Psychological, Theological, and Thanatological Aspects of Suicidal Terrorism

By Piven, J. S. | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Psychological, Theological, and Thanatological Aspects of Suicidal Terrorism


Piven, J. S., Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


Suicide actions are the most exalted aspect of the Jihad for the sake of Allah.

--Sheik Yussuf Al Qaradawi (1)

[H]old tightly to the religion of God. Guide your children to the mosque and instruct them to attend the Qur'an and recitation lessons, and teach them to love jihad and martyrdom.

--Shadi Sleyman Al Nabaheen (2)

This work focuses on the psychological motivations of those who destroy themselves and others in the name of God. It must be stated at the outset that a psychological reading is not a moral or ethical evaluation of such acts. This piece does not debate whether such deeds are justified, and does not endorse or excuse acts called "suicidal terrorism," but seeks to explore and illuminate complex and elusive aspects of ideology and behavior. In addition, it must also be stated unequivocally that this paper does not essentialize people labeled terrorists, reduce them to a single type, archetype, caricature, or diagnose them as raving lunatics. It does seek out the dynamics of unconscious fantasy, and dwells upon the enigmatic speeches and texts of terrorists who drape their own actions in a theological language that sanctifies death. This paper is not a condemnation of Islam, but rather an elucidation of how ignominy, misery, and oppression catalyze a theology that transforms abjection and victimization into heroic apotheosis.

Suicide bombing is more than a conscious strategy designed to murder and terrorize enemies and oppressors. A psychological understanding of suicide bombing consequently requires more than a delineation of the stated motives and putative goals of the attack. There are numerous motives to murder others, and one must distinguish the form of the attack from the various motives and fantasies that are channeled into this strategy.

Not all suicide bombers have the same philosophy or political agenda. Suicide bombers hail from different countries, societies, cultures, and organizations, and they have different experiences, emotions, and ways of imagining life and death. They have been molded by divergent cultures, families, religions, and events. If suicide bombers perform similar acts, this does not mean that every one has the same purpose, mindset, or psychological organization. People can perform the same act with vastly different conscious and unconscious agendas, desires, strivings, and compulsions, and this means we must question--or even reject outright--the possibility that the act of suicide bombing is merely an intentional strategy of identical impetus for all performers. A psychological approach to suicide bombing is initiated by the axiom that there are profound and powerful motives of which people are completely unaware, and indeed, do not wish to know.

This article therefore attempts to understand not only why suicidal terrorists say they are destroying themselves and others, but also what is not being said: what is disavowed, obscured, and fulfilled in suicide bombing beyond the awareness of the actor. The task is to dissect some of the salient motives of suicide bombers by examining the cultural matrices and discourses that define, compel, validate, and exalt the strategy of destroying the self in vengeance against others.

PROBLEMS WITH CURRENT RESEARCH ON SUICIDE BOMBERS

Much of the prominent work on terrorism focuses on strategic, political, and socioeconomic factors. Hafez argues that destroying oneself in a terrorist act is a strategic decision based on the calculation of the cost of one's own death compared to the lives eradicated. (3) Suicide terrorism is a stratagem employed by weak groups suffering from limited resources and the asymmetrical power advantage of militarily superior opponents. (4) Terrorist groups are thus protective of their scarce financial, material, and human assets and prioritize secrecy and preservation of their organizations, waging indirect, but efficient, types of warfare to impair their adversaries, while vouchsafing their own people and resources. …

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