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.

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