Ivan Strenski: How to Think About Suicide Bombers

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Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Author of fifteen books and over 75 articles, he is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sociology of religion.

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I am trying to see how well I can move along understanding of the phenomenon commonly, but problematically, called suicide bombing. As a student of religion, I am particularly interested in seeing how far some of the perspectives developed in the modern study of religion might assist this process of making sense of a troubling phenomenon of our own time. Here, I propose that we need to pay greater attention to the ‘sacrificial’ designations of these “human bombings”.

Sacrifice or Suicide?

In calling a death sacrifice, it is typically ennobled, raised to a level above the profane calculation of individual cost-benefit analysis – to the level of a so-called ‘higher’ good, whether that be of a nation or some transnational or transcendent reference, like a religion. This is one reason that in classic treatments of suicide and sacrifice, the two were distinguished in terms of their relation to the attitudes of their societies of reference.

The French sociologist, Émile Durkheim was puzzled about how to conceive the occurrence of what he called “altruistic suicide” – cases of individuals giving up their lives for others, as say in a war where soldiers die to save their comrades. Durkheim puzzled over the question of how it was possible that these acts by members of a given society destroying themselves could be seen as praiseworthy and/or as functioning for social flourishing?

The conceptual thread that Durkheim left dangling was to be picked up a generation later by one of his most talented co-workers, Maurice Halbwachs. In his The Causes of Suicide (1930), Halbwachs revisited the question of the relation of suicide to sacrifice, and produced a formula

that seemed to ease the conceptual tangle over sacrifice and suicide. Whether something was a ‘sacrifice’ rather than a ‘suicide’ depended upon the viewpoint of their respective societies of reference. “Society claims sacrifice as its own proper work,” accomplished “within the bosom of the community, where all the spiritual forces converge,” says Halbwachs. Society thus “presides” over sacrifice; it “organizes” it and “takes responsibility for it.” By contrast, society “repudiates” suicide.

Other observers of human bombing in the Middle East record that these bombings are done with a specific social function in mind – so that the “entire Islamic umma is rescued.” This, I take it, is precisely what Halbwachs had in mind in speaking of society “claiming sacrifice as its own proper work,” of sacrifice accomplished “within the bosom of the community,” or of a society that “presides” over sacrifice, “organizes” it and “takes responsibility for it.” Human bombings, understood by their agents as sacrifices, are then suffused with social intentions, essentially involving networks of relationships.

As to the religious aspect that clings to sacrifice, Durkheim as well argued that sacrifice is more than just a socially sanctioned kind of self-inflicted death. It is also a ‘making holy,’ as the Latin origins of the term indicate –sacri-ficium.’ Sacrifice for the Durkheimians is indeed a giving up or giving of that makes something holy. Thus, “human bombings” are not conceived by their perpetrators as simply utilitarian acts – even of resistance.

The “human bombers” are elevated to lofty moral, and indeed, religious, levels, whether as sacrificial victims themselves or as kinds of saints. Celebrating one of his 9-11 hijackers, Bin Laden notes that he had, in effect, been made holy in the process of human bombing: “Clear purity and a splendid sacrifice. We beseech Allah to accept him as a martyr.”

The notion that these immolations are offered to or for Palestine permits us to dwell for a moment on the peculiar property of sacrificial gifts of making things holy. As the name, ‘sacri-fice’ indicates, while the immolation consists in a gift, it is also at the same time, a ‘making holy.’ So, also, in performing sacrifice for the sake of Palestine , one ipso facto ‘makes’ the bomber holy for Palestinian patriots. At the same time, the sacrifice performed there, makes the territory of Palestine ‘holy,’ since Palestine is a site of an event of making something holy, as well as an intended recipient of sacrifice.

“Human Bombers” as Sacrificial Gifts

Without minimizing the importance of the utilitarian jihadist conception of these bombings, as well as their multivalence, permit me to pick up some of the many strands of meaning that dangle from the claim that these so-called suicide or martyrdom bombings need also to be considered carefully as sacrificial gifts. The elements of sacrifice are there in such abundance and pervasiveness that it would be irresponsible to ignore them.

There is no doubt that the Palestinian bombers give themselves in a spirit of obligation characteristic of the gift that I described. Their deaths are seen as a sacred duty to sacrifice, to give up themselves totally. That they seek the deaths of as many Israelis as they can take with them only witnesses to the multivalence of their acts. Significant here is the fact that even when attacks sometimes fail, the bombers will detonate their charges anyway. This implies that foremost in the minds of some bombers is the intention to give up one’s life in the process – to sacrifice – even when no practical benefit in terms of an attack can be accrued.

This therefore returns us to the matter of the mind of the bomber, and most of all to the conception that they may have of their action. Here, what escapes the observer of narrow purview is the network of social relations in which an individual bomber is located. Fixing only on the individual bomber, or the individual bomber as an agent posed against someone, hides the sense in which bombers see themselves as embedded in a network of social relations to which they may be said to belong or want to belong.

Muslim sacrifice is normatively a giving of, rather than the extreme giving up typical of the hijackers and self-immolating bombers. Indeed, there are many references in the current literature issuing from Muslims saying that such deeds of self-immolation are illegitimate and at odds with Islam. This however may only underline the radical and original aspects of bin Laden’s version of Islam.

If we then press the question about who – beside Allah – is obliged to accept these gifts, I think we can grasp how and why the political arena is the natural place for these deaths to occur, and why on top of this, they merit the description of being “sacrifices.” In the case of the Israel/Palestine dispute, besides Allah, I suggest that it is Palestine or the imagined community of Palestine that – at least in the minds of the bombers – is obliged to accept the offering of the death of such a self-immolating bomber. It is literally and ritually for Palestine and Palestinians that these sacrifices are offered, and who therefore are obliged to accept them, and then in some appropriate and equivalent way, to reciprocate.

In the famous Israeli nationalistic poem, Natan Altermann’s “The Silver Platter,” we meet a young couple – significantly pure and innocent as sacrificial victims are classically represented – confronting the nation with the sacrificial price which must be paid for the continued existence of Israeli nationhood itself. The poem concludes with their final words: “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state has been given you.”

Nation-Building and Meaning-Making by Sacrifice

Despite the extremity of radical Islam’s interpretation of sacrifice, I am urging us to understand those goals and the means by which those goals are imagined to be realized through the interpretive lens of sacrifice. We need to think about them as sacrifice bombings as much as we do martyrdoms or suicide/homicide bombings. The kinds of extreme sacrifices of giving up are, as we have seen, not what Abraham was supposed to perform, and which are arguably the normative sacrifices as giving of for the Islamic world.

Human sacrifice is precisely what Abraham finally did not do, and what the Abrahamic religions eventually declined to engage at a certain point in their development. Nevertheless, I am urging us to see that these suicides or homicides are sacrificial gifts of an extreme sort, offered to attain something in exchange – Palestine – to keep it alive, to realize it, in a way, to create it, in return for the sacrifice of young lives.