The Epic Leap. Why People Commit to a Violent Cause

Original title: Le Saut épique. Ou le basculement dans le combat

Author: Benslama, Fethi

Publication Date:

April 2021



Original language and publisher

French | Actes Sud

Territories Handled

Netherlands, North America, Scandinavia

Territories Sold

Arabic (Al-Kamel Verlag/Manshūrāt al-Jamal)


Essay, Politics, Society

The Epic Leap. Why People Commit to a Violent Cause

Original title: Le Saut épique. Ou le basculement dans le combat

Author: Benslama, Fethi


Making sense of what drives someone to tip over into violence is complicated by the variety of motives and the contradictions and unexpected paradoxes in play, as evidenced by the latest research in the social sciences and psychiatry. The majority of those who show strong signs of radicalization do not commit acts of aggression. By contrast, those displaying ‘weak’ signs may well turn out to be formidable killers. And among a majority of willing volunteers, the superficiality of their beliefs and their emotional ability continues to puzzle researchers.

Building on his previous work on the fallout of Islamist radicalism, Fethi Benslama identifies a common mechanism at work among those who take the plunge into violence, which he calls the ‘epic leap.’ In contrast to radicalized individuals, who cross the threshold at the peak of their commitment to the cause, in these people the change occurs right at the outset in the form of a driving impulse. It is an impulse that derives its emotional and psychological force from the notion of an epic adventure (the story of a person who proves themselves to be exceptional and with whom others will come to identify). The author argues that the notion of a tipping point is a post-facto oversimplification that fails to do justice to the dense network of underlying causes.

His fresh approach to the question draws on clinical case studies involving many radicalized young people and an analysis of police investigations and court cases involving terrorism. The epic story contains an appeal that is also to be found in Messianic ideologies (whether religious or not). It can lead to destructive acts, terrorism being an obvious example, but it can also give rise to a quest for emancipation. The author explores, for example, how Mohamed Bouazizi’s decision to set himself on fire was transformed into a contrived story of an epic leap that triggered the peaceful insurrection by the Tunisian people, and how two lines written by a poet encapsulated the epic impulse and prompted other peoples of the Arab world to repeat his words as they rose up against their governments. And thus ultimately, after exploring the darkest sides of human nature, this book outlines an avenue for hope that found its embodiment in the uprisings of the Arab Spring.