Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: My Life is a Weapon, A Modern History of Suicide Bombing

With My Life is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing Christoph Reuter, a journalist and international correspondent for the German magazine Stern, offers a modern history of suicide terror. Over the course of nine chapters he traces a genealogy of the practice at different points in its history and across several cultures. Chapters on the ancient Persian assassins, suicidal child-soldiers of the Iran/Iraq war, Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Shahids (martyrs), and Japanese kamikazes are considered in parallel with Al-Qaeda and separatist movements in Sri Lanka and Kurdistan. Reuter writes, “This book attempts to piece together, in a logical sequence, what is known about [the origins of suicide terror]—which societies facilitate its development, what conditions are most favorable for its spread, and how the various tactics used have been developed” (6). However, the study that follows is compromised by its founding assumptions: that identifying the origins of suicide terror will shed light on its contemporary purveyors and that some cultures are more hospitable to this practice than others.

In his introduction, Reuter decries the “facile explanations for suicide attacks offered in the Western media” as merely leading to more questions and begins by asking, “If the attacks are to be attributed to radical Islam per se, why have they appeared only in the last twenty years?” (11). Unfortunately, this auspicious beginning is quickly undone as he writes, “Perhaps the thorniest question is how a society can come to tolerate, and indeed foster a practice so opposed to the survival instinct as to be pathological?” (11). The glamor of such a question for a Euro-American audience (no doubt the focus of Reuter’s “we” and “us”) is undeniable—what sort of people are these that destroy themselves to kill others? However, the Islamophobic assumptions that so often underlie this line of inquiry—even on the left—render the answers almost wholly in orientalist terms. Reuter asserts, “Islam, in its political form, is a well-suited ideology for war,” a hyperbolic claim that could as easily be made about Christianity or Judaism and to a similarly banal effect (17). He writes, “Groups from Morocco to Iraq are linked together as though by invisible paths and secret passageways. Thus, injustices perpetrated in Chechnya or on the West Bank can stir up hatred within Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and unintentionally provide aid and comfort to opportunists who stoke the flames of righteous anger elsewhere” (18). In his view, this process, nourished by Islamic mythologizing, has led to the “reinvention of [the] historical archetype” of the martyr (3).

Reuter’s focus on Islam, problematic in any case, compromises his argument rhetorically as well, causing him to make strange leaps, elisions, and outright exclusions in his history of suicide terror. For example, he notes the use of murder by suicide as a battle strategy employed by, among others, ancient Jews in Imperial Rome. Yet, he begins his timeline of the practice in the 11th century with the rise of the Persian assassins, whose cult he describes in some detail. Reuter writes, “The sect disappeared without a trace, leaving behind it no tradition, no religious heritage [and] attracting no pilgrims other than Western journalists” (27). However, a few paragraphs later he flip-flops. “On the one hand, nothing remained of the assassin sect per se. On the other hand, something did survive of them after all—a kind of negative afterimage of their deeds. . . . the popular fear of them and their readiness to die, which had just as disturbing an effect in their time as the suicide killings in New York, Tel Aviv, or Colombo do today” (27). Therefore, Reuter, despite the utter lack of any supporting evidence—which he goes some way himself to point out—elects to draw a direct link between the 11th century assassins and the suicide bombers of our contemporary moment. The lubrication upon which he relies for this astonishing conflation is the notion that Islam itself has remained unchanged across multiple cultures from the Crusades to the present. In fact the only interpretive changes that Reuter notes since the 11th century are those that seem to justify suicide attacks. Thus, he gives tremendous weight to the declarations of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a celebrity TV cleric who has celebrated Palestinian suicide attacks as “the highest form of Jihad” (122). Al-Qaradawi, who has no special authority other than that which is conferred by celebrity, nevertheless offers his own distinction between suicide and martyrdom: “A person who commits suicide kills himself for his own benefit. But a person who becomes a martyr sacrifices himself for the faith and the nation” (122). “This is simply politics,” Reuter writes, “the kind of politics that attempts to give practical decisions and popular opinions some kind of retroactive Islamic legal basis, even if a wholly fabricated one” (125).

His sudden disdain for politics is Reuter’s attempt to parse the religious and secular motivations for suicide attacks, while simultaneously maintaining that Islam is at their root. He writes, “It is no coincidence that such would-be martyrs (who embrace death as they strike out at their enemies) appeared first of all within Islam . . .” (16). What is not clear is exactly which Islam is at the center of Reuter’s concern. He clearly disapproves of “political” Islam but also asserts that suicide bombers reinterpret “traditional” Islam via “torturously reasoned justifications” for martyr operations (64). By making the distinction between “nationalist” and “Islamist” goals of suicide attacks, Reuter assumes that these categories do not imbricate each other or, more properly, that they are homogenous categories in the first place.

“Whatever else it is,” Reuter writes, “Islam is a belief system filled with infinite possibilities that can legitimate a wide range of practices as and when the need arises. Suicide bombing is one such practice . . .” (117). Tellingly, he does not interrogate the political circumstances under which suicide terror occurs, the arising “need” he alludes to but does not explain. In his chapter on Israel and Palestine, Reuter writes affectingly about the misery of the Palestinian people but never commits to naming its cause. This has the effect of naturalizing Palestinian suffering by framing it as an element of their character (a tactic he employs elsewhere, as when he suggests that affection for the film Titanic is indicative of a Shi’ite predilection for suffering). Reuter quotes Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari on the motivating factors for a suicide attack: “At the end of the day, it comes from the individual himself, from his experiences, from his beliefs” (109).

The reader is thus presented with a self-sustaining model of the suicide-bomber, whose actions, triggered from within by his “beliefs,” occur in a political vacuum. Furthermore, he considers the connections between disparate terrorist enclaves as points in a vast, hidden network of power relations but does not consider the parallels between the political circumstances of each group. Reuter posits that suicide bombing has influenced the collective psychology of Islamic societies via “what German psychologists call the ‘Werther effect,’ in which the [suicide-bomber] becomes an idol whom others strive to emulate”(13). Therefore, “belief” which travels by way of “invisible paths” between Islamic societies has “infected” them with the cult of martyrdom.
While this paradigm cannot account for the role of nationalism and resistance in the practice of suicide bombing, those outside of Islamic societies fall entirely beyond its scope. Nevertheless, he makes an effort to finesse their inclusion in the sequence of his history. To this end, Reuter compares the influence of the samurai on the Japanese kamikazes to that of the Shi’ite defeat at Karbala on modern suicide bombers (whether they are Shi’ite or not). He also reports with sufficient portent that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a secular Marxist group operating in (traditionally Buddhist, currently multi-religious) Sri Lanka, trained with the PLO in the 1970’s, despite the fact that the PLO—also secular and Marxist—has never utilized suicide terror. Nevertheless, Reuter insists, “Islamist influences have undoubtedly been manifest in less direct ways (among the LTTE), especially through extensive global television and radio coverage,” an utterly speculative claim that serves only to fit his current examples into a frame based on his narrow vision of Islam (162).

The growing corpus of books devoted to the phenomenon of suicide terror all work within (or against) the matrix of assumptions that pervade western representations of Islam. Reuter’s book, while arguably well intentioned, is typical of those generated by journalists who specialize in this topic. As with Barbara Victor’s execrable Army of Roses, clichés and journalese take the place of scholarly analysis, a phenomenon that reinforces and legitimizes orientalist tropes. Significantly, the only comprehensive survey of data about the worldwide phenomenon of suicide terror, political scientist Robert A. Pape’s Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terror, explicitly states that Islam—fundamentalist or otherwise—is not a primary motivating factor in the practice.

Reuter’s original premise, exploring “an opponent who . . . has moved outside all the conventional rules of power and war in which we have always trusted,” is fascinating but his penchant for mapping the indirect “secret passageways” of inter and intra-cultural influence take him far afield his original questions (2). As a result Christoph Reuter has—unintentionally—constructed a history that reveals a good deal more about contemporary Western ambivalence toward Islam than about suicide attacks and those who carry them out.

* A version of this essay appears in Arab Studies Journal (Fall 2004/Spring 2005)


  1. good analysis. I'm sick of ignorant Americans trying to analyze suicide bombings and then slump it with jihad... they really need to educate themselves about what jihad means and the different forms of jihad described in the Quran and Hadith.

    btw, you're mistaken on one thing about LTTE-- Sri Lanka isn't a Hindu country-- the majority are Sinhalese Buddhist, while the Tamil minority is Hindu.

  2. @DIMA
    Thanks for the kind words and for catching my flub re: Sri Lanka. I updated the post accordingly.

  3. So he chalks down Japanese suicide attacks to the influence of the samurai ethos? Hmm...

    I don't want to say anything without having read that, but it sounds kind of fishy. Common US stereotypes about Japan are that there is something innately suicidal about Japanese.

    I mean, stuff like the kamikaze and kaiten was impossible to just attribute to religion, because neither Buddhism not Shintoism supports a clear path to some well-defined enjoyable afterlife. So people tend to attribute suicidal warfare as something intrinsic to Japanese culture. Racism has a huge role in this... it falls in line with the general stereotype that "Asians don't value individual human life".

    The frustrating thing is that the whole samurai cult that enabled things like kamikaze pilots was political in nature and historically contingent. A fascist military dictatorship resurrected and enshrined an obsolete social class, connected it tenuously with strands of religion, welded it to a modernized nationalist imperialist mythos and forced it onto the populace...

    There's a sort of consensus that the average German citizen during WWII, while not innocent, were also victims in that that their culture went through some period of temporary insanity, mass brainwashing, and so on... but when it comes to Japan there's no such historical perspective taken, even though much the same thing happened.

  4. Interesting. I need to read this one. I wonder if "proxy suicide bombings", as seen in the north of Ireland, were covered.

    Also, I find it odd that the writer states nothing of the assassins is left behind. Surely he is aware that the group killed the enemies of what is commonly known as the "Ismailis", an off-shoot of Shi'a Islam, and the Ismailis are alive and well in locations stretching from India to Yemen.

  5. @Atlasien,

    I know that point about Germans, but as someone born in Germany, of Germany ancestry, I think it is not true.

    I think WW2 and Hitler is more of a cultural defect than a sort of temporary insanity. To make the claim of insanity is to absolve German culture and history.

    It has been said elsewhere, that there is sort of a German yearning for the strong man, the father figure walking out from the dark woods. It is something that had been fostered historically in German culture, through long held values, literature, myths, pre-Christian religion and the like.

    I remember my father once got into this discussion with a German and my father asked if someone like Hitler came again would he have a chance to rule Germany and the man replied "yes".

    I think this is true as well, although I hope the horrors of the last century will have lessened the chance of this happening.

  6. @Abu Sinan
    I think the point about the Assassins is less about their ethnic descendants than their cultural roots. In that sense, they are gone.. and Reuter's faux-poetic attempt to trace their "influence"leaves a bad taste. Really the best boo of this type I have read is Robert Pape's Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape is a political scientist and he used actual data instead of Islamophobic and Orientalist hyperbole to make his argument that suicide terror is a political--NOT explicitly religious phenomenon. Of course Pape doesn't get much press because his argument doesn't have that sexy evil-Arab vibe but if you can hear him speak live it is totally worth going.

    As for atlasien's point, I don't think she was absolving the German's of their complicity in the Holocaust, rather she was pointing out that this forensic deconstruction of German psychology is not extended to Japan... and she is right about that. (atlasien, if I am misunderstanding your point, please let me know)

    Although, you are right that one of the major objections to exploring the psychology of German family structure is that some people think it makes excuses for the Jewish Holocaust. I haven't read a ton of that theory so I couldn't say for certain, but I didn't get that impression from what I have read. Your father's quote was chilling...