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.

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