The man who carried out Friday’s stabbing attack at London Bridge was a former prisoner convicted of terrorism offences, media tells us. However, what is more interesting is why these attacks happen in the first place?
All the terror attacks purportedly carried out by so-called Muslims share two common factors: that the men who carry them out are ignorant of even basic Islamic law and secondly, bizarrely, they are increasingly attracted to the idea that if they themselves are killed in their rampage that they will die as a matyr and enter paradise surrounded by beautiful ladies.
The attacker in this case was wearing a fake suicide vest. This indicates that he wanted the police to think he was an immediate danger and therefore must be killed on the spot. In other words, in his crazed mind, he thinks he has guaranteed for himself the girls.
There may be a connection between sexual inadequacy or frustration and the pull towards violent extremism. This is the theme of an engaging novella, Seventeen, by the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1994. The story is set in the 1960s, when it was written.
The main character is a 17-year-old boy who can’t stop jacking off, in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in the bushes, even in the schoolroom. He is ashamed of his habit, just as he is ashamed of almost everything else. No good at games, a failure with girls and a bully at home, he can’t really stand anyone – not his wishy-washy liberal father, or his mother and sister, or his teachers, and least of all himself. Conscious at all times of being an ugly failure, all he can do is masturbate, while living in terror that the whole world is aware of his practice just by looking at him.
But a kind of salvation is at hand. The boy is introduced by a friend to a band of extreme rightwing youths, dressed in uniforms, following a leader who rants about communists and socialist traitors, and the glories of the Japanese empire. Soon the great masturbator, too, is issued with a uniform and boots, and accepted as a warrior for the imperial cause against foreigners and leftwing traitors. He even gets into a few violent scrapes. And he has his first satisfying orgasm, in a massage parlour, in his new uniform, dreaming of total power, of killing his enemies, of raping their wives and daughters, and of dying for the glorious emperor.
It is not Oe’s most subtle piece of fiction. The narrator often sounds too much like a literary tool for expressing the politics most abhorrent to his creator. But the sexual swamp in which extremism can grow is well described, and worth exploration. As a somewhat dogmatic leftist intellectual, Oe appears to think that violent extremism, arising from fantasies of omnipotence, is typically the domain of the far right. He has often expressed his admiration for Chairman Mao. But the combination of sexual frustration and violence was as typical of Mao’s Red Guards as it was of Japan’s Black Shirts.
In contrast to the insatiable chairman, who had a harem of dancing girls for his private use, Chinese men were forced to live like revolutionary monks and were discouraged from marrying young. The Great Helmsman, by the way, had his own peculiar brushes with inadequacy, as related by his personal physician. His sexual potency rose and fell, as it were, with his political fortunes. Any threat, imagined or real, to his sense of total control, and he wilted.
Sexual deprivation may be a factor in the current wave of suicidal violence. The tantalising prospect of having one’s pick of the loveliest virgins in paradise is deliberately dangled in front of young men trained for violent death. And even those who are not trained to kill and die often live in authoritarian societies in which sex before marriage is strictly forbidden, in which women outside the family home are not only supposed to be untouchable, but invisible. Access to MTV, the internet, DVDs and global advertising reinforces the notion that westerners live in a degenerate garden of sinful delights. This makes the lot of millions of young Arab men even harder to bear, and can provoke a mixture of rage and envy.
Once in a while, this rage will explode in carefully orchestrated orgies of violence. It is said that Mohammed Atta visited a striptease bar before crashing a plane into the Twin Towers. Perhaps he craved one nibble at the forbidden fruit before his earthly extinction. The fact that it was forbidden – repulsive but also terribly seductive – marked his view of women in general. He made it clear in his will that he did not want any women to defile his grave with their presence.
Again, this is not to say that sexual frustration or bitter misogyny leads directly to mass murder. If it did, we would live in a very dangerous world indeed. But they cannot be dismissed as factors. It has long been assumed that young men are better fighters when they are deprived of sex, like slavering dogs fighting in a pit.
One of the many barbarities of war, in ancient times as well as in recent conflicts, is the promise to hungry, brutalised men that once a city is taken its women are part of the loot. The only difference between this and those fabled houris in paradise is that the objects of deferred lust are real and pay a horrible price for it.
The view that sex with women takes the fight out of men is common enough even in less bloody pursuits, such as football. Often, when a national team is about to do battle, the coach will announce that wives and girlfriends will be banished. The men have to be kept on the leash. Sex will be their reward once the enemy is defeated. Among the great myths of Dutch football is the story of the 1974 World Cup. Deprived of female company, some of the players allegedly took their pleasure with local floozies, and therefore lost the final against Germany.
All this applies to sex with women. Sex with men can be a very different proposition. As a rule, societies that prize machismo and male honour do not take a kindly view of homosexuality. It is tolerated, at best, but only the active, “male” partner, especially if he is older and married, can escape from homosexual encounters with honour. The passive one is like a woman – submissive, weak, despicable. So it is still said to be in many Arab countries, as it was in ancient Greece.
But there are notable exceptions to this rule. Some of the most macho societies in history have prized homosexual relations. The Spartan army encouraged loving relationships between soldiers, as it would foster loyalty and courage. Samurai in feudal Japan had a similar attitude. Sex with women was fine, as far as it went, which was to produce children. But honour and nobility were to be found only in relations between men. The premise behind this is not so different from the homophobia in other macho cultures. Women are soft, and their proximity softens men, just as the wiles of Cleopatra softened the Roman general Mark Antony. True manliness must never be tainted by the female sex, or the domesticity it represents.
In 2004, Johann Hari wrote about the “overlap” of homosexuality and fascism. “Gay men,” he wrote, “have been at the heart of every major fascist movement that ever was …” This was especially disturbing to Hari, who identifies himself as a “progressive gay” man. Examples supporting his thesis are readily at hand: Pim Fortuyn (though not really a “fascist”, as Hari seems to think) was gay. Jörg Haider is said to be gay. And then there were the Nazi Stormtroopers, the brown-shirted SA led by a thug named Ernst Röhm. Röhm, and many of his comrades, were homosexual.
Röhm was a keen promoter of the Spartan ideal of fit fighting men pairing off. Like many German soldiers in the wake of the first world war, he felt like a loser, embittered by military defeat, and marginalised by peace. For him, the SA was a way to regain his self-esteem. He thought of it as an elite of superior men, chosen to control first Germany and then the world. Röhm was rather like the 17-year-old in Oe’s novella: the uniforms, the boots, the brutality made him feel omnipotent. Sex was an expression of power, and power was eroticised. “Since I am an immature and wicked man,” he once said, “war and unrest appeal to me more than the good bourgeois order.”
Hari implied that there was something in the nature of homosexuality that made it particularly suited to fascism. Quoting a “gay pornographer”, Bruce LaBruce, he cited “body worship, the lauding of the strong, a fetish for authority figures and cruelty”. But this is to assume that homosexual desires can be reduced to a Tom of Finland cartoon in which the characters are manhandled by brutal leather-clad policemen. Such fantasies exist, to be sure, and fascism exploited them to the full. You only have to see the outsized sculptures of naked athletes in the former Foro Mussolini sports complex in Rome to get the idea. One should never forget that despite the antics of Röhm and his friends, homosexuals were persecuted in Nazi Germany.
There is a more plausible explanation for the attraction felt by a certain kind of homosexual for violent elitism and extreme political causes, and that is the loathing of bourgeois life. Röhm divided men into soldiers and civilians, and the latter, to him, were “swine”. Everything associated with the word “prudence” was hateful to him. To a man such as Röhm, domesticated bourgeois society was, by definition, cowardly, materialistic, henpecked and dull. What he craved, above all, was constant violent action to disrupt the kind of life from which he felt excluded. This may be the key to gay fascism, more than the nature of homosexual desire. Extremism is the loser’s revenge on society. Who the losers happen to be depends on the nature of the society. It can be homosexuals who feel shut out, or young Muslim immigrants.