The attack on Salman Rushdie - From a psychological perspective

Updated on 11th November, 2022

Religious extremism and narcissism could be highly interrelated, says new research. The recent attack on Salman Rushdie demonstrates the 'dark psychological traits' that underlie religious extremism. Research investigating the psychology and traits associated with religious extremism shows why the author, Salman Rushdie, was brutally attacked two weeks ago.

On the 12th of August, Indian-born British-American citizen Salman Rushdie was attacked and repeatedly stabbed as he prepared to step on stage to speak at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Following the stabbing, Rushdie was urgently rushed to a hospital for surgery to prevent him from losing life-threatening blood levels.

Rushdie attacked in broad daylight
Rushdie attacked in broad daylight

That same evening, he was placed on a ventilator, still in critical condition, and doctors reported that he might lose one of his eyes due to the damage received. Fortunately, Rushdie regained consciousness on Monday 15th of August and was reported to be awake and articulate by police investigators. His attacker, a 24-year-old man, named Hadi Matar, was subdued and promptly arrested at the scene following the attack. Following the aftermath, officials stated that Matar's attack on Rushdie was premeditated and extensively planned and prepared for. 

'The attack on the author was premeditated and targeted,' stated the case's prosecutors. 'Matar traveled by bus to the intellectual retreat in western New York and purchased a pass that allowed him to attend the talk Rushdie was to give Friday morning.' Although no official motive was released, the reasons behind the attack are highly evident when we consider the context behind it - A context of religious extremism. 

Over the past 30 years, Rushdie has been continuously targeted by Muslim extremists due to allegations of blasphemy and insults to the prophet Muhammad. Because of these allegations, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa on Rushdie, acting as a bounty for his life. Although Rushdie managed to remain protected in the west and live a relatively public life, Matar's religious fanaticism quickly ended this when he rushed onto the stage. The question remains: What pushes these people to go to such extremes to neglect the law and fulfill religious edicts?

Poisonous views
Poisonous views

Well, psychologists investigating this phenomenon have come up with a few theories that explain this type of behavior. To answer this, we turn to the works of John Crayton (1993), who outlines various reasons that potentially drive Matar and other extremists' behaviors. How does a seemingly average person bring himself to conjure the necessary hate and willpower to publicly murder someone he has never met? A critical element of religion is the extreme self-identification of followers with their respective religions' prophets and principles.

Because of this, any insult to the highly self-identified principles is taken personally, eliciting high levels of rage and vengeful anger. In the case of Matar, his drive was fuelled by the allegations against Salman and the fatwa ordered by a high-ranking religious leader, Khomeini. According to research, narcissists are highly susceptible to this psychological trap. People with narcissistic traits have an over-inflated sense of self, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of apparent empathy for others. Referred to as the Narcissistic Rage Hypothesis, people who commit acts similar to Matar's most likely possess a high level of narcissistic traits within their personalities.

Commited to the cause - Jail time no concern
Commited to the cause - Jail time no concern

'Terrorism is an attempt to acquire or maintain power or control by intimidation,' says lead researcher John Crayton. In his words, he believes that two significant narcissistic dynamics are responsible for extremist behaviors. These are:

1. A Grandiose Sense of Self: This is an unrealistic sense of superiority where an individual believes themselves to be unique and better than others. This also causes them to look down on others for their class, perceived intelligence, or physical appearance. 

2. An Idealized Parental Ego: Refers to the need to be admired and considered perfect. In the case of religious extremism, it's something like 'If I can't be perfect, at least I'm associated with something perfect.' According to Crayton, these two processes form the foundation of an extremist's psyche. When paired together, they become extremely sensitive to an insult or attack on the self (i.e., religious beliefs).  'If the psychological form of the 'idealized' parental ego is not counterbalanced, it can produce a condition of helpless defeatism, and narcissistic defeat can lead to reactions of rage and a wish to destroy the source of narcissistic injury,' says Crayton.

Considering this, we can understand what drove the violent emotions that caused Matar to brutally stab Rushdie in front of a large audience, knowing that he probably wouldn't have been able to escape without being arrested. Although there are multiple other explanatory reasons for these behaviors, understanding the association between narcissism and religious extremism helps prevent future attacks. Throughout society, individuals with narcissistic tendencies may be at risk of identifying with fanatic religious beliefs and undertaking horrendous acts. Hence, governments and other institutions must integrate this information into policy-making decisions to attack religious extremism at its roots, which is in the killer's mind.

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