‘I am not mad,’ shouts the failed suicide bomber in court, contradicting psychiatric opinion. For him, scriptural fiat cannot be overruled by secular authorities: if the holy Koran instructs slaying of the infidels, there is no mental illness, immorality or crime in putting those words into action.
The vast majority of Muslims, no doubt, would recoil at any interpretation of their faith as inherently violent. In polite society, Islam is promoted as the Religion of Peace, and terrorists are said to be besmirching the name of Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam.
Are Koranically-inspired terrorists mad or bad? It may seem delusional to detonate an explosive device in a crowded shopping mall and expect to be rewarded with seventy-two virgins in heaven.
Scott Atran in Talking to the Enemy (2010) argues that suicide bombers are not mentally ill. Perhaps, they are sad? Alienated from society, they identify strongly with a disadvantaged group, and develop an intense purpose against injustice, he observes.
A University of Amsterdam study shows little correlation between psychopathology and terrorism, even though the lone wolf may be slightly more likely to be disturbed.
Jonathan Sacks begins his book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence with a quote from Blaise Pascal: ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’ Sacks strives to rebut this distortion of Abrahamic faith, arguing that mass murderers who shout ‘Allahu akbar’ are not martyrs but sacrilegious.
To maintain the Religion of Peace mantra in the context of terrorism, governments use mental illness as a mask.
Throughout history, Christians, Jews and Muslims have doubly sinned by taking life, and by doing so in God’s name. Yet undoubtedly religion has given licence to kill: in waging war, in the witchcraft hysteria, in persecution of heretics, and in genocides such as the Ottoman Empire’s annihilation of Armenian and Assyrian Christians.
Today, more blood is shed for Islam than any other religion, not only through conflict with the kuffar, but also between Sunni and Shia sects. Islam is a domination theology, asserting itself through jihad (holy war) and coercive proselytising. In Dar al-Islam, all submit to Allah (Christians have a choice: convert or be subjugated).
The quest for purity, a strong theme running through Mohammed’s prophecy, is not unique to religion: communism and fascism treat unbelievers as contaminants. Taken to extremes, the hygiene imperative is as evident with Islamists as in the cull of kulaks in Ukraine or the Nazi Holocaust.
The Koran, if taken too literally, can be dangerous. In secular Western society citizens are taught that all religions are equal. Demographic destiny and the political project of Islam are taboo topics and politicians define acts of terrorism as un-Islamic, despite the jihadists’ stated intent.
While rushing to taint Christianity for sex abuse by a minority of priests, liberals resolutely defend the dignity of Islam. Within the faith, reformists are suppressed by fear of fundamentalists, as remarked by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015):
The majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.
To maintain the Religion of Peace mantra in the context of global terrorism, governments increasingly use mental illness as a mask.
Compare the official response to two terror events in Manchester.
In the Arena concert carnage, the bomber was revealed as a known militant Muslim. Salman Ramadan Abedi was born in Manchester to Libyan refugees of uncompromising Salafi ideology. Worried about a backlash, the authorities promoted a rally for peace with vacuous slogans: ‘We are Manchester’ and ‘Love not hate’.
Photogenic young women, some wearing headscarves, were shown as an antithesis to the imagined ogre of right-wing reactionaries.
This tragic loss of innocent lives was turned into a message not against the terrorists but anyone who complained about the terrorists.
In a more recent incident, the random stabbing of five people in Manchester’s Arndale shopping centre was attributed to mental disorder. An early Daily Mail story reported the murderer’s machete swinging to the cry of ‘Long live the caliphate.’ This detail disappeared in further media coverage.
The perpetrator was detained under the Mental Health Act, giving him anonymity as a NHS patient. We cannot be sure whether this man was driven by the same hateful rationale as the Arena bomber. The unidentified knifeman will be given drugs and counselling and soon he’ll be discharged on a community supervision order. Neighbours will be unaware of his doings, and the danger he poses.
McNaughten was heading for the gallows, but was acquitted on the defence of partial insanity.
Precedent for this judicial re-labelling of terrorism goes back to a 20th June 1843, when a young Scotsman named Daniel McNaughten attempted to assassinate prime minister Sir Robert Peel. Having a history of persecutory delusions, McNaughten waited outside Peel’s house, but shot and killed private secretary Edward Drummond by mistake.
Tried for murder, McNaughten was heading for the gallows, but to public outrage he was acquitted on the defence of partial insanity and sent to a criminal lunatic asylum. The House of Lords sought clarification from judges on culpability, and their answers became known as the McNaughten Rules.
For a defence of insanity, it must be proved that at the time of the crime the accused was devoid of reason, diseased of mind or unable to know that what he was doing was wrong. On this overlap of criminal, moral and concepts, leading psychiatrists Henderson and Gillespie (1950) remarked:
Whereas it is nominally required in the trial of a person pleading insanity to extenuation of the crime that evidence be taken both on his general state of mind at the time of commission of the crime and on his knowledge of the moral nature of the act, it is to the latter that attention is particularly or entirely devoted by the court. Consequently, it not infrequently happens that a person, who, from a general survey of his mental state was undoubtedly insane at the time, is found sane in respect of the criminal act. It follows that a man can legally be hanged for murder, and yet be regarded by the same court as unfit to take care of himself.
Morality may have been prominent in past judgments, but nowadays it is too politically sensitive to the multiculturalist agenda (witness the reluctance of public bodies to engage in the Prevent scheme). As mass murder for politicised Islam could spur public unrest with rabble-rousing Tommy Robinson rallies, the establishment is desperate to decouple terrorism from the fervid faith of terrorists.
Arguably, medicalising terrorism is an unwritten strategy of the state to maintain order and inter-community relations. This is ironic after an enduring public educational campaign against the stigmatising association of mental illness and violence.
There is no certain dividing line between the sane and insane. A mentally imbalanced person may be more prone to persuasion by cults or convoluted conspiracy theories, or to taking passages of scripture out of context.
As Peter Hitchens remarked, many a terrorist has been found to have dabbled in psychoactive drugs. But whatever the passionately-held beliefs of the killer, retrospectively diagnosed drug-induced psychosis could refute his agency – and his claim to be fighting for Islam.
Prisons are hives of radicalised, angry Muslim men, in which an inmate’s murderous rampage is likely to gain respect rather than revulsion. Detention in a mental hospital as a madman not only strips the perpetrator of political glory, but the authorities believe that this desultory fate will deter budding martyrs.
The successful suicide bomber will never be assessed by a psychiatrist: his mission is completed, and the threat to Western civilisation grows.
(Dr Niall McCrae is a lecturer in mental health, and a writer on social and political affairs. He regularly contributes to The Salisbury Review and Bruges Group website, and has written two books: The Moon and Madness, and Echoes from the Corridors: The Story of Nursing in British Mental Hospitals)