After each new suicide attack, as innocent blood flows in the streets of Baghdad, London, Madrid, or Tel Aviv, there is a surge of speculation about what motivates terrorists who are willing to give up their own lives for their cause.
Some observers say they’re motivated by traditional geopolitical goals—for example, to drive the allies out of Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Middle East; to punish allied countries for their policies; or (that perennial favorite) to drive Israel into the sea. Those who buy this explanation often contend that the terrorists’ ends might be understandable, but their means certainly are not. If their ends can only be addressed, the terrorists will be satisfied and stop their attacks.
Others say the terrorists are motivated by hatred of the West because it is secular, democratic, and modern as opposed to Islamic, authoritarian, and medieval. Like Nazis or communists, Islamists see themselves in a war with the rest of the world—either they must win or we will. Giving in to their geopolitical demands might reduce the terrorism in certain places and for a while, but in the long run will be seen by the Islamists as a sign of weakness. They will only be encouraged to continue to push for more radical goals, and will regard their terrorist tactics as a successful strategy to achieve them.
So which is it? In fact, both arguments carry some truth because the two are not mutually exclusive. Islamists do not spring up from within a vacuum; rather, they arise from within a culture that instills in them most of their values. The ends of the Islamists are constituted in the means they adopt, and both their means and ends reflect their fundamental values.
But what does this tell us about Middle Easterners and Muslims, especially those living in the West, who reject the violent methods of the Islamists but who agree with many of their goals—for example, getting the Western powers out of Iraq or the Middle East? Do both violent Islamists and their ostensibly non-violent co-religionists actually share core values? Might the same values that motivate Islamists to commit heinous crimes also impel other Muslims to oppose the core values of a free, open, and tolerant society? And might the latter’s adherence to these values foster the former?
A good place to start examining the means and ends of the Islamists is with a recent argument that does not see terrorists principally as religious fanatics. In his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert Pape argues that those who kill themselves are not motivated principally by Islamist religious fanaticism but, rather, by geopolitical goals. He identified 315 such attacks between 1980 and 2003. Of these the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group in Sri Lanka that opposes religion, were responsible for the greatest number of attacks—76, or about one quarter of the total.
Pape makes three generalizations about terrorist attacks. First, 301 of the 315 attacks were not random, but part of large, coherent political or military campaigns. Second, democratic regimes are most vulnerable to these attacks. And third, the attackers mostly seek specific political objectives, principally to drive out what they consider to be occupying forces in their countries or to change governments.
Islamists see themselves in a war with the rest of the world—either they must win or we will.
Though Pape focuses on suicide terrorists, it is important to note that the danger to civilization comes not only from those who kill themselves as they kill others, but also from those fanatics who use terror without intending to die in the process. Thus we must consider all of the Middle Eastern and Muslim terrorists over many decades and the cultural and personal values that impel them to their acts. This would include those who murdered the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972. This would include the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which held some 90 young middle-school students hostage in Ma’alot, Israel on May 15, 1974, and killed 23 children before Israeli commandos could rescue them. This would include the Chechen terrorists who, in September 2004, murdered some 350 individuals, including over 170 young students in a school in Beslan, Russia. As we shall see, the murder of the innocent is central to their aims—and to their values and culture.
Pape separates attacks based on religious fanaticism from those based on secular motivations. But this distinction may be non-essential. In his 1951 classic, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer observed that certain political fanatics—Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, revolutionary communists—share the essential characteristics of religious fanatics. Their unbending ideologies offer simple explanations and answers for the problems of life and society and easy-to-follow, often-violent plans of action. These ideologies are matters of faith, impervious to reason or facts to the contrary. The ideologues see the world as Us Against Them: individuals are either members of their ideological group or its enemies. Enemies are subhumans, and thus can be tortured or killed without moral qualms.
Pape argues that religious fanaticism is not the major reason for terrorist attacks—that political motives are primary. To make his case for what some might call “rational” suicide, he uses Emile Durkheim’s classification of suicides into three groups.
The first is what Durkheim called “egoistic suicide” (an odd term to characterize self-destruction). Such individuals act out of personal depression or pain. They are isolated and alienated from the wider society and from smaller support groups such as family and friends. They usually take their lives in private, and society at large frowns upon their acts.
The second group, “fatalistic suicides” (another odd term), is drawn most frequently from the memberships of insular religious cults. Separated from the wider society, they are immersed in the small group subculture; indeed, suicides by cultists usually stem from intense group loyalty and abject conformity. But when members of such cults commit mass suicide, they do not usually seek to kill others as well.
According to Pape, neither of these two types of suicides characterizes today’s terrorists—a third group that he refers to as “altruistic suicides.”
Such individuals are very much part of a wider society and/or of smaller support groups. As he puts it, “suicide terrorism is not mainly a product of the separation of a group from society…but is typically the result of a close integration of suicide terrorist groups with surrounding society.” The main reason for their suicides, in fact, is to protect other members of their groups—like a soldier throwing himself on a hand grenade to save his comrades and protect his country, or a mother dying to save her child.
One might bicker with this classification as “altruistic.” Some people give up their lives because, for example, they think it would be too hard to go on living while knowing that they allowed a beloved child or spouse to die. They don’t really want to die, but don’t want to live without that which they love most—family, freedom, friends. However, such despairing individuals do not resort to terrorism, either. Moreover, dying to save a life is a motive very different from dying to take a life.
In any event, Pape maintains that suicide terrorists tend to fit into his “altruist” category; one sees parallels between these contemporary killers and Japanese Kamikaze pilots during World War II. Suicide terrorists identify with a wider society. Most of them work cooperatively in groups, with unity of purpose. In the 1980s, for example, members or sympathizers of Hezbollah sought to drive the Americans and Israelis out of Lebanon. Al Qaeda seeks to drive all Western powers from the Middle East.
The terrorists’ defining tactic is targeting the innocent, including children.
Suicide terrorists are not for the most part poor, ignorant, repressed individuals lashing out in frustration. Most are middle class or better, and well educated. The recent London bombers were mainly middle-class young men. Ditto the September 11 terrorists, who were from middle-class, mainly Saudi families. (Their non-suicidal leader, Osama bin Laden, hailed from a fabulously rich Saudi family. His number-two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri—the pioneer of the suicide bombing strategy—was a medical doctor.)
According to Pape’s argument, most of these terrorists were not compelled by personal desperation, alienation from their society, poverty, or ignorance to kill themselves while killing others. They chose to do what they did with conscious deliberation and calculation. Muslim terrorists, Pape maintains, assume that they are defending and furthering principally their political objectives.
They also assume a certain amount of support and sympathy from the Muslim culture. As we will see, this assumption was certainly accurate in London, and points to moral failings of that Muslim community as well as many others.
Durkheim’s “fatalistic” fanatics act as members of an insular cult that cuts them off from the wider social world and controls nearly all aspects of their lives. But upon reflection, Pape’s “altruistic” suicide bombers may not be all that different. Typically, suicide terrorists are not entirely cut off from society: they are usually well exposed to the wider world around them, and thus to arguments for and against various political and social ideas, and to individuals outside of their own religion and culture. Yet like the “fatalistic” types, they still choose to adopt a religion or ideology that carries with it rationales for self-destruction.
Such True Believers might act normally in some aspects of their lives—they might hold down jobs, have families, and the like—but still manifest religious or politically fanatical behavior on issues and in contexts related to their core values. Giles Kepel describes them as “able to shift back and forth between the rational mindset they had cultivated during their studies of engineering, urban planning, medicine, or administration and an alternate mindset that infused suicide attacks with metaphysical meaning and value.”
In other words, the suicide terrorists’ isolation is not social but intellectual, and driven by ideology. They blind themselves to and steel themselves against the world around them: they are in it, but not of it. Reality for them becomes the fanatic’s fantasy world that they create in their own minds. In this respect, they share the cultish worldview and psychology of “fatalistic” fanatics.
What is the source of suicide terrorists’ desire to kill others? Pape and others argue that their motives are mainly geopolitical. Because of the overwhelming conventional forces of the Western powers and Israel, those who seek to fight these “occupiers” or change their governments must resort to unconventional methods, i.e., terror. But explaining suicide terrorism by way of purely political calculations is superficial and naive. Most suicide killers, in fact, are religious or ideological fanatics. Their political goals cannot be separated from their religions, or from ideologies which for them have all the trappings of religion.
Consider 9/11 terrorist leader Mohammed Atta. As a student and professional in Germany he at first fit into the Western society around him. But, as Pape observes, Atta changed “when he made his haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia... When he returned to Hamburg...Atta wrote a will [that] leaves little doubt that he had become a fundamentalist Muslim.”
Osama bin Laden explained the ultimate value of the terrorists: “These youth love death as you love life.”
Likewise Saeed Hotari, a Palestinian Hamas member who killed 21 Israelis in a 2001 suicide bombing in a disco. Pape explains that for Hamas, a supposedly “political” group, “Mosques are a common recruitment ground.” When Hamas members spot potential candidates, their “leaders initiate a discussion of dying for Allah with small groups of young people and invite those who seem particularly interested to join a special Hamas-led class on Islamic study.” These classes identify potential suicide volunteers, who are further indoctrinated in the Hamas version of Islam. Inevitably, some volunteer to die for the cause. As part of their preparation, recruits are taken to cemeteries, where they are told “to prepare for death by lying between grave sites for hours and to wear a white, hooded shroud normally used to cover bodies for burial.” Later they might be returned to the cemetery, “spending a dozen or more hours in a grave while reciting passages of the Koran.”
Prior to the London bombings, the BBC investigated young Muslim men in that city who enlisted to become suicide bombers for a radical Islamic organization, al-Muhajiroun. It described a group of about 60 listening to their spiritual leader, Omar Bakri Mohammad, give a lecture titled “The virtue of the self sacrifice operation.”
“People like to call it suicide bombing,” he said. “We call it self sacrifice. You must fight for the way of Allah—to kill first and be killed.”
How could one be more fanatical than this? For suicide terrorists, politics, religion, and ideology all intersect and blend. And their otherworldly ends provide rationalizations and excuses for their ruthless and destructive means.
In any case, it’s a grave mistake to think that the ends of the Islamists can be separated from the terrorist means they employ. Consider a hypothetical example.
I want material goods that will make my life pleasant—a house, a car, good food, nice clothes, vacations, and the like. So does another individual. I choose to obtain my ends by producing goods and services that I trade with others for the things I want. The other chooses to obtain his ends by armed robbery, fraud, and cheating.
Do we share the same ends, but simply employ different means? No. Both our means and ends reflect our core values. I take pride in assuming responsibility for creating my own material well-being. I also ensure my independence. I’d be robbing myself of these opportunities and experiences if I robbed others. Further, I understand that the attributes I value most in myself—rationality, productiveness, self-confidence, creativity—can be found in others as well, and I want to live in a society and culture that encourages and reflects these values. Thus I treat others with the dignity that independent individuals deserve, and I respect their rights.
By contrast, the thief not only employs means that differ from mine, but holds different ends as well. He does not value the pride that one acquires from creating the means of his own material well-being. He does not value his fellow human beings as being individuals like himself; he must depersonalize them as he is robbing them. And he certainly can’t value the principle of justice in evaluating his own moral character; otherwise he’d hate himself for his actions.
And so it is with terrorists: their ends cannot be separated from their means. Their defining tactic is targeting the innocent, including children. This violates the basic principle of justice as it applies even to warfare: that innocent noncombatants should not intentionally be made targets, and that “collateral casualties” should be minimized if possible. The vicious tactics of the terrorists reveal that principles of justice and the value of individual lives mean nothing to them. This tells us exactly the kind of society to which their values lead: straight to the chamber of horrors that was Taliban Afghanistan.
The ultimate value of these fanatics was expressed quite bluntly in 1996 by Osama bin Laden, when he said of his terrorists, “These youth love death as you love life.” Death, in fact, is their ultimate value. They are death worshipers—literally.
Consider what many Palestinians think of their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and relatives who kill themselves in order to murder Jews. The father of suicide bomber Saeed Hotari threw a party to celebrate his son’s act, proclaiming, “I am very happy and proud of what my son did.” Family, friends, and neighbors joined the festivities. From all reports, that seems a fairly typical reaction to such suicides. It reveals the true nature and values not only of the bombers but of the community from which they arise.
Some might argue that such actions and attitudes are appropriate because of the injustices visited on the Palestinians. Certainly some Israeli policies depart radically from the principles of individualism, justice, and freedom that should guide a civilized country. But while Israeli policies may have imposed injustices and hardships on many Palestinians, the anti-life values prevalent in Palestinian areas have constituted a far greater impediment to securing their happiness and success.
Israel offers far more freedom than does any of its neighbors.
Since the establishment of Israel, many individuals from the area of the old British Palestinian mandate went to Jordon and became fairly successful. By contrast, consider those who remained in the West Bank and Gaza. What, exactly, have they made of themselves? These areas they occupy remain impoverished, and their politics are dictatorial. Generation after generation has dwelt on the alleged injustices committed against them collectively, rather than focus on building a future for themselves as individuals. Meanwhile Israel, for all its political faults and socialistic economics, encourages individuals to make the most of themselves, and offers far more freedom than does any of its neighbors.
In short, the culture that gives rise to the terrorists’ values encourages hatred, envy, and death. Such a culture cannot create; it can only destroy. No one can morally sympathize with such a culture or with its so-called “values.”
Pape and others fail to grasp the philosophical roots of terrorist tactics because they accept at face value the political excuses advanced by the terrorists. But are these political arguments valid? Consider the war in Iraq, for example.
Wouldn’t Iraqis, as well as Muslims elsewhere, have valid objections to the American-led war against Saddam Hussein, and against the occupation of that country? (This is a question separate from whether it is in America’s self-interest to fight that war.) Couldn’t those objections justify the extreme measures of the terrorists?
First, there is no valid moral equation of the military actions of the United States and the terrorist actions of those Iraqis who oppose the American liberation of their country—any more than there was any “moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany. The United States upholds (though inconsistently) individual liberty, free markets, and limited government under the rule of law. No one can remotely compare America with Saddam’s Iraq—or, for that matter, with the religious tyranny in Iran or the murderous dictatorship in North Korea.
Second, there was no moral justification for Iraqis to oppose the American liberation of their nation. The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its citizens. Iraq was a brutal dictatorship and thus its government had no moral standing. Any party that sought to overthrow it and to replace it with something more consistent with the principles of liberty would not be guilty of violating the “rights” or “sovereignty” of such a regime, since a dictatorship can’t claim any rights or sovereignty. (Again, whether it was in America’s self-interest to liberate Iraq is a separate question: America certainly has no duty to establish freedom in other nations.)
No Iraqi citizen was morally justified in defending Saddam’s regime against liberation by America and its allies, any more than any German was morally justified defending Hitler’s regime against liberation and occupation by the Western powers (opposing Soviet occupation was another matter). Iraqis might have been forced to fight in Saddam’s army because refusal would get them shot. But neither ex-Nazis nor ex-Baathists were morally entitled to fight for their regimes if they could avoid it. They certainly had no morally valid reason to continue to resist a liberating army after their illegitimate regimes were overthrown.
What about the argument that the U.S. is imposing its own political leadership and ideas on foreign peoples—that Iraqis should have a government of individuals drawn from their own culture, who understand their history, beliefs, and particular circumstances? All other things being equal, that might be a legitimate point. But nationalism does not trump the more fundamental functions of government; nor did nationalistic concerns constitute morally valid reasons for Iraqis to oppose the initial American liberation. If the United States were lorded over by a brutal dictator in the mold of Saddam, and if a coalition of Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Botswana, and New Zealand were to liberate America with the intention of restoring a free society, no American could morally oppose such a move.
But what about opposition to an occupation after a tyranny has been overthrown? Once a peaceful and free situation is reestablished, the citizens of a country (in this case Iraqis) would be right to want government again to devolve to themselves, and to want the liberators to leave—with their heartfelt thanks for restoring their freedom.
Unfortunately, the United States has in many ways mishandled the post-war administration of Iraq. Reasons for valid complaint might be that America has done a poor job of securing the borders, and thus too many foreign terrorists have entered the country—or that America did not work closely enough early on with Iraqis who sought to rid their country of former Baathist gangsters.
But American mishandling of post-Saddam Iraq is hardly a justification for terrorism in Baghdad, let alone London, Madrid, or anywhere else. Terrorism itself is the problem. Muslims in Iraq, the Middle East, and the West should stand foursquare behind American aims, if not all of America’s particular tactics and policies. Western Muslims and the Terrorists
As individualists, we judge others as individuals. We recognize that Muslim communities in different countries are diverse, as are individual Muslims within a given country. We also recognize that when Muslim immigrants choose to come to countries and cultures like our own, which are very different from theirs, many no doubt do so for reasons of self-interest and economic improvement.
But we can make certain generalizations about Western Muslim communities as sources of values and attitudes. For example, if Muslim or Middle Eastern immigrant communities in the West largely share and promote the values of Islamists, they pose a clear threat to the civilized values of Europe and America.
Islamists hold values hostile to individual liberty and the toleration of philosophical differences.
In Western societies, immigrants are free to keep all, part, or none of their religion, culture, and values. If they choose to retain their old values and subculture, they must accept the fact that they will be judged and treated as such by others. As I put it in “ Allah Bless America !” (Navigator magzine, November/December 2002 issue): “When we choose to belong to a particular group, we take on the responsibility of answering for the group’s basic beliefs and activities,” and “prudent members will be careful that their group’s ‘brand name’ is not tarnished.” So if they conclude that some community members are sullying its overall reputation and acting contrary to its moral principles, they should purge their communities of such members—or failing that, withdraw themselves and do everything possible to distance themselves from the group. But if they remain silent and do nothing, then they tacitly sanction and encourage the abhorrent views and behavior—and can be regarded as compliant and complicit.
Pape tells us in his study of Islamist terrorists that the so-called “altruistic” suicide bomber “willingly accepts a voluntary death precisely because society supports and honors the act,” and that “the local society commonly honors individuals who carry out suicide terrorist attacks.” Perhaps if their hideous deeds were met by universal abhorrence from those they purport to help and represent, they would be less likely to commit them.
Now it’s often said that most Muslims—in the West and elsewhere—are peaceful. That might be true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. To function, terrorists require the sympathy and support of only a minority of a population. During the American Revolutionary War, only about one-third of the colonists—the eventual winners—favored independence from Britain. Another third was against it and the remaining third was neutral. In the 1932 election in Germany, the Nazi party gained only 37 percent of the vote. But early the next year President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor and he soon made himself a dictator. Only a few thousands are causing the carnage in Iraq, but they are hindering that country from becoming free and peaceful. They persist only because of the acquiescence or approval of a significant minority of Iraqis.
The July 2005 terror bombings in London that killed 56 innocent commuters underscore this point. A recent poll found that only 6 percent of Muslims in Britain thought those attacks were justified. But 10 percent felt no loyalty at all to Britain; 56 percent of the Muslim population said they could understand why the bombers committed their atrocities; and 31 percent felt that Western society is decadent and immoral and should be ended by non-violent means.
This is the terrorists’ supportive subculture. While the actual killers may be but a tiny minority of that subculture, the values and attitudes that fuel them are obviously widespread among British Muslims. Consider more evidence:
The best that can be said of British Muslims is that too many fail to condemn or counter these terrorist sympathizers in their midst. In fact the reality is far worse. Many British Muslims are part of a cheering section for terrorists; in fact, it is from their midst that many terrorists arise.
There are signs that British Muslims who oppose terrorism are finally starting to question the values of their own community. But they have an uphill battle since so many of their co-religionists are the problem.
We see similar situations in other European countries. In the Netherlands, for example, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a militant Islamist in reaction to his film Submission, which documented the abuse of women by Muslims. It included scenes in which passages from the Koran were written on the bodies of naked women, and women were beaten as someone read scriptures that seem to justify the oppression of women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born a Muslim in Somalia, has crusaded against the abuse of women in her culture and was elected to the Dutch Parliament. After the Van Gogh murder she had to go into hiding for a while because of death threats.
Only widespread commitment to the values of reason, individualism, and personal liberty can counter terrorism.
In America the situation is somewhat better. Salam al-Marayatti, head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, points out that Muslims in America are not as ghettoized and insulated from the wider society as they are in Europe. As a nation built by immigrants, America is better able than any other country to absorb immigrants into its pluralistic culture. Groups here such as the Free Muslims Against Terror have staged demonstrations against those who murder in the name of Allah. Unfortunately, such organizations have found too little backing from mainstream Muslim organizations, which do not make a priority of purging their ranks of those who sympathize with terrorism and the values that give rise to it. And while there were no massive American Muslim celebrations of death on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, neither were there major meetings or conferences in New York or Washington of Muslims inquiring as to why such abominations come out of Islam, and what they can do to prevent future atrocities.
That kind of soul-searching by Muslims is long overdue. Those who hold a benign interpretation of Islamic theory need to take a hard, careful look at the values underlying its practice in many cultures. As accepted by too many Muslims, Islam is an irrational fundamentalist doctrine, and its practitioners hold values hostile to individual liberty and the toleration of philosophical differences. They favor indoctrination and blind faith over critical thought. And since they abandon reason in dealing with others and discovering truth, they must resort to force in order to instill their views on the unwilling. Some, like members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, may favor peaceful means in establishing an Islamic tyranny. Others, like Iqbal Sacranie in Britain, may favor using government authority to limit freedom here in the West—and elsewhere. Others, less patient, clearly prefer to resort to terrorism.
Responsibility for the global surge of Islamic terrorism largely can be laid at the doorstep of those who claim to reject such methods, but who accept the value premises that lead to terrorism. The terrorists themselves are simply more consistent in following the logical implications of such premises. Their deadly means reflect their death-worshipping ends.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike must understand that only widespread commitment to the values of reason, individualism, and personal liberty can counter terrorism and, in the long run, produce cultures and political regimes fit for men and women of peace and good will. But even if they come to that understanding, will they have the courage to act on it? That may well decide their future, and ours.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.