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Is Suicide Terrorism Religiously Motivated?


Question: Is Suicide Terrorism Religiously Motivated?

Credible researchers agree that "religion" neither causes nor explains suicide terrorism.

There are several reasons for this. First, not all suicide terrorists are religious. In fact, the secular Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have committed more suicide attacks since the 1980s than any other group.

Second, when we look closely at the context in which suicide attacks take place, there are always particular grievances or perceived grievances in play that also explain the decision to use the tactic. For example, Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian group, has a clearly Islamic identity. But their goal, which is to establish an Islamist state in the West Bank and Gaza, cannot be divorced from the political conflict between Israel and Palestine from which it springs.

Third, when thinking about the possible relationship of religion to suicide terrorism, it is useful to distinguish between the group and individual suicide bombers. As Robert Pape, who has comprehensively studied patterns in suicide terrorism, points out, individual attackers may be motivated by religion, but groups have strategic military goals.

In other words, religious rhetoric may help persuade attackers that their cause is either necessary or noble, and that glorifies or renames suicide as martyrdom, but it does not explain why suicide attackers choose that particular tactic.

In October, 2005, Dr. Pape was interviewed at a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about his research conclusions on whether Islamic extremism motivates terrorism. Pape discussed his findings with is interviewer:

The conventional wisdom is that suicide terrorism is motivated by religious fanaticism - religious hatred combined with the promise of a martyr's paradise in the hereafter. What does your own research suggest? The conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. Suicide terrorism is not mainly the product of Islamic fundamentalism or any other evil ideology independent of circumstance. I have studied 462 suicide terrorists; over half are secular. The world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka - they're a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers have committed more suicide terrorist attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Instead, what more than 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks since 1980 have in common is not religion, but a specific secular goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Chechnya to Kashmir to Sri Lanka to the West Bank, every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 has had as its main objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory that the terrorists prize.

Also See: Suicide Terrorism: Definitions, Theories, Groups

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