How Hamas weaponises victimhood

In 2023, we learned just how deadly identity politics can be.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics World

After Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel on 7 October, the speed with which woke Westerners came out in support of the terrorists remains shocking to recall. Within a matter of hours, pundits, activists and academics flooded social media to claim that this anti-Semitic pogrom was a form of anti-colonial resistance. Within days, they were out on the streets of Western cities staging ‘pro-Palestine’ protests, letting off celebratory flares and chanting the genocidal chant, ‘From the river to the sea’. It showed that identitarian Westerners are willing to justify violence, no matter how brutal, so long as it is perpetrated by certain identity groups.

This embrace of Hamas by these Westerners is not an aberration, however. It follows from the logic of identity politics itself.

There are two main reasons why identity politics and support for Hamas go hand in hand. Firstly, identity politics has sacralised victimhood. That is, it attributes an enormous amount of moral authority to groups and individuals on the basis of their perceived victimisation. As Palestinians have been uniformly framed as victims over several decades, they have a tremendous amount of moral authority in identitarian eyes. Secondly, for the woke, victims are by definition blameless. They can neither be doubted nor held responsible for their actions. In the eyes of Western identitarians, Hamas, as the representative of a blameless victim group, is not to be held responsible for what it did on 7 October.

Strikingly, Hamas and other reactionary Islamist groups have themselves bought into the language of victimisation and identity politics. They increasingly frame their actions in therapeutic terms. They present themselves as the traumatised victims of assorted forms of oppression. As Ghazi Hamad, a leading figure in Hamas, put it last month: ‘We are the victims of the [Israeli] occupation. Period. Therefore, nobody should blame us for the things we do. On 7 October, 10 October, 1,000,000 October – everything we do is justified.’

For Hamad, then, Hamas’s atrocities are righteous, blameless acts. He justifies his group’s violence as an understandable response to victimisation, or ‘occupation’, at the hands of Israel – despite the fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza 18 years ago.

This attempt to justify violence in therapeutic or psychological terms is not entirely new. Frantz Fanon, the Algerian philosopher and a progenitor of ‘decolonisation’ theory, was arguing something similar in the mid-20th century. In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), he claimed that violence can serve as a ‘cleansing force’ that can cure a colonial subject of his trauma and sense of victimisation. Violence, he continued, can embolden victims of colonisation and restore ‘their self-confidence’. Or, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the preface to The Wretched of The Earth: ‘Violence, like Achilles’ spear, can heal the wounds it has inflicted.’

Over recent decades, this type of psychological justification for violence has flourished on ground prepared by identity politics. The violent acts of certain groups are increasingly recast as the understandable actions of perennial victims traumatised by their oppressors.

This has even led to terrorism being rendered as an understandable response to ‘oppression’ by psychologically disturbed and traumatised victims. In the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, a journalist turned psychotherapist argued in the Guardian that ‘long-term, deep-set and unconscious trauma can do much to explain, for example, why 9/11 happened [and] why young Palestinians are killing themselves in suicide bombings’.

This has since become a commonplace argument, routinely deployed to explain away Islamist terrorism. And not just among avowed identitarians. Over the past two decades, policymakers and counter-terrorism experts throughout the West have increasingly interpreted terrorism in psychological and even therapeutic terms. Atrocities committed by so-called lone-wolf terrorists on the streets of Berlin, Paris and London have frequently been attributed to poor mental health. Even Prevent, the British government’s long-standing counter-terrorism strategy, rests, in part, on an idea of ‘radicalisation’ that conceives of terrorism as a psychological problem.

This therapeutic framing of terroristic violence is fundamentally flawed. In 2016, the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a paper that questioned the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy. Pointedly, it argued that ‘“radicalisation” is not a mental illness’. But such warnings have been to no avail.

Worse still, over the past two decades, Western political and cultural elites have projected their therapeutic and identitarian obsessions on to the domain of international politics. In doing so, they have helped to globalise assumptions around identity politics and victimhood.

The ease with which Hamas has used Western identity politics to justify its atrocities should serve as a wake-up call. It exposes just how much of a threat identity politics poses to a civilised society.

Until now, identity politics had mainly served as an instrument for shutting down discussion and shrinking the space available for the exercise of free speech. But as we learned in 2023, identity politics is underwriting the violent brutality of groups like Hamas. It has turned mass murder into a form of therapy for the supposedly oppressed. We underestimate its dangers at our peril.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

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Topics Politics World


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