Does religion cause terrorism?

A new survey of suicide bombers suggests not

Via Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper:

Between 1981 and 2006, 1,200 suicide attacks made up 4 per cent of all terrorist attacks in the world and killed 14,599 people, representing 32 per cent of all terrorism-related deaths. The question is, why?

At last, now we have some tangible data to begin addressing the question. The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, the most comprehensive compendium of such information in the world, holds details on suicide bombings in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which together accounted for 90 per cent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2006. Analysis of the information contained therein yields some interesting clues: It is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.

The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause of their actions. It shows that though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.

On October 4 2003, the 29-year-old Palestinian lawyer Hanadi Jaradat exploded her suicide belt in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, killing 20 people and wounding many more. According to her family, her suicide mission was in revenge for the killing of her brother and her fiancé by the Israeli security forces, and in revenge for all the crimes Israel had perpetrated in the occupied West Bank by killing Palestinians and expropriating their lands. The main motive for many suicide bombings in Israel is revenge for acts committed by the Israelis.

In September 2007 when American forces raided an Iraqi insurgent camp in the desert town of Singar near the Syrian border, they discovered biographies of more than 700 foreign fighters. The Americans were surprised to find that 137 of them were Libyans and that 52 of these were from the small Libyan town of Darnah. The reason why so many of Darnah's young men had gone to Iraq for suicide missions was not the global-jihadist ideology, but an explosive mix of desperation, pride, anger, a sense of powerlessness, a local tradition of resistance and religious fervor. A similar mix of factors is now motivating young Pashtuns to volunteer for suicide missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Read the full piece here.

And, for further evidence, check out this 2005 New York Times op-ed piece by Professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.