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Part 7 of Dying and Killing for Nations: Warfare as Sacrifice

Human Bombers as Sacrificial Gifts
Scroll down to read Strenski’s essay, “Sacrifice, Gift and the Social Logic of Muslim ‘Human Bombers’”
Commentary, Richard Koenigsberg: Muslims, Strenski says, see sacrifice as a very particular kind of gift—in that the sacrificial victim is “destroyed in the process of giving it.”

While some emphasize the “utilitarian” concept of suicide bombings, Strenski (focusing on the Palestinian case) observes that even when attacks fail, the bombers will detonate the charge anyway. This implies that foremost in their minds is the intention to “give up one’s life in the process—to sacrifice—even when no practical benefit can be accrued.”

Strenski tells us about the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka—fighting against Sri Lankan soldiers—who see their bombing operations as “gifts.” The Tigers explicitily decline to use the word “suicide bombings” for their operations. The Tamil name for these operations is thatkodai, meaning to “give” oneself—rather than to “kill” oneself.

A thatkodai is a self-immolation or “self-gift,” said a Tamil Tiger representative. “When one enlists there is no remuneration. The only promise is I am prepared to give everything I have, including my life. It is an oath to the nation.”

Just as the Nazi SS-man made an oath to be “obedient unto death,” so does the Tamil Tiger make such an oath. In each case, one vows to give one’s life (or body) as a gift to one’s nation.

For whom are the gifts intended? Strenski suggests that—in the Palestinian case—the bomber is gifting him or herself to the imagined community of Palestine. What’s more, in the mind of the bomber, the community is obliged to accept the offering of the death of such a self-immolating bomber.

The sacrificial offerings, Strenski says, are literary and ritually for Palestine and Palestinians, who are obliged to accept them—and to reciprocate.

Who is to reciprocate for the sacrificial gifts thus offered? According to Strenski, it would be Palestine and Palestinians who are expected to reciprocate for these deaths. And how? By continuing the struggle. What is at stake is Palestine itself—or a certain imagined community of Palestine.

The idea that motivates “terrorists,” in short, is not unlike the idea that motivates a dedicated soldier: He is willing to die so that his nation might live. The nation lives on by virtue of the “gift” of one’s body.
An excerpt of Ivan Strenski’s paper, “Sacrifice, Gift and the Social Logic of Muslim ‘Human Bombers’,” appears below. Click here to read the complete paper with references.
Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sociology of religion.
Book by Ivan Strenski
Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction

For information on ordering, please click here.
Understanding Theories of Religion explores the development of major theories of religion through the works of classic and contemporary figures—spanning the sixteenth-century through to the latest theoretical trends.
Muslims see sacrifice as a very peculiar kind of gift. But sacrifice is also peculiar as a gift in that the gift (as victim) is destroyed in the process of giving it. Finally, in the course of this act of destruction and giving, the gift/victim is made holy or sacred—a sacri-ficium.

In thus considering sacrifice as a special kind of gift, sacrifice will show all the same characteristics of gifts in general, but with the added feature of at least portions of the sacrificial gift being alienated from the human realm in the process of something being made sacred. This can be elaborated in connection with the ‘human bombers’—in considering first the obligatory quality of the gift.

The author of the single-most influential book on gift, Marcel Mauss, argued that gifts are never free, despite what people tend to think about their disinterestedness and spontaneity. Despite the show of pure generosity gift-givers typically display, gifts are always given under obligation—the obligations to give, to receive the gift, and to reciprocate.

In the initial instance, the giver first feels obliged to give—as anyone invited to a birthday party or wedding will keenly appreciate, or as anyone burdened by the onslaught of Christmas shopping and its endless obligations can attest. Taking matters a step further beyond the obligation to give, there is, second, the additional obligation to receive or accept the gift.

As the obligations of Christmas shopping should recall, the obligation to accept or receive the gift can be quite oppressive—adding as well to the weight of the cloud of obligation that settles on the gift in the first place. And, topping both these first two obligations is a third, perhaps even more strongly felt, namely, the obligation to reciprocate, to give in return.

That a ‘human bombing’ can be understood as a ‘gift’, a sacrifice, may first seem absurd. To explain, ‘gift’ is a very capacious notion and phenomenon, capable of very wide application. It is not limited to handsomely wrapped ‘presents’ or the items for sale in a ‘gift shop’! Literally anything can become a gift.

Gifts differ from other common sorts of exchange, such as economic exchanges like buying and selling, ‘truck and barter’, or mere commercial transactions. Gifts are ‘in theory’ voluntary, and disinterested. They have an aura of ‘freedom’ about them, although we usually tend to make too much of this in our sentimentalizing of alternatives to economic society. In straightforward economic transactions, everyone knows that the deal is ‘interested’ by definition, regardless of how much pretense may be made in the course of the transaction.

These may range from an ordinary expenditure of time or resources—such as in routine philanthropic grants or common holiday gift giving—through to special gifts, such as the giving of family treasure or heirlooms to members of the next generation. Or in the most extreme cases, to the kinds of large scale, massive giving away that characterize the potlatch of the Northwest Pacific Native American folk.

In these last extreme forms of giving, we seem to shade into, if not arrive at, sacrifices, because no ordinary reciprocation or exchange seems possible. What is given in potlatch is destroyed, as is the victim in a proper ritual sacrifice. Indeed, the point of potlatch giving is to make it virtually impossible for the initial gift to be reciprocated without courting ruin.

Small wonder that Mauss called potlatch the ‘monster child of the gift system’. Recalling the earlier discussion of sacrifice as a special mode of giving in which the given is typically destroyed, and is so made holy or sacred, how does this relate to ‘human bombers’? Perhaps monstrous in its own way, I believe that the same sense of gift exchanges articulated by Mauss will apply equally well to ‘human bombings’ as sacrifices.

Without minimizing the importance of the utilitarian jihadist conception of these bombings, these so-called suicide or martyrdom bombings need also to be viewed as sacrificial gifts. They need to be factored into the equation of the motivation of so-called suicide operations committed by radical Muslims.

There is, first, no doubt that the Palestinian bombers give themselves in a spirit of obligation characteristic of the gift described above. Their deaths are seen as a sacred duty to sacrifice, to give themselves up 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 the 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.

I am further persuaded of the wisdom of describing bombings and related death as gifts or sacrifices from other data originating from beyond the radicalized Muslim world. Consider, for example, the self-descriptions of the notorious Black Tiger units of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, or as they prefer to call it, of Tamil Eelam. While the Black Tiger bombings have had considerable utilitarian value in killing many Sri Lankan soldiers in deliberately offensive operations, the Black Tigers typically see these operations as ‘gifts’.

Distancing themselves from mere suicides in any form, a New York Times article reports a Tamil leader as saying that the Black Tigers explicitly decline to use the word ‘suicide bombing’ for their operations. The Tamil name for these operations is ‘thatkodai’, meaning to ‘give’ oneself, as opposed to the word ‘thatkolai’, meaning simply to ‘kill oneself’.

‘A "thatkodai" is a gift of the self—self-immolation, or self-gift’, said a Tamil Tiger representative. ‘When one enlists, there is no remuneration. The only promise is I am prepared to give everything I have, including my life. It is an oath to the nation’, the same leader went on.

This therefore returns us to the matter of the socially and religiously formed 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. Fixating only on the individual bomber, or the individual bomber as an agent posed against someone, hides that the bombers see themselves as embedded in a network of social relations to which they may be said to belong or want to belong.

Sacrificial gift makes a triumphant return. Once grasped as a relational reality, it becomes natural to ask to whom and for whom then, are the lives of these Palestinians given up. Gifts are necessarily relational, not solitary actions. Recalling the logic of obligation inherent in gift, we may then ask who is obliged to accept them.

If we 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, who therefore are obliged to accept them, and then in some appropriate and equivalent way, to reciprocate.

Who is to reciprocate for the sacrificial gifts thus offered? And, how are they to reciprocate? By the logic I have sketched, it would be Palestine and Palestinians who are expected to reciprocate for these deaths. And, how? By continuing the struggle, of course, but by continuing a struggle in which what is at stake is Palestine itself—or at least a certain imagined community of Palestine.

As long as we are thinking about Palestine, it would be well to recall that sacrificial death for Israel has as well always been held in high regard. 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 that 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’.