The July suicide bombings in London were yet another horrifying reminder of the dreadful tactic perpetrated by Islamic jihadists in their holy war. To be sure, Israeli citizens have long known the nightmare of suicide bombing – and Iraqis, unfortunately, have become acquainted with it daily.
What exactly is inside the mind of the Islamic suicide bomber? What impulse motivates a human being, who supposedly believes in God, to blow himself up alongside innocent people? To discuss these and other questions with us today, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel. Our guests today are:
Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism, a lecturer on the subject at Harvard, and the author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill;
Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, a prison psychiatrist who has had much experience with treating Muslim patients in Britain and who has witnessed the "collision of cultures." He is the author of his new collection of essays, Our Culture, What's Left of It. The Mandarins and the Masses;
Dr. Nancy Kobrin, an affiliated professor to the University of Haifa, Arabist, psychoanalyst and author of the upcoming book, The Sheikh's New Clothes: Islamic Suicide Terror and What It's Really All About;
Dr. Hans-Peter Raddatz, a scholar of Islamic Studies and author of Von Allah zum Terror? Der Djihad und die Deformierung des Westens (From Allah to Terror? Jihad and the Western Deformation).
FP: Jessica Stern, Dr. Tilman Nagel, Dr. Nancy Kobrin and Dr. Hans-Peter Raddatz, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Suicide bombings are a perpetual reality in Iraq and Israel today.
In Israel, we see Palestinians, often kids, blowing themselves up alongside Jewish inoccents while their parents cheer on in euphoria. In Iraq, we see foreign fighters coming from all over the Arab and Muslim world to detonate themselves amongst innocent civilians.
Now they have struck in London.
Let’s start from square one to crystallize things. What instils the yearning to blow oneself up?
Raddatz: If you were a molecule type of "personality" who has only one alternative of existence, namely being stripped of any individual ego and merged with the mass of the "umma", the community of Allah, you might also be tempted to look for some dynamite - or rather C4 - in order to focus your unimportant life into one single, supposedly grandiose moment. When you in addition to that are not able to distinguish spiritual from material aspects, you are in really serious trouble.
In one previous symposium, Dr. Kobrin rightly mentioned the regrettable inabililty of not so too few Muslims to tell brain from mind. While they cut heads off, they think to destroy the thoughts of their victims. Similar to that they expect to meet innumerable beautiful girls in paradise since all their lives they have been told to proceed directly there as reward for the martyr death. Needless to mention that there will be unlimited erections as well as hymens renewed constantly. Some of the Palestinian suicide bombers wrap their penises into fire-proof aluminum foil to save them for the pleasures to come. Their parents get even doubly rewarded, by cash and "honor." Allah provides for an unusually profitable deal, indeed.
What we are facing here is not only pre-modern but pre-cultural "thinking". The Koran and Islamic tradition set guidelines conserving a manichaean type of prevalence claim that ultimately rejects any other society alternative. While strengthening its orthodox structures worldwide, Islam keeps on lacking one very important feature which most cultures have developed and which is indispensable for diverting violence inside a group: the subliminal function of the sacrifice concept. The impossibility for the average Muslim individual to develop a thinking outside the community and for the Muslim collective to deal with power and with women without violence has prevailed until today and is even picking up again due to modernization conflicts.
In this context, one has to keep in mind the Western "scientists" in sociolgy, anthropology, neuro-physiology etc. who deny the singularity of the human mind. Therefore, they have no problems with cognition Islamic style and thus explain "martyr" bombers as "emergency defence". Ultimately we are talking about politics, of course, renewing sympathies with a radical ideology quite close to the biology of Fascism.
FP: Ms. Stern?
Stern: There has been exponential growth in suicide attack worldwide, the most virulent form of terrorism, which accounts for less than 5 percent of all terrorist events but about 50 percent of all casualties. Many suicide attacks since1980 originated in organized campaigns to drive perceived occupiers from the attackers` homeland, and US military interventions have only exacerbated the problem. That said, most military occupations in history have not led to suicide bombing campaigns.
The answer to your question - what instils the yearning to blow oneself up – is dependent on many factors. I believe the reasons are likely to be a combination of political, religious, psychological, organizational, and material factors. But not all suicide-murder operations are committed by religious zealots. It used to be the case that a secular group – Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger’s – were responsible for most suicide-murder attacks. Now Islamist groups are more important.
You mention two areas: Palestine and Iraq in particular.
In Palestine, Hamas and the other terrorist groups use religion to justify their aspirations for political power and to recover Palestinian territory from Israeli occupation. Part of this land is sacred to Muslims but also to Jews and Christians. To achieve their ends, some of which are accepted as legitimate by much of the world, Hamas and the other terrorist groups in the region are committing atrocities against Israeli citizens and against the Palestinian people. The terrorist leaders deliberately inculcate the idea that “martyrdom operations” are sacred acts, worthy of both earthly and heavenly rewards. Mainstream Islamic scholars are increasingly voicing their view that suicide-bombing attacks against civilians are not acts of martyrdom but suicide and murder, both of which are forbidden by Islamic law.
I believe the best way to understand the situation in Palestine is to see suicide-murder as a kind of epidemic disease. Ordinary suicide has been shown to spread through social contagion, especially among youth. Studies have shown that a teenager whose friend or relative attempts or commits suicide is more likely to attempt or commit suicide himself. Not surprisingly, ordinary suicide is more common among youths who are depressed or exposed to intense social stress. Suicide bombing is different from ordinary suicide: It entails a willingness not only to die, but also to kill others. Often, an organization takes charge of planning the suicide operation, and the terrorist may be on call for weeks or, in the case of the leaders of the September 11th attacks, years. But there are some commonalties.
The situation in Gaza suggests that suicide-murder can also be spread through social contagion, that there is some tipping point beyond which a cult of suicide-murder takes hold among youth. Once this happens, the role of the organization appears to be less critical: the bombing takes on a momentum of its own. “Martyrdom operations” have become part of the popular culture in Gaza and the West Bank. For example, on the streets of Gaza, children play a game called shuhada, which includes a mock funeral for a suicide bomber. Teenage rock groups praise martyrs in their songs. Asked to name their heroes, young Palestinians are likely to include suicide bombers on the list.
There were more suicide attacks in Iraq in 2004 (104) than for the entire globe in any previous year of contemporary history, involving fighters from at least 15 Arab countries. And the rate of suicide attacks in Iraq in 2005 is likely to surpass that.
From talking to terrorists and those who monitor them, I and others have learned that terrorism thrives in an atmosphere of humiliation, marginalization, and dashed expectations. Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, describes globalization as deeply humiliating to Muslims. That's why, he says, he encourages the youth of Islam to carry arms and defend their religion with pride and dignity rather than ignobly submit to the “new world order.” Perceived humiliation and religious fervor are both tools that terrorist leaders can cynically exploit to promote “martyrdom.”
FP: Thanks Ms. Stern.
To make the statement that “US military interventions have only exacerbated the problem” might be true on some levels, in the sense that if you confront your enemy he is going to engage in violence. But to mention U.S. intervention in the context of our discussion is to imply that it is America’s fault somewhere that a Muslim in the world gives up his college education and comfortable material existence and flocks to Iraq to blow himself up. Daniel Pipes’ article The California Suicide Bomber is a perfect example of where a suicide bomber does not come from among the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. His cravings to kill himself alongside innocents stemmed from many factors other than having supposedly suffered from American “imperialism.”
There can be all kinds of military occupations, invasions, etc. Not all people blow themselves up.
Ms. Stern, you mention that “mainstream Islamic scholars are increasingly voicing their view that suicide-bombing attacks against civilians are not acts of martyrdom but suicide and murder, both of which are forbidden by Islamic law.” These are truly encouraging developments and we all hope they continue. But unfortunately, these Islamic scholars are pretty effective in their invisibility and in getting absolutely no respect from suicide bombers and from a large section of the Muslim world. Why is that? Why is it that the parents of Palestinian suicide bombers do not shiver in dread worrying that their dead kids are in hell -- because their clerics teach that suicide bombing is against Islamic law and will not lead you to paradise, but to ever-lasting hell-fire? How come the 9/11 hijackers weren’t depressed knowing they would be in hell after they would commit their crime, because their clerics and their religious texts told them this would be the case?
Could it be that maybe suicide and murder might just not be all that directly in conflict with certain components of Islam law? Scholar Robert Spencer’s Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West clearly demonstrates that Islamic jihad finds much of its basis in Islamic religious texts. Yes, there are many portions of Islamic texts that teach tolerance and peace, and we must all fight for this part of Islam to prevail and to defeat the side that Islamic extremists and terrorists refer to and manipulate. But can we, and is it wise for us, to deny that the negative and dark side exists?
Terry McDermott’s new book Perfect Soldiers is a clear example of how the 9/11 hijackers were the last thing from impoverished and oppressed victims. For some reason, I highly doubt that if you gave a New Testament to each of those individuals and that if they experienced a religious conversion to Christianity, or if they became atheists, that they would still have longed with such fervor to leave this world though smashing planes into populated American buildings filled with thousands of innocent people.
Humiliation, marginalization, and dashed expectations? Yes, those words can fit the plight of many Jews under Nazi occupation, but you didn’t see them strapping bombs unto themselves and walking into cafés and blowing themselves up. These terms also fit my Russian peoples and many of the Russian dissidents who suffered under the horror of Soviet tyranny. These dissidents included my parents and many of our friends. They were humiliated, marginalized and suffered dashed expectations. I can’t name you one who walked into a café in Russia and blew himself up alongside innocents.
It is clear that Islamist terrorists hate globalization. But they do so because it makes life on this earth even more materially comfortable. They reject earthly pleasure and happiness. The enjoyment of life represents humiliation to them. The sight of a happy free and spontaneous woman laughing, dressed as she wants to be dressed, represents humiliation to them. That is the problem. Can we really blame America for the unhappiness of those who venerate a death-cult that rejects individualism and the pursuit of happiness in earthly existence?
Ms. Stern, I am by no means saying that you have argued some of these notions that I am questioning and criticizing. I am just provoking a dialogue here that I hope will help all of us crystallize some important themes relevant to this discussion.
Dr. Dalrymple, tell us about your own personal experience with your patients and what it revealed about the Muslim mindset. As you answer this, please also include what we really want to narrow in on: what is inside the mind of the suicide bomber?
Dalrymple: I agree that poverty and humiliation are not sufficient explanations of the phenomenon. These are things which are almost part of universal human experience.
I think the problem is a combustible mixture of elements.
The first is the belief that Muslims are in possession of the final revealed truth, and that they have a testament and a tradition of sayings of the Prophet that in essence answer all human questions, and by the light of which all such questions ought not only to be answered but are answerable. While no doubt there are Christians who feel more or less the same about their favoured scriptures, they now have to live in a world of competing ideas. Muslims have created societies in which it is possible, perhaps, to dispute what the Koran and hadith mean, but not their underlying authority to answer all questions. It is still not safe in a Muslim country to say 'There is no God and Mohammed was therefore not his prophet, but a man suffering from a delusion.'
While in possession of transcendental religious and philosophical truth, however, it has not escaped notice that the Muslim world has fallen behind the rest of the world. Japan, China, India are fast catching up or overtaking the West: they have been able to meet the Western challenge. No Muslim country has managed more than a kind of parasitic prosperity, dependent on oil - the industry which no Muslim did anything to discover or develop. Even their wealth, then, is a reminder of the dependence. The whole of the Arab world, minus the oil, is economically less significant to the rest of the world than one Finnish telephone company.
The fact that Islamic civilisation was once exquisite, and in advance of most others, is in this context a disadvantage. It means that Muslims tend to think in terms of recovery of glory, rather than anything new. In Muslim bookshops, you can find books about the scholars and scientists who led the world 600 years ago or more - who are a perfectly legitimate subject of enquiry of course - but after that there is a hiatus. If there had been no Muslims for the last 300 or 400 years, the world would have lost no technical or scientific advance.
So there is both a sense of superiority and a gnawing sense of inferiority. Repeated attempts to 'catch up' within an Islamic context have failed. Moreover, there is an element of personal self-hatred as well. For all the hatred of the West, it is absolutely essential to the satisfaction of the tastes of the modern Muslims. They are all partly Westernised. Even Osama dresses half-Muslim, half-Western. His reliance of Western inventions is total. As for the attractions of the flesh-pots of the west, they need not be stressed.
Then, of course, there is the day to day humiliation of individuals, who do not see a purely pragmatic way out of their impasse. I think this completes the mindset.
In summary, we have:
* Metaphysical superiority.
* Technical and intellectual retardation.
* Self-hatred caused by the impurity of their own desires.
* No practical means of escape from genuine quotidian humiliations.
* The promise of rewards, for their families on earth and for themselves in the other world.
FP: Thank you Dr. Dalrymple. So, let’s get deeper into this now. With this background and context, let’s get inside the mind of a hypothetical suicide bomber. Paint a picture for us of a Muslim, let us say, that you once had in your psychiatrist office in Britain. Let us suppose that he decides to go to Iraq to blow himself up. Illustrate for us the step-by-step process that is going on in his mind, as he quits his life and heads off to Iraq. Sketch for us the thoughts patterns that lead to this decision-making. Pretend you are writing a script for a movie and we are listening to what is going on in his head as he quits school or his job, starts packing his suitcase or whatever, and is visualizing with great glee how he will detonate himself in a crowd of civilians in Baghdad.
Dalrymple: Clearly, although the fundamental socio-psychological conditions I have described apply to millions - hundreds of millions - of people, only a vanishingly small proportion of them actually want to be suicide bombers, even if rather more admire and approve of suicide bombers.
So what pushes someone over the edge, as it were? In my experience, which admittedly is limited, and of a selected sample, I would say the following:
The suicide bomber is of above average intelligence. He, or she, is therefore searching for an explanation of his or her existential plight. (You need a certain level of intellection for this to be so.) This involves the identification of an enemy.
The person who becomes a bomber often has a special, personal sense of grievance. This can derive from an intrinsic sensitivity to perceived insult, consequent upon the normal variation of human personality, or can come from outside, eg a person is humiliatingly accused of something of which he is guilty, but regards the accusation itself as lese majeste. For example, a Muslim rapist I know wanted to become a suicide bomber, having become convinced that the West was rotten to the core, deficient in moral worth, because it took the word of a mere woman against his.
So to refine it further, we need all the general cultural and economic conditions, plus the personal particularities I have suggested.
The act of killing oneself for a cause, in the process taking a few 'enemies' with one, is an apologia pro vita sua. Let us not forget that we in the West have a long and inglorious, irrational tradition of supposing that the lengths to which people are prepared to go in the furtherance of a cause is itself evidence of the moral worth of that cause.
The kind of would-be suicide bomber I have known thinks to himself:
They have accused me of what I have done.
What I have done is no crime.
Therefore those who accuse me are the corrupt of the earth.
Those who accuse me are truly representative of the society from which they come.
The destruction of the corrupt of the earth will be rewarded appropriately. Therefore it matters not which individuals I destroy.
The belief is therefore not in representative government, but in representative guilt.
FP: Thank you Dr. Dalrymple. This is fascinating and frightening stuff. Dr. Kobrin?
Kobrin: Yes Jamie, it is perversely fascinating and downright terrifying. It is also part of the Eros of the terrorism. Dr. Dalrymple has succinctly described the crux of the problem – that the other is always already guilty and hence expendable. Similarly Dr. Raddatz is correct in fore grounding the Ummah. Just as the child in Arab Muslim culture is not permitted to separate from the Umm [Ar. mother], this enmeshment gets repeated and reinforced by the Ummah as a singularly fused group. There are working groups which strive for the betterment of life and then, there are regressed destructive groups. The Islamic terrorist organizations are among the most destructive because they send their own to be killed off using women and children under the guise of martyrdom while attacking and murdering the innocent. Just because this is done consciously as a tactical tool does not mean there doesn’t exist a vicious psychological undercurrent.
When there is no sense of self, this leads to many problems. If you are denied a life and live in a community where power [meaning absolute control of the other] is the rule of thumb and it is enforced brutally through honor killings, child beating, sexual abuse, beheadings etc., fear and terror are pervasive. The need to hate and the need to have an enemy are in place by age 3 – and the Jew is among the most hated of all. I will return to this in a moment. It is precisely because of the terror that few factor in the ramifications of shame-based child rearing practices because the implications are enormous and the ability to do effective interventions are highly compromised.
What winds up happening, in a nutshell, is that the mother who has been so pervasively and insidiously traumatized struggles to give the child what s/he needs. It’s not that the mother doesn’t want to and I don’t mean to minimize the role of the father either but it is here that the problem of splitting the world irrationally into loving vs. hating begins without being able to develop the cognitive piece to bridge between the two extremes.
There are many adults who may appear to be high functioning but the splitting is there below the surface in their minds and they still struggle to be “free” from their terrors of abandonment and rejection, feeling humiliated and shamed by this impotent inability. So that when the terrorists and the Ummah scream in a deafening voice “we have been shamed and humiliated!” it might be worth the while to ask – how did they themselves participate in creating a collective self which is so easily shamed by others? If a person has a realistic sense of self, it is hard to buy into being shamed as an adult. There is the Arabic saying: “He hits me and cries, and races me to complain.”
Dr. Stern raises the subject of the Tamil Tigers. Yes, counter terrorism studies have repeatedly defined them as a secular nationalist ethno-separatist organization. However, the experts forget that it is the first three years of life when the cultural-religio ideologies are absorbed like a sponge ingrained into the personality. In Hindu culture as in Arab Muslim culture, the child is not supposed to separate from the mother. Prabhakaran, the charismatic leader of the LTTE, claims that religion is a non-issue and ironically vowed never to marry, yet did so in a Hindu ceremony. What is the importance of this? It shows that the process of identify formation is much more nuanced and complicated than we like to admit. It is a reminder that there is no purity of identity. Indeed the LTTE on the one hand threw out their Muslim Tamil-speaking members in the early 1990s and yet on the other, there are reports that they are recruiting people of mixed parentage – Tamil-Muslim and Hindu-Catholic from the south (personal communication, A. Gunawardena) When I was in Sri Lanka in March, I wondered about this history and the growing local Arab Muslim community.
This added dimension of religious identity is thrown into this mix. For example, Muslims refer to Hindus as najus meaning ‘filthy’ because they are polytheists. This is its socially sanctioned prejudiced attitude. Then there are the Jews and Christians as Dr. Stern points out with the land of Israel being sacred to all three. But in the mind’s eye of the Muslim, Judaism and Christianity and their believers are subjugated to Islam as Dhimma. The root of the word means to blame so that the Prophet Muhammad built into the religion an institutionalized ideology where you can always blame the other and never have to assume responsibility for your own community’s predicament. This is to say nothing of the ideology of submission only to Allah and never to a non-Muslim so that any occupation stings deeply.
You know, Musa (Moses) is the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Qur’an. Why? Because of the giving of the law at Sinai Moses makes divine will manifest in human discourse in the Torah. However, to be a believer requires a leap of faith. The Christians had to appropriate the giving of the law and then added to it with the New Testament. The Prophet Muhammad was faced with a much more difficult task since he had to juggle two preceding religious identities. Muhammad initially borrowed extensively from the Jews who at that time lived in what is now Judenrein Saudi Arabia. He borrowed with the hopes that the Jews would convert. When that didn’t happen, he became enraged and more deeply engaged in Jihad and Da’wa [the call to convert]. However, this still left him and his followers with the problem of their mixed heritage, that is – their Judaic and Christian roots.
The Ummah struggles to admit to this borrowing. It is very difficult to do so when the Jew and Israel are always at the eye of the storm. Muslims seek to cancel out their Judaic roots and the Islamic terrorists seek to kill them off rather than accepting the fact that Judaism and Islam are so similar up to a point. The unacknowledged terror is the fear of losing their identity in the other. Think: enmeshment. Jihad is unique to Islam – Judaism and Christianity have nothing remotely similar. People routinely fail to remember that the Muslims invaded Spain fi sabil Allah – [fighting] in the path of Allah in 711 AD. They came on Jihad. The Crusades were a response to massacre, forced conversions to Islam, Muslim invasion, conquest and the animosity for the Prophet co-opting the New Testament by the Quran. So the Islamic terrorists attempt to resolve their religious identity confusion by brute force, using suicide bombers as a tactical tool with this psychological undercurrent. By the way, the Sira (the biography of Muhammad) records that the prophet attempted suicide twice; though this has rarely been pointed out as a modeling moment for Muslim identity. (personal communication, R. Paz)
Thus, it is not merely that the ideologies per se are exacerbating the violence but it is the way in which they function and are deployed by their practitioners. I agree with Dr. Dalrymple that poverty and humiliation are not sufficient explanations rather that there is a fear of recognizing that their identity is mixed – not pure. They are uncomfortable with “the impurity of their own desires” which are accompanied by violent fantasies that get acted out in real time on innocent victims. Just like BTK, the serial killer, their external life is a mask of sanity but their internal life is a mess of psychosexual violent fantasies.
But surely it can’t be that hard to comprehend what kind of mind the suicide bomber must have, given the fact that s/he is part and parcel of the Umma, born and raised by the Umm. The vast majority of whom venerate Ayman al-Zawahiri who ordered the execution by firing squad of the 15 year old son of one of his closest confidants in the presence of the father and other colleagues. (Montasser al-Zayyat, The Road to Al-Qaeda, p.105) This mind is merely a reflection of the crisis within Islam. [E. Sivan, Hitnagshut b’tokh ha-Islam [The Crash Within Islam in Hebrew]. The crisis has been projected on to the West.
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