Some Half-Baked Thoughts on Suicide Bombers

Harry, criticising a not-very-good piece in today’s Guardian by Terry Eagleton (on which see also here), has this to say:

I’m all in favour of trying to understand what is behind the actions of suicide killers but that must involve an examination of the ideology of the martyrs.

First, a cheap point: it’s good to know that one can now ask about “understanding” what lies behind the unreasonable behaviour of political and/or religious extremists without being accused of apologising for that behaviour. At least, I don’t think that Harry’s apologising for suicide bombers. (But then, I didn’t think that a lot of the people who were attacked after 11 September for asking to take the causes of unreasonable, criminal, murderous behaviour seriously, etc., were apologising for terrorist atrocity, either. So maybe that’s just me.)Second, the remarks that prompted the post. I’m not sure that I really agree that it’s terribly important to understand what motivates suicide bombers, especially if that means doing a detailed examination of crazy opinions about the theology of martyrdom, which are, like most crazy theological opinions, crazy, and, I suspect, not especially interesting or illuminating. Or, to put things another way, why should we do them the favour of taking them at their word?

(If crazy theological opinions are not especially interesting or illuminating, though, it might be more interesting to ask about the circumstances or environments that makes people more likely to subscribe to crazy, destructive beliefs of these kinds. But then we really are on the terrain of “root causes” which will get someone accused of apologising for atrocity pretty soon, which won’t be pretty. In any case, I don’t want to go there right now.)

In the comments to Harry’s post, Matthew quotes Johann Hari: “The biggest falsehood is that suicide bombing is an exclusively Muslim phenomenon. Two-thirds of the suicide killings committed in the past two decades were not committed by Muslims.”

I’m not sure that the “two-thirds” figure is quite right, though maybe it is. (Robert Pape’s data — APSR, 2003, p.348 — suggests that in the period 1980-2001 there were 68 suicide attacks organised by the Tamil Tigers, which was far more than any other group managed. But I think to get to the two-thirds figure you have to count some bombings organised by Muslim groups which Pape nevertheless classifies as “having a secular orientation”. So Muslims, perhaps, but not “Islamists”. Whatever.)

The particular point, that suicide bombing is not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon, is sound, though I’m not sure whether anyone sensible has ever denied it (for the obvious reason that it’s obviously not true). Indeed, it’s not even exclusively a religious phenomenon: though the Tamil Tigers recruit from among Hindu Tamils, they are secular nationalists, and I don’t think the PKK is a terribly religious bunch of guys, either (though I don’t know much about them).

(Note that there is an infelicity in Hari’s writing: if “suicide killings” include the people the suicide kills, then of course more than a third of the victims were victims of Islamic suicide attacks: the 3,000+ who died in the World Trade Center outnumber those killed in all the other suicide attacks of the previous twenty years. But I don’t think Hari means to include them in his claim.)

Post-2001, though, I’d guess — because I don’t have good data to hand — that the majority of suicide attacks are being carried out by Islamist groups of one kind or another, and certainly that is dressed up in an ideology of martyrdom, etc. (Question: are there secular nationalist suicide bombers in Iraq, or are the attacks there organised exclusively by the religious wing of the armed resistance? Not something I’ve seen discussed, though I haven’t been looking hard.)

But we can still ask what, if anything, is the relationship between Islamist ideology and the use of suicide attacks, and the extent to which theological opinions actually explain anything interesting. And, in general, it strikes me as most likely that Pape is right, that suicide attacks are on the increase because the people who organise them think that suicide attacks are more likely to help them achieve their aims, as compared with other things that they might be doing with their scarce resources. (Though see Chris Young for a good discussion of the point about aims with respect to Hamas.) And those who organise such attacks have various ways of persuading other people to lay down their lives for the cause, which may of course include criminally exploiting the people Gene calls “deluded and desperate” — though studies suggest they are often pretty well educated and from comparatively affluent backgrounds — through appeals to (possibly shared) crazy religious ideology.

It seems to me that in these kinds of cases the ideology follows the strategy, rather than determining it, whatever people may say about themselves on video just before they blow themselves up in Israel/Palestine. Which means that we might not learn very much about the phenomenon of suicide bombing by talking or writing or thinking much about whatever religious claims are made on its behalf by religious extremists and apologists for murder.

It’s a far more interesting (and worrying) phenomenon than that.

Or so it seems to me.

UPDATE [27.1.2005]: Tim disagrees with the last bit, at least.


After a fairly quiescent 2004, the new year’s started pretty well over at the Voice of the Turtle: this morning I’ve uploaded an essay on racism by Alana Lentin, which is a bit more academic than the stuff we usually print, but is still fine for all that, a piece by Peter Waterman standing up for the horizontals in the wake of the European Social Forum in London, Class Worrier Raj Patel’s report from the World Forum on Agrarian Reform held towards the end of last year in Spain, and a reprint of an essay by Karl Polanyi on “The Essence of Fascism“, all of which join two essays on the aftermath of the Indian ocean tsunami — Malinda Seneviratne, writing from Sri Lanka, and David Martinez on Banda Aceh.

A couple of the pieces still need a slight editorial tweak here and there, but they’re basically ready for consumption. So go and consume.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I’ll be back on the subject of the Royal Family before too long, don’t worry, but just by way of an intermission, here’s The Battle Hymn of Mad Mel, by Deborah Maccoby, written for Debbie Fink, published with permission, and sent to me by Stephen Marks (for which, many thanks).

You know how the tune goes; now sing along…

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the US Neo-Con;
He is trampling on Iraqis till their homes and lives are gone;
He is giving tanks and F-16s to Ariel Sharon –
His truth goes marching on.Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah,
Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah,
Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah,
His truth goes marching on.

I have mounted a crusade against those loony Neo-Socs;
They have burst the moral boundaries and cast us on the rocks;
They may march against the war but they can only save the fox –
My truth goes marching on.

Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah etc.

I repudiate all doubts; they only burden and perplex;
If we listened to their voices, we would all be moral wrecks;
I will fight against abortion; I will stamp out teenage sex –
My truth goes marching on.

Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah etc.

All relativists, lefties and postmodernists I hate;
I will cling to all the certainties of family and state;
I will fend off the barbarians who clamour at the gate;
My truth goes marching on.

Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah etc.

For the sword of Islam threatens and its might must be withstood;
We are fighting for the soul of our Judaeo-Christianhood;
For the world is black and white and They are Evil, We are Good –
Our truth goes marching on.

Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah etc.

I will put back moral backbone in my flabby fellow-Brits;
We will launch pre-emptive strikes on every land where Evil sits;
While defending Western culture, we will blow the world to bits –
Our truth will still march on!

Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah,
Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah,
Glory, glory, bomb Fallujah,
Our truth will still march on!

I’m told that she really has been referring to “Neo-Socs”, or “Neo-Socialists”, in recent talks.Oh, and John B’s been following her most recent, um, thinking.

Away With Them!

Jamie weighs in. The best bit…

This in turn refers back to the issue of popularity. Prince Harry may turn out not to be popular with the punters in their role as citizens, but he certainly popular with them in their role as telly watchers and tabloid buyers. His older brother isn’t quite the same buffoon, but there’ll be a girlfriend sooner or later, and she’ll talk. And there’s the ongoing saga of their dad, the green-ink prince, their pheasant strangling grandmother and her hilariously obnoxious husband.So as far as the establishment which actually runs the royals is concerned, they don’t need a credible monarchy. They need an incredible monarchy, a have-you-heard-what-these fuckwits-have-done-now monarchy. Disrespect may eventually undermine them, but for now it keeps them going. It’s their reason to exist.

But the whole thing’s good.

An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth

Chris, in the comments below, points me towards the text of a splendid act of Parliament, which was passed in 1649, and which would give us a much more sensible constitutional framework than the rubbish nonsense we have at present:

Be it declared and enacted by this present Parliament and by the Authoritie of the same That the People of England and of all the Dominions and Territoryes thereunto belonging are and shall be and are hereby constituted, made, established, and confirmed to be a Commonwealth and free State And shall from henceforth be Governed as a Commonwealth and Free State by the supreame Authoritie of this Nation, the Representatives of the People in Parliam[ent] and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as Officers and Ministers under them for the good of the People and that without any King or House of Lords.

We’ve done it before, we can do it again.

Not Bored of Discussing the Demise of the Royal Family Yet

I know I need to write a reply to the chap who blogs over at God Save The Queen who has objected to my post below about the aristos. He makes some bad points, as well as a few good points, and I’ll hope to find the time in the not-too-distant future to respond properly.

And I was puzzled by Dave Gwydion’s mention of “frogging” in a recent comments box, and am now illuminated by his own blog: “For a long time in Europe”, he writes, “aristocrats not only had special rights–which is, I suppose, the definition of an aristocrat–but that they had the right to humiliate commoners, including, for instance, the right to require the local commoners to get on their hands and knees and chase frogs off the aristocrat’s property.” Dave, like myself is an academic, and so cannot resist a healthy dose of bibliography, and he concludes, “For a good account of “frogging,” as it was known, see Marcel Garaud, Histoire general du droit priv� fran�ais: La r�volution et la propriet� fonciere [Paris, Receuil Sirey, 1958], pp. 102-9.” I’ll put that on the list for the next time I head into the Bodleian, though since term has started, that may be a while.

But the main point of this post was to respond to Adam H’s thoughts in a recent comments thread: “I’ve been wondering recently who might be head of state instead – some horrible Blairite, a winner of pop-idol,…? Perhaps the Republican movement should actually suggest and support someone non-moronic now so that you aren’t still left with unpowdered wigs (or something) when the Republic is declared?” The who-would-you-have-instead question was bound to arise, so let me have a crack at it now. First, anybody is preferable to the current lot. Or, rather, anybody we could reasonably imagine getting through a democratic selection procedure of any kind at all would be preferable. Second, and relatedly, I’m not sure republicans should say, “get rid of this lot and replace them with X”. That’d be for the people to decide once the queen’s been shipped off to wherever. But thirdly, and this is the Official Virtual Stoa Position, we wouldn’t actually need to elect a President at all.

As I said in this thread over at Matthew’s (and here I cut-and-paste horribly) I’ve been saying for a while now that the head of state should be the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the fact that the present incumbent’s pretty hopeless doesn’t put me off in the slightest.

If there’s H-o-S work to do, then the Speaker can do it and one of the Deputy Speakers can preside in the Commons, as they so often do. We could even have another Deputy Speaker, if necessary. But I like to think that there wouldn’t be much H-o-S work to do, anyway. All this visiting places and saying “What do you do?” is pretty stupid, we can send FCO ministers off on foreign trips, and so on.

Most people have to retire in their 60s; the country seems to have the view that the Monarch’s role is sufficiently undemanding that somebody can do it in their 70s, 80s, etc. without a problem. And Great Republics such as the USA combine the offices of Head of State and Head of Government. If someone as famously idle as GWB can combine the two roles, I don’t see why we can’t combine the Speakership of the House with a small head of state function. Furthermore, since the Speaker has a nice flat in the Palace of Westminster, we can do what we ought to have done bloody ages ago and turn Buckingham Palace into an art gallery (as the sensible French did with the Louvre all those years ago).

OK: problem solved.

More soon.