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The Concept of Honor in Jihadi Culture

Psychological Point of View

Honor (Sharaf) and dignity (Karama) are central ingredients in the Arab society and particularly in the jihadi one. Violating one’s honor might bring a death penalty to the violator and violating the group’s honor may bring about harsh violent retaliation. This paper will examine the meaning of honor from a psychological point of view, the importance attributed to it by the jihadi culture and ramifications of violating it in the context of terror attacks. The paper will analyze the concept of honor using psychoanalytic and group theories and will serve as a basis for a series of papers discussing the honor concept in various jihadi organizations and its contribution to their motivation to carry out terror attacks.

Certain groups and organizations are characterized by a “Culture of Honor”,[1] a strong concern to the image an honor of the individual member and the entire organization that leads to over sensitivity, as well as willingness to resort to violence due to what is perceived as an insult or wrongdoing. Such organizations have a strict set of rules that determine how one pays and receives respect and preserve the stability of the organization’s day to day conduct. In times of crisis when the organization is under a threat, these rules are being used to produce identification with the organization’s successes, to reinforce self-esteem and public image of the organization and its members.[2]

Large groups, i.e. religions, nations and other large organizations, preserve and cultivate past events and heroes (e.g. military, technological, artistic and political achievements) in the form of mental representation of success and victories. Throughout the ages, these representations undergo glorification, become mythologized and turn into markers of “Chosen Glory”, a shared group experience that represents the value of the group.[3] In turn, they are being preserved and pre passed down through generations, thus satisfying the group’s needs for pride and reinforce its cohesiveness. That said, societies use honor as a main defense mechanism against strong feelings of devaluation thus the chosen glory does not provide an experience of value and satisfaction but rather a denial mechanism against humiliation and inferiority feelings.

According to the Social Identity Theory, group identity is a unique feature.[4] Following, being part of the group serves to enhance self-esteem through a comparison between the in-group that the individual is a member of and an out-group towards which the individual feels distance and objection. From this point of view, groups compete not just for physical resources, but also to amplify the group’s identity and self-esteem, as well as that of its members. Engaging in gaining respect and in preserving honor fortifies the stability of the group and its public image, both within the course of the day and in times of crisis. As such it serves not just as a defense mechanism against loss and pain, but also enables an experience of acceptance, belonging and identity. Self-esteem and honor serve as a distinct motivation that drives behavior (among groups) whose purpose is to increase the member’s self-esteem and image as well as the image of the entire group.[5] In a continued state of conflict and fighting, typical of active terrorist organizations, there is an  increased need to fortify the self-esteem and honor of the members and of the organization as a way to distinguish it from various out-groups.

To achieve such a fortification of self-esteem, the members of the in-group use two distinct and complementary tactics: (i) “Basking in Reflected Glory” (BIRG), is a proactive tactic when an individual publicly declares his connection to a certain successful in-group. This tactic is very effective when the public image of the individual or the organization is threatened, such as in a state of war or other violent conflict;[6] (ii) “Cutting off Reflected Failure” (CORF), is a responsive tactic when an individual distance himself from belonging to failing group to avoid an injury to his self-worth and honor.[7]

An important tool to understand the connection between self-esteem, honor and violence may be found in Freud’s classic paper[8] by understanding that “the secret of heroism lies in the thought that nothing can happen to you” (pp. 296-297) and therefore “war forces us…to be heroes who do not believe in their death” (p. 299). In other words, the narcissistic power illusion of members of a group who is belligerent and charges into battle promising honor and glory, is in fact an expression of the denial of the possibility of death. This understanding is supported by the Terror Management Theory (TMT) and the body of research stemming from it, that demonstrated that people’s adherence to cultural concepts, especially those who promise belonging, self-worth and honor (such as the Culture of Honor) may be explained as a defense from the inevitable death.[9]

The Concept of Honor in the Arab and Islamic Society

To understand the concept of honor and its roots in the jihadi culture one must examine the pre-Islamic Arab culture and the roots of Islam itself. Going back to the tribal pre-Islamic period, honor had a lot of weight in determining the social status of a person and the definition of relationship among individuals, families and tribes. Honor manifests collective responsibility[10] and in this period, the chieftain’s honor was significantly dependent on his success to take care of his tribesmen well-being. This was a central theme and required developing balance and repair mechanisms and thus if a certain tribe’s honor was infringed upon by another tribe, it could have been restored through blood vengeance or monetary compensation. One may therefore assume that honor in the tribal society served as a tool to distinguish between in-groups and out-groups, to create a sense of belonging and self-worth and establish balance and societal stability. Further, achievements that gain male honor actually reflect many practical aspects relevant to prosperity and stability in that time frame and location. For example, siring many children, males in particular, attested to manliness, courage[11] and a chieftain’s success to impose his authority on his clan. The “Muruwah” (manhood) is a term that was prevalent in that society[12] and provided a code of conduct for the Arab tribes according to which every member of the tribe had to defend his relatives in cases when doubt was cast at the tribe’s honor.[13]

One may infer from the above that in the pre-Islamic tribal culture insults and infringing on one’s honor were indeed cause for violent retaliation however, such a response was pragmatic and required to maintain social stability and tribal structure. We assume that over the years, the concept of honor transformed from a means to express appreciation to the value of the in-group and a tool to preserve it, to goal in and of itself. In fact, the honor’s function gradually changed from a means to build a sense of worth and partnership in success, to a compensation mechanism that enables the denial of worthlessness, humiliation and pain. A society typified by such a mechanism loses its ability for tolerance, compromise and integration. Honor turned into a monolithic need that took over the group instead of serving its needs.[14] An expression of such transformation can be seen in attributing honor to the warrior “superman” ridding the world from infidels, a defensive attribution intended to deny women’s existence and liberating the man from his unconscious fear of dependence and neediness they represent.[15]

With the rise of Islam, the tribal concept of honor and the duty to exact blood revenge allegedly tamed, but in fact underwent displacement and projection and were manifested in other components relating to the concept of honor, primarily Allah and Mouhammad’s honor. Allah and Mouhammad’s honor concept brought about a theological development in Islam according to which whomever curses the prophet and injures his honor or injures the name of Allah is considered an apostate punishable by death.[16]

Islam expanded the definition on the in-group that until then consisted of just the local tribe into the entire Islamic nation. In this context, the honor culture in Islamic society is manifested in a “triangle” consisting of the values of honor, shame and revenge. Honor is the most important value of the three, in some cases even more important than life itself. Once the honor is harmed, the ensuing shame may be erased only through revenge. It is evident that this violent process starts at the individual level and spreads to the community and national levels.

Honor in Jihadi Culture

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the modern west, the threat to the self-esteem of Muslims intensified and brought to extreme need for honor. Examples for the product of this process are evident in Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda leader, speeches.[17] In a series of speeches regarding the Arab revolutions following the “Arab Spring” he addressed multiple times the wishes and the promise that the Islamic Nation will restore its old glory and Islam will eventually rule. In the first speech, al-Zawahiri stressed the importance of Dawah and Jihad in Eastern Africa and called to implement sharia in the region and alongside that, defend the holy places and the honor of the Muslims in Eastern and Central Africa. In another speech, he emphasized that jihadists wish to protect the freedom, honor, and glory of the Islamic Nation everywhere and to liberate them from the shackles of humiliation.

It is assumable that the rigid distinction in jihadi culture between the in-group and the out-group, when the in-group includes the organization’s members and the out-group includes all “infidels”, clearly marks the borders of the in-group and preserves its value. The above may exemplified through the use terror organizations make of Takfir (a declaration that an individual or a group are apostates and no longer belong to Islam).[18] In fact, the Takfir serves as a license for violence among Muslims, especially in a sectorial environment, to protect the group from potentially harmful outside influences.

The pursuit of glory, typical to jihadi culture, is manifested by a promise of a successful future and a group victory.[19] A successful implementation of the above comes into play on the recruitment process of young people to jihadi organizations. The recruits’ profile is often that of members of fringe groups of society who feel humiliation, anxiety and difficulties to be employed. This weakness makes them vulnerable to the influence of charismatic leaders and metaphors of glory that will be achieved through a cosmic war. These terrorist movements provide for these young people an alternative community, a sense of belonging to a new group, ideology and hope.[20] The need to gain power or exclusivity enables the group to exert a reaction formation and denial mechanisms against feelings of worthlessness of its members, which are being triggered when facing out-groups that are being perceived as more valuable. A salient example of that is the religious perception of jihadi organizations according to which Islam is superior to all other religions and therefore a situation where it is not the ruling religion required remedial action.[21]

In summation, this paper examined that concept of honor in the jihadi society as a result of its psychological transformation from an expression of value in the early tribal society, through its expansion to serve the entire Islamic Nation, to its conversion into a defense mechanism against worthlessness. Its contemporary use was exemplified using three concepts: in-group and out-group, a society of honor and glorification of heroes and myths. The use made by jihadi groups of the concept of honor is effective in terms of propaganda that drives people into action by offering the immediate gratification of belonging to a worthier group without the need for complex and frustrating struggles. Therefore, when relating to the motivation for jihadi terror, one needs to address this aspect (the need to enjoy past glory) and not just dismiss it as a primitive and inadequate defense mechanism. In the following papers, we will review the characteristics of honor in the Arab and Islamic society and analyze the changes these characteristics underwent in the jihadi society and in terror organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.


[1] Tom Gilovich, Dacher Keltner, Serena Chen, Richard E. Nisbett. (2018). Social Psychology (Fifth Edition). W. W. Norton & Company.

[2] Nisbett, R. E. (2018). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Routledge.‏

[3] Volkan, V.D. (2006). Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing.

[4] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-37). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

[5] Friedman, R. (2015). A soldier’s matrix: A group analytic view of societies in war. Group Analysis, 48, 1–19.

[6] Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman, & Sloan (1976). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34(3):366-375

[7] Snyder, C. R., Higgins, R. L., & Stucky, R. J. (1983). Excuses: Masquerades in search of grace. John Wiley & Sons.

[8] Freud, S. (1915). Thoughts for the times on war and death. Standard Edition, Vol. 14.‏

[9] Greenberg, J., & Arndt, J. (2011). Terror management theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology1, 398-415.‏

[10] Bukay, D. (2003). The First Cultural Flaw in Thinking: The Arab Personality. Nativ online1.

[11] A man’s honor is characterized by how courageous he was to protect his family from enemies. Blood vengeance is a major tool in restoring the family’s honor.

[12] A term encompassing qualities that describe the ideal man, among them, boldness, generosity and a sense of honor. See Wehr, Hans (1979), A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Arabic-English).

[13] Armstrong, Karen (2014), Fields of blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group‏.

[14] Stein, R. (2006). Ideologies of War. Fundamentalism, Father and Son, and Vertical Desire. The Psychoanalytic Review, 96(2), 201-229.

[15]Stein, R. (2002). Evil as Love and as Liberation. Psychoanal. Dial., 12:393-420

[16] Langer, L. (2014). Religious Offence and Human Rights: The Implications of Defamation of Religions, Cambridge University Press

[17] Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Rabia al-Islami, Beit al-Maqdas, 2018.

[18] Maher, S. (2016). Salafi-Jihadism: The history of an idea. Oxford University Press.

[19] Volkan, V.D. (2005). Large-group identity and chosen trauma. Psychoanalysis Downunder: The online journal of the Australian Psychoanalytical Society,p.6.

[20] Juergensmeyer, M. (2000), Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[21] Juergensmeyer, M. (2000), Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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