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Covert Narcissism in Fundamentalist Leadership

Abstract

Overt narcissistic traits include thoughts of grandiosity, need for adulation, and a lack of empathy. Covert narcissism is associated with the clinic condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), whereby narcissistic traits mask an otherwise low level of self-esteem and self-confidence. Covert narcissists may form into groups in order to provide mutual protection for their hypersensitive egos. Groups established by individuals suffering from covert narcissism would display covert narcissistic characteristics. The group would demonstrate hypersensitivity to threat or insult. It would violently defend is hypersensitive collective ego. The group would reward the most aggressive and most violent acts with adulation, praise, and power. A charismatic leader could consolidate his power by manufacturing additional threats and insults to the hypersensitive collective ego. He would capitalize on the covert narcissistic traits of his followers by inciting them to violence. The leader’s call for violent defense of the hypersensitive collective ego would enhance his reputation for personal purity and for selfless dedication to the group. As his followers carry out his will by eliminating rivals, the leader gains unlimited adulation and power.

 

Traits of Covert Narcissism

In Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, Dr. Sam Vaknin defines narcissism as “…an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy [emphasis added], usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts” (Vaknin, 2003, para 2). Some level of narcissism may be natural, especially among children. As the mind matures, an individual develops self-esteem and self-confidence. If an individual fails to develop self-esteem and self-confidence, then he may become a covert narcissist. Covert narcissism is associated with a lack of self-confidence and a high sensitivity to criticism. “Covert narcissism…would involve self-centeredness, but with a distinctly negative focus. The covert narcissist would be hypersensitive regarding others’ perceptions and complain about being “slighted” by a lack of consideration/ recognition” (Atlas & Them, 2008, p. 68). Covert narcissism is also associated with the clinical condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Mayo Clinic defines NPD as:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism. (Mayo Clinic, 2007, para. 1)

A person with NPD combines an extreme sensitivity to criticism with a need for adulation and a lack of empathy. A person with NPD would aggressively defend his fragile self-esteem from even the slightest criticism. He would attack anyone who questioned his superiority or failed to pay him sufficient adulation. He may also attack anything that demonstrated higher performance or better capability. In an extreme case, a person with NPD would attempt to destroy anyone or anything that undermined his worldview in any way. Since his ego cannot exist in the presence of a competing worldview, accommodation or compromise with such a person would become impossible. The foundation of violent extremism, then, is the uncontrollable urge to destroy the “other” in order to defend the covertly sensitive “self.” As Dr. J.S. Piven notes, “Narcissistic rage breeds a manic readiness to experience the outer world as sinister, predatory, and so intolerably insulting that others must be punished and liquidated to avenge the humiliation” (Piven, 2007, p. 9)

Group Covert Narcissism

Covert narcissism and NPD traits may also spread throughout a group or culture. While group narcissism may seem like an oxymoron, Dr. Ralph Stacey’s Complex Responsive Processes of Relating (CRPR) suggests that, “the individual and group are paradoxically formed by and forming each other at the same time” (Stacey, 2003, p. 413). Thus, narcissism may become a characteristic of the group through its members. Covert narcissists may also have a natural tendency to form groups. Individuals with low self-esteem would join self-righteous groups to protect their hypersensitive collective ego. “Imagining widespread agreement with one’s own convictions may be self-soothing because self-righteousness is an appealing fantasy that can capture attention, make threats [to the covert narcissist] seem more remote, and allow them to fade from salience” (McGregor, Nail, Marigold, & Kang, 2005, study 4, para. 3).

Defense of the group’s hypersensitive collective ego relies on willing participants. The group reinforces its ego through aggressive acts against real or imagined threats and slights. For example, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party leveraged German shame regarding the loss of World War I, the humiliating Versailles Treaty of 1919, and the economic difficulties of the resulting Weimar Republic to seize political power in Germany. Hitler promoted the German people as a superior race while blaming German failures on Jewish and communist plots. Hitler manufactured threats and insults to the German people and dealt with them aggressively. The Nazis violently attacked their rivals under the guise of defending German pride. By 1933, when unknown assailants, possibly the Nazis themselves, burned down the German Reichstag, the German people were ready to grant Adolf Hitler and the Nazis unlimited political power.

Groups are often composed of willing participants, and remain cohesive because the group fantasy, the ideology, promises strength, salvation, and extermination of a diseased threat. Hence the frenzied approval of Hitler, the flag waving, the rampant Jew beating, the very glue and pitch of the organization itself. (Piven, 2007, p.15)

The group dynamic helped encourage individual and communal violence.

In fact, a group that combined extreme sensitivity with a need for adulation and a lack of empathy would reward those members most forceful in protecting the group ego. The group would reward aggressive acts with adulation and adoration. It would celebrate violent exploits and those who committed them. The group would elevate those who were the most violent and aggressive. Since it rewards violence, the group and its members would become increasingly violent. The covertly narcissistic group substitutes aggressive, violent defense of the hypersensitive collective ego for individual compassion, consideration, and conscience,

Group dynamics tend to prolong and intensify feelings of vengeance among the members of a group, diluting and even inhibiting individual common sense and conscience in the wake of the sanction for vengeance provided by the leadership of the group and one’s peers in revenge. (Rosenberger, 2003, p. 16)

For example, during 2005, a Danish cartoonist published images depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed in a negative light. While a normal group may find such religious cartoons offensive, it would not become enraged nor encourage violent acts by its members. However, a group with covert narcissistic traits would react violently, even to a cartoon. In this case, Islamic fundamentalists organized violent protests across the globe. They attacked Danish assets abroad, threatened to bomb the paper that published the cartoons, and plotted to murder the cartoonist. Organizations that would incite violence and commit murder over a cartoon demonstrate group covert narcissistic characteristics. The fundamentalist Muslim community required violence against any who questioned the supremacy of the prophet Mohammed. Islamic fundamentalists violently defended their hypersensitive collective ego. The group rewarded violent defense of the ego with praise and adoration for the aggressors. “It is not only that the collective ego commands one to eradicate wickedness and infidels. One fabricates enemies precisely so that one can substitute them for the contemptible aspects of the self, murder them off, purify the self, and attain God’s adoration. (Piven, 2006, p.246)

Thus, the hypersensitive group ego requires violent aggression against any real, perceived, or manufactured threat or slight. The reward for this violence is praise and adulation for the aggressor. The punishment for inaction is increased collective shame. Increased collective shame leads to increased peer pressure for aggressive action until a violent act is committed. Mass murderers like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden, along with hundreds of suicide bombers, are the most aggressive, and therefore most heroic, defenders of Islamic fundamentalism’s hypersensitive collective ego. The group covert narcissism inherent in Islamic fundamentalism rewards mass murder and suicide bombing. The group’s hypersensitive collective ego showers praise and adoration onto murderers because they are willing to ignore societal norms and to defend the group’s self-esteem at any cost. No act shows dedication to the hypersensitive collective ego more than mass murder. Some Germans adored Adolf Hitler because he killed Jews. Some Muslims adore Osama bin Laden because he kills infidels. In the world of group covert narcissism, only murder can erase the shame of inaction and protect the group’s fragile self-esteem. The result is a cycle of increasing violence leading to communal violence and mass murder.

Narcissism in Fundamentalist Leadership

The leaders of a fundamentalist organization can leverage covert group narcissistic traits to achieve his political goals. The fundamentalist leader can identify his enemies verbally. He can demonize them as evil. He can suggest that someone within the fundamentalist group destroy these enemies in order to protect the group.

They will search for some coordination of difference, some pattern of anomaly or aberration that will justify infliction of hostility, else the entire group will have no means of jettisoning its fear and aggression. If there is no actual enemy, random characteristics will be magnified and distorted into incontrovertible proof of evil (Piven, 2006, p. 246)

The enemy can be anyone or anything that challenges the leader’s worldview. The true power of the fundamentalist leader, then, is his ability to target and to eliminate violently any rival viewpoint. The fundamentalist leader does not need to plot or take part in the violence himself. He need only identify a threat to the group’s hypersensitive collective ego. Since individuals will protect the hypersensitive group ego regardless of the cost in lives or property, the fundamentalist leader issues his opinion and his followers act. Group shame and peer pressure will lead to violent elimination of the threat, insult, or idea. The fundamentalist leader himself is able to eliminate his rivals and accomplish his political goals while simultaneously maintaining his legal innocence and receiving adulation from the faithful. Thus, in fundamentalism, the opinion of the leader is the ultimate weapon.

Narcissism in Islamic Fundamentalist Leadership

Islamic fundamentalist leaders can also use religious sanctification to justify attacks. Islamic leaders have issued religious opinions, or fatwas, attacking a myriad of authors, artists, ideas, and cultures. The Islamic fundamentalist leader is attempting to convert his opinion into a lethal weapon by combining the covert narcissistic traits of his followers with divine sanction. If successful, then the Islamic fundamentalist leader would be able to kill his rivals using mere words.

For example, in 1989, Islamic fundamentalist leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran decreed that author Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was an insult to Islam. Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of the Indian-British author and anyone who helped publish or translate the book. While a fatwa against an author may seem inconsequential, the fact is that Khomeini was able to attack a rival political power, Great Britain, by openly threatening to murder one of its citizens. Khomeini cloaked his attack using religious sanctification and defense of the Muslim ego. Khomeini argued that Rushdie’s book and therefore Rushdie and his co-workers were an insult to Islam. God required pious Muslims to murder Rushdie and his co-workers. The murderer would receive adoration and praise from the Muslim collective, or umma. More important, for issuing the fatwa, fundamentalists rewarded Khomeini with an enhanced reputation for purity, increased political power, and greater respect for his authority.

We submit to authority because we wish to absorb the power and godlike invulnerability of the leader or god, who enables us to enact our murderous fantasies. Hence submission is a manipulative strategy calculated to enact evil with inculpable, sanctified, invulnerable, dominating impunity. (Piven, 2007, p. 4)

Between 1991 and 1993, assailants attacked and stabbed four people associated with publishing or translating The Satanic Verses, resulting in one fatality. Also in 1993, a translator of The Satanic Verses met with intellectuals at a hotel in Sivas, Turkey. During the meeting, an angry mob of Islamic fundamentalists attacked the hotel. The mob set the hotel on fire. Thirty-seven people died. Khomeini successfully leveraged the covert narcissistic characteristics of the Muslim faithful to attack a rival political power, suppress a competing worldview, eliminate free speech, enhance his own reputation, strengthen his authority, and consolidate his power. Twenty years after the fatwa, Salman Rushdie continues to live under a death threat.

Thus, an Islamic fundamentalist leader like Khomeini can safely increase his power by issuing a fatwa. The Islamic fundamentalist leader will continue to issue fatwas and encourage violence to achieve his objectives. The fundamentalist leader can rely upon the covert narcissistic traits of hypersensitivity and violent defense of the collective ego to ensure that his words become action. He will argue that only submissions to his authority can sooth the shame of the group’s hypersensitive collective ego. He will add that God demands action in defense of the faithful. If the Islamic fundamentalist leader deems it necessary, then the followers must submit to his authority and carry out his will. While those who actually commit the violent act may go to jail, the fundamentalist leader will reap the rewards of incitement with praise, adulation, and power. By combining God’s sanction with manipulation of his hypersensitive followers, the Islamic fundamentalist leader can become all-powerful. Piven notes:

Infinitely beyond terrestrial narcissism, the apotheosis of narcissistic grandiosity is the projection of a God…an omnipotent scathing force to sanction excruciating justice on one’s adversaries, to humiliate, terrorize, and belittle others…to force others into abject misery under the auspices of pure divine morality. One becomes the God, makes him the agency of superordinate probity and vengeance, and adopts a guise of reverent humility, obedience, and devotion to hide his own ignoble consumption by loathing as well as the fact that God is his puppet and alter-ego all along. (Piven, 2006, p. 250)

Conclusion

Narcissistic traits include thoughts of grandiosity, need for adulation, and a lack of empathy. Covert narcissism is associated with the clinic condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), whereby the individual narcissistic traits mask an otherwise low level of self-esteem and self-confidence. An individual who combines low self-esteem with narcissistic traits may be extremely sensitive to any type of real, imagined, or manufactured threat or slight. A person with NPD may react violently if his low self-esteem is confronted. Covert narcissists may form into groups in order to provide mutual protection for their sensitive egos. Groups established by individuals suffering from covert narcissism would display covert narcissistic characteristics. The group would demonstrate hypersensitivity to threat or insult and would aggressively defend its hypersensitive collective ego. The group would encourage individual members to take any action necessary to defend the group from threat or slight. The group would reward the most aggressive and most violent acts in its defense with defense with praise, adulation, and power. The group would reward violence with glorification and punish inaction with collective shame. Since the group rewards violence, it would exalt the most egregious violations of societal norms, especially murder. A cycle of increasing brutality would follow leading inevitably to communal violence and mass murder. The fundamentalist leader could consolidate his by power by manufacturing threats and insults to the hypersensitive collective ego. He would capitalize on the covert narcissistic traits of the group by demanding that individuals violently attack the threats or slights. The leader’s call for violent defense of the collective ego would enhance his reputation for personal purity and for selfless dedication to the group. Once the leader verbally identified a person or thing as a threat to the hypersensitive collective ego, his followers would certainly destroy it. As his followers carry out his will by violently eliminating rivals, the leader gains unlimited adulation and power. By combining God’s sanction with manipulation of his hypersensitive followers, the Islamic fundamentalist leader can become all-powerful. His word has become a lethal weapon.


References

Atlas, G. D., & Them, M. A. (2008, March). Narcissism and sensitivity to criticism: a preliminary investigation. Current Psychology, 27, 62-76. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from EBSCOhost database

Mayo Clinic (2007, November 29). Narcissistic personality disorder. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/narcissistic-personality-disorder/DS00652

McGregor, I., Nail, P. R., Marigold, D. C., & Kang, S. (2005, December). Defensive pride and consensus: Strength in imaginary numbers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 978-996. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from EBSCOhost database

Piven, J. S. (2006, April). Narcissism, sexuality, and psyche in terrorist theology. Psychoanalytic Review, 93, 231-265. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from EBSCOhost database

Piven, J. S. (2007, Spring). Terror, sexual arousal, and torture. Discourse of Sociological Practice, 8, 1-21. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from EBSCOhost database

Rosenberger, J. (2003, March). Discerning the behavior of the suicide bomber: The role of vengeance. Journal of Religion & Health, 42, 13-21. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from EBSCOhost database

Stacey, R. (2003). Strategic management and organizational dynamics: The challenge of complexity (4th ed.). Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.

Vaknin, S. (2007). Malignant self love-narcissism revisited, fourth revised printing. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from http://www.healthyplace.com/communities/personality_disorders/narcissism/narcissism_defined.html)

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