Terrorism, Humanitarianism, and Political Ideology

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the overlap between political ideology and religious dogmatism because of a book review that I read. The book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics, draws some parallels between suicide bombers and Western humanitarians by arguing that the men and women who are inspired by Al Qaeda view Muslim suffering as a humanitarian cause and Jihad as a kind of activist justice. I cannot comment upon the quality of the argument because I have not read the book, but I find the thesis fascinating and eerily astute. It also has given me pause to reconsider the question of why people commit acts of mass killing for moral reasons.

Value is arational. We judge the rationality of a person by asking whether his actions are a good means of realizing his stated ends, but ends themselves cannot be evaluated on the basis of rationality*. I have assumed in the past that suicide bombers are irrational because their actions are motivated by some belief about God, God’s will, and/or Divine reward for righteous action. I have reasoned that it is irrational to calculate that suicide will yield a great reward in the afterlife because there is no good evidence for an afterlife, nor for an interventionist God whose will we can know and serve. The crucial point here is not that it is irrational for suicide bombers to value their service to God more than their own lives, it is that they have no good reason to believe that suicide will serve God. That is what makes the act irrational.

In contrast, I have generally refrained from labeling the acts of political martyrs as irrational. This is because the stated goal of many political martyrs is to change some state of affairs in the empirical world. They calculate that their deaths may save the lives of many others, help to promote some noble political cause, or create some positive legacy attached to their names in history, and they value this expected state of affairs more than their own lives. There is nothing irrational about political martyrdom, provided the martyr has good evidence that his death will promote his desired end.

Faisal Devji observes that many of the Al Qaeda suicide bombers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks did not regularly attend mosque, nor did they conceive of themselves as particularly devout religious followers. Devji advances the thesis that these men viewed themselves as champions of a humanitarian political cause -justice for the Muslim world- rather than agents of Divine Command. It is very difficult to separate religious value from political and cultural value in the Muslim world because they are so tightly intertwined, but Devji’s idea resonates even if the distinction between religious value and political value is blurry. If the religious suicide bomber is motivated by a desire to change the face of this world rather than an irrational expectation that he will be rewarded in the next, then he is no more rational or irrational than a secular political martyr.

I am interested in the rationality of suicide-bombers because this issue has implications for how the United States and other Western countries should approach both internal and external violence in the Muslim world. The cultural war, which is both literal and metaphorical, is often seen as a battle between the secular West and the religious Middle East, and this is in no small part due to the fact that political leaders in both the United States and the Muslim world have couched it in those terms. In response, certain Left-liberal voices in the West have taken the opposite tack, arguing that violent Jihadists and extremely oppressive, authoritarian, theocratic regimes have emerged in the Middle East as a result of the political, military, and economic imperialism of the West.

Though I find materialist analyses of political and cultural phenomena informative, these types of economic reductions fundamentally discount either the sincerity or the intelligence of people in the Muslim world by asserting that their values, including their religious beliefs, are irrelevant to their current political and cultural structures. This is a mistake because beliefs about non-material values do matter. A foundational part of understanding socio-political rules is understanding culture, and we cannot understand a culture until we understand how the people within that culture conceive of values like honor, virtue, and justice. The materialist account that conceives of religious doctrine as a mere tool and cultural and political mores a mere byproduct of the struggle for control over material resources is not only cynical but predictively inaccurate and explanatorily weak. But so too is the account that privileges religious doctrine over all other cultural and political factors. It is obvious that religious texts have a significant influence on cultural values. But, the evolution of religious doctrine -the way in which religious teachings and interpretations of the same text change over centuries- demonstrates that cultural values also exert an influence over religion.

Defenders of moderate Islam speak of it as a “religion of peace” while detractors find passages from the Quran that extol the necessity of violence. It is perfectly reasonable for scholars to debate about legitimate interpretations of a sacred text, but these interpretations (even if one is much more accurate than the other) do not explain the contemporary socio-political climate of the Muslim world any more than interpretations of the Bible have ever adequately explained the socio-political climate of the Christian world. This is a key element to understanding the culture war, and it is what makes the idea of the suicide-bomber-for-justice so intriguing.

If a young man sees himself as a part of an unjustly oppressed group that is silenced, marginalized, and persecuted by a dominate and callous enemy, he may find more than comfort in a political ideology or a religious doctrine that confirms his world view, legitimizes his anger, and gives him a sense of purpose and a chance at honor. Under those circumstances it is not terribly difficult to imagine why he might find the idea of a suicide mission to be glorious because it imbues his life with meaning, even without the promise of Divine reward.

A person’s desire for violent justice and righteous vengeance can have equally awful consequences whether it is cloaked in secular or religious rhetoric, and I do not mean to suggest that the rationality of suicide bombers is any sort of defense for their actions. But if it is their perception of injustice that causes them to commit violent acts in the name of God rather than their religious doctrine which preaches that violence is justice, then it is dangerous and irresponsible to ignore the socio-political circumstances that create this sense of injustice. The “holy war” is fought, at least in part, for political and cultural reasons. Facts about geography, natural resources, military armament, and political economy may seem indomitable and opaque, but they are quite malleable and transparent compared to the will of God. People who disagree about the division and distribution of these things can reach compromise because they share values in common and they can recognize those values in each other. Insofar as the Muslim militant sees himself as an agent of justice and not an instrument of God, we may still recognize shared values with him, and it is possible to conceive of peaceful compromises.

*Clearly, Kantians will disagree here. That is worth debating elsewhere.

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