Many motives are cited for suicide bombings, from religious sanctification to revenge for Western foreign policy to hatred of Israel, but one thing ties them together: the boast that Muslims love death, whereas their enemies love life.
From killing the infidel enemy through suicide attacks, to allowing the subordinate female to participate in suicide attacks, a pattern emerges. And just as honor killings are a perversion of the most basic of human ties, so love for martyrdom takes societies into a direct relationship with the darkest side of human nature. In trying to explain this, it may be feasible to identify routes to a possible solution.
Since the 1980s, killing oneself deliberately has become the most popular method of attacking and killing one's enemies in countries including Iraq and Afghanistan, in territories such as Chechnya or the West Bank and Gaza, and even in Western countries such as the United States and Great Britain.
It was a real-life Shi'i fanatic, a thirteen-year-old boy called Hossein Fahmideh, who set things moving in 1981 when he died with a grenade in his hand, throwing himself under a tank during the Iran-Iraq war.
He was followed by thousands of young Iranians carrying "keys to paradise," who walked and ran across minefields, ripping their bodies apart for God and the Islamic regime.
Two years later, the first suicide attack occurred against a Western target when a bomber drove a vehicle packed with explosives into the lobby of the American embassy in Beirut. Apart from himself, he killed 63 people: 32 Lebanese, 17 Americans, and 14 visitors.
Iran denied all involvement in the attack, but its protégé, Hezbollah, soon claimed responsibility, and it was subsequently established that the killings had been approved and financed by senior Iranian officials.
The Iranian role in many subsequent suicide bombings has been crucial, given the existence of a clerical elite that inherited a deeply-embedded Shi'i cult of martyrdom, whose traditions of flagellation, public weeping, passion plays, martyrdom sermons, and hagiographies of martyrs were pushed into overdrive after the revolution of 1979.
An Islamic Paradox
By 2008, 1,121 suicide bombers had carried out attacks in Iraq, killing on a massive scale.
With the exception of Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers used the tactic, suicide bombing has become an almost exclusively Islamic phenomenon.
Whether religiously observant or driven by other motives, the bombers have been Muslims, regardless of their country of origin. Even Muslims raised and educated in non-Muslim countries (like Britain's 7/7 bombers) and exposed to cultures without overt jihadi propaganda have put on explosive belts and gone to their deaths in order to kill nonbelievers.
Apart from their Islamic roots, these terrorists display a wide range of characteristics. Many have been young men, some of whom were mentally disabled, while others were very bright, some uneducated, others university graduates; a growing number are women, mostly young, some old, some virgins, others pregnant or mothers.
Many have belonged to terrorist groups such as Hamas and have been indoctrinated in Islamist thought, anti-Semitism, or general hatred of the West. Others have been volunteers seeking to expiate sins or retrieve the honor of their families.
Yet suicide bombing involves a paradox within Islam. On the one hand, laws relating to jihad unambiguously state that fighters must not take the lives of noncombatants, such as women, children, the sick, or the elderly.
At the same time, anyone who dies while fighting non-Muslims is considered a martyr and guaranteed the highest rank in paradise. How do Islamists get round this problem?
Some may shut their eyes and get on with it, but others come face to face with the paradox by dividing the problem into bite-size pieces. Clerics sanctify the bombers in their sermons, organizations including Hamas and Islamic Jihad identify and celebrate them as fighters in the jihad, and foreign donors provide aid that is siphoned off to the families of the martyrs.
Whatever the private motivation of the suicide bomber, his or her action is rooted in much broader national, communal or, above all, religious demands, pressures, and desires.
These range from religious convictions and edicts to concepts of holy war and martyrdom to conflicts over issues of shame and honor to social constructs of sexuality.
Most importantly, the bombings have nothing to do with suicide. Nor are they described as such by those who send the bombers out and those who immolate themselves.
To make it easier to understand what modern Islamist suicide bombing is about, we need to examine its historical background, its religious/nationalist role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its psychological and cultural roots in the Arab and Islamic interpretation of women, sexuality, shame, and honor.
Source: Middle East Forum