Monday, February 18, 2013

Suicide Seekers and the Holy Warrior Masquerade

Adam Lankford..
Op-Ed Contributor/JPost..
17 February '13..

‘These are not suicide operations,” explained Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar on Al-Arabiya television in 2006. “This is a despicable term used by the Israelis in order to say that these are suicide operations, knowing that suicide is forbidden in Islam.... These are martyrdom seeking operations, approved by all the authorities of the Islamic nation.”

Al-Zahar’s claims were not surprising. He was neither the first, nor the last, to make that argument. But it is shocking that the rest of the world essentially agreed. Although most people still employ the phrase “suicide attack” as the simplest description of this behavior, leading scholars and security officials have spent years insisting that perpetrators are driven by sacrifice, not suicide.

In the United States, Europe and elsewhere, students are taught that suicide bombers are psychologically equivalent to a soldier who jumps on a grenade to absorb the blast and protect his comrades. Or as American professor and former adviser for two presidential campaigns Robert Pape asserted, suicide terrorists are “much like ordinary soldiers with a strong sense of duty and a willingness to sacrifice all for the common good.”

This view is not only dangerous – because it glorifies suicide attackers and thus encourages future recruits – but also factually wrong. I have spent more than three years studying interview transcripts, suicide notes, “martyrdom” videos, and witness statements, and have uncovered more than 130 examples of suicide terrorists with classic risk factors for conventional suicide. I have yet to come across even one suicide attacker driven purely by ideology and altruism.

THOSE WHO volunteer are generally overwhelmed by personal crises and looking to escape their lives. Those who are coerced are usually weak and broken souls who’d rather die than risk trying to withdraw or disobey.

In some cases, they openly admitted their suffering and despair. For instance, a volunteer suicide bomber known as Zuheir acknowledged that after years of physical abuse from his parents, he agreed to blow himself up “not because I belonged to the organization, but to realize my wish to die.”

And after her arrest, a coerced suicide bomber named Nazima explained, “When they told me I was going to carry out ‘an action’ I cried a lot, I almost fainted, everything went black before my eyes... I kept telling [the dispatcher] that I wasn’t religious, I didn’t pray, and he said ‘When you die you will be closer to Allah.’” These were desperate and suicidal people, not martyrs.

But real martyrdom was never the problem anyway. This is an important oversight made by Israeli ambassador Ron Prossor, among others. In his recent remarks to the United Nations Security Council, Prosor suggested that effective counter-terrorism required combating the worship of martyrdom. But all around the world, many cultures celebrate those willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause.

In this sense, Islam is not so different from Judaism or Christianity. When someone like Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi says, “in the history of nations and their conflicts, the martyr is the ultimate source of pride,” he’s right about that; it’s his conflation of suicide bombing with martyrdom that is invalid.

Instead of condemning martyrdom, government leaders, university scholars and media commentators should emphasize that suicide attackers are suicidal – they’re not martyrs at all. Given the evidence that’s now available, there has never been a better opportunity to change perceptions worldwide.

Israel and its allies should play a major role in this endeavor. They should help correct widespread misconceptions that have allowed past suicide attackers to get a clean bill of health. As well-known cases like Cleopatra, Adolf Hitler, Ernest Hemmingway and Sylvia Plath clearly demonstrate, suicidal people can be educated and intelligent; they can appear rational, speak clearly, write in complete sentences, and plan their actions; they can smile one moment and want to die the next.

But no matter where they come from or how they act, if they kill themselves because they no longer want to live, that constitutes suicide.

Suicide terrorists are no different, even when they attempt to conceal their personal problems and masquerade as holy warriors.

Israeli leaders should also challenge Islamic scholars and journalists to come speak with those imprisoned suicide terrorists who are honest about their suicidal motives, so they can see the truth for themselves. Confronted with these attackers’ own confessions of wanting to die, visitors would have to acknowledge to their audiences that at least some suicide bombers could never be real martyrs.

ONCE THESE examples become widely known, other suicide attackers who claim to be shaheeds and shaheedas would come under a growing cloud of suspicion. As with the story of the emperor’s new clothes, once the public is prompted to look beyond these attackers’ façade, they will begin to recognize these false martyrs for what they really are.

Finally, all who oppose suicide attacks should launch a dedicated campaign to change the language, so that the terms “sacrifice,” “martyr” and “martyrdom” are no longer used by moderate commentators to refer to suicide terrorists. History has shown that the words people use affect their psychology on a subconscious level, and the resulting emotional responses can shape their future behavior.

This is why euphemisms like “ethnic cleansing” and “final solution” were so devastatingly effective – at a gut level, virtually everyone has positive associations with cleanliness and problems being solved.

Similarly, every time someone uses words like “sacrifice,” “martyr” and “martyrdom” to refer to suicide bombers, it functions as tacit approval of the behavior, even if that’s not the commentator’s intent.

Suicide terrorists commit “suicide,” and their motives are “suicidal.” All around the world, people need to emphasize it, because these words matter too. And the evidence is no longer in doubt.


Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and the author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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