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Religion is not the primary motivation of suicide bombers.

Byline: Riaz Hassan

Summary: <p>Suicide bombing attacks have become a weapon of choice among terrorist groups because of their lethality and ability to cause mayhem and fear. Though they are depressing, the almost-daily news reports of deaths caused by suicide attacks rarely explain what motivates the attackers. Between 1981 and 2006, 1,200 suicide attacks made up 4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the world.

Suicide bombing attacks have become a weapon of choice among terrorist groups because of their lethality and ability to cause mayhem and fear. Though they are depressing, the almost-daily news reports of deaths caused by suicide attacks rarely explain what motivates the attackers. Between 1981 and 2006, 1,200 suicide attacks made up 4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the world and killed 14,599 people, representing 32 percent of all terrorism-related deaths. The question is, why?Aa

At last, now we have some tangible data to begin addressing the question. The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, the most comprehensive compendium of such information in the world, holds details on suicide bombings in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which together accounted for 90 percent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2006. Analysis of the information contained therein yields some interesting clues: It is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.Aa

The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause of their actions. It shows that though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.Aa

On October 4, 2003, the 29-year-old Palestinian lawyer Hanadi Jaradat exploded her suicide belt in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, killing 20 people and wounding many more. According to her family, her suicide mission was in revenge for the killing of her brother and her fiancE[umlaut] by the Israeli security forces, and in revenge for all the crimes Israel had perpetrated in the occupied West Bank by killing Palestinians and expropriating their lands. The main motive for many suicide bombings in Israel is revenge for acts committed by the Israelis.Aa

In September 2007 when American forces raided an Iraqi insurgent camp in the desert town of Singar near the Syrian border, they discovered biographies of more than 700 foreign fighters. The Americans were surprised to find that 137 of them were Libyans and that 52 of these were from the small Libyan town of Darnah. The reason why so many of Darnah's young men had gone to Iraq for suicide missions was not the global-jihadist ideology, but an explosive mix of desperation, pride, anger, a sense of powerlessness, local tradition of resistance and religious fervor. A similar mix of factors is now motivating young Pashtuns to volunteer for suicide missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.Aa

Apart from one demographic attribute -- that the majority of suicide bombers tend to be young males -- the available evidence has failed to provide researchers with a stable set of demographic, psychological, socioeconomic and religious variables that can be causally linked to the suicide bombers' personality or their socioeconomic origins. With the exception of a few cases, their life stories show no apparent connection between violent militant activity and personality disorders.Aa

Typically, most suicide bombers are psychologically normal, deeply integrated into social networks and emotionally attached to their national communities. Labels that are randomly attached to the bombers, such as "mad," denote an inability to fathom the deeper reasons for their actions, while also failing to advance our understanding of the causes of the phenomenon of suicide bombing. Rather, they impede us from discovering its real nature, purpose and causes.Aa

To explain suicide attacks, understanding the terrorist organization's logic is more important than understanding individual motivations. Suicide bombings have high symbolic value because the willingness of the perpetrators to die signals their high level of resolve and dedication to a cause. The bombings serve as symbols of a just struggle, galvanize popular support, generate financial support for the organization and become a source of new recruits for future suicide missions.Aa

Suicide bombings serve the interests of the sponsoring organization in two ways: by coercing an adversary to make concessions, and by giving the sponsoring organization an advantage over its rival (or rivals) in terms of support from constituencies. Contrary to the popular image that suicide terrorism is an outcome of irrational religious fanaticism, suicide bombing attacks are resolutely a politically-motivated phenomenon.Aa

Humiliation, revenge and altruism appear to play a key role at the organizational and individual levels in shaping the subculture that promotes suicide bombings. Humiliation is an emotional process that seeks to discipline the target party's behavior by attacking and lowering their own and others' perceptions of whether they deserve respect.Aa

The actions of the American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq played on what it meant to be an honorable, self-respecting subject in Iraqi society. The disciplinary practices humiliated the prisoners, but were also felt and seen as humiliating to all Iraqis.Aa

In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, daily suicide bombing attacks in Iraq increased dramatically. Similarly, counterinsurgency operations involving random house searches, interrogations, arrests and other violations of human dignity were followed by an increase in suicide attacks.Aa

People tend to have a strong aversion to what they perceive as injustice, with the dark side of this manifested as revenge. One consequence of the desire for vengeance is an individual's willingness to endure sacrifice to fulfill the act. Contemplation of revenge can appear to achieve a range of goals, including righting perceived injustices, restoring the self-worth of the vengeful individual and deterring future injustice.Aa

Revenge is also a response to the continuous suffering of an aggrieved community. At the heart of the whole process are perceptions of personal harm, unfairness and injustice, and the anger, indignation, and hatred associated with such perceptions.Aa

Men tend to attach more value to vengeance than women do, while young people are more prepared to act in a vengeful manner than older individuals are. It is not surprising, then, to discover that most suicide bombers happen to be young males.Aa

The meaning and the nature of suicide in a suicide bombing are strikingly different from ordinary suicides. Suicide bombing falls into the category of altruistic suicidal actions that involve valuing one's life as less worthy than that of the group's honor, religion, or some other collective interest.Aa

Religiously and nationalistically coded attitudes toward acceptance of death, stemming from long periods of collective suffering, humiliation and powerlessness, enable political organizations to offer suicide bombings as an outlet for their people's feelings of desperation, deprivation, hostility and injustice.Aa

For the individual, participating in a suicide mission is not about dying and killing alone; it also has a broader significance for achieving multiple purposes, from the personal to the communal. These include gaining community approval and political success; liberating the homeland; achieving personal redemption or honor; using martyrdom to effect the survival of the community; refusing to accept subjugation; seeking revenge for personal and collective humiliation; conveying religious or nationalistic convictions; expressing guilt, shame, material and religious rewards; escaping from intolerable everyday degradations of life under occupation, boredom, anxiety and defiance.Aa

The configuration of these purposes varies and is an outcome of specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks as a tactic and a weapon.Aa

The causes of suicide bombings lie not in the realm of individual psychopathology but in that of broader social conditions. An understanding and knowledge of these conditions are vital for developing appropriate policies and responses to protect the public.

Suicide bombings are carried out by motivated individuals who are associated with community-based organizations. Strategies aimed a finding ways to induce communities to abandon such support would curtail support for terrorist organizations.Aa

Strategies for eliminating, or at least addressing, collective grievances in tangible and effective ways would have a significant and (in many cases) immediate impact on alleviating the conditions that nurture the subculture of suicide bombings. Support for suicide bombing attacks is unlikely to diminish without real progress in achieving at least some of the fundamental goals that suicide bombers and those sponsoring and supporting them share.Aa

Riaz Hassan is ARC Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. His book "Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings" will be published by Melbourne University Press. This commentary first appeared at YaleGlobal Online, and is published by permission.

Copyright 2009, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Sep 11, 2009
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