"All you have to do is promise them 72 virgins, and they'll kill to get there." (Christopher Hitchens: Religion Poisons Everything, truthdig.com, 6/6/07)
Gin-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay, neocon windbag and Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens revisits the phenomenon of the Palestinian suicide bomber, reductively concluding that "nasty, vicious, fanatical old men, not human emotions [such as despair] were making the decisions and deciding the days and the hours of death." (Svengalis behind the murderers, The Australian, 20/7/09) Utterly shallow, of course, but that's Hitchens for you.
A corrective is needed.
Mohammed M Hafez' Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers (2006) is a nuanced and insightful study which examines the individual, organizational, and societal motives behind the phenomenon:
"[A]t the level of the individual, religious and nationalist appeals that equate self-sacrifice with martyrdom and national salvation are instrumental in producing volunteers for suicide attacks. Individuals are not inspired to carry out suicide bombings because these are the optimal tactic given the constraints of the political environment or the calculations of costs versus benefits; rather, they are inspired by the redemptive nature of self-sacrifice. The religious and nationalist framings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades go beyond mere manipulation of individual minds; they combine religious texts and historical narratives with ritual and ceremony to foster a culture that venerates martyrdom. The cultural context of Islamic revivalism and the political context of nationalist conflict allow those appeals to resonate with the broader public and with potential bombers. Militant groups also draw on the desire for national empowerment in the context of powerlessness in order to motivate individuals to undertake 'heroic' acts to shake the passive public into action. Finally, militant groups draw on the desire for vengeance that arises when individuals perceive members of their actual or imagined community as humiliated or traumatized by hated enemies.
"At the level of the organization, the case of the Palestinian suicide bombers shows that despite the outwardly religious nature of militant groups, strategic considerations in the context of asymmetrical warfare are the primary drivers for the adoption of suicidal violence as the preferred method of resistance. The difference between those who support suicide bombings and those who oppose them does not correspond to a religious-versus-secular split - both religious and secular factions see the value of suicide attacks. Instead, the split among supporters and opponents corresponds to the divergence between those who believe resistance is the only viable option and those who believe negotiations are more effective. Thus, it would be a mistake to equate suicidal violence solely with Islamism or religious fundamentalism.
"At the level of society, the Palestinian case shows that communities embrace and venerate 'martyrdom operations' when 2 conditions converge: (1) communities feel a deep sense of victimization and threat by external enemies in the course of political conflict, and (2) legitimate authorities promote or acquiesce to extreme violence. Palestinian suicide bombings in the al-Aqsa uprising developed out of a mix of threats and opportunities. On the one hand, the Palestinians felt victimized by Israelis who used harsh measures and collective punishments to end the uprising. On the other hand, the Palestinians felt empowered by government and religious authorities to strike back with extreme violence to punish the Israelis. This dynamic suggests that the phenomenon of volunteerism for suicide bombings is intricately connected to the broader political contexts in a given society. Militant organizations, no matter how ideologically savvy and politically astute, cannot generate high rates of volunteerism for suicide attacks without the presence of opportunities and threats in embattled societies." (pp 67-68) [See also my 2/7/09 post Schmoozing With Aaron Klein!]
And here's the Israeli context, without which the above would not have been possible, from US academic Steve Niva: "While suicide bombings are often portrayed as individual and random acts of fanaticism or desperation, leading to an excessive focus on the 'mind of the suicide bomber', my research has found that suicide bombings are highly organized and patterned. They are the product of a deliberate strategy by militant groups to both punish Israel for specific acts and to mobilize popular support for their organizations. I trace the origins of this pattern to the first suicide bombing inside Israel in April 1994 that came exactly 40 days (the standard Muslim mourning period) after the massacre of 29 Palestinians praying in a Hebron mosque by the American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein in February 1994. Since that time, my research has shown that Palestinian militant groups have adopted a policy of using Israeli acts of violence, especially assassinations of militant leaders and civilian massacres, as the trigger for launching suicide bombing attacks inside Israel... [M]y research suggests that the pattern of suicide bombings can only be explained in the context of Israel's violent actions, often war crimes under international law, which routinely precipitate and provide a rationalization for such attacks." (academic.evergreen.edu)
Needless to say, a shot as cheap as Hitchens' just wouldn't be complete without the following: "To have added the promise of paradise to this pogrom is to have made spiritual and mental sickness complete; to have made it a sexual paradise is obscene into the bargain. (Women martyrs are obviously not offered the same level of bliss and promiscuity by the Koran [sic].)"
Nor are martyred men, Bozo. The 72 virgins are not found in the Quran, but in a 9th century hadith from Ahmad al-Tirmidhi: "The martyr has a guarantee from God: He forgives him at the first drop of his blood and shows him his seat in Heaven. He decorates him with the jewels of faith, protects him from the torments of the grave, keeps him safe on the day of judgment, places a crown of dignity on his head with the finest rubies in the world, marries him to 72 of the pure virgins of paradise and intercedes on behalf of 70 of his relatives."
Hitchens should be so lucky.