The Baffling Era of Religious Suicide-Massacres

By James A. Haught

Osama bin Laden achieved a remarkable feat: He mobilized the power of religion to spur devout young men to kill themselves in order to murder defenseless strangers. Grotesquely, the suicide-killers felt they were performing holy acts that would please God and assure them martyr rewards in paradise.

The annals of faith-based killing are long: human sacrifice, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, drowning of Anabaptists, jihads, pogroms against Jews, China’s Taiping Rebellion, Mexico’s Cristero War, and many modern ethnic conflicts fueled by “religious tribalism.” A new phase was led by bin Laden, who orchestrated the 21st-century phenomenon of Islamic suicide-bombing. Mercifully, his personal chapter ended when Navy Seals stormed his Asian hideout on May 1.

The modern Islamic “cult of death” – the worst menace of current times – baffles most Westerners. Logical minds cannot comprehend why idealistic young men, and a few women, volunteer to sacrifice their lives to slaughter unsuspecting, unarmed folks. It makes no sense. Pundit Anthony Lewis wrote: “There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans.” Columnist William Safire said the volunteers do it because their “normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer’s self-martyrdom leading to an eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins.” Columnist David Brooks wrote that the bizarre phenomenon is “about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness.”

These fanatics lack normal empathy for fellow humans. While in foreign lands or amid dissimilar ethnic groups, they don’t see surrounding families as affectionate mothers, fathers and children, but as “infidels” deserving death. If the suicide-killers ever acquire nuclear devices, the unthinkable will be upon humanity.

The raid that ended bin Laden culminated a three-decade saga of “blowback.” Inadvertently, the Reagan-Bush White House in the 1980s unwittingly helped ignite the Muslim terror movement that now hurts America. Here’s the record:

In the late 1970s, radical reformers seized power in Afghanistan and created a Western-style government that began educating girls. Horrified, Muslim extremists and armed tribes rebelled. One of the rebel leaders was warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extremist known for throwing acid on unveiled schoolgirls while he was in college.

Such mujahideen (holy warriors) were on the brink of toppling the new Afghan government when the Soviet Union sent its Red Army in 1979 to suppress the uprising. Globally, the Cold War was seething. To damage the Soviets, the Reagan administration secretly sent the CIA to arm, train and pay the rebel tribes to kill Russians. Hekmatyar’s group got millions of U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, ardent young Muslims from many lands rushed to Afghanistan to join the “holy war.” One was Osama bin Laden, 17th son of a rich Saudi contractor who had a dozen wives. A pious Wahhabi Muslim, bin Laden used his wealth to recruit and pay fighters.

The combined CIA-zealot resistance worked. The Russians were driven out and Afghanistan’s modern government was crushed. Warlords like Hekmatyar took over, but soon fought among each other. Then an Islamic student group, the Taliban, seized control and created a cruel theocracy that stoned women to death and inflicted other extreme Puritanical strictures.

Covertly, bin Laden assembled numerous former Afghan volunteers into a shadowy international network, al-Qaida, dedicated to waging jihad (holy war) against the West. His suicidal operatives helped kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, blow up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and bomb the USS Cole in 2000.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa (sacred edict) calling on “every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God’s command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can.” He was indicted by U.S. authorities and put on international “most wanted” lists.

Then 19 al-Qaida suicide volunteers perpetrated the historic atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, when they hijacked airliners and crashed them into U.S. landmarks, killing 3,000 Americans. It was the most horrifying day in the memory of most U.S. residents.

The holy killers left behind a testament they had shared among themselves, saying they were doing it for God: “Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty,” they assured each other, “and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’ They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing.”

Idiocy. Infantilism. It’s sickening to realize that 3,000 unsuspecting Americans died because of this adolescent male fantasy. To believe that God wants mass murder is lunacy. As famed British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote:

“The 19 men of 9/11 – having washed, perfumed themselves and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyr’s paradise – believed they were performing the highest religious duty. By the lights of their religion, they were as good as it is possible to be. They were not poor, downtrodden, oppressed or psychotic; they were well-educated, sane and well-balanced, and, as they thought, supremely good. But they were religious, and that provided all the justification they needed to murder and destroy.”

The mastermind of this crackpottery is dead in a hail of Navy Seals’ gunfire. But the suicide-martyr phenomenon he fostered probably will continue impelling idealistic young men to sacrifice their lives in massacres.

Bin Laden wasn’t the sole creator of the Islamic cult of death. His Egyptian partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pioneered it in the 1990s. Since then, many far-flung Muslim extremist groups adopted suicide-bombing – often using it on fellow Muslims of opposing sects, or against disapproved Islamic governments. Some researchers list as many as 17,000 Muslim terror attacks since the 9/11 horror, with a total body count beyond 60,000 victims. That’s an average of five murder missions per day – so many that news media ignore smaller assaults. The phenomenon has a boundless supply of righteous-feeling volunteers eager to throw away their lives to kill for God and their faith.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: “For good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and is author of two books on religious violence: Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, and Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the ’90s.)

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Dan

    There was nothing unwitting about the Reagan administration’s cynical use of religious fanatics to oppose Soviet forces in Afghanistan. They knew perfectly well that they were playing with fire with the likes of Hekmatyar. When you play with fire, quite often you get burned.

  • jemand

    I think *most* suicide bombers are suicidally depressed, want to die anyway, and this is the only way in their isolated networks that the suicide won’t bring shame on their families and they believe the pain will actually *end* (not be sent to hell for the sin of suicide.)

    These, though, are all the thousands of bombers who generally blow themselves up closer to home, and often aren’t terribly effective, either, with many times the explosion only killing themselves and injuring others or destroying property.

    I think the case of the highly planned, trained, effective hijackers such as on 9-11 are kind of a different thing than the usual suicide bomber.

  • Polly

    “Osama bin Laden achieved a remarkable feat: He mobilized the power of religion to spur devout young men to kill themselves in order to murder defenseless strangers.

    You make it sound like this tactic started with OBL. He didn’t invent Islamic suicide attacks. I don’t know who did, but the Palestinians used it on the Israelis as early as the first “intifiada(uprising)” in the 1990′s. The flood of recruits willing to become suicide bombers were definitely inspired by religion, but not because of OBL.

    Heck, 9-11 looks like it could’ve been inspired by Kamikazes, who had their own brand of religious zealotry for the emperor.

  • Brian M

    I don’t think its religion per se…human beings can always be persuaded to kill “the other”. I’m sure U.S. Air Force personnel who dropped white phosphorous on Fallujah thought they were doing a GOOD thing.

  • Infophile

    @4 Brian M: You’d actually be surprised how hard it is to train people to kill. I remember hearing statistics on it once, and even among trained soldiers, a good number (I can’t remember if it was 25% or 75%) would purposefully avoid shooting the enemy. And that’s in the heat of battle – only around 10% of soldiers, even after training, could snipe an enemy.

    But we’re still at a large number of people that can be trained to kill. For those who kill in battle, the kill-or-be-killed instinct helps a lot. For others, they kill while a step removed from death – they’re shooting down a plane, not killing the pilot.

    But how do you convince someone to kill themselves in order to kill someone else? The survival instinct is incredibly strong. The only time a human being will naturally, instinctively sacrifice their own life is to defend their family (particularly their children). The army tries to instill this in soldiers by making them think of each other as a family, and it does help make them willing to fight for each other, but it’s not enough.

    They still have to make it easy to kill the enemy, and the easiest way to do that is to dehumanize them. Look at propaganda posters from WWII sometime. Note the words used to refer to the enemy: “Hun,” “Kraut,” “Jap,” etc. Note how the enemies look in propaganda – so caricatured they’re barely human. Once you convince soldiers they’re killing off subhumans instead of humans, it’s a lot easier.

    This is part of how Al Qaeda convinces people to kill foreigners: They’re infidels, not humans. But it doesn’t explain why they’re willing to give up their own lives to do so. Family bonds don’t explain it, as many suicide killings are solo activities. Instead, this is where religion comes into play. Instead of convincing terrorists that they’re somehow protecting their family, the leaders instead convince them that they’re not in fact dying at all. This is how religion twists the mind. When people can be convinced to believe absurdities, they can be convinced to commit atrocities.

  • Old Ari

    Regardless, for a bunch of armed men to invade I private house, and murder an old
    man, was not noble.

  • Michael

    This article is correct on US support of the mujihadeen (though the “modern Western government” they fought was in fact a brutal Communist regime-it’s positive efforts to secularize, educate women, etc. notwithstanding, this is why the Soviet Union intervened, to save its puppets) but the “blowback” goes back much further. Most notoriously, the modern secular government of Iran overthrown in a CIA-backed coup d’etat in 1956, re-installing the Shah, which culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The blowback extends further, to when the UK and France carved up Middle East territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire after WW1, despite efforts by the famed T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia” to help the Arabs he fought alongside. Of course, British and French claims were themselves dating back into the Crusades, thus “blowback” from the centuries of Christian-Muslim bloodshed.

    Osama bin Ladin did not invent suicide bombing-rather, it was a tactic first used by the Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) the Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. Indian President Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a female LTTE member in 1989, retaliating for Indian intervention to support the government. Hamas then used suicide bombing in the intifada (their Islamist precursors had themselves backed by the US and Israel against Fatah, then the main Palestinian enemy, which backfired spectacularly when Hamas arose).

    Suicide attacks were infamously used by Japanese kamikaze pilots in WW2, while in the Muslim world they go back to the Hashasheen, or Assassins, a Shia group. As part of their indoctrination, members were given a drug-induced glimpse of “paradise”-fed hashish, then led into a garden to have sex with beautiful women. They were then sent confidently on suicide missions, approaching targets with no hope of escape, then stabbing them to death with concealed knives and being killed themselves. I believe this was mainly against rival Sunnis, not infidels. This approach was in fact used by the Jewish Zealots centuries earlier, a.k.a. sicarii-the “knife men.” An ill-fated revolt ended in the siege of Masada, where the Zealot defenders killed themselves and their families rather than be taken prisoner and sold into slavery or crucified by the Romans.

  • konrad_arflane

    The modern Islamic “cult of death” – the worst menace of current times

    Yeah, about that. Worst menace to whom? What menace came in second (and third, etc.)? And by what means did you arrive at the conclusion that the MICOD was indeed the worst?

    (In other words, as my wonderful grade school maths teacher never tired of repeating: “Show your work”)

    And while we’re at it, let’s think back, oh say fifty years. What was the commonly agreed-upon “worst menace of current times” back then? Yup, communism. And yes, communism was bad, just as Islamic suicide-bombers are bad. But when you talk up one particular bad thing as being the major existential threat to everything we hold dear, you open the door to all sorts of stupid mistakes, like (just for example) picking a side to support in a conflict solely based on the fact that the other side represents “the worst menace of our times”, like the US did in Afghanistan and Iran (and Chile, and Nicaragua, etc.). How’d that work out for you?

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: #7

    I always get a bit irritated at mention of the Crusades as some sort of vicious Western imperialism, while ignoring the centuries of Muslim agression preceeding the Crusades.

  • Brian M

    Mr. Haught…I am going to chime in with konrad at #8. “Worst menace of current times”? Really? Worse than poverty, urban violence, contaminated water, failed states?

    If we are talking armed violence alone, then I think the worst menace of current times would have to be the United States military. Just based on sheer number of deaths alone, the Islamists are mere amateurs conpared with our glorious warriors. How many hundreds of thousands have died in Iraq…Afghanistan…now Libya (another glorious police action which has now lasted longer than the NATO action in the Balkans, for God’s sake). That’s ignoring the terrorists the United States is supporting in Iran…or our proxy wars in Yemen and Somalia (thousands died when we encouraged Ethiopia to invade).

    So let’s be clear here as to who the biggest menace is today. Even if we, as comfortable Americans benefit from the War Machine, at least acknowledge how much blood is on our hands.

  • Brian M

    Jim Baeng: tit for tat is a wonderful philosophy of life. It’s OK that the Crusaders raped and pillaged becase…Spain…man.

  • Stephen P

    As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: “For good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

    This is rather less than half the story. For good people to do evil things, it takes dogma. That can indeed be religious dogma. But it can also be the political dogma of Mao or Stalin. It can be racist dogma. And it can also, as seems to be too often the case with the US, nationalist dogma.

  • Tommykey

    I always get a bit irritated at mention of the Crusades as some sort of vicious Western imperialism, while ignoring the centuries of Muslim agression preceeding the Crusades.

    Here’s the thing, with the Crusades, you had people leaving their native lands to travel over a thousand miles away to kill complete strangers who belonged to the “wrong” religion in order to get back a city that had no strategic value to people from France or England.

    By the 12th century, the Islamic states of Spain had been reduced to about half of the Iberian peninsula and did not pose any existential threat to the Christian kingdoms of Europe. The political unity of Islam had long since fractured into smaller units with limited military power. Before the debacle at Manzikert, the Byzantines had successfully pushed into Syria, took back Cyprus and Crete, and even briefly recovered the eastern coast of Sicilty from the Muslims.

    There was no Muslim threat to Europe that required the Crusades as a response. But if the Christians of Europe were really serious about pushing back Islam, then sending people over a thousand miles away to conquer Jerusalem was a waste of manpower and resources when they could have focused on conquering nearby Tunisia, thereby splitting Muslim North Africa into two. Once having done that, they could have then rolled either east against Egypt or West against Morocco. Helping the Byzantines to expel the Seljuk Turks from Asia Minor would have also been a prerequisite to reconquering Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, the only crusader action undertaken that made any sense and had permanent results was the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in the mid-12th century.

  • Alex Weaver

    Err, no. Bin Laden was an innocent victim of an extra-judicial assassination. You’ve got it all wrong. *eyeroll*

  • OMGF

    To believe that God wants mass murder is lunacy.

    In what way? How does anyone know that god doesn’t want mass murder? One can make a case that a god who is supposedly all-loving, omni-benevolent, and/or peaceful would not make such a proclamation. But, the Abrahamic god is none of those if one reads the Bible. To think that the god of the Bible/Koran wants mass murder is not much of a stretch at all.

  • Jim Baerg

    # 13 Tommykey

    Sure the Crusades were totally wrong from the POV of grand stategy. Your suggested strategy is about what I think should have been done. There was also the little issue of Crusaders getting diverted into pointless & evil attacks on Jews & other Christians (especially the 4th Crusade).

    I just get a bit irritated at the implication that christians fighting to take back regions that had been christian before the muslim conquests a few centuries earlier was somehow worse than the muslim wars of expansion.

  • Fumio Takeshi

    Perhaps it is time we stopped segregating ourselves based on silly notions like imaginary lines on maps and ethno-religious groupings.Is it so difficult to realise that we are all stuck on this rock together?

    [ Sidenote: I'm a bit young and currently dealing with the repercussions of my belief in the non-existence of god(s). I'm unfortunately stuck in the solipsistic stage and would greatly appreciate any help in clearing up my thinking. I hope to be able to submit a 'deconversion' story to Adam's other website soon. Now, back to reading David Chalmers and V.S. Ramachandran :-) ]

  • Leum

    I just get a bit irritated at the implication that christians fighting to take back regions that had been christian before the muslim conquests a few centuries earlier was somehow worse than the muslim wars of expansion.

    This argument would have a lot more merit if the crusaders had been Byzantine. Not that it doesn’t have its share of merit as is.

  • Brian M

    Was Palestine ever definitively Christian? What lands in Europe, other than the Balkans and Spain, were ever definitively Christian and conquered by the Muslims?

    I’m NOT defending the Muslim wars of conquest. I just don’t understand your argument that the Crusades involved reconquering “christian” lands. Especially when one set of christians happily raped, pillaged another set (the sack of Constantinople).

  • Leum

    Palestine was run by the Byzantine Empire before the Muslims conquered it, but I don’t know how tight their grip on it was. Buy, yeah, it was at least nominally Christian.

  • Jim Baerg

    #19 “Was Palestine ever definitively Christian? What lands in Europe, other than the Balkans and Spain, were ever definitively Christian and conquered by the Muslims?”

    After Constantine the entire Roman Empire was Christian (achieving that involved a good deal state terrorism against the non-Christians). So the entire eastern & southern shores of the Mediteranean count as ex-Christian lands taken over by the Muslims.

  • Tommykey

    But what needs to be taken into consideration is that not all of the Christians in those formerly Byzantine territories were happy being part of the Byzantine Empire. Many were Monophysites who resented the orthodoxy imposed by Constantinople, whereas the Muslims did not care what form of Christianity you practiced as long as you paid your taxes.

    The initial Muslim conquests also took place in the aftermath of a decades long war between the Byzantines and the Persians that wore out both of the superpowers. The Middle Eastern provinces were devastated and poorly governed.

    Plus, it’s not clear whether the Christians still living in the Levant during the time of the Crusades felt that they needed to be liberated by the Crusaders or that they even wanted them there at all.

  • Tommykey

    This argument would have a lot more merit if the crusaders had been Byzantine.

    Leum, one 10th century Byzantine emperor got close to Jerusalem while campaigning in the region, but retaking Jerusalem was not high on the Byzantine “to do list.” The way they saw it, Constantinople was the center of Christendom. When the Crusaders arrived on the scene, the emperor Alexios was more concerned with expelling the Seljuks from Asia Minor. The Byzantines and the Crusaders had two incompatible agendas that were ultimately to the detriment of both of them.

  • Brian M

    Thanks, Toomykey! Interesting answer to the question…which sorta negates the whole “the crusaders were liberating our homeland” argument from above.

  • vjack
  • chris

    It should be noted that 3000 Americans did not die on Sept. 11. Many nationalities were victimized by the attack. Our openness is what brought so many nationalities to the World Trade Center (Hence the NAME). I think it’s time to lean heavily on this and promote more unity among the few remaining friends we have. If non-radical people can isolate the zealot people, the zealots will very quickly turn upon themselves. It will not end the problem, but it will lower the threat through attrition. We want their oil- nothing more; this has to be stated openly as well. All American and European conflicts post 911 will be over resources from this part of the world. This is an enemy that the West has created in the 90′s so as to have a military reason to take by force; we reaped, now we sow- these are the facts. I used to worry about what to do to end the conflict, because I deplore the death and misunderstanding between our cultures. Friendship is no longer an option because the West got greedy- we were lousy friends, anyway. I think this will all end less expensively and sooner if we simply face what we have done and complete the conquest of the region. Peace and harmony has left the station- no matter how our conscience pains us.

  • Brian M

    “I think this will all end less expensively and sooner if we simply face what we have done and complete the conquest of the region.”

    Wow. concern trollery at its most amazing. Even if I believed this would happen as happily and easily as you seem to believe it will.

    Alas. We have been neughty. But we want your oil and your land so here is my gun down shoved down your throat. Sorry about those cities we have leveled, but we need oil more than we need to act morally.