Dostoevsky’s Strange Ideas and the Modern Terrorist

While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him. [1]

​The quotation above is less a reflection of what Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) actually said — as it remains unverified but frequently cited — but more of what the Russian author’s novels continue to offer us: an understanding of the evildoer. His novel, Crime and Punishment, is known for its harrowing depiction of the mind of an ideological murderer. Do his predictions about ideological radicalization hold true for the most seemingly inexplicable crimes of our day, namely suicide terrorism? Dostoevsky attempts to give us answers to three questions that relate to terrorism: what kind of idea can drive a person to murder? What kind of person can be so driven by an idea? Moreover, in what kind of social setting can such a process take place? Dostoevsky’s answers, as will be seen, often accurately predict the motivations observed in modern-day terrorists.

The Idea

We learn of Raskolnikov’s utilitarian justification for murder in a flashback scene when he recalls overhearing two men in a tavern discussing the idea that had just occurred to him when he met the old moneylender: that perhaps someone should kill her, take her vast wealth, and distribute it to the thousands of poor throughout the city of St. Petersburg, thereby saving thousands of lives. One of the men in the tavern calls this idea “simple arithmetic.” At hearing this, Raskolnikov is astounded at the coincidence of how he himself harbored these thoughts and after months of deliberation over this “strange idea,” he eliminates any mental objections to it.

​Several explanatory theories for the modern phenomenon of terrorism exist. The most widespread of these is that Islam itself is the primary cause of such violence. The data, however, shows that religious knowledge and adherence is not a key factor in predicting radicalization, and in fact may be negatively correlated. According to MI5’s Behavioral Science Unit, most British terrorists do not have an in-depth knowledge of religion and are “religious novices” [2]. In addition, prior to their radicalization or even after, they often behaved in ways that are contradictory to the Islamic orthodoxy for which they claim to fight, such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs, or visiting prostitutes [2,3].

​Clearly, religion plays some role in uniting members of such organizations and providing a discourse of moral superiority. Nevertheless, religious arguments alone provide insufficient justification. The University of Chicago’s Professor Robert Pape compiled the largest database on suicide terrorism around the world from the 1980’s to the mid-2000’s. He neatly summarizes the terrorist’s utilitarian justification in his 2005 book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism:

there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any of the world’s religions. […] Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. [4]

This is the murderous logic employed by the modern terrorist: that to kill a small number of innocent civilians could motivate world powers to withdraw from conflicts that cost many more lives. Daesh propaganda exemplifies this justification. Their conception of ‘homeland’ is the lost caliphate, an idealized notion of the Islamic world that extended from Spain to Southeast Asia centuries ago. This is the mythic homeland from which they want to expel Western influence. Their consistent use of the term ‘Crusaders’ to describe the West reveals intent to cast Western governments as active invaders who bring suffering for Muslims.

​The idea, then, that can drive a person to utilitarian murder is one that places the criminal himself in the morally superior position. However, importantly, as distinguished Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank notes, Raskolnikov’s radicalization relied on more than just the superior logic of his justification. Rather, the entire process was only made possible by his “fierce and self-absorbed egoism,” his “innate extremism,” and “a desire for self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom” [5].

The Person

​As for the egoism that drove Raskolnikov to commit his crime, Dostoevsky gradually reveals this underlying psychology until even Raskolnikov himself realizes that his supposedly humanitarian reasons were not his true motivators, confessing, “Listen: I wanted to become a Napoleon, that’s why I killed..” He continues, “It wasn’t to [..] make myself a benefactor of humanity. Nonsense! I just killed. I killed for myself, for myself alone” [6]. Raskolnikov was driven by acute insecurity that made him need “to find out [..] was I a quivering creature or did I have the right…?” [6]. For if he could bring himself to disregard the most basic human injunctions against murder, then he could count himself among the class of men that Napoleon occupied: men who justified their crimes and were later glorified for them as “masters of the future” [6]. The utilitarian ideals that seemed to motivate Raskolnikov were contradicted by both his unsympathetic thoughts and actions and his underlying egoistic search for self-validation.

Frank adds to this understanding by arguing that Raskolnikov’s nature is inherently extreme and that he has innate desires for martyrdom. One such example of Raskolnikov’s desire for heroic martyrdom is his previous insistence on marrying the daughter of his landlord despite her great disabilities and lower social standing and over the wishes of his family. He saw this as an opportunity for him to act in a way that made him seem the noble hero [5].

The similarity here to modern terrorists in terms of a culture of heroic martyrdom and a search for self-validation is quite clear. According to the University of Chicago’s Dana Rovang, Daesh filmmakers mimic well-known Hollywood narrative techniques, such as the “Hero’s Journey” plot progression, in order to cast their fighters as heroic martyrs [7]. Despite coming from diverse educational backgrounds, most British terrorists work in low-grade jobs suggesting thwarted aspirations that may lead to a loss of direction and a need for validation [2]. Raskolnikov, too, was unemployed and had his student dreams thwarted by economic hardship at the time of his radicalization. The intimate psychology of indiscriminate murder found in Crime and Punishment helps us to understand what may be going on in the minds of some such criminals when innate compassion is gradually made subordinate to distorted ideologies and egos.

The Social Setting

​Dostoevsky’s cautionary tale should prompt us to re-examine the social conditions that contribute to the rise of ideological crimes, as Dostoevsky’s key talent was “this ability to integrate the personal with the major social-political and cultural issues of his day” [5]. Jürgen Habermas, one of the foremost theorists of modernity, argues that the modern project will fail, unless we have “an awareness of what is missing” in our societies that leads people to a constant search for meaning and purpose in their lives [8]. This meaning was previously provided by religion, but has been largely pushed out in in the West in favor of Enlightenment rationalism and individualism. Weber called this process ‘disenchantment’ [9]. This disappearance of meaning in everyday life is a central challenge in modern Western societies.

​The search for personal meaning is also at the heart of Raskolnikov’s crimes and it seems likely that it animates crimes of modern terrorists as well. Despite the tendency to perceive groups like Daesh as backwards or even “medieval,” their projects are actually only made possible by the social conditions, ideas, and technologies — like the internet and modern weaponry— that have emerged during the modern period (a topic previously discussed here) [10]. Young, socially alienated men with little meaning in their lives are particularly susceptible to the heroic narratives told by online recruitment networks. The search for meaning is part of what drives them to such extreme acts. Even Raskolnikov was influenced by a growing sense that the path he was on was what he was meant to be doing. When chance occurrences seemed to point him towards the murder, he thought it was “as if there really were something preordained in it all, some sign…” [6].

​In this way, Dostoevsky manages to weave into his narrative an element of coincidence and unpredictability that is also typical of terrorism. For just as we can’t fully predict who will be radicalized or when attacks will occur, there were often moments when Raskolnikov was spurred on by events of random chance that implied metaphysical purpose. This occurred most prominently just before the murder when he turned away from his “damned dream” and prayed for guidance. ​

Yet what returns him to the path of murder, and perhaps what solidifies the act for many unsure would-be murderers and terrorists, is the sudden appearance of a clear path, an opportunity to carry out their ‘strange’ ideas. This occurred when Raskolnikov serendipitously learned “that the very next day, at such-and-such a time, such-and-such a woman — the object of an intended murder — would be home alone” [6]. It is this knowledge that eventually leads him to her apartment the next day with a hidden axe and a supposedly humanitarian sanction to murder.

​Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment humanizes the experience of radicalization. We see Raskolnikov struggle with the murderous idea and his own revulsion towards it, when he asks himself, “but will that really happen? Surely it can’t, can it?” [6]. Closer to the murder, he wakes from a nightmare and exclaims, “My God! Will I really — I mean, really — actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? [..] Lord, will I really?” [6]. Raskolnikov even has moments when he entirely turns away from his “strange idea” asking God for help to “show me my path, while I renounce this damned … dream of mine!” [6]. The gradual breakdown of Raskolnikov’s innate humanity and compassion is perhaps the most intimate portrait of the radicalization of a terrorist that we can read today. Reading Crime and Punishment can be an exercise in truly understanding the “evildoer.”

This analysis may also provide an opportunity for much-needed societal reflection. Although we need not accept Dostoevsky’s social prescription of a return to the Russian Orthodox Church, it is clear that his critiques of modernization endure, as the social problems he warned of persist. This acknowledgement provides an important opportunity to return to the question and finally address “what is missing.” On the heels of the horrific murders of Jewish congregants in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, we cannot ignore the complex interplay of political, socioeconomic, and emotional factors that birth the dark psychological machinations comprising the modern terrorist.

Works Cited:

  1. Rex A. Hudson, Marilyn Lundell Majeska, and Library of Congress. Federal Research Division., The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?: A Report (Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1999). 15.
  2. Alan Travis, “Mi5 Report Challenges Views on Terrorism in Britain,” The Guardian, 20 August 2008.
  3. Dalia Mogahed and Fouad Pervex, “American Muslim Poll: Participation, Priorities, and Facing Prejudice in the 2016 Elections,” (Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 2016).
  4. Robert Anthony Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 2005). 2. emphasis added
  5. Joseph Frank and Mary Petrusewicz, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  6. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Oliver Ready, Crime and Punishment (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).
  7. Chuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, “How Isis Recruiting Videos Mirror Hollywood Scripts,” ABC7 Eyewitness News, 9 February 2016.
  8. Jürgen Habermas, An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2010). 19
  9. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Cultural Memory in the Present (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003).
  10. “Isis and What It Means to Be Modern,” BBC, 11 July 2014.

Image: mahsamirzaie

About the Author: Iman Masmoudi is a guest contributor. She is a student of law and political theory and the President of Tuniq, a cooperative for North African inspired anti-capitalist clothing. Her interests lie in Islamic pedagogy, legal pluralism, and human stewardship of the earth. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

One thought on “Dostoevsky’s Strange Ideas and the Modern Terrorist

  1. I have yet to read Crime and Punishment, but this made me more enthusiastic to do so. It seems like – unlike popular rhetoric of making the terrorist/evildoer either the victim of their circumstances or the sole harbinger of evil – manifestation is the culmination of the right (not morally, ofc) factors, right psychological mindset, at the right time.

Leave a Reply