Volume 18 Number 5
Defusing the Humiliation Bomb
01 October 2005

How do we react when we are treated unjustly, when we are pinned down, when we are shown, sometimes by force, that our will does not matter because someone else’s might is stronger?

Humiliation is the ‘nuclear bomb of feelings’, in the words of the psychologist and peace activist, Evelin Gerda Lindner.

I am sure that everyone has experienced an episode, if not more than one, when they have felt deeply humiliated.

How do we react when we are treated unjustly, when we are pinned down, when we are shown, sometimes by force, that our will does not matter because someone else’s might is stronger?

Many people are trapped in humiliating situations, where their dignity and selfrespect are continually violated. Some retreat and become closed-up, depressed and passive. Others convert their anger into an intense drive to change the situation. Still others are misled into thinking they can find a release in violent revenge.

We need to try to understand why people engage in acts that most of us consider immoral, inhuman, and incomprehensible. I think it’s because the perpetrators, correctly or not, perceive themselves to have been the victims of acts equally immoral, inhuman, and incomprehensible.

When seen through the prism of humiliation, the phenomenon of female suicide bombers shouldn’t surprise us. To varying degrees, girls grow up not only experiencing discrimination themselves, but seeing humiliation suffered by the women around them. For some there comes a time when the consciousness of inequality seeps in.

The goal of extremist leaders is to limit the choices that such a young woman feels she has. Once she is convinced that she has no other choice, she can be led to participate in desperate acts. Some women see extremism as offering a sense of equality, where value is measured by the level of your passion, not your position in society.

So how do we help change people’s psychology? Restoring dignity includes the provision of physical security and basic needs and rights. But none of this is enough until people’s psychological needs are addressed.

To start doing that, we have to reframe:

  • Who we listen to: do we only listen to the powerful, or are we also going to listen to communities, families, marginalized groups, and even groups who have been responsible for oppression and violence? Being listened to is one of the most fundamental ways of being accorded respect.

  • The religious discourse: in addition to inter-faith communication, we need more intra-faith dialogues within the Muslim world. Grievances and differences need to be heard and discussed; mainstream leaders need to explore how extremism has highjacked the discourse and how to reclaim it.

    Being a Muslim today carries with it a high risk factor. I was in New York during 9/11 and saw the devastation, panic and horrendous suffering and pain. I felt terrible, like everybody else, but worse once I found out the identity of the terrorists. It was as if I had been personally responsible! There’s been a tendency to lump all Muslims together. But there are those for whom the pain cuts very deep. Like me, they want to cry out that Islam does not equal terrorism.

    Some will express their hurt by playing out their faith more visibly through stricter attire and more austere behaviour. These external manifestations are not harmful and should not be looked upon with suspicion.

  • How young people see their future: many suicide bombers come from relatively educated, middle-class backgrounds and are not direct victims of material desperation. But they suffer from a desperation no less painful—the conviction that they have been collectively and utterly humiliated.

    Often an insult against one individual carries enough symbolic meaning to be taken as a collective insult. Take the example of the leaked pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underwear. He was a ruthless dictator. But when he was disrobed in front of the world, he wasn’t the only one humiliated.

    Unless young people are shown that they have a future of dignity and security and that they have access to decent jobs and can earn a respectful living, some will continue to think that they will find more respect as ‘martyrs’ for their cause.

  • Our culture: The first key to reframing a culture of war into a culture of peace is to get them while they’re young! Welldesigned programmes that teach nonviolence and conflict resolution should be implemented in as many schools as possible. We should also create more initiatives that promote good citizenship for adults. And, at every step along the way, women need to be there.

    More of us should learn how to pressure the media to uncover the culture of war. We should challenge the impression that war is inevitable and help unmask the highly organized business of the global exports of arms. The countries of the North often ask those of the South, ‘Why do you keep fighting?’ The real question is, ‘Why do you keep selling us arms?’

    Both on the level of the individual, and on the level of society, feelings of anger, grief, and humiliation need to be addressed before they become bitterness and desire for revenge.

Dr Aleya El Bindari-Hammad is a former Executive Director of the World Health Organization and is now Secretary General of the Women Defending Peace Coalition.

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