Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Religion, Politics, and Suicide Bombing: An Interpretive Essay

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Religion, Politics, and Suicide Bombing: An Interpretive Essay

Article excerpt

In memory of Baruch Kimmerling (1939-2007)

Lord Clifford: The smallest worm will turn being trodden on, And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood....

King Henry VI. Full well hath Clifford play'd the orator, Inferring arguments of mighty force.

But, Clifford, tell me, didst thou never hear That things ill-got had ever bad success?

--William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3


One of the most difficult questions for students of fundamentalist Islam is whether willingness to support practices such as suicide bombing is motivated mainly by religious or political principles. Given that Islamic law does not distinguish between matters of state and religion--jurists are also theologians--the easy answer is that it is motivated by both. But that is not an answer which many analysts have favoured, partly because it glosses over important strategic issues that are closely bound up with whether one gives greater weight to religion or politics as the prime mover.

Consider the clash of civilizations thesis. Samuel Huntington (1996) argues that religious differences define the major conflicts of our era. Not all of these conflicts are so deeply rooted as to be intractable, but some of them are sufficiently obdurate that their resolution may require force. Characteristically, five years after the American invasion of Afghanistan and three years after the second American invasion of Iraq, Bernard Lewis, who coined the term "clash of civilizations" before Huntington popularized it, lamented that "we seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill" (Lewis 2006).' In contrast, critics of the clash of civilizations thesis argue that, irrespective of their religious trappings, differences between Islamic and Western civilizations are largely political, and therefore subject to rational discourse, cost-benefit analysis, negotiation, and compromise (Hunter 1998). One's view of what predominates--religion or politics--is thus correlated with one's sense of what must be done to resolve the so-called clash of civilizations.

Why is force presumably more likely to be needed to control intensely religious opponents? Because religion is based more on faith than on reason, and extremist religious beliefs are therefore relatively impervious to the kind of rational discourse and considered compromise that politics often affords (Toft 2007:100-1, 106-7).

An important debate that has recently been initiated about the nature of suicide bombing illustrates the point. Robert Pape and others hold that suicide bombing is a rational political tactic because it is typically employed with considerable success to reach a realistic goal that other methods have failed to achieve: the liberation of occupied national territory (Pape 2005; 2007). It follows that if the problem of foreign occupation is adequately addressed, suicide bombings will become less frequent.

Assaf Moghaddam, among others, contests Pape's view. Moghaddam holds that the suicide attacks typical of Muslim fundamentalist organizations, especially since 2001, are motivated mainly by religious impulses that have little in common with the desire to liberate occupied territory and much to do with the religious ambition to establish a caliphate. In his words,

   by adopting a narrow ... view of al Qaeda as an entity engaged
   primarily in a struggle to end "foreign occupation," Pape fails to
   take account of the fundamentally religious long-term mission of the
   group--to wage a cosmic struggle against an unholy alliance of
   Christians and Jews, which prevents the entity from establishing an
   Islamic caliphate over as large a territory as possible. (Moghaddam

In Moghaddam's view, Islamic fundamentalists are religious fanatics--and, by implication, the West therefore enjoys relatively little room for political manoeuvre and must instead resort to coercive force to eliminate the threat. …

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