Religion and Suicide Bombing

Religion and Suicide Bombing October 14, 2013

The blog Friendly Atheist (sparked by an article by Sam Harris) recently discussed the Pew Forum statistic concerning the number of Muslims who say that suicide bombing is never justified.

There are lots of different ways that one could take this. One thing that is noteworthy is how different the answers are depending on the location of the answerer. The other is how this answer is liable to be construed because it is Muslims who are being asked.

I think a key question to ask is how many Christians, and how many atheists, think that suicide bombing is wrong under all circumstances. And by all, I mean all. Even against military targets, in a context in which your homeland is occupied by soldiers from elsewhere, who have been (or, at least, you are persuaded have been) raping women, torturing children, and throwing people off their farmland to face starvation while others reap the crops that your own people once sowed.

It is easy to take offense at these answers when living in a context that is sheltered from the harsh realities that people face in other parts of the world. And it is easy to assume, even though the teaching of Islam against suicide is explicit and unequivocal, as somehow about Islam itself. It is easy to pretend that those who wanted to find justification for the practice in the Bible or in other sources could not do so.

Obviously religion can be used to manipulate, motivate, malign, misdirect, and maneuver in ways that can exacerbate issues.  But I see no reason whatsoever to think that, in a world in which everyone had enough, Muslims or anyone else would be blowing themselves up, in the absence of mental health issues which are not confined to one religion or the religious in general.

My own religious and moral convictions would lead me personally to say that I believe suicide bombing is wrong under all circumstances. As horrific as the violence against one may be, turning to violence on behalf of what may well be a righteous cause undermines the distinction between the oppressor and the victims, the righteous and the evil. I am persuaded that the only way to actually defeat evil is by refusing to play according to rules of warfare that evil sets. Winning a victory without violence is much harder, and much more costly. But it is not impossible.

But it is easy for me to say such things, when I live in a context which provides relative safety, as others suffer directly or indirectly as a result of the actions of my own society and others with which my own society and lifestyle are inextricably entangled.

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  • Hi James,

    I suggest Robert Pape’s excellent study on suicide terrorists, Dying to Win, in which he discovered that suicide terrorism wasn’t motivated by religious convictions, but by nationalism, especially as attempts to target occupying forces of foreign democratic nations.

    • spinkham

      It’s a tough case, as Scott Atran points out in his own work and rebuttals to Pape. It’s really hard to tease out whether it’s primarily related to Islamic marterdom or nationalist concerns, as almost all current examples feature both strongly.

      Where both agree is that it is the clinging to a transcendental value that you see as defining your identity is key in these circumstances, and Atran is quick to point out being 20 something, unmarried, and in engineering like disciplines are all better predictors of terrorist activity than religion. To me the question at issue here is if there’s any difference in the population that might choose to use suicide rather than IEDs or similar means. It seems plausible that a religion that promisses you eternal rewards for such actions might make it more likely, but gathering empirical data to discern all the factors is quite difficult. Try getting a double blind, placebo controlled study on that question past your ethics board. 😉

      Terror management theory is key in understanding terrorism: National identity, religion and secular ideology are all equally potential ways of defining “us” vs “them”, and it is that split that produces violence. Atran has gotten himself in hot water with fellow atheists by pointing out enlightenment rationalism/humanism is based on unverifiable transcendentals, which makes it very little different from many religions. You can argue that it is one of a few of the transcendental systems that most directly values the well being of others, and I would agree, but it can still cause hatred and violence when it is held too tightly.

      • Hi Spink,

        I don’t have Pape’s book in front of me at the moment, but if I remember correctly, part of his argument that suicide terrorists are not primarily motivated by religion was the example of the Tamil Tigers of Shri Lanka who were not religious but used suicide terrorism, anyway (in fact, I think he pointed out that they were the first to do so).

        • spinkham

          I’d certainly agree terrorism is not motivated primarily by religion, and this particular form of terrorism is not only motivated by religion, but on the other hand it’s more difficult to argue that particular religious beliefs have no major part to play in these particular groups selecting this particular type of attack over others.

          The wikipedia article is a pretty good introduction to the competing theories, and I’d recommend reading more than one of the competing points of view in a situation like this where no one theory is the consensus view in the field yet.

    • Ian

      Pape seems to have fallen foul of Survivorship Bias (though the term ‘Survivor’ is almost perfectly inappropriate in this case!). He looks at suicide bombers to figure out what similarities they have, but doesn’t look for those features in the massive set of not-suicide-bombers to control.

      This is the Andrew Wakefield school of science: find people with a particular problem, see what they have in common, and conclude that what they have in common caused their problem.

      He may be right, but the study itself is very poor, I think.

      • Hi Ian,

        Sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t understand your point.

        • Ian

          My point is that you can’t make a conclusion about why people do X, by looking at only people who do X and figuring out what they have in common. This is a problem in science, and one that can have disastrous effects (as in Andrew Wakefields ‘research’ that vaccines cause autism).

          For example. Pape says that occupation by a democratic foreign power with much greater military resources is the primary reason for suicide bombings. To make this case you need to show that a) people living under such occupation are more likely to engage in such bombings than people not living in those situations, and that b) there is not some other feature that is correlated with both occupation and suicide bombings that more closely explains the data. There is simply no way to do that by looking at a pool of suicide bombers and seeing what features they have in common.

          It is quite a subtle problem, but an important one. So Pape isn’t wrong, neccessarily, but his study doesn’t shw what he claims it does.

          Is that clearer? If not, perhaps have a read up on Survivorship bias.

          • Okay, I understand your point. Are you sure Pape didn’t do (a) and (b)?

          • Ian

            No, I’m relying on his own summaries of the book, reviews of the book by other scholars who raised the same issue, and my not great memory. I bought the book as an airport read a few years ago, but left it in the hotel, so I can’t check if I’m misremembering, but the reaction of other critics seems to support my recollection.

            The guy sitting next to me on the flight didn’t seem too pleased with it either.

            Its not an area I know much about, I also read a book by the brother of one of the 9/11 bombers on the same trip, and it was similarly unconvincing. Both left me skeptical that we’re not just guessing.

  • Ian

    There are plenty of venues online where the religious right gather to brag about how they’d gladly die in violent opposition to the forces of evil that want to destroy their homeland, way of life, and ‘Judeo-Christian’ values. And how the US should bomb enemy countries into car-parks to show them what justice means (civilians be damned – they’re all ideological supporters anyway).

    So I find it *very* difficult to believe that self-identifying Muslims have a more deranged view of violent resistance than self-identifying Christians.

    I think it is more the old definitional trick. Our enemies are evil, therefore what they do is evil. We are good, therefore what we do is good, or at worse justified towards a greater good.

  • I see no reason whatsoever to think that, in a world in which everyone
    had enough, Muslims or anyone else would be blowing themselves up

    I disagree. I don’t see how increased wealth or income would decrease the rate of suicide bombings -if poverty was the main cause of suicide bombings, Niger, Burundi and the DRC would be famous for their suicide bombers. Suicide bombing is a tactic of war; it is a political tactic; it is a tactic of those who are politically unsatisfied. A strong difference between political aspirations and political reality can easily exist without much poverty; e.g., Corsica.

  • John W. Morehead

    Two significant facets worth considering in this equation include the difficulty in defining religion as a separate and distinct element in culture. On that see William T. Cavanaugh’s ‘The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict’ (Oxford University Press, 2009). The other is the place of religion in such justifications. See the counter-intuitive sociological research of Riaz Hassan on this. From his ‘Suicide Bombings’: For the first time,

    Suicide Bombings

    analyses concrete data from The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University,Australia, to explain what motivates the perpetrators. The results serve largely todiscredit common wisdom that religion and an impressionable personality arethe principal causes, and show rather that a cocktail of motivations fuels theseattacks, which include politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism.

    Suicide Bombings

    provides a short but incisive insight into this much-publiciz

  • arcseconds

    I think it would be easy for Westerners to answer ‘no, never’ to suicide bombing, as it’s easy for us to think of suicide bombing as what ‘they’ do, and what islamofacist terrorists do is never justified. Moreover, it’s difficult to look at the act in isolation from how it’s being used at the moment.

    (In fact, I’d even go as far as to say the whole question and how it is framed is kind of offensive. )

    There’s also a power differential at play, here. It’s easy for us to decry the tactics of desperate amateurs when we’ve got huge professional armies and drones and so forth. It’s usual for those with a lot of power to define the non-compliant behaviour of those without as ‘illegitimate’.

    A fairer way to ask such a question would be to abstract from the method used, which has these strong cultural associations, and focus on the outcome.

    So something like “is it ever justifiable to cause civilian deaths in the absence of a viable military target to achieve a military or political end?”

    It would be interesting to compare the answers to that question with “was the bombing of Hiroshima justified?”.

    If the answer to either of these questions is “yes” (which would be a pretty common response amongst westerners, I would think) then I find it difficult to see how you could have a principled objection to suicide bombing as a tactic in general.

    I suppose you could object strongly to a tactic which involves the death of the actor involved, but I’ve never seen anyone proclaim that their sole beef with suicide bombing was that it involved suicide…

    • Gary

      Asymmetric warfare. Hiroshima, Dresden, Curtis LaMay’s bombing them back to the stone age, is OK, but a loss of one to kill more-than-one? Whatever the motivation of the suicide bomber, the result is asymmetric warfare. Kind of like the body counts during Vietnam. As long as there are more of them than us that are killed, everything seems right in the world. Civilians are not counted, if you are on the killing side.

  • crankedhelmet

    islam isnt even a relgion, its a load of garbage written by a 7th lunatic

    • Insults are cheap, and can be offered even by people who know nothing about a subject. One could substitute any worldview for Islam in your comment and make the exact same assertion.

      But then again, what you wrote isn’t even a comment, its a load of garbage written by a lunatic… 🙂