Why do suicide bombers want to kill us? Ask Bush, Blair or Howard and they’ll unanimously tell you, they hate our freedoms and decadent Western lifestyle. Moral repugnance, we’re told, whips terrorists into such a fury that they’ll blow themselves up and as many westerners they can possibly target.
Author Robert Pape, associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has studied every suicide attack from 1980 to 2003 - a total of 315 attacks. His findings on the motivations of suicide terrorists fly in the face of the war-on-terror rhetoric that our leaders and media lackey’s serve up daily.
Pape is no ideological peacenik, hostile to American hegemony. In fact, he’s the opposite. The whole point of his book is to help the US administration develop more effective policies for the control of Middle Eastern oil.
‘The United States may or may not have to fight another Gulf War some day. If we do, the cardinal purpose should be the same as for the first Gulf War in 1991 – protecting oil – not the same as the purpose of the second in 2003 – regime change.’
More starkly, he states that if there was no oil in the gulf the ‘obvious solution’ would be to simply abandon the entire region, as American occupation has created a myriad of problems.
The major finding of Pape’s work is that, contrary to what neo-cons like David Frum and Richard Perle tell us, it is not so-called Islamic fundamentalism that is fuelling suicide attacks, but rather anger at Western occupation, and its perceived humiliations. Suicide campaigns are not religious, but nationalistic. In other words, the aims of such terrorists are the same as in any war: territorial claims. They don’t hate our freedoms; they just want to get us off their land:
‘The United States has been exporting cultural values that are anathema to Islamic fundamentalism for several decades, but bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organisation did not turn toward attacking the United States until after 1990, when the United States sent troops to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain.’
As for the use of religion in terrorist rhetoric, this study finds that it is employed more cynically as a tool than a raison d’etre. Pape says that when there is a difference in religion between the occupier and the occupied, terrorists will use the religion of the occupier as a way of demonising them, and thus making the mass killing of innocent, unprepared victims acceptable to the occupied community.
‘Religion plays a role in suicide terrorism, but mainly in the context of national resistance. Moreover, the effects of religion that matter do not lie mainly in Islam or in any other single religion or culture. Rather, they lie mainly in the dynamics of religious difference.’
One aspect of suicide terrorism that has not widely been reported in the West is that such campaigns are carried out with strong community support. To try and understand this position, it would probably be best to imagine that a Muslim country was occupying Australia, and recruits were being called to fight the foreign power. Pape calls this type of suicide ‘altruistic’, a self-sacrifice that is carried out for the good of the community. Terrorist organisations even have social services wings, that provide much needed community support for the poor and needy. Osama bin Laden himself has been deeply involved with several social service organisations, al Qaeda money being used to fund their growth.
Pape explains altruistic suicide thus:
‘The altruistic motive in suicide terrorism also depends on social approval. Suicide terrorist organisations are commonly thought of as ‘religious cults’, as if they consisted of individuals separated from their surrounding communities and with aspirations fundamentally different from those of society at large. This is a mistake.’
Another key pattern in suicide bombing campaigns is that, in all the cases Pape has studied, they target an occupying democracy. (Democracies that have been the victims of suicide bombers are US, France, Israel, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Russia)
Why aren’t authoritarian political systems targeted in the same way? Three reasons. Firstly, democracies are seen to be soft and more likely to be coerced by such methods. Public opinion and free speech have the ability to change government policy. Secondly, democracies are believed to be less severe in their retaliation, and more careful not to harm civilians (A highly contentious point, one that Pape himself acknowledges.) Lastly, suicide attacks may be harder to organise in authoritarian police states.
A fourth reason that could be added is that suicide bombings are perceived by terrorists to have a successful track record. As Ronald Reagan said after his decision to pull out of Lebanon:
‘The price we had to pay in Beirut was so great, the tragedy at the barracks was so enormous…We had to pull out…We couldn’t stay there and run the risk of another suicide attack on the marines.’
Pape writes of how insurgents have watched and learned from the successes of other terrorist groups:
‘The original source of the global spread of suicide terrorism was the success of Hezbollah in driving Israel, France, and – especially – the United States out of Lebanon in the early 1980s. These successes persuaded the Tamil Tigers, Palestinian terrorist groups, and al-Qaeda that suicide terrorism would be an effective tool for reaching their own goals. The world we live in today was created in large part by the decisions of three governments twenty years ago.’
The section in the book that profiles your typical suicide bomber also knocks many preconceived ideas on the head. Would it surprise the reader to learn that suicide rates amongst Muslim societies are the lowest in the world, significantly below Christian and Jewish societies? It surprised me. (Pape goes so far as to say that Islam may well reduce the likelihood of suicide bombing.)
It is also normal to think of suicide bombers as maladjusted, psychopathic misfits, yet the author’s findings contradict this popular belief.
‘The bottom line, then, is that suicide attackers are not mainly poor, uneducated, immature religious zealots or social losers. Instead, suicide attackers are normally well-educated workers from both religious and secular backgrounds. Especially given their education, they resemble the kind of politically conscious individuals who might join a grassroots movement more than they do wayward adolescents or religious fanatics.’
Many may find this an uncomfortable read, as it asks us to try and contemplate why suicide bombers strap explosives to themselves and go out and mass murder innocent civilians. It asks you to imagine why they do it, in order that we may learn the reasons why and then make changes in our foreign policy so as to try and minimise such attacks in the future.
Pape’s solution is to pull out troops wherever and whenever possible, and then maintain a policy of ‘off shore balancing’, which I guess you could call meddling from afar. To do otherwise, Pape maintains, is only to risk another September 11.
One last pertinent quote:
‘Just as al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorism campaign began against American troops on the Arabian Peninsula and then escalated to the United States, we should recognise that the longer that American forces remain in Iraq, the greater the threat of the next September 11 from groups who have not targeted us before.’