Academic journal article McGill Sociological Review

Rituals of Violence in Armed Movements: Evidence from Bangladesh

Academic journal article McGill Sociological Review

Rituals of Violence in Armed Movements: Evidence from Bangladesh

Article excerpt

Introduction

A systematic display of violence is an important feature of many armed movements. Most studies of armed movements explain violence as a strategy of movement organizers to exert pressure on the authority to give in to their demands (Freilich, Peinik and Howard 2001; Pape 2005; Wickham-Crowley 1992). They largely overlook the symbolic aspects of movement violence. Similarly, those who view rituals of violence as pure religious or magical practices fail to understand their strategic dimension (Berlet 2005; Eller 2010; Kirsch 2009; Perlmutter 2002). In this paper, I argue that armed civil militia groups follow the same strategic as well as symbolic logic in practicing violence as the state military does in a counterinsurgency operation. Without examining both the symbolic and the strategic dimensions in relation to military professionalism our understanding of the rituals of violence in armed movements is only partial.

Militarism is by definition associated with the term 'militia' which is etymologically derived from the Latin miles or milit meaning 'soldier.' Adding the suffix ia with the root milit, the word 'militia' literally means "military service." The Oxford English Dictionary (2014) defines militia as an "organized body of people comparable to a military force." Originally, a militia was a "body of soldiers in the service of a sovereign or a state." Subsequently, it came to mean "a military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, especially to supplement a regular army in an emergency, frequently as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers" (Oxford English Dictionary 2014). Later, civil militia groups were separated from the state military force in most countries and existed as armed movements, often having antagonistic relations with the state military. In this backdrop, we observe that much like the state military, members of many contemporary and historical civil militia groups engaged in a protracted armed movement resort to violence as a strategic and ritualistic practice of their 'profession,' as they view it. They take armed movements as a 'career' and try to follow the same professional norms of a conventional army. In support to this claim, I provide empirical evidence from an analysis of three protracted armed movements in Bangladesh, a country that experiences violent movements throughout its history. Before going to the specific case, in the following section, I review the existing literature to understand why different armed movements practice violence.

Understanding the Rituals of Violence

The dictionary meaning of 'ritual' (Latin origin: ritualis) is commonly related to a religious act or ceremonial observance. In later use, the term also means "repeated actions or patterns of behaviour having significance within a particular social group" (see Oxford English Dictionary 2014, entry 'ritual'). As with the original meaning, rituals of violence are often understood as religious or magical practices motivated by religious texts, precepts, beliefs or doctrines (Perlmutter 2002). Religiously motivated violence often places an emphasis on the symbolic aspect of the act such as a sacrifice of human life in order to eliminate a curse. Understanding rituals of violence from this religious perspective does not help us distinguish religious or magical from non-religious or secular rituals of violence because all secular events of violence also place an emphasis on the symbolic aspect of the act. Both religious and secular militia groups legitimize violence in reference to the principle that the end justifies the means. Many contemporary Islamist militia groups use suicide bombing as an effective tactic to achieve their ends despite the fact that suicide is religiously prohibited in Islam. These groups justify suicide attacks as a form of sacred violence, a supreme form of jihad allowed by the highest Islamic jurisprudence, the Sharia. According to these groups, suicide attacks are not meant to commit suicide (intihar), but martyrdom (istishad), a voluntary sacrifice of oneself for the cause of Islam (Zeidan 2001: 19). …

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