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Explosive Reactions

  • Aziz Huq
Published: July 27, 2007
*Cross-posted from The American Prospect
On Suicide Bombing by Talal Asad (Columbia University Press, 144 pages)

Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror by Mia Bloom (Columbia University Press, 280 pages)

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The suicide bomber is a person who enters a space full of human life, to say, in effect, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” With the insidiousness of the plague, suicide bombing has spread from Sri Lanka and the Middle East to infect the globe, carried largely by the vector of violent Islamist ideology. In Iraq, political scientist Mia Bloom reports, there were between 273 and 487 suicide attacks between May 2003 and January 2006.

The cause of her uncertainty about the actual number of bombings is horribly evident, as they’ve become increasingly prevalent in the past decade. In Afghanistan, where ten years of conflict with the Soviets between 1979 and 1989 involved not one suicide attack, there have been 132 suicide attacks from December 2001 to this January. And in Pakistan, where suicide bombings were known but infrequent, the recent fall of the Lal Masjid mosque has sparked a spate of attacks that may destabilize the state. And so, on to the West? To London, to Glasgow—and where then to next?

There is an unquestionable need for clear thinking about suicide bombing. But thinking is muddied by the powerful emotions of horror and repulsion it properly stirs. Suicide bombing, as anthropologist Talal Asad notes, is not the most deadly weapon even in conflicts where it is endemic. Rather, the suicide attack is among the most effective ways of attaining another goal: the production of terror though the prospect of uncontrolled and indiscriminate violence. Reckoning with suicide bombing, therefore, means not just taking account of the tactic itself, but also the reactions it purposefully provokes.

European and American responses to suicide bombing are Talal Asad’s ostensible subject in On Suicide Bombing. I say “ostensible” because, like many books that began as lectures, the book’s sinuous sentences are more striking that the stringent continuity of its argument. Asad cautions that he is no apologist for suicide bombing. Nor does he aim to furnish it with moral justification. Instead, Asad grapples with and challenges the distinctive hold suicide bombing has in our consciousness.

Asad is dismissive—rightly, I think—of claims that suicide bombing is distinctively “Islamic” or “barbarian,” a primitive weapon of the poor. To the contrary, what’s remarkable is how jurists of jihad have worked out elaborate circumventions of the absolute Qu’ranic prohibition on suicide.

Asad’s strategy then is to make suicide bombing—a seemingly alien phenomenon—suddenly familiar by pointing out that liberal democracies too are implicated, and even soaked, in violence. Cubist painters sought to shock viewers by putting the familiar in a different light. Asad does the opposite by finding the familiar in the estranged.

He argues that liberal culture also has a fetish for apocalyptic, end-of-time battles. Violence, the relentless and vicious discarding of human rights, and the celebration of that bloodshed, Asad notes, have all been characteristic of liberal democracies. And idealization of suicidal sacrifice, coupled with an odd affection for agony mingled with ecstasy, is also part of the liberal state’s pre-Enlightenment Christian heritage. (He might have noted, with satisfaction, that it was no suicide bomber who proclaimed “I am become death,” but J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading physicists of the 20th century, watching the first atomic bomb explode).

But how new is this? It has been clear since Hobbes and Locke that the liberal state rested on violence. Twenty years ago, the Yale scholar Robert Cover wrote a brilliant essay (which Asad cites) called “Violence and the Word” pointing out how liberal states systematically submerge religious minorities.

And Asad overstates his case by confusing the practice of liberal states with the theory of liberalism itself. He seems to argue the fact that liberal democratic states affirm “that suicidal war can be legitimate,” via their possession and willingness to use nuclear weapons, as a criticism of liberalism. But there is always a gap between liberal practice and liberal theory. Liberalism as an idea is valuable because it provides tools to criticize that gap. It can be used to condemn imperialist wars, nuclear fantasies, and the cultic celebration of violence. The champions of liberalism—from Locke to Ronald Dworkin—have been only too acutely aware of liberalism’s violence.

Thus, Asad may be correct to echo Walter Benjamin’s aphorism that there is “no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”—but I doubt that recognition of our hypocrisy, or acknowledgments of the savage wars of faith, suppression, and conquest that birthed democracy, does much to leaven the horror of suicide bombing. There is only so much horror we can take—and suicide bombing is more than one step too far beyond the pale. Asad’s diagnosis, in short, may be right. But it is far from clear how it changes our understanding of or thinking about suicide bombing.

By taking a less theoretical approach, Mia Bloom is able at least to formulate interesting and provocative questions about suicide bombing. In Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, a comparative survey that attempts to draw lessons from past conflicts, Bloom makes an important distinction between individual and organizational reasons to engage in suicide bombing. Despite drawing on some interview material, she has little useful to say about the former. But Bloom is able to identify an important element of the organizational development of suicide bombing that other scholars, such as Robert Pape, have not highlighted. Her book is chiefly interesting for this genuine insight, even if it does not quite carry the insight as far as it might have.

Bloom’s insight is that suicide bombing is a tactic used by competing groups trying to appeal to a generally sympathetic population for allegiance in a process she calls “outbidding.” Hence, in both the Middle East and Sri Lanka, suicide bombing is adopted by groups seeking to show that they are more ruthless, determined, and effective than others—and thereby to gain public support. Suicide bombing, in this light, is as much marketing ploy as weapon. Bloom bolsters her analysis by highlighting how Kurdish groups in Turkey used suicide bombing, but found that the cost in support among their own core constituencies was so great that it wasn’t worth the candle. Similarly, in Ireland, nationalist groups concluded they would lose, not gain, support thanks to suicide bombing.

Bloom persuasively shows that the perception of suicide terrorism among a group’s audience matters. But Bloom does not fully account for how such attitudes form or change. As al Qaeda uses suicide terrorism to appeal to a new, global audience, this question takes on increasingly important.

In the end, both books are marked by an absence: the individual motives and understanding of the suicide bomber. Perhaps it is asking too much of social science or theory to explain that. After all, novelists as insightful as Don DeLillo and John Updike have recently tried and failed. As suicide terrorism continues to spread, though, the hard questions—sociological, strategic, and psychological, thus remain on the table, unanswered and pregnant with terrible fury.