Former president of the American Sociological Association, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, remarked in 2006 “that the boundary based on sex creates the most fundamental social divide”. Therefore, scholars should take this divide into account when studying a social phenomenon. The statement was bold, and still is as it suggests that gender is at the root of social ills (and hence the solutions to them). Nevertheless, I want to suggest that an extreme manifestation of this divide, toxic masculinity, can be used to explain a contemporary social malaise, that is (the mindsets of) individuals who commit acts of terrorism in the name of religion. A brief explanation of toxic masculinity would help set the tone for its link to religious extremism.
In academic parlance, toxic masculinity describes negative socially constructed attitudes towards the male gender role. ‘Toxic’ refers to the effect this strand of masculinity can have on men (and women for that matter). It may be emotional damage in the sense of having to suppress interests and emotions traditionally seen as feminine such as being thought that “men don’t cry”. Then of course there is the physical manifestation of this toxicity where the man resorts to violence to demonstrate his masculinity which also helps to keep feminization at bay. The whole point of toxic masculinity is to show that masculinity is exclusive and exclusive at all costs to the individual. It offers no alternative discursive space for men who enjoy baking or cry easily. It encourages emotional distance and can lead to physical violence in one.
The link between toxic masculinity and violence committed in the name of religion is unmistakable. Muslims today dominate the headlines when incidents of religious extremism transpire. It is then common for innocent Muslims to have to explain to non-Muslims why these terrorists do what they do. Apart from the fact that there are non- Muslims who commit violence in the name of religion (one may think of the Christian fundamentalists in the US), there is one common factor among these terrorists acts: the perpetrators are almost always men. Other than religion, gender needs to be another social category studied to understand why men commit such violence. There has to be something wrong with the way these men are raised in their families. They may be indoctrinated to view women as inferior so that violence is seen as a naturally masculine form of expressing this superiority. It is an extreme form of patriarchy that normalizes violence against women, which then sets the precedent for violence against anyone who is seen to possess deviant religious beliefs.
The link between toxic masculinity and violence, whether committed in the name of religion or not, can also be seen in attacks where the victims are male individuals who do not conform to the heteronormativity that the perpetrator espouses. The Orlando night club murderer Omar Mateen shows how toxic masculinity promotes inequality by literally getting rid of deviant men, in this case homosexuals. For an attitude that is so destructive, toxic masculinity is also very basic as its roots go back to the household; there are news reports explaining how a significant number of men who kill have committed domestic violence. Toxic masculinity espouses the absence of empathy in men so that taking someone’s life is routine behaviour, if not honourable.
The reality is toxic masculinity knows no race nor religion. While extreme interpretations of religion can be used to explain why an individual commits a terrorist act (one done in the name of religion), it is not enough. Instilling religiosity and a thirst for religious knowledge in young men should not be divorced from efforts at instilling attitudes like chivalry and empathy in these same individuals. A nation reacts only when toxic masculinity is manifested publicly through a terrorist act committed by a zealot. Yet, this panic is a late reaction to the men who already feel entitled from young. Toxic masculinity begins at home. If we realize this fact, we can start changing the way we raise boys to be men.