There are many Hollywood horror movies that leave Arab viewers in a state of shock due to the sadism of murderers who torture their victims or take apparent pleasure in their pain.
Such films are sometimes grounded in Western philosophies that condone such movies on the grounds that they provide an outlet, even a purge, for the viewers’ inner frustrations and aggression.
But many critics insist that such films also give rise to violence, as viewers may be encouraged to carry out such scenes in real life.
However, in the Arab world today, such atrocities seen in films, whether considered simply fictional or offering dangerous incitation to carrying out such crimes in real life, have in some case unfortunately materialised in real life. We now see such bloody crimes occurring in the Arab world, in which there have been cases of criminals not just satisfied with killing their victims, but also abusing them in a vicious way.
Domestic crimes, including against children, have sadly also been occurring in the Arab world in stark contrast with Arab family ethics, which are the pillars of conservative Islamic societies.
Such shocking and brutal crimes have recently sparked debate about the possible changes in Arab societies that may have resulted in such unfamiliar crimes that contradict all deep-rooted religious and social values. These crimes have also opened a Pandora’s Box of questions about the remedies that should be adopted to curb such violence that threatens individuals and public safety.
It is not known how significant a phenomenon such brutal crimes are in the absence of statistics indicating their prevalence when compared to other forms of violence, including verbal violence. But if the media coverage is anything to go by, it is clear that there has been a recurrence of such unfamiliar crimes in several Arab countries over the past few years, though these may still be varied in terms of their motives, context, and pattern.
During 2020, brutal crimes took place in several Arab countries taking different patterns, and three of them are mentioned here as cases in point.
CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN AND CHILDREN
The murder of Shaima, a 19-year-old Algerian girl, entered the media spotlight last year after it was revealed that she had been raped and killed by a rapist of her own age.
It turned out that Shaima’s murderer had raped her in 2016 and had been sentenced to three years in jail. He then returned to rape and kill her in revenge immediately after he was set free. Shaima’s body was found burned inside a petrol station in the Boumerdes province of eastern Algeria.
Such horrific crimes have also taken place in other parts of the Arab world with different degrees of brutality. In Morocco, a child named Adnan was raped and killed at the hands of a 24-year-old man last year, while in Egypt the security forces arrested an unemployed stepfather for having raped a 24-month-old baby last year. A similar incident had taken place in Egypt three years before, and the man responsible had received the death penalty.
Crimes of revenge, originally a tribal tradition that has not died out with the advent of modernity and urbanisation, did not stop at killing the victim but could also involve abuse and torture.
In Jordan recently, a group of men attacked 16-year-old Saleh Hemdan in the Zarqa governorate in a revenge attack against his father who is currently in prison. The attackers reportedly amputated Hemdan’s hands and poked out his eyes before killing him. Similar brutality occurred in another crime of revenge in Lebanon, where the victim was killed by his ex-wife. Ibrahim Alawiya was tied to a bed and repeatedly stabbed by his ex-wife before he was killed.
There have been other domestic crimes elsewhere in the Arab region. One case in point was that of an Iraqi mother who dumped her two children in the Tigris River in Baghdad. It was reported that the murders had been motivated by the mother’s desire to take revenge on the children’s father and by her anger over the family’s living conditions.
In Egypt, a son killed his mother by pouring boiling oil on her in Giza, while a butcher killed his wife and cut her into pieces and put her in a refrigerator in the Haram district of the Giza governorate. A father killed his three sons and committed suicide in Syria.
VIOLENCE AND THE PANDEMIC
All these crimes took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, though it is not clear that there is any direct relation between the pressures of the pandemic and the brutality of the crimes.
Reports suggest that the pandemic has affected social violence in different ways. In some Arab countries, the lockdowns and social-distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus seem to have contributed to a reduction in the number of crimes such as theft and street violence. Crime statistics from Morocco, for instance, indicate an estimated 30 per cent drop in incidents of property-related robbery and a 4.7 per cent decrease in cases of personal theft.
This decline may be attributed to various factors, including greater social solidarity at times of major crisis, social-distancing during the pandemic, and a heavy security presence. However, at the same time the UN has warned that the pandemic has resulted in an almost 33 per cent increase in domestic violence against women, as well as an increase in the crimes of sexual harassment and assault.
The Algerian Network for the Defence of Children’s Rights, a NGO, registered about 800 cases of sexual abuse against children aged between three and 12 years old during the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in Algeria last year.
Various factors could explain this, including the fact that the pandemic has put additional stress on families and societies in the region. The economic recession associated with the spread of the virus has also resulted in increased rates of poverty and unemployment, while social-distancing may have deepened an already existing sense of isolation, leading to increased rates of anxiety and depression.
Such pressures could all provide fodder for different forms of violence. The accumulation of such problems and the weakening of the social inclusion that could have otherwise curbed individual violence may have led to a growing propensity towards violence among individuals already suffering from psychological disorders.
The relationship between the pandemic and violence notwithstanding, crime in general is usually interpreted in two main contexts. The first sees crime in its social context, looking at the political, economic, and broadly moral aspects of the environment in which a criminal grows up and rebels against.
The second explains crime in a more personal context, blaming the criminal himself for performing such abnormal acts. Commentators thus interpret each crime separately, depending on its motives and the circumstances surrounding it.
Looking at crime in its societal context, it is clear that the Arab region has been in turmoil over the last decade. The 2011 Revolutions and their aftershocks have yielded varying results in the Arab countries, sometimes providing a fertile soil for social violence.
Many factors have acted as catalysts for such violence during this period of chaos and insecurity, including the outbreak of armed conflicts, the rise in terrorism and organised crime, increasing rates of poverty and unemployment, a spike in divorce rates resulting in broken families, weakening religious values, laxity in enforcing the law because of weakened or disintegrating states, and the proliferation of cheap drugs.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic added additional pressures, and societies have thus become accustomed to an increase in all types of crimes, both in their usual and unusual forms.
But it seems that economic factors and living conditions have been a prime factor in the growth of social violence in the Arab region. For example, the 2020 Global Crime Index (NUMEBO), which measures crime rates in 133 countries, shows that the Arab Gulf countries have been safer than others in the region, reporting lower numbers of crimes like murder, theft, robbery, rape and others.
Qatar has the lowest crime rates of all, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Other countries in the eastern and western parts of the Arab world ranged between medium and high rates of crime, covering Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Syria, and Libya.
The results of the Index may indicate that crime rates decrease in countries enjoying a strong economy and high living standards, as is the case in the Gulf. Conversely, crime rates are higher in countries suffering from economic strains and low living standards. In the meantime, there is a direct relationship between political instability and the lack of security, on the one hand, and an increase in crime on the other.
Cases in point can be found in Libya and Syria, which were designated as the least safe countries in the Arab region. According to the Index, Libya ranked 115, while Syria ranked 124 in terms of safety.
Young men prominently featured in most of the brutal crimes recorded in 2020, whether as perpetrators or as victims. This should be taken into consideration when studying societal violence, particularly since young people already constitute a majority of the demographic structure of the Arab countries.
This link between age and crime is probably not confined to the Arab region. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 200,000 murders occurred in 2020 among young people aged between 10 and 29 years old. This means young people, and particularly young men, are involved in 43 per cent of all crimes worldwide.
The dilemma of many Arab young people lies in the widening gap between what they expect from governments and what services such governments can actually provide. They may experience frustrated hopes in the light of the spread of corruption and poor living conditions. These conditions are all expected to worsen in 2021, perhaps giving rise to even more societal violence.
A report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) warns that the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic will persist in the new year. Unemployment rates are expected to hit 12.5 per cent in the Arab region, and they will particularly affect 27 per cent of Arab youths. The report predicts that the highest unemployment rates will be in Palestine (31 per cent) and Libya (22 per cent). Poverty rates may reach 32 per cent, which means that 116 million individuals will be considered poor.
When young people have their expectations unfulfilled and feel they cannot afford to get married, build a family, or find a decent place to live, they may experience increased levels of anxiety and tension that in turn may give rise to violence. Some young people may also already be more inclined to violence, and they may grow more rebellious against the standards of their societies. For them, violence could be one way of expressing their sense of anger or be a form of self-assertion.
The fact that some people may already suffer from psychological disorders may also explain the emergence of the unusually brutal crimes that have been seen in recent years. Perhaps these criminals see themselves as in some way “taking revenge” against society as a whole rather than just killing their victims.
The degree of any given crime’s brutality would normally only reflect the severity of the mental illness of its perpetrator. But for many commentators, such individual incidents should also be interpreted in the larger context of the fact that the whole Arab region is suffering from collective psychological problems that may be the reason behind the emergence of both familiar and unfamiliar crimes.
According to a poll conducted by the research and polling organisation Arab Barometer, which included 25,000 people in the Middle East and North Africa region and was published on its Website in September, one-third of those surveyed said they had recently experienced a growing sense of anxiety.
The Arab countries that reported the highest levels of anxiety were Tunisia (53 per cent), Iraq (49 per cent), and Jordan (42 per cent). Respondents appeared to have lower levels of anxiety in countries like Egypt (27 per cent), Algeria (27 per cent), Sudan (22 per cent), and Kuwait (12 per cent).
The poll also revealed that three out of 10 people reported that they had been suffering from depression, meaning that some third of respondents were reportedly depressed. Iraq topped the list of those reportedly suffering depression (43 per cent) followed by Tunisia (40 per cent) and Palestine (37 per cent). In other Arab countries, respondents said they were less depressed, among them Algeria (20 per cent), Morocco (20 per cent) and Sudan (15 per cent).
Depression alone of course cannot be seen as a driving force for committing horrible crimes that also involve amputating the hands of a victim or killing a family member. But depression could be an impetus for such crimes when it is coupled with other factors including stressful living conditions, distorted values, a general sense of frustration, and the absence of any outlet for frustrated hopes or the loss of hope itself.
A CULTURE OF VIOLENCE
The results of the Arab Barometer report should not be viewed in isolation from the larger context of collective mental health in the Arab world, particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 revolutions and in the light of the rise of terror groups like the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda that condone terrorism and murder.
We can assume that there is a link between the brutality of IS terrorist attacks and brutal social crimes, since both were born in the same social environment of distorted values and unbalanced mental health. The two patterns of crimes, terrorist and societal, tend to feed off each other, spreading a culture of bloody violence. Some analysts would also put terrorists and the perpetrators of brutal crimes in the same category: whereas the first are psychopathic with a tendency towards violence and suicidal attacks, the second are probably mentally ill.
Amputating the hands and poking out the eyes of the Zarqa boy in Jordan in 2020 could bring to mind the way in which IS burned Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh alive in 2015 following a plane crash in Syria. In the same vein, the spread of societal crimes in Tunisia could also be linked to the fact that the country is also the homeland of the largest number of IS groups in the Middle East, since such crimes are related and may be seen as the two sides of the same coin. Although terror and societal crimes are differently motivated, they tend to mirror a crisis in the community itself.
The weakening of religious values could be as dangerous as religious extremism itself in terms of its consequences for public security and safety. Whereas the first could lead to societal violence and crimes, the second may lead to political violence and terrorism.
Brutal crimes generally increase people’s anxiety and fear that security is disappearing and is being replaced by brutality. The fact that recordings of such crimes may also in some cases circulate on social media reinforces that sense of public insecurity.
However, the posting of such crimes on social media has yielded positive changes as they have put additional pressure on governments to take action against such crimes. Social media campaigns have also sparked debates about the effectiveness of the law in curbing crimes and violence in general.
Recent calls for the imposition of the death penalty on the perpetrators of such crimes have been a controversial issue on social media, with some being sceptical that the death penalty could actually curb such violence. A hashtag calling for imposing the death penalty on Shaima’s murderer circulated on social media, for example, with many calling for reinstating the death penalty in Algeria, which was abolished in 1993. Hundreds of Yemenis similarly protested against a crime involving the torture of a young man to death that featured in videos circulating on social media in September 2020.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters have also demonstrated against such crimes. The Zarqa boy’s brutal murder raised an outcry in Jordan that reached the highest levels of the country’s political leadership. Jordanian Queen Rania lambasted the crime, while King Abdullah ordered the boy’s public mourning.
A social media campaign was launched in Morocco to collect one million signatures demanding the execution of Adnan’s murderer, who had received a life sentence in prison. Moroccan law imposes a penalty of one to five years in prison for the sexual assault of a child and a maximum of 20 years in jail in cases involving additional violence.
Experts have also called for revisiting conditions in prisons where criminals are not rehabilitated and may return to crime when they are released, as was the case with Shaima’s murderer. Many argue that jailing alone is not an adequate deterrent against crime unless rehabilitation programmes are provided in prison.
Such experts have also been calling upon Arab governments to give priority to mental-health programmes to help people in general cope with the pressures of life. In the absence of such programmes, people may be seriously destabilised and may give way to pent-up pressures by carrying out horrific crimes.
Algerian Justice Minister Balkacem Zeghmati responded to social pressures when he said in the country’s parliament last November that Algeria could decide to reapply the death penalty. The judiciary in Jordan has indicted those involved in the Zarqa boy’s murder, saying that they committed “a terrorist attack that threatened society as a whole”.
Such responses remain inadequate in curbing the violence, however, and the use of the death penalty alone is unlikely to do the job. It is perhaps more important to address the root causes of the problem in all its political, economic, cultural, and psychological aspects.
If not, the Arab region may face an explosion of accumulated pressures either in the form of protests as was the case in 2011 or in the form of more unusually brutal crimes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly