The Secular Suicide Bomber

Is the all-consuming focus on Islam leading us to ignore the fact that suicide attacks have also been carried out by Christian, Hindu and secular martyrs?

Suicide attacks:  The group responsible for most suicide attacks during the period 1980-2001 was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. None of the LTTE soldiers were Muslims. This photo, by Thomas Haugersveen, is part of a 2009 series on the Tamil Tigers. The photo was also part of PRIO’s 2009 Anniversary photo competion/exhibition.

There can be no doubt that violent actions conducted in the name of Islam constitute a threat to state and individual security not only in Europe, but most of all in the Muslim world itself. The question, however, is whether the all-consuming focus on Islam is leading us to ignore the fact that suicide attacks have also been carried out by Christian, Hindu and secular martyrs. Such actions are motivated by politics, strategy and individual self-realization.

In recent years, we have learned a great deal about the relationships between Islam and suicide attacks and Islam and radicalization. This does not mean, however, that we have greatly increased our understanding of the relationship between religion and violence, or the specific relationship between religion and suicide attacks. In order to draw any general conclusions about suicide attacks, we need to compare the different cultural contexts in which they have occurred.

Statistics for suicide attacks during the period 1980–2001 show that 60 per cent took place in Muslim areas of the world. One third of these attacks, however, were conducted by secularly oriented groups, such as the militant Kurdish organization PKK. The group responsible for the most suicide attacks during the period 1980–2001 was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), often referred to as the “Tamil Tigers”. The LTTE was responsible for 75 of the 186 suicide attacks carried out during this period. None of the LTTE soldiers were Muslims; all of them were Hindus or Catholics. Accordingly, during the 1980s and 1990s, slightly more than 40 per cent of all suicide attacks were carried out by non-Muslims. For more statistics on the development of suicide terrorism, see the Global Terrorism Database.

What does this statistic tell us? Firstly, let us look more closely at what the LTTE was. This extremely well organized insurgent army aimed to establish a Tamil state in Sri Lanka, and for long periods operated as a de facto state within a state. From 1987 onwards, the LTTE actively employed suicide attacks in its struggle against the Sri Lankan government. Attacks were carried out against both civilian and military targets. The LTTE’s martyrs were Hindu or Catholic men and women who gave their lives to the struggle for Tamil liberation. Their objectives were not religious, however, but nationalistic. Tamil nationalism is founded on ideas about language, culture and a mother country. Although these should be viewed within the context of Hindu culture, the LTTE was also a strongly left-wing secular organization.

Many people have commented on the LTTE’s use of forced recruitment, including forced recruitment of child soldiers. There were demonstrable occurrences of coercion and various degrees of indoctrination, including in the case of the so-called “Black Tigers”, the LTTE’s martyr brigade. Even so, if we are to understand why the Black Tigers strapped explosives to their bodies, we need to understand the cultural and ideological universe that influenced the thinking of these special-purpose soldiers. What is particularly interesting about the LTTE in this context is that they succeeded in developing very rapidly a completely unique ideology of martyrdom. Their cult of martyrdom encompassed references to both the Christian tradition of martyrdom and traditional Hindu Saiva heroic poetry. Above all, however, the LTTE developed a completely distinct tradition of nationalistic martyrdom. The LTTE’s martyrs gave their lives not for the sake of their own eternal salvation, but for the future of the Tamil community. Regardless of their individual religious backgrounds, each martyr’s self-sacrifice formed part of a symbolic universe that was fundamentally nationalistic, but where Christian and Hindu references and ritual language contributed to legitimizing the sacrificial act. This ideology of martyrdom was nonetheless secular in the sense that it transcended the martyrs’ religious backgrounds and, instead of promising either a place in paradise or release from the cycle of reincarnation, promised eternal life in the memory of the nation. This was given symbolic emphasis through the description of the martyrs as the seeds of the nation: seeds that following martyrdom would be planted in the earth of the Tamil motherland. Symbolically, the martyrs would then grow as trees in the new, liberated nation. Accordingly the act of self-sacrifice was heavily laden with meaning both for the individuals involved and for the Tamil community, both in Sri Lanka and in the wider Tamil diaspora. What the LTTE’s opponents saw as grotesque brain-washing, with fatal consequences for the security of Sri Lankan society, was interpreted by the LTTE’s supporters as a necessary and legitimate sacrifice in order to secure their nation’s survival. The life of the individual thus gained a meaning that went far beyond that of the individual concerned.

This example from Sri Lanka reminds us of the importance of comparative approaches based on historical knowledge. Today the overwhelming majority of suicide attacks are being carried out in the name of Islam, but a quick glance at recent history shows that this is a new phenomenon. Accordingly, this is a phenomenon that has less to do with religion than with specific political circumstances. The LTTE carried out suicide attacks not as ends in themselves, but as part of a military strategy to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government. Suicide attacks spread fear and are seen by insurgent groups as a powerful means of exerting pressure on superior government forces. This type of warfare has also required religious reinterpretations in order to make them permissible. Both Islam and Catholicism forbid suicide. Accordingly organizations such as the LTTE and Hamas have had to redefine the taking of one’s own life from being an evil act to one of selfless sacrifice. In order to prevent more suicide attacks, we need all the knowledge we can obtain. Examples from secular contexts, or from religious contexts other than Islam, show that marginalization and the trauma of war play a role in recruitment, but that the political context is even more important. The most important factor is the acute experience of wanting to contribute to a battle that far transcends the individual’s own identity. Comparing a phenomenon across cultures and religions does not mean that one is being relativistic. It is about increasing our knowledge so that we can better understand why some people find it meaningful to use their own bodies as weapons.

This text was published in Norwegian in Dagbladet 22 March 2015: Den sekulære selvmordsbomberen.

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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