orleans…

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