Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing.Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 128 pages. Hardcover $19.95.
TALAL ASAD'S BOOK, ON SUICIDE BOMBING, takes analysis of suicide bombing and terrorism to a level that has not yet been achieved by other scholars. Rather than focusing on the psychological issues that lead one to become a "martyr," as many other books on the topic do, Asad asks the reader to think about much deeper questions. Why is suicide bombing so much more terrifying than other acts of violence? Why is it so vastly different from war? What makes terrorism so much less morally justifiable than other attacks executed in a "just war?" While claiming to not justify any type of terrorist atrocities, Asad questions whether acts committed in wars, such as the one being waged in Iraq, are not equally horrendous and unjustifiable. This book, based on the Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, addresses these issues in a thought-provoking manner and offers alternative explanations by relying upon the opinions of experts and philosophers.
On Suicide Bombing is divided into three chapters, "terrorism," "suicide terrorism," and "horror at suicide terrorism." He begins with a focus on differences between war and terrorism and directly calls into question the Bush administration's liberal use of "just war" in the "war on terrorism." War is defined as formal hostilities between sovereign states and not between a state and an abstraction like terror. As Asad asks why terrorism is so much more extreme than war, he critiques Michael Walzer's notion that terrorism is considered especially evil not only because of killing of innocent people but also the instilling of fear and insecurity into everyday life. He argues that war can also instill these emotions, and that the brutality of a state army and of a terrorist group have much in common. During the bombings of villages by state armies, certainly innocent men, women, and children lose their lives. The constant presence and threat of opposition soldiers creates fear in people's lives.
If war is only used as a "necessity" then we look for ways of justifying it by believing that we had no choice and had to protect others and ourselves. Terrorism, on the other hand, is never justified by the West, even though terrorists also claim that these actions are sometimes necessary. In playing the devil's advocate, Asad asks if possibly the terrorists have reached the limit, with no other options left? "He must carry out immoral killings ... perhaps those who are politically responsible will respond in the desired way" (37). He argues that our inability to see things this way has to do with our bias with regard to the "civilized" versus "uncivilized." Wars initiated by the West are generally thought of as attacking an "uncivilized" people. Therefore, they are so it is not as horrible as terrorist acts. The cruelties experienced seem more horrendous if perpetrated upon a "civilized" society, than they would be if perpetrated upon "uncivilized" villages. Acts of war can be justified or looked at as less "evil" when Israel, left behind cluster bombs after it pulled out of Lebanon? This act was aimed at a civilian population.
In the next section, Asad reviews many expert explanations on suicide bombing to attempt to explain why suicide bombing is so unique. A few of these include Ivan Strenski, Roxanne Euben, and Robert Pape. Ivan Strenski believes that trying to explain suicide operations in terms of "personal psychological motivation" is not enough. There are sociological and theological perspectives that need to be considered. He thinks the answer lies in the Durkheimian idea of sacrifice and gift. Euben suggests that "suicide bombing is a political action in which ... the pursuit of immortality is inextricably linked to a profoundly this--worldly endeavor--the founding or recreating of a just community on earth"(56). Thus, she thinks it is both a secular and a religious act. Robert Pape's research suggests that suicide bombings have no relation to religion. He believes that terrorism is an effort to force liberal democratic countries to pull out their military forces from their homeland. What I really liked about Pape's explanation was that even though the suicide bombing campaigns are secular and not related to Islam, the tools by which they recruit the "martyrs to be" are religious. So even though the leaders who are planning the missions are doing so for political reasons. They need to "encourage" the suicide bombers via these larger "cosmic" notions, the religious obligations the latter group has that lead to paradise. Oliver & Steinberg's research in Gaza would also support these notions. In the beginning of the first intifada, they spent six years living in Gaza, collecting interviews and Palestinian political ephemera, much of it related to Hamas, which first carried out suicide bombings during that time (2005:118):
The primary reason given by suicide bombers for their actions is revenge, but understanding the religious background in the Palestinian context is very important to understand some of the justifications behind their actions. Of course, both religion and politics will remain factors that provide the background for understanding suicide bombing, while the primary factors motivating these individuals will always be personal experiences of oppression and/or abuse (in their eyes).
Finally, Asad concludes the book by discussing why suicide bombing is so horrendous. "Why do people in the West react to verbal and visual representations of suicide bombing with professions of horror"(65)? He gives several reasons: (1) Unexpected suicide is shocking, especially when it occurs in public, involves others, and disrupts everyday life. It is violence in which death is unregulated by the nation state. (2) Crime and punishment, loss and restitution, are impossible to separate when the act of killing is also the act that removes the killer beyond justice. I found this especially thought-provoking and found specific cases where juries did not want to sentence suspects of attempted suicide bombings to death, because they would become martyrs and essentially be rewarded in their minds. Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali, who caused an explosion at the U.S. embassy in Kenya will spend life in prison because jurors feared that sentencing the terrorist to death would make him a martyr. (3) The belief that the meaning of life is death and only death overwhelms Judeo-Christian beliefs. The crucifixion taught Christians that brutal death and sacrifice can be seen as an occasion of love for all the dead, but this is impossible on the occasion of a suicide bombing, due to a lack of redemption for both victim and perpetrator (91). Asad notes that the act of suicide tends to leave survivors in anguish. Those left behind die in some measure, feeling responsible and accountable in some ways. This feeling is connected of the idea of crucifixion: Jesus died for our sins, thus leaving his followers to bear responsibility.
This thought-provoking essay asks many of the right questions, and calls upon experts. However, in some instances, these thought-provoking questions are left not fully answered, leaving the reader somewhat unsatisfied. The book is a unique look at suicide bombing that is useful to both scholars and readers curious about the topic of suicide bombing.
Oliver, A.M. & Steinberg, P.F. (2005). The Road to Martyrs' Square." A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber. Oxford University Press.
Mary E. Danis is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.