As suicide bombing has become a principle means of terrorism, specialists are trying to second-guess those who perpetrate such violence. But how predictable is terrorism, especially when it is motivated by religion?
There is no one answer to that question as social scientists approach this new field. Science & Theology News (October) reports that researchers’ attempts to understand suicidal terror have “revived a controversial theory of `altruistic suicide,’ the act of killing oneself so that one’s community might live.” This would suggest that suicide terrorism is more a phenomenon of group psychology and group behavior than “fundamentalist” religious beliefs. This theory turns the focus on how religious beliefs and practices can generate extreme forms of altruism.
University of Nevada political scientist Leonard Weinberg and Israeli terrorism expert Ami Pedahzur found from their research among Palestinian suicide bombers from 1993-2002 that people who commit such acts are strongly integrated into a social group and are concerned with the group attaining its goals; they tend to have a strong religious background with more religious education than others.
A June, 2005 University of Michigan study related religious background, group socialization and suicide terrorism even more directly, writes Mike Martin. Sociologist Jeremy Ginges found that mosque attendance was closely correlated with involvement in suicide attacks. Such “collective rituals” may help create the altruism needed to give up one’s life for the group. Ginges also found that faith alone does not make a terrorist; personal devotion and belief in Islam was unrelated to terrorism.
Meanwhile, the use of suicidal terrorism by al Queda lacks the instrumental and rational components that would make it very strategic or “altruistic,” according to historian Faisal Devji. Al-Queda’s use of violence is superficial to its purposes and is likely to be short-lived, he added at a recent lecture in New York. Devji, who was speaking at a lecture at the New School for Social Research attended by RW, said that al-Queda is unlike earlier kinds of Islamic fundamentalism and Islam in general in that it has no coherent political program and lacks the control and instrumentality to have much intended effects besides its own symbolic actions.
In studying Osama bin Laden‘s writings and statements, Devji finds an emphasis on “ethical practice” rather than strategic or instrumental action that has a discernable end. This tendency can be seen in London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan‘s reference to his suicide bombing as being an “ethical act. “Even al-Queda’s call for the establishment of the caliphate is not a defined plan since bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri can not agree on its location.
One of the reasons al-Queda is so violent is because it is inherently unstable due to its ethical orientation. Such instability means that the movement could soon “tip over” into something non-violent Devji, who is author of the new book Landscapes of the Jihad, added that al-Queda‘s ethical and mystical orientation puts it on the periphery of an already fragmented Islamic world. In fact, al-Queda‘s teachings are increasingly spread through mystical Sufi networks far from its Middle Eastern base.
(Science & Theology News, P.O. Box 5065, Brentwood, TN 37024-5065)