Special Report: The Context And Significance Of Suicide Bombing

In the West, suicide is generally understood as an individual’s attempt to end intolerable misery, and is (at least) frowned upon. In the Islamic world, it is a weapon of war. The British weekly newsmagazine The Economist continues:

That prompts some Westerners to assert a link between Islam — especially Shia Islam, with its stress on martyrdom — and readiness for self-destruction.

But scholars who comb the available data about suicide attacks are often sceptical about religion’s role. Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, has identified three factors that make suicide terrorism probable. It is likely to occur when a community feels it is under occupation that must be resisted; when the “occupier” is a democratic society whose opinion can be swayed; and where there is a sectarian difference between the perpetrators’ community and the target community. In his view, religious differences help to make suicide attacks conceivable, but they are not the main driver. Nichole Argo, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees that religion’s role is limited. What counts is a background of support for the idea of insurgency: a sense among self-annihilators that their peers will see them as heroes. Nor is religious indoctrination a big factor, Ms Argo insists; only a fraction of the alumni of hard-line madrasas in Pakistan and Indonesia engage in violence. Material deprivation is not decisive either; many suicide-bombers are from comfortable backgrounds.

The putative causes of suicide bombing are, therefore: occupation, effective coercion, religious distinction, and heroic status.

Let us see whether this holds up.

German academic Matthias Kuentzel has provided us with a description of an Iranian tactic deployed in the Iran-Iraq war:

…I cannot help but think of the 500,000 plastic keys that Iran imported from Taiwan during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. At the time, an Iranian law laid down that children as young as 12 could be used to clear mine fields. Before every mission, a plastic key would be hung around each of the children’s necks. It was supposed to open for them the gates to paradise.

The “child-martyrs” belonged to the so-called “Basij” (Ed. note: this word may be spelled “Basiji” or in other slightly different ways) movement created by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Basij Mostazafan — the “mobilization of the oppressed”– were volunteers of all ages that embraced death with religious enthusiasm. They provided the model for the first Hezbollah suicide bombers in Lebanon. To this day, they remain a kind of SA of the Islamic revolution. Sometimes they serve as a “vice squad”, monitoring public morals; sometimes they rage against the opposition — as in 1999, when they were used to break the student movement. At all times, they celebrate the cult of self sacrifice.

Another account of Iranian children on the battlefield amplifies the horror:

…the earthly gore became a matter of concern. “In the past,” wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, “we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone.” Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers. “Before entering the minefields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves.”

The children were not suicide bombers, because they did not carry bombs — a risible distinction without a difference.

Their embrace of death made them heroes in Islamic ideology. As Kevin Sites recounts:

In Iranian society, there are few more revered than the martyrs — defined as anyone killed during war or other violent struggle — or their families. Most receive financial benefits from the government for their sacrifice, including housing allowances for parents and widows, free health care, and educational stipends for surviving children.

“Martyrdom, for us, is our school, our ideology, our heart and our prayer,” says Mullah Hassan Ali Ahangaran, a religious consultant to the Martyrs’ Museum in downtown Tehran. “It allows the continuation of Islam. The blood of the martyr revitalizes our religion.”

It’s that kind of zeal, Western observers worry, that helps to transform a natural respect for the dead into suicidal attacks on the living.

In this instance, the academic model constructed by Pape (with Argo’s help) fails. It meets only one of the criteria it established as causes for suicide bombings.


1. There was no occupation of Iran. The battles in which the mine fields were cleared were fought in Iraq.

2. Saddam Hussein and his generals were absolutely immune to coercion.

3. The religious distinctions between Iranians and Iraqis, both ideological and demographic, are matters of proportion, not clear demarcation.

In his study of suicide bombing, Pape focused on external factors rather than psychological motivation. He cites the Tamil Tigers (Hindu rebels against the primarily Buddhist government of Sri Lanka) as exemplars of clearly secular employment of suicide bombers.

There are two huge problems with this:

First, it is irrational to assert that motive A for an action B must always be present when action B is taken, even if A is known to lead unfailingly to B. B may have multiple motives or causes.

When we light some incense in our homes, we may do so for a number of motives, including but not limited to covering up our use of marijuana, masking the stink of mosquito spray, or in order to begin devotional observances before an altar.

Circumstances and the cultural context make all the difference, in other words. So when we say that suicide bombings are promoted by Islam, we are speaking truthfully but probably not globally.

In passing, note that Pape’s model of the wellsprings of suicide bombing, as slightly modified by Argo, seems to apply specifically if not exclusively to the “Palestinian” cause.

Second, we have these remarks by Sam Harris:

…the “Tamil Tigers” are often offered as a counterexample to any claim that suicidal terrorism is a product of religion. But to describe the Tamil Tigers as “secular”–as R. A. Pape …and others have, is misleading. While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they (sic) are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death. The cult of martyr worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity….

Harris also refutes Pape’s model generally:

(We ask) why so many Muslims are eager to turn themselves into bombs these days. The answer: because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity.

Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible… Anyone who says that the doctrines of Islam have “nothing to do with terrorism”–and our airways have been filled with apologists for Islam making this claim–is just playing a game with words.

…martyrdom is the only way that a Muslim can bypass the painful litigation that awaits us all on the Day of Judgment, and proceed directly to paradise.

(The above quotes are taken from Harris’s book, The End of Faith, pages 229 and 32-3, UK edition.)

How important a role does faith play in suicide bombing? According to this account, that depends on the circumstances, which, in the case of Iran, were terrible indeed:

Khomeini whipped up a religious fervor for that kind of mass death — a belief that to die on Khomeini’s orders in a human wave attack was to achieve the highest and most beautiful of destinies. All over Iran young men, encouraged by their mothers and their families, yearned to participate in those human wave attacks — actively yearned for martyrdom. It was a mass movement for suicide. The war was one of the most macabre events that has ever occurred….

(Source: Berman, P., Terror and Liberalism , New York, WW Norton, 2003; page 108.)

The attempt to understand suicide bombing must take into account the multiple motives bombers may have. Among those motives are various combinations and degrees of states of mind, including desperation, a frantic need to defend one’s family, a desire to end one’s own suffering, an unreasoning hatred of an individual that surpasses one’s desire to survive the target’s death, a commitment to a quasi-divine personage such as the emperor of Japan, devotion to an abstract code of conduct such as Bushido, and many other distinct convictions.

There may be linked to suicide bombing some strategic or political policies that give it significance in propagandistic or coercive efforts. It can be part of a greater political plan, and promoted by an elite to aggrandize itself. It may be imposed on unwitting victims, as recently happened when Al Qaeda operatives strapped explosives to the bodies of two mentally retarded females and sent them into a crowded marketplace.

Muslims wishing to undertake violent jihad are typically exposed to intense religious instruction, as Argo notes. The fact that a minority of them choose suicide bombing as a tactic refutes nothing argued here. In the USA, recruits in the armed forces (volunteers all) are, especially in the Army and Marine Corps, trained in infantry tactics. Yet from their ranks many emerge to become pilots, cannoneers, and medical support personnel, as well as specialists in a host of other fields.

In Islam’s armies, suicide bombing is also literally an option, a specialization. Argo argues that if religious belief were involved, suicide bombers would be far more numerous among the graduates of the madrases, having been brainwashed into seeking self-destruction.

Far from it. Many jihadis feel they can make a greater contribution to the downfall of Western Civilization if they study tactics, communications, and a variety of other specializations. Better, as they see it, to fight and live to fight on for years, killing more people than can be dispatched in a single explosion.

Why Argo fails to grasp these simple and obvious truths is a puzzle…to be discussed in future issues of The Penguin Post.

For all its variations, one thing is clear about all suicide bombing: when it is fundamentally encouraged by an authoritarian religious ideology and promoted by venerated figures in the clerical elite, it absolutely is a religious phenomenon.

Where there is no link between religion and an instance of suicide bombing, there is no link. End of report.

In Islam, the relationship between suicide bombing and the faith can be described as architectonic. The foundation is the scriptures, the Koran and hadith. On this rests the structure that is the commitment of the faithful to martyrdom; the roof of the structure is suicide bombing.

From the Koran:

Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate. (9:73)

Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous. (9:123)

From the hadith:

Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause). — Quoted in Harris, End of Faith, p. 112.

The hadith is considered as authoritative as the Koran, and is the essential guide for Muslim jurists in interpreting the Koran. (See Ruhven, M., Islam and the World, 2nd ed., Oxford, 2000.)

Harris continues our tour of the abattoir of Islam:

…many Muslims are eager to turn themselves into bombs… because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity.

Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible…insert these peculiar beliefs, and one can only marvel that suicide bombing is not more widespread. Anyone who says that the doctrines of Islam have “nothing to do with terrorism” — and our airways have been filled with apologists for Islam making this claim — is just playing with words. (End of Faith, pp. 32-3.)

There are variations in Islamic belief and practice across the globe. How popular is suicide bombing with Muslims in general? The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey in 2002 (no similar subsequent survey by the Pew Center exists) that asked (only) Muslims for their view of the ethics of suicide bombings. The results are instructive, but it must be emphasized that Pew didnot query Muslims in (of all places!) “Palestine,” Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and, most notably, Iran.

According to the Pew Center, the percentage of respondents considering suicide bombing “justifiable” varies, from highest to lowest, 73 in Lebanon and 56 in Ivory Coast down to 27 in Indonesia and 13 in Turkey.

These statistics are sufficiently misleading that they may be denounced as disingenuous. Pew has clustered responses in the categories of “Never justified” and “Rarely justified.” If the question had been, “Is suicide bombing ever justified?” those considering it justified under some but not all circumstances would have responded positively. But Pew put those responses in with those in the “Never justified” group, skewing the results to create the impression that Muslim rejection of suicide bombings is greater than it is.

Correcting for this malpractice, we get statistics that can only be considered disturbing. High to low, they range from Lebanon 81 percent and Ivory Coast 73, to Pakistan 38 and Turkey 20. Australians note well: perhaps most interesting of all is the figure for the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia. 43 percent of Muslims there responded that suicide bombing can be considered ethical under some or all circumstances.

Now consider the least suicide-bombing-friendly Muslim nation, Turkey. In 2002, Turkey had a bit over 68.5 million people, approximately 15% of whom were Kurds. If we assume that all Kurds reject suicide bombing, and if we therefore feel justified in removing them from this statistical inquiry, that leaves us with 58 million people, of whom 20% approve of suicide bombing to one degree or another. We had, therefore, in 2002 at the very least 11.5 million Muslims in Turkey who justified the practice.

That is what the most ethically enlightened end of the spectrum looks like, and at this point the reader should refer again to the grim list of nations not represented in the Pew survey.

One might argue that the belief in the propriety of suicide bombing is distinct from the practice of suicide bombing, and that the Pape-Argo model relates only to the latter, not the former. That would be to admit that the findings derived from the model are biased by the restrictive assumptions and prerequisites imposed by the model. In other words, “We shall study suicide bombing without examining religious contexts (beliefs, dogma, ethics), but all other psychological elements — the expectation of a hero’s status, and the desire to be free of an occupying, alien force — will be included; then we’ll examine political circumstances, economic conditions, military realities, geographic factors (if any), and the people’s aspirations. Surprise! We find that religion has almost nothing to do with suicide bombing!”

In sum: throughout the Muslim world, large numbers of people approve of suicide bombing. Their approval is rooted in the concept of martyrdom, which in turn springs from the Islamic holy scriptures. Even university professors do not have carte blanche to ignore those facts.

Now let us look to the future. What are the prospects for suicidal behavior in the Islamic world, and what are their implications?

It is clear that an end to Muslim suicide bombing cannot be predicted. The glorification of martyrdom may strongly influence Iranian military policy, resulting in at least hundreds of thousands of deaths. Kuentzel:

Ahmadinejad forms part of the first generation of Basiji militants and still today (2006) he is often to be seen wearing a Basiji uniform. He would like to bring about a renaissance of the Basiji culture of the 1980s — in order, among other things, to combat the burgeoning Western-oriented youth movement that has, for instance, given rise to some 700,000 weblogs in the last years. Thus Ahmadinejad made a personal appeal this year for Iranians to participate in the annual “Basiji Week” that took place in late November. According to a report in the newspaper Kayan, some 9 million Basiji heeded the call, “forming a human chain some 8,700 kilometers long in which President Ahmadinejad also took part. In Tehran alone, some 1,250,000 people were mobilized.” (Cited in Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, “Bassiji: die revolutionaere Miliz des Iran”, on MEMRI Deutschland.) Ahmadinejad used the occasion to praise the “Basij culture and the Basij power” with which “Iran today makes its presence felt on the international and diplomatic level”. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chair of the Guardian Council, went so far as to describe the very existence of Iran’s nuclear program as “a triumph of the young people who serve the Basij movement and possess the Basiji-psyche and Basiji-culture.” He added: “We need an army of 20 million Basiji. Such an army must be ready to live for God, to die along the way of God, and to conduct Jihad, in order to please God.”

Is the Iranian population being thus prepared for the announced nuclear war against Israel? Three years ago, the then Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani explained that a single atom bomb used against Israel “would leave nothing on the ground”, whereas the damage done by a possible retaliatory strike would be limited (source: MEMRI Special Dispatch, 3 January 2002). Even with a million dead, the Islamic world would survive, whereas Israel would be destroyed. Thus the logic of Rafsanjani’s argument. It is this murderous calculation — the sort of calculation that lies at the base of every suicide attack — that distinguishes the atomic ambitions of Iran from the interests of all existing nuclear powers.

This presumed nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel has prompted much speculation, some of it sophisticated (which means computers were used), and some of it sheer nonsense. It is hard to tell the difference.

One “war games” simulation claims that Israel would “win” a war with Iran. That “victory” would come after, of course, losing a horrifyingly significant fraction of its population to the blast(s) and radioactivity. Iran would be destroyed.

Then we have, from this website, a story titled “Iran can destroy Israel with two atom bombs” that originated here:

TEL AVIV [MENL] — Israel’s Defense Ministry has determined that Iran could destroy the Jewish state with two atomic bombs.

Officials said the ministry and the Israel Defense Forces have conducted simulations of an Iranian nuclear attack for damage assessment and response. They said authorities have determined that two nuclear bombs that explode in the center and north of Israel would destroy most of the population and all vital infrastructure.

The assessment was issued at a conference on Iran and its nuclear program. Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said two Iranian missiles tipped with a nuclear warhead could destroy Israel. Boim said even one nuclear weapon could cripple the country.

The real question is not what, exactly, would happen, but whether anything will. Everything depends on the beliefs and desires of the Iranian government, and it is obvious that at the core of Iran’s military policy is a nexus of hatred and faith predisposed to massive bloodshed.

This report mentions the crucial factor in the infernal equation:

Israel is very small, most of its population is near Tel Aviv, so every nuclear attack could cause terrible damage.

Israel would therefore need a deterrent that the Iranians would know that if they attack, Israel will retaliate so forcefully that, “There won’t be any Iranians left to count their dead,” Amidror said.

However, some experts doubt Israel can deter what they described as the ideology that Ahmadinejad and other Iranians espouse.

Deterrence worked during the Cold War because the US and Soviet leaders were rational, but Shiite-Muslims might be different. Some Iranians, including Ahmadinejad, believe that the imam who disappeared 1,000 years ago is about to return. Bloodshed will speed his coming and then the Muslims will rule the world.

Charles Krauthammer takes us a step closer to the conflagration:

Everyone knows where Iran’s nuclear weapons will be aimed. Everyone knows they will be put on Shahab rockets that have been modified so they can now reach Israel. And everyone knows that if the button is ever pushed, it will be the end of Israel.

But it gets worse. The president of a country about to go nuclear is a confirmed believer in the coming apocalypse. Like Judaism and Christianity, Shiite Islam has its own version of the messianic return — the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam.

Our investigation of madness is almost complete, for now we can see why the coming nuclear capacity of Iran is a genuinely horrifying prospect. The preposterous notion that a long-dead hero will be reborn and conquer the earth for Allah is actually believed by many millions of Muslims. His advent, moreover, will be enabled by widespread violence. Ahmadinejad does not want to destroy Israel simply because he, like all devout Muslims, hates Jews passionately; he wants to bring nuclear fire down on his own nation as well, in order to facilitate the final triumph of the worst religion on the face of the earth.

Here is the prayer with which Ahmadinejad closed his address to the United Nations General Assembly:

O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.

Andrew Sullivan states the obvious quite well, beginning with an appeal for readers to read the quotes in question a second time:

Ahmadinejad is calling upon God to bring about the coming of the Twelfth Imam (“the perfect human being promised to all by you”), who heralds the Apocalypse. He is also saying that he will “strive for his return.” It is the most terrifying statement any president of any nation has made to the U.N. We have a dictator on the brink of nukes, striving to accelerate the Apocalypse. Think of the Iranian regime as a nation-as-suicide-bomber. And anything serious we can do to prevent it may only make matters worse. No wonder Ahmadinejad smiles. Paradise beckons.

(Source for all three above quotes.)

If there is a nuclear standoff when Iran gets its bombs, it will be nothing like the Cold War. Both Washington and Moscow were sane.

We began our inquiry by undertaking a simple analysis of the nature and causes of suicide bombing…and that has led us to a vision of hell on earth. Having conceived of the inferno that will certainly come if the messianic lunatics of Islam have their way, we must return to the source of all this insanity: the power of faith/irrationality. In so doing we note the wrongheadedness of those who portray this power as trivial. Harris:

Criticizing a person’s ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolite in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not. And so it is that when a Muslim suicide bomber obliterates himself along with a score of innocents…the role that faith played in his action is invariably discounted. His motives must have been political, economic, or entirely personal. Without faith, desperate people would still do terrible things. Faith itself is always, and everywhere, exonerated.