Guardian

Are suicide bombings acts of “Altruism”? Another Guardian moral inversion


A guest post by Mitnaged

The CiF article by Aditya Chakrabortty is quite up to the usual standards of Comment is Free.  Those of us who are acquainted with The Guardian world view (Islamism good = opposition to Islamism, particularly by Israel and Jews = bad) might be forgiven for believing that the headline alone – “Are al-Qaida and the Taliban driven by a desire to help others” – is an attempt to sanitise the murder and mayhem by Al-Qaida and the Taliban in the wake of the hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden.

True, Chakrabortty asks the question of whether two of the most barbaric terrorist organisations are driven by altruism rather than states it as fact.  However, the article lacks the depth to examine the answers fully.  It cherry-picks from research into terrorism but in such a way as only to lean towards its tendentious thesis, and as usual uses the end results of that selectivity to argue that bin Laden’s death is the single biggest distraction from a serious analysis of the roots of terrorism.  It is not.  That serious analysis is still ongoing.

The author says that “some” researchers view suicide bombers/jihadis as desperate but rational human beings, operating in wrecked countries.  He refers to Ariel Merari, whose work has provided valuable insights into the mindsets of suicide terrorists, notably that they are not depressed or suicidal, by and large, and neither are they insane.

Chakrabortty goes on to quote from what I believe to be a cursory, and therefore over simplistic interpretation of Eli Berman who provides a predominantly economic explanation for the growth of suicide terror and argues that cutting their funding can undermine them fatally.  Chakrabortty says that the Taliban and Hamas also provide vital social services which they can use to bring people to their cause (or equally to threaten by deprivation of them, or to distribute them unevenly as does Hamas in Gaza).

But altruism?  How like CiF to batten onto that word, so positive in its connotations, and yet so misplaced in the way Chakrabortty and The Guardian want us to believe it means.   Can any rational, intelligent person believe that men, women and children who walk into crowds of civilians anywhere in the world, and blow themselves and the surrounding crowds to smithereens do so out of their own altruism?   And can we really argue that the motives of the sociopaths who recruit them are altruistic as it is defined below* and as most of us might construe it?

The psychological explanations of suicide terror, whether they result in a personality typology or not, are, in my opinion, most illustrative of the lack of altruism of the bomber’s mindset.  Can a person who possesses no altruistic motivation be talked into it?  The poor fools whose heads have been ideologically conditioned to further the Islamist cause may not be altruistic at all.  True, they may well have been told that their deaths will serve the greater good, but that is a calculated ploy on the part of their handlers to get them to perform the deed:

According to Dr Ami Pedahzur (2006) terrorists seeking to recruit suicide bombers look for individuals who are personally committed to a leader, group or ideology or who have suffered a personal crisis brought about by the suffering of family, friends or community members with whom they feel a deep sense of identification. Furthermore, they must be in an environment that supports suicide terrorism.  Such people, although sane, are emotionally vulnerable and have potential to be inspired by the network’s goals.  They may be recruited by family members, close friends or even casual acquaintances.

More recently, in Iraq, another type of suicide bomber, female, has entered the scenario, women who have been deliberately raped and forced to become human bombs to save their and their families’ honour.  What we see here is cynical, sociopathic exploitation, the reduction of these women to mere “means/ends” objects rather than evidence of the altruism of their recruiters and trainers who are sending them to certain painful death, while they themselves remain safe.

Once identified, training the suicide bomber can occur very quickly sometimes in a matter of hours.  The trainers convey the basics about the operational side of the mission, and ensure the recruit’s mental preparedness for the mission so as to reduce the chances that he or she will change his or her mind at the last-minute.   

While Islam condemns suicide just as many other religions do, terrorist recruiters position the act as “self sacrifice” for a supreme cause—a sacrifice that brings the individual honour and respect and guarantees him or her eternal salvation (see here for various Islamic rulings on the permissibility of suicide bombing, the use of prisoners as human shields, etc). This may further complicate matters for people like Charkrabortty who appear all too willingly to believe that those regimes who willingly send people to blow themselves up among innocent people are motivated by “altruism”.

The indoctrination process into suicide terrorism generally includes showing the recruit persuasive thematic material that supports the effort and exploiting charismatic images to help them internalize the cause. Recruits also are often shown final testimonials from “successful” suicide bombers that reinforce the commitment to die for the cause. The conditioning process may occur in such a manner that the recruit is not even aware of what group he or she is acting on behalf of.

A unique and seminal insight into the process, from recruitment onwards can be found here .   From this and from other articles I have read, it seems that any altruism possessed by these “dead men walking” is introjected from the pretence of their handlers and then bedded in by their training.  Note particularly the warning to the reporter that she must not refer to these operations as “suicide” operations because suicide is forbidden by Islam.  The suicide bomber recruitment process is almost identical to that employed by the Moonies and other cults, even down to the distortion of language it uses.

But, returning to the theme of “altruism”,  from a psychological perspective, in psychology and psychiatry, altruism is considered to be one of the healthiest types of psychological defence mechanism, and is *defined as “constructive service to others which brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.”  Note the “constructive”.   Altruism may be a way of turning one’s bad impulses into behaviour which is positive and pleasurable to the self and others, it cannot be said to be the driver for nihilism and murder.

Now, there seems to be little reason to doubt that every explosion of a human bomb among Israeli civilians or soldiers in Afghanistan is pleasurable to the people who ordered it, and in the case of Palestinians and others who react with joy to the murder of Israelis.  However, to assert that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and their offshoots in infamy are acting from altruistic motives is to make the worst sort of category mistake,[1] as well as, given that this is after all published on CiF, almost certainly a deliberate attempt to mislead.


[1] Category mistake is a term introduced by English philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) for cases where we talk of something in terms appropriate only to something of a radically different kind.

22 replies »

  1. Mitnaged a personal thank you for this clarification.

    Calling the deliberate murder, often of the most vulnerable of our citizens, ‘altruism’ caused one of those itches you can’t get at to scratch not merely because it was so incongruous but because the incongruity was so hard to place. You rooted it out neatly, with surgical precision.

    One of the worst sins of the terrorist movements is the way that their supporters often confuse our tenderer feelings. Even people who should know better, like the wives of senior politicians have been known to feel compassion for the supposed sufferings of these people, perhaps assuming that they wouldn’t behave in this frightful fashion if they had any alternative.

  2. Without doubt Aditya Chakrabortty is of an Indian origin. Perhaps he should look into the fate of his own countrymen and ancestors that were on the receiving end of this “Altruism”, only then it was called the Mogul rule.

    What I can’t get is why are Indians being so nice to people who wish them nothing but death?

  3. The dhimminy crickets chirping away at the Guardian are obviously ripe for a government-sponsored, care-in-the-community programme.

  4. Interesting and elaborate article, about a complicated phenomena.

    Is it a coincidence that the suicide bombing phenomena is common in countries with a tradition of cultural and sexual repression? This can’t explain well-to-do suicides bombers living in Western countries. Maybe frustration and envy and feeling of alienation. And great, simple, stupidity.

    Yes, there were instances of Hamas promising money for the bomber’s family. This is the minority case. Dragging altruism into that quagmire of negative influences does seem to smack as self-pleasing post-modern conclusion.

  5. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Arabella Meller, “… One of the worst sins of the terrorist movements is the way that their supporters often confuse our tenderer feelings…” Agreed, and this is because the supporters’ own feelings are confused. More often than not they act out of ignorance of fact and make feelings-based, overgeneralised statements which show that they have no idea of the wider issues involved.

    I have little doubt that the Palestinians in Gaza suffer, but I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Hamas is the chief driver of that suffering, which it deliberately maintains in order to elicit the ill thought out responses from politicians and others that you describe above.

    Dreamer, the initial effects of Islamist-inspired subversion and terror is so subtle that sometimes people doubt what they are seeing. We all judge people’s motives by our own – if we cannot envisage being deceitful or causing gratuitous harm to anyone, then we assume that others will not either and we treat them accordingly, even if they smile to our faces and are holding knives behind their backs. This state of confusion is exacerbated by mystifying language so that we may literally not be able to name what we are witnessing. Too many examples to list here, but summed together they result in our being lulled into a sort of hypnotic state about what is actually threatening us, and the longer this is allowed to continue, the less likely we are to be able to counter it.

  6. FoolMeOnce,

    Maybe it’s just a consequence of the Koranic passages that say the faithful who kill and are killed in the path of Allah are immediately given eternal reward in the Islamic paradise.

    Nah, can’t be… too simplistic. Gives too much credence to the assumption that people actually buy into their ideologies and do as it says in the book. We all know history is nothing but pragmatic considerations, after all, Marx said so. (Sarcasm off. Not directed at you, FoolMeOnce, but at all those “sophisticates” quick to discount the plain explanations as being “simplistic”… their favorite word, oh so intellectual, sagely and knowledgeable.)

    • Perhaps the following provides a more convincing explanation:

      http://pedestrianinfidel.blogspot.com/2006/09/psychology-behind-islamic-suicide.html

      Note that Rehov argues that we are facing a neurosis at a national level:

      … A – I came to the conclusion that we are facing a neurosis at the level of an entire civilization. Most neuroses have in common a dramatic event, generally linked to an unacceptable sexual behavior. In this case, we are talking of kids living all their lives in pure frustration, with no opportunity to experience sex, love, tenderness or even understanding from the opposite sex.

      “The separation between men and women in Islam is absolute. So is contempt toward women, who are totally dominated by men. This leads to a situation of pure anxiety, in which normal behavior is not possible. It is no coincidence that suicide killers are mostly young men dominated subconsciously by an overwhelming libido that they not only cannot satisfy but are afraid of, as if it is the work of the devil….”

      • Thanks, but I don’t give psychology much credence, except for truths about human nature given by the Torah.

        The dictates of the Koran, the Islamic imperialistic drive (same as with Nazism) and the universal human tendency toward evil (as the book of Genesis says) are explanation enough for me.

        • Don’t you think that yours is rather a blanket dismissal and a somewhat circular explanation of the psychological rationale behind antisocial behaviour Ziontruth?

          And as for the universal tendency towards evil, (the yetza ra’ah is what you mean, I think), then I would strongly suggest that you read Prof Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty” which might cause you to think again.

      • Oh, by the way… in your quote of Rehov:

        “The separation between men and women in Islam is absolute. So is contempt toward women, who are totally dominated by men. This leads to a situation of pure anxiety, in which normal behavior is not possible.”

        So where are all the Orthodox Jewish suicide-bombers? The separation between men and women in Orthodox Judaism (for sure in Ultra-Orthodoxy at any rate) is just as absolute as in Islam.

        See, I told you: Psychology doesn’t cut it as an explanation. I say the phenomenon is rooted in the Koran’s promises both selfless (sacrificing oneself for the greater good of the community, as was the case with the Japanese kamikaze pilots) and selfish (the lure of Islam’s X-rated paradise).

        • Ziontruth, you deliberately ignore all of Rehov’s explanation and focus instead upon the segregation of the sexes. For me, Islam predisposes to twisted thinking because that total segregation prevents the Muslim male from testing out that women are actually people. Such an attitude objectifies women and treats them as things. This means that any sons they have are conflicted – they depend on their mother, a woman, but yet are taught to despise her as inferior.

          Are you seriously asking us to believe that Orthodox Judaism objectifies women in this fashion?

          And since we are talking of not comparing like with like, exactly where does Orthodox Judaism teach its young men to love death more than life? Islamism’s deliberate switching off of the natural human instinct to want to live is central to the inculcation of the suicide bomber’s mindset.

          As I said above, you should read Simon Baron-Cohen’s book. You may be surprised at what you find out.

          • “…you deliberately ignore…”

            Deliberately?! Nice assumption. Sorry, but I just hadn’t taken the time to read the entire article yet. Having read it now, I see Rehov partially agrees with my thoughts, but still I don’t give psychology credence. Note, I don’t give psychology credence in anything, not just in explaining the suicide-murderers of Islam.

            “Are you seriously asking us to believe that Orthodox Judaism objectifies women in this fashion?”

            I know that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t allow a man talking to an unrelated woman unless married or in the context of previewing before marriage–the shidduch, the series of dates in which the man and woman meet in a public place and do nothing but converse in order to find out if they’re suitable for the married life. Before being old enough for such dates, the Orthodox Jewish male has no experience with the other sex.

            “And since we are talking of not comparing like with like, exactly where does Orthodox Judaism teach its young men to love death more than life? Islamism’s deliberate switching off of the natural human instinct to want to live is central to the inculcation of the suicide bomber’s mindset.”

            Well, here I agree. But then didn’t I say that I do accept the proposition that the Koran’s mindset is what drives Islamic suicide-murder? This anti-culture stems from the fact that the Koran, the religion itself, tells the believer to love death more than life–not from any universal human psychological factor.

            “I would strongly suggest that you read Prof Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty’ which might cause you to think again.”

            With all due respect to a professor, when a truth is given in the Torah and all its authoritative (meaning Orthodox) commentaries, it’s the final word.

            • Actually, this form of repression could be why some Orthodox men are driven to extremism as well (albeit of a very differenet kind- in their life choices, fervor, single-mindedness…) Does’nt Orthodox Judaism switch off the will to live too in a way, making it second to the Torah and its study, making it only a means and not an end?

              • “Does’nt Orthodox Judaism switch off the will to live too in a way, making it second to the Torah and its study, making it only a means and not an end?”

                No, unless you consider a life of Torah study to be death (perish the thought). It might seem so at first to someone who’s having difficulty breaking habits (say, of a former life as an unobservant Jew… I know turning off the TV one day a week can be painful for some), but when you really get into it, you feel as if that’s the essence of life itself.

                Even if you disagree, there is no disputing that there is not and never has been a religious Jewish culture of suicide, much less suicide-murder. Even Rabbi Akiva, who wished to die for HaShem’s glory, waited for it to be foisted on him (at the hands of the Romans) rather than actively bringing the moment himself, which would have been a grave transgression.

                • No disagreemnt there, ziontruth. Speaking of suicide, have you ever, like myself, found disturbing and uncomfortable the story of the mass suicide at Masada? I always thought it was rather ignoble and unexpected that Jewish tradition would glorify a mass suicide as something preferable to enslavement.

                  • No disagreement about there not being a Jewish culture of suicide that is. Not on the other points. 🙂 Nowhere in the Torah does it say you should devote your life to a studying it, and worse- its derivatives and various subjective analysis by scholars.

                  • “Speaking of suicide, have you ever, like myself, found disturbing and uncomfortable the story of the mass suicide at Masada?”

                    Yes, though when considering the tortures the Romans would often inflict on their captives (Rabbi Akiva died of that), I understand why they did it. Plus, it was suicide, not suicide-murder; the Islamikazes don’t just commit suicide, they murder others in the process.

                    “Nowhere in the Torah does it say you should devote your life to a studying it,…”

                    Not as a halakhah (injunction of Jewish Law), but it’s an ideal to be striven for. After fantasizing of his mansion in If I Were A Rich Man, Tevyeh regains composure and sings that if he were a rich man, he’d use his financial comfort to devote himself to Torah study.

            • ziontruth, you must know much stranger Orthodox Jews than I do. Granted, I know that young, unmarried Orthodox Jewish men may well feel embarrassed in the presence of a young unmarried woman, but I have seen them conversing nonetheless and during one particular conversation the embarrassment got less.

              As for your final sentence, well, that’s it, isn’t it? You are no doubt much kinder and civilised than yer average Islamist, but your final sentence is very much like one I might hear from a devout Muslim, but about the koran, and it sticks you, and him, irrevocably, and closes you off from such of the beauty of new learning and advances in understanding.

              • Serendipity,

                “Granted, I know that young, unmarried Orthodox Jewish men may well feel embarrassed in the presence of a young unmarried woman, but I have seen them conversing nonetheless and during one particular conversation the embarrassment got less.”

                So? There are religious Jewish women who wear pants even though Jewish Law says they must wear a skirt. There are always a few laws that are skimmed over by a portion of the religious out of convenience. (And lest you think I’m setting myself above others, let me make it clear I’m no different–I’m guilty of skimming over some things myself, for example the prohibition of legumes during the Passover.)

                “…but your final sentence is very much like one I might hear from a devout Muslim, but about the koran,…”

                Or devout people in general. Anyone belonging to a tradition not in accordance with the Enlightenment principle of absolute skepticism. Orthodox Judaism is one of those traditions; in fact, its difference from the Reform and Conservative branches is precisely this, its resistance to the Enlightenment. You may not like it, but it is those branches of every religion that are going strong today.

      • Well, yes- it’s not that anyone truly believes, as I suspect, the 72 virgins legend- It’s the frustration itself that leads to extremism, and the legend is just a nice touch that proves that point.

        How did they get to that number I wonder? (72)

        Thanks for all the interesting links anyway.

  7. Altruism has got to be an act of autonomy and has to come from a rational examination of one’s own motivation. A religious fanatic cannot by this reasoning act altruistically, nor can a person acting under duress. Plato has a parallel in discussing courage. If a person dives into the river to save a drowning man but has no understanding of the dangers, especially if he himself cannot swim, he isn’t brave – he’s just stupid. The man who takes this course with a proper understanding of the danger to himself, calculating that he is more likely than not to save the other one, is acting bravely.

    Similarly, the suicide bomber who acts under compulsion is not altruistic. It is also doubtful whether any of them ever pause to think about how their actions can benefit Palestine or whoever it is they claim to support. If they did, they would see the futility of their action, so it sems that no suicide bomber can possibly be acting through altruism.

    But is isn’t really the bombers themselves we should be looking at – it is the cynical manipulative murderous savages who control them [and don’t forget that savages can often present a civilised veneer]. These people don’t carry the bombs; they don’t put themselves in danger [except from the targeted killings which their actions and their very existence justify]. They smugly expect the paradise which they cynically promise to their dupes, which, of course, eliminates any claims they may have to altruism. No, there is no admirable motive for their actions; they are simply greedy for power and if there were no Israel they would find another cause to give them specious justification.