Is “Islamist” suicide bombing in the Middle East really motivated by religion?

Is “Islamist” suicide bombing in the Middle East really motivated by religion? September 14, 2019


Selimiye interior
Inside Edirne’s Selimiye Mosque (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


My friend Dr. William J. Hamblin and I published the following column in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News on 11 July 2015:


The so-called “New Atheists” differ from previous generations of vocal unbelievers (e.g., Bertrand Russell and Antony Flew) by not merely repudiating the existence of God but aggressively denying the moral legitimacy and cultural value of religious faith. They’re fond of citing the great 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully,” he said, “as when they do it from religious conviction.”

And nothing has played so well into the hands of the New Atheists in this regard than the violence associated over the past couple of decades with fundamentalist Islam. It’s believers in God, partisans of the New Atheism observe, who strap bombs to their backs and fly airplanes into buildings.

“For good people to do evil things,” the outspokenly atheistic Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has famously said, “that takes religion.”

Of course, matters aren’t quite so simple as some imagine. Pascal himself, for instance, was a very devoted Christian, and Weinberg shared his 1979 Nobel Prize with Mohammad Abdus Salam, a devout Anglo-Pakistani Muslim who quoted the Quran in his acceptance speech.

But the fundamental problem with blaming religion for suicide bombings may surprise many readers: The data simply don’t support the charge. Not by a long shot.

In 2005, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago published a vitally important book titled “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” It’s based upon meticulous analysis of every suicide attack occurring anywhere in the world between 1980, when modern suicide terrorism began, and 2003.

Pape’s case is factually rich and rigorously argued. “The data show,” he concludes, “that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion.”

He continues: “Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.”

Even in the Middle East, at least half of the suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003 had little, if any, link to Islamic fundamentalism; indeed, many such attacks were undertaken by Communists, secular nationalists and even Christians. The motivations were this-worldly, tied to national liberation. Those who carried them out weren’t impelled by poverty, alienation, psychological dysfunction, hopelessness or a pathological desire for death. On the contrary, by a very wide margin, suicide attackers turn out to have been relatively prosperous, exceptionally well-integrated within their communities, healthy and in no conventional way suicidal. Their acts were oddly altruistic and idealistic, however depraved others outside their community might judge them to be.

Why have we so misunderstood what’s going on? For one thing, we’ve paid disproportionate attention, in a sense, to suicide attacks in the Middle East; after all, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka target that nation’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, not us. The West has no vital interests there, and little representation, and we seldom hear reports about Sri Lanka on the nightly news. So our sample is skewed. Moreover, although they’ve spoken openly, we’ve paid curiously little attention to what suicide attackers have actually said about their motives and goals.

The fundamental point of Robert Pape’s argument is strikingly congruent with the entirely distinct case made by Graham Fuller in his brilliant 2010 book “A World Without Islam.” We’ve summarized that 2010 book in a previous column: Fuller observes that today’s divisions between the (Islamic) East and the (Christian) West regularly trace the same geographical and other lines that divided East from West long before the rise of Islam in the seventh century (see “Is Islam a primary cause of international violence?” published Sept. 6, 2014).

In other words, what we typically understand to be a fundamentally religious conflict in the Middle East may, at its root, have relatively little to do with religion. And that, if true, has major ramifications for — among many other things — the way in which the United States and the West should conduct their foreign policy in and about the region.

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble,” Will Rogers once quipped, “it’s what we know that ain’t so.”



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