Suicide bombing: the martyr machine


girl watches her mother dying

Imagine that your country suffered an average of 71 suicide attacks per-year. Imagine that these suicide actions killed an average of 1,140 civilians per year, all among the most poor and in need. If you cannot imagine such an Armageddon then you can have it for real: it is called Pakistan. Today, as many other days, a suicide bomber (this time a woman, but children have also been employed previously) killed more than 40 people at a food distribution centre. It is the most poor who have paid the highest price – often simply because they are easy targets: queuing for food, shopping at the market or praying to a saint for hope that ended up drowned in their own blood. It is becoming easier to die in Pakistan, particularly in the North-West frontier, than to live. About three people die daily, yet there are no candlelight vigils, no minutes of silence and no ceremonies. The dead are mere numbers in your morning newspaper, seemingly unworthy of the fanfare that often accompanies European deaths.

Indeed, international indifference to suffering in Pakistan is certainly not something new. In the commonplace carnage, Pakistani lives appear cheap for both the Pakistani terrorists and the international community, including those involved in the business of making the world “safe” from terrorism. Out of this chaos, one recurrent question arises: why do people volunteer (if they volunteer) to become human bombs and kill innocents, even those who are desperately poor and already suffering? In this post I will not address the first part of the question but rather the second.

The first element to consider is that the actions of suicide bombers cannot be understood in a vacuum, but rather, as many other realities, they should be observed as part of one or more relationships. The reasons behind such actions are multiple and some are beyond ‘religious conviction’ and more within the domain of inhuman criminality and even slavery. Indeed in at least one case, though the practice seems more widespread, the late Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud bought children, some as young as seven-years old, from desperate Pakistani families for Rs 500,000 to Rs 1 million, when the average income per family is Rs 3,800 per month, i.e. US$44. The children were bought to be trained in camps and allegedly prepared for suicide missions upon reaching their teenage years. Little is known about the training that these children undertake, but there is evidence that younger and younger teenagers, both male and female, are used in suicide actions.

Other suicide bombers act out of desperation. I have been told of cases of HIV-infected people who were convinced (or even paid) to conduct suicide operations, as well as drug addicts ready to buy paradise, selling their lives and those of their victims, in order to help their desperate families. This is not surprising when we consider that the number of drug addicts in Pakistan have possibly reached five million and the HIV-infected population is growing together with poverty, desperation and fear of an uncertain tomorrow.

Another fertile field of recruitment, particularly for women, exists among the relatives of drone victims who want avenge the death of their loved ones. This is nothing new since it has been very well documented in the case of the Chechen conflict and the involvement of the so-called “Black Widows”. Other reasons, including endemic poverty, depression and mental illness, may also account for the high number of ‘volunteers’ for suicide actions. Within the phenomenon of ‘suicide bombing,’ the role of religious indoctrination may be less relevant as a factor than is commonly expected. Instead, I argue that the reality of suicide bombing is more ‘stochastic’ in nature as far as the reasons and rationale are concerned.

Notwithstanding, from my research, which included Muslims whom supported ‘jihadi’ activities or were convicted and detained in prison for ‘plotting’ suicide and terrorist actions, religion seemed to provide at least one important element. The last barrier (when logicality, fear of consequences and morality fail) that prevents inhuman actions towards others is, as some recent research shows, empathy. We tend to empathize with the people around us for neurological reasons and we can even ‘feel’ the pain of the ‘other’ in some parts of the brain (thanks apparently to mirror neurons). Hence, this is a quite strong ‘natural’ preventive system for violent actions such as dismembering the bodies of innocent, unknown people.

Yet the individuals whom feel ready to commit an atrocity, such as the suicide actions that are killing so many innocents in Pakistan, read the event in a very different way to how we do. Surprising as it may sound, it is exactly the sense of justice and philanthropy which exists in their hearts that may help them to connect the electrodes of their bombs. The same process that should prevent them from both destroying their lives and the unknown innocent lives around them becomes the main aid in overcoming that sense of ‘guilt’ which should have stopped them in first place.

Their reading of the carnage is ‘inverted’, twisted by a simplistic, yet commonsensical, religious eschatology. A primary corollary of such eschatology implies that the end of human life is only in the hands of God, which is followed by a belief that whomever dies of sudden death, accidents or for a good cause is a martyr.  According to this rationale, should the suicide action be wrong in the eyes of God, the person has already forfeited his or her life and thus paid for the earthly mistake.  If, by contrast, God accepts the suicide action as martyrdom, the reward will be granted and the gates of paradise will be opened (also to the relatives), regardless of the kind of life the perpetrator had conducted beforehand. In other words, in the eyes of the suicide bomber, everybody wins – the victims, Islam, and of course the bomber. The only ‘losers’ are those whom are perceived to be the real ‘enemies’ of Islam – enemies which are increasingly identified with more abstract social political constructions, the secular ‘states’.

Read through such a dynamic, the suicide action appears to the perpetrator to be an ‘act of freedom’ and an act that is ‘just’ by process instead of ‘just’ by action. The action of killing innocent people, they would argue, is surely wrong in itself, but they see the act as a ‘process’, a ‘relationship’ or better a system formed by God-suicide bomber-God-killing-God-victims/martyrs-God, in which God remains the final judge of the success of the operation, the decider of whom is going to be the ‘involuntary’ martyr among the victims (as opposed to sustaining injuries and surviving) and whether the ‘martyrdom’ of the operative is accepted. In other words, the action is read through a strong, and emotional, conceptualization of qadar (predestination). The suicide bomber is only instrumental, in a certain sense, in that s/he has the ultimate empathy towards his or her victims, since, indeed, they will share death and, from their viewpoint and hope, paradise.

To reduce the discussion of paradise to sexual pleasure and beautiful virgins, as many commentators often do, is not only reductive of these people’s views but also misleading. Again, my research shows that we have to read the concept of ‘paradise’ not in isolation but rather as part of a ‘relationship’. Paradise, in this case, is read as an ‘escape’ from life, which is often seen as a kind of hell where temptation abounds and mistakes may prevent access to eternal happiness.  The emphasis on ‘happiness’ and ‘avoid further mistakes’ is often stronger than any image of paradise itself. Ending their lives in such actions means to pay for the sin committed, to free themselves from their (for one reason or another) often miserable lives, to stop the suffering of the human condition and access the gates of peace. Surely, as far as my research is concerned, these are more psychologically powerful elements than the promise of sex with virgins. In particular for those whom have not conducted an Islamic way of life and were tempted by earthly pleasure, the action of suicide bombing may offer a hope of avoiding God’s punishment, being rewarded as a martyr and at the same time prevent further sins.

These aspects may explain how the sense of guilt is overcome, how mothers, fathers and young people, beyond the individual stories of how they entered the circles which brought them to death and killing, decide to press the switch instead of saving themselves and the innocent lives around them. If this is so, it is clear that while you may stop a criminal and convert him to good, you cannot deal or stop those who believe to be your savior.

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