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The Empty Fanatic

from the magazine

The Empty Fanatic

The Belgian suicide bomber’s embrace of Islamic terror may not be so hard to understand. Winter 2006

Watching Swiss television recently—for the first and possibly last time—I saw a report on the 38-year-old Belgian who blew herself up in Iraq recently, killing five policemen as well. She was the first white European suicide bomber.

Muriel Degauque, born and raised in Charleroi, was a child of ordinary working-class parents. The television underlined this point with lengthy shots of her dreary childhood neighborhood. Even a few seconds looking at it on a screen was almost enough to provoke an existential crisis.

Muriel Degauque’s life was unremarkable, said the television commentary. She was average at school, and then worked, unskilled, in a bakery. A few people who knew her in childhood and early adulthood emphasized that she was an ordinary person—the last kind of person, in fact, to act in such an outrageous way.

There was nothing in her life out of the usual, the report added. True, she went through a period of sexual promiscuity and drug taking, but when she converted to Islam—cut to a Muslim area of Brussels—she gave up drugs and was faithful to her Moroccan husband. So really, the commentary concluded, the whole episode was mysterious and inexplicable.

But only in the sense that all human conduct is, in the last analysis, mysterious. Actually, the suicide bomber reminded me of the lost and bewildered young people whom various Christian sects would look for as they scoured our streets, trawling for recruits into their all-embracing communities. These communities happened to make lots of money for their founders but really did rescue some young people from the gutter.

The TV commentary made no connection between Muriel Degauque’s promiscuity and drug abuse on the one hand and her subsequent conversion to a murderously puritanical form of Islam on the other (she wore the most extreme of veils). It requires little imagination to make such a connection, however, for one possible interpretation of her former life was that she sought to fill an inner void, a lack of purpose or interest, with mere sensation. Once the self-defeating nature of this effort was obvious to her—and nothing suggests that she lacked intelligence, despite her mediocre academic background—she became vulnerable to a “complete” answer to life’s problems. Her death demonstrated, both to herself and to others, how deeply (or at least desperately) she believed in it.

Her problem—a lack of meaning in her life—is far from unique. Millions of people are in the same or similar position. That is why her story, bizarre as it is, has plunged Belgium into an existential gloom, and why the rest of Europe cannot afford to be complacent about it—or as emotionally unimaginative as Swiss television.

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