Wednesday, May 18, 2005

On Suicide Bombers, Scapegoats, and Secularism

In this morning's New York Times, Robert Pape (a professor of political science at University of Chicago) wrote a very interesting op-ed piece in which he took on the notion that suicide bombers act from (purely) religious motives. He writes,

To make sense of this apparent contradiction, [the rise of demoscracy in Iraq and the continued rise of suicide attacks] one has to understand the strategic logic of suicide terrorism. Since Muslim terrorists professing religious motives have perpetrated many of the attacks, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause, and thus the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, is the obvious solution. However, the presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading, and it may spur American policies that are likely to worsen the situation.

Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 - 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.
Pape shows instead, through exhaustively surveying his 23 years of data, that suicide attacks are part of 1) concerted political or military campaigns, 2) directed against democracies such as the U.S., Sri Lanka, or Turkey (generally -- ironically -- also an occupying power), and 3) calculated to maintain or establish political self-determination.

I found one of Pape's sentences above particularly intriguing. He writes, "Since Muslim terrorists professing religious motives have perpetrated many of the attacks, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause, and thus the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, is the obvious solution." This is a spooky analogue to how the story of the spread of Islam itself across North Africa is told: "at the barrel of a gun." Of course, Pape is disavowing this very thing, this sentence serves to characterize a misunderstanding -- but to the extent that it accurately depicts the common sentiment, it certainly gives pause. The idea that America (or anyone) could forcibly, at gunpoint, compel people to be "free" (i.e. become a secular, Western-style democracy (is that really freedom?)) for the sake of peace and free markets, well, it seems that something has gone significantly wrong somewhere.

But the sentence also put me in mind of the West's role in the current quagmire in the Middle East to begin with. At least in the imagination of the common Middle East citizen, European colonialism, which created such arbitrary locations as "Iraq" and "Iran", destroyed the "Muslim society" which stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian subcontinent. (And American interventionism and economic colonialism has continued this.) Because the West came in and imposed, more-or-less as conquerors, Western-style nation-states we have prompted much of the strife present in the region. ("Firm borders, now! Must be secular -- no religion! Don't worry if there are numerous people groups here, ethnicity doesn't matter -- that messiness will be resolved by being a nation-state! Now be our client, help us sell your things to us!") Regardless of the historicity of this remembered "Muslim society",* or just how united, Muslim, or humane it was, this remains a powerful cultural memory for many Arabian Muslims, and it is a memory of loss. No wonder they aren't particularly keen on us being present on their soil.

I also appreciate his essay because it seems that we are awfully quick to blame religion, or even more, fundamentalism, for so much of the strife in the world. Now, I'm no apologist for fundamentalism (much less the general category "religion"), but it seems that this blame is often enough an excuse to not think. To blame "fundamentalism" (or "fanatics" or "terrorists" or whatever) is a way of roping off, labelling and scapegoating another group of people, of sealing them off and ensuring that they are not taken seriously, and -- just as importantly -- sealing ourselves off from any reflection, self-criticism, or blame. For example: why did 9/11 happen? Because evil, fanatical terrorists are enemies of freedom. This sentiment underwrites our complete innocence and victimhood, and the completely inexplicable (how do you adequately explain "fanaticism"?) nature of the "evil" actions taken against us. It is a way of denying any responsibility on our part, either in terms of partial causality of their actions, or in terms of serious reflection on our response to their actions. (I imagine that you, the reader, will understand that I am not going to the other extreme and laying all of the blame at our feet -- this would be just as serious of an error, I think.)

But what if we characterize 9/11 differently? Why did it happen? Because certain people, outraged by real and perceived abuses of their people, in part because of our misuse of our freedom, decided to strike back, taking the extreme and desperate measure of killing thousands of uninvolved people. This characterization (I hope) does not justify the action taken, but it also does not scapegoat or make one group the obvious victim and the other the obvious perpetrator, bnut recognizes the imperfect humanity of all involved.

Certainly -- for Christians at any rate -- we can see ourselves in the light of the cross as perpetrators who are forgiven, redeemed, and transformed; and as followers of our crucified Lord, victims who do not respond in vengeance but love. It seems that the extent to which we can keep the cross in view, with its implications of ourselves as both perpetrators and victims, is the extent to which we can also recognize the humanity of our enemy and the complexity of the situations we live in.

Here's a link to the original op-ed piece:

Blowing Up an Assumption - New York Times

And tell them you saw it on Gower Street, where you always get more dashes and parentheses for your money than anywhere else on the web!

*I am not qualified to assess this claim historically, but such an assessment is beyond my point here.


Blogger Emily said...

Thanks for posting this. I consider myself to be a thoughtful person who questions assumptions but I had never thought too much about suicide bombings. I don't like admitting how much I was willing to buy the Islamic fundamentalist line myself.

(and I empathize about moving--we are actually in OK but still trying to find everything in the boxes!)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005 10:45:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for the thanks! I always consider you to be a thoughtful person, too, and try to be one myself. Now and then we can help each other to consider something anew, and I'm glad I was able to do that for a friend.

But I have been remiss in offering congratulations on your new situation (you are in "OK" in more ways than one, no?). I always find moving to be stressful and hope that you are settling in well. In your posts, I don't recall you mentioning that you have a new situation? How are you doing in OK -- are you finding your place or feeling at sea? I'd like to hear more -- please e-mail me at the address you'll find in my blog profile.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 2:21:00 PM  

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