What Motivated Binghamton’s Jihadist to Murder Professor Antoun?

On December 5th, 2009, Abdulsalam S. al-Zahrani, a 46 year old Binghamton University graduate student — who is a citizen of Saudi Arabia — murdered 77 year old Professor Emeritus of anthropology, Richard T. Antoun. He stabbed him four times, with a six inch knife. This news story caught my attention, partly because I live in Binghamton NY and attended Binghamton University. But, most of all, there is a mystery here that perplexes me: What motivated al-Zahrani to murder Professor Antoun? I haven’t interviewed al-Zahrani. Consequently, what follows is very speculative. So, take it for what it’s worth.

From the news reports, one learns that al-Zahrani was upset because his doctoral dissertation, in anthropology, had either not yet been accepted or else it had been outright rejected. (It is not clear from the news reports.) al-Zahrani was frustrated by the fact that university funding had ceased for him and he didn’t have a job. Writing a dissertation and getting it accepted by a graduate committee can be far more frustrating and stressful than most people realize, especially if one’s funding from the university is running out and one is beginning to experience financial hardships. But, needless to say, for someone to commit murder, there has to be a lot more involved than just getting one’s dissertation rejected.

According to Broome County’s district attorney, Gerald F. Mollen, there was “no indication of religious or ethnic motivation…” Similarly, Binghamton University’s president, Lois B. DeFleur, immediately referred to the murder as “an act of senseless violence.” They contend that al-Zahrani is simply insane. Is al-Zahrani insane or are Mollen and DeFleur seeking to avoid an inconvenient truth? In other words, is al-Zahrani an Islamic fanatic, a jihadist?

Sudden Jihad Syndrome
Since September 11, 2001, something terrible has been occurring, on average once every eight weeks: there has been an incident in which Americans are murdered by Islamic jihadists — right here in the United States! They have taken place at shopping mauls, Jewish religious centers and elsewhere. Most media have either downplayed these murders or simply not reported them, no doubt out of political correctness. In other cases — such as with the D.C. snipers — the fact that the killers were converts to Islamic radicalism are not connected to jihadist terrorism. In any case, the murder of Professor Antoun is really not an isolated incident, but part of a syndrome.

Some terrorism experts have used the term “Sudden Jihad Syndrome,” although human beings do not all of a sudden become jihadists, even if it does seem to happen rather fast. It’s just that no one chose to notice the person’s odd behavior, until it was too late. And even then, authorities may deny that it has anything to do with terrorism, as they did at Fort Hood and art Binghamton too.) There is, indeed, a certain resemblance between al-Zahrani and the Muslim Psychiatrist who went on a murderous rampage, at Fort Hood. In a TV interview, al-Zahrani’s housemate, Jules Sakho, stated: “[Al-Zahrani] was all the time shouting in Arabic, shouting threats, insulting this country for no reason.” One of his neighbors, another graduate student named Luis Penn, stated that al-Zahrani had once said: “I feel like just waking up and destroying the world.”

Insanity Meets Politics and Religion
Could it be that al-Zahrani was both insane and a committed jihadist? Might the appeal of radical Islam be that it allows its followers to meld personal psychopathology with politics and religion? If so, it allows murderers to, in essence, declare: “I’m no vicious monster. I’m a true believer, following Allah’s commandment to carry out Jihad against the infidels!” This allows those who wish to commit murder to feel vindicated, for it is apparently for a higher cause. In that sense, radical Islam is akin to other totalitarian creeds, such as fascism and communism. According to The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press, 1991), during the Twentieth Century, about 100 million people have been murdered in the name of communism.

Might it be, then, that there are people who long to commit murder and turn to religion and politics so as to have a justification for doing so? Here, again, we may say that such an individual is insane. But the notion of criminal insanity exists because the older notion, the notion that some people are evil, seems too difficult to comprehend, for evil is a very elusive notion. But just because something defies reason, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

The Choice of a Victim
Why, then, did al-Zahrani chose to murder a seventy-eight year old retired professor who, by all accounts, was a goodhearted and decent person person? It could be that murderous jihadists, like al-Zahrani, choose their victims randomly. Maybe, then Professor Antoun was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. More than likely, though, there is a psychological logic to the choice of victims. And besides, the fact that al-Zahrani brought his knife with him, that day, suggests that the murder was premeditated.

Who was Professor Antoun? He was an expert on Middle Eastern society and knowledgeable about Islam. He was Roman Catholic, with a grandfather who had been Muslim. Antoun’s wife, though, was Jewish and one can only suspect that al-Zahrani knew this. Was al-Zahrani an anti-Semite? We do not really know, but it would certainly come as no surprise to learn that a jihadist was a virulent Jew-hater.

More than likely, Al-Zahrani had ambivalent feelings towards Professor Antoun. He probably admired and envied him for having become a distinguished person, respected in academia. He was the person whom Al-Zahrani wished to become.

But Al-Zahrani probably also experienced a hatred born of envy towards Professor Antoun. After all, Professor Antoun at 46 was a distinguished professor, but Al-Zahrani at 46 was still struggling. After his dissertation was rejected, he may well have had the humiliating sense of being a miserable failure.

Furthermore — and here is a case of sour grapes — he may have viewed Professor Antoun as a person who had sold out to become successful. To his mind, Professor Antoun had betrayed Islam by marrying a Jewess, which to him was probably equivalent to marrying the devil. I.E., he saw Professor Antoun as a person who had compromised his values. Needless to say, Al-Zahrani had an absurdly twisted view of who Professor Antoun was as a person. In any case, Al-Zahrani saw himself, by contrast, as superior to Professor Antoun, for he, al-Zahrani, had not sold out.

The crisis came when Al-Zahrani encountered some real difficulties with his dissertation and experienced the stress of having his plans to become a person of significance indefinitely waylaid. In order to preserve his rapidly diminishing sense of self-respect, he had to utterly reject the world that Professor Antoun embodied. Instead of becoming a successful professor, he would become a jihadist, a terrorist, and an enemy of Western values. His first and decisive act in rejecting academia — and, more generally, Western culture, society and values — was to kill Professor Antoun, who had become a symbol to him of that world.

In killing Professor Antoun, he was also killing the world of knowledge, learning and thinking. Apparently, that had to be killed if he were to live by faith alone, as a true believer in Allah.

Resolving Ambivalence through Murder
There always seems to be ambivalence in the minds of terrorists. If we analyze the lives of Mohamed Atta and the 911 terrorists, we see that they both longed for life’s pleasures, but simultaneously hated themselves for desiring them. This ambivalence particularly showed up in their attitude towards women. They disdained women and were supposed to be purifying themselves prior to September 11th, but they spent their last days drinking and seeing strippers and prostitutes. Major Hasan, the murderous Fort Hood psychiatrist, also frequented such establishments.

So it is that future jihadists long for a certain life but simultaneously hate it. Rather than seeking to illuminate their dark feelings and purify their will, they murder the world that attracts them. In the case of the September 11th terrorists, it meant destroying the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and maybe the White House. In the case of al-Zahrani, it simply meant murdering Professor Antoun. Here, again, all this is highly speculative, but it may at least provoke some serious thought about the darker side of human beings.

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One Person has left comments on this post

» Dana said: { Jan 12, 2011 - 08:01:08 }

Very Impressive Dr. Dillof! I think this is very keenly analyzed. I think it is really all the undealt anger and bitterness inside which is unmanageable which leads people to do hideous acts and Jihad has become a moral way of doing something intensely immoral. As you put it “nsanity meets politics and religion”. I dont think islam and any religion has anything to do with murders. It is the angry, upset, uncontrolled, weak, ambivalent mind which wants to murder the apparent devil out there whereas the devil is right inside and the solution is to turn to light and murder the ignorance. Why can’t we glamorize love?

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