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Suicide as Weapon of Mass Destruction? Emile Durkheim Revisited

Suicide as WMD?

by HAROLD A. GOULD

It wasn’t an illiterate street urchin whose brain was filled with fundamentalist Islamic hyperbole, and promises of an Arabian Nights paradise in the hereafter, who detonated the bomb that murdered twenty people and maimed three times that many in a popular Haifa restaurant on October 4th. The suicide bomber was Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, a highly educated twenty-nine year old Palestinian woman who had recently received her law degree in Jordan.

On the surface, this seems to fly in the face of everything we have been led to believe and expect concerning the identity and social characteristics of the "fanatics" who blow themselves to smithereens in the name of the Islamic revolution. All, it turns out after all, are not the wretched of the earth. Certainly this was true of the terrorists who commandeered the airliners that destroyed the Twin Towers and inflicted grave wounds on the Pentagon. Their leader, Muhammad Atta, was, in fact, a gifted architect who seemed to have everything to live for. So while many of the grass-roots bombers in Palestine have indeed come from the ranks of jobless, dead-end teenagers, the spectrum of recruits actually cuts widely across class lines. Clearly, there is more going on here than meets the eye.

How then does one account for the fact that not only anyone would be willing to commit suicide in such a grisly fashion for whatever cause they espouse, but that some of those who do shouldn’t have a care in the material world.

On a personal level, Hanadi Jaradat had understandable personal reasons for her deed. She had grown despondent after witnessing her brother, fiancee and cousin shot dead by Israeli soldiers during a raid on her family compound. She had "become increasingly religious, reading from the Koran twice a day and fasting regularly…" (Wash Post story, Oct. 5th.) Hanadi yearned for retribution and accomplished it by transforming herself in the name of radical Islam into a human WMD

While personal tragedies like this may account for the odd individual who in desperation resorts to the ultimate self-sacrifice, it does not explain how broad spectra of persons within a social community can be inspired to engage in self-destruction on a systematic basis in the manner that has been taking place in the Middleast and elsewhere in the Islamic world. Clearly, such behavior cannot be dismissed as idiosyncratic when it occurs with patterned regularity. To find answers, let us turn to Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist who wrote in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Durkheim contended that the reasons why people kill themselves by their own hand or invite it at the hands of others is far from being a random or idiosyncratic matter. For each social group, he contended, "there is a specific tendency to suicide [that depends] upon social causes…" In certain types of societies, "excessive individuation leads to suicide." In others, "insufficient individuation has the same effects." Durkheim based his conclusions on statistical comparisons between suicide rates in Catholic, Protestant and Jewish populations in Europe toward the end of the 19th century. Under the impact of the doctrinal systems, social structures and cultural norms associated with each of these "confessions", both the tendency to commit suicide and the reasons for doing so varied markedly from one to the other. Generally speaking, he found that the tendency to commit suicide was greatest among Protestants, less among Catholics and least among Jews. This had to do with the amount of spiritual independence, or individuation, that each enjoins. Protestants are left much more on their own in working out their religious destinies than are Catholics and are therefore more vulnerable to doubt and uncertainty concerning their ultimate supernatural fate. At the extreme end of this continuum, moral confusion and weak social support can result in self-destruction. Thus: "Protestantism with respect to suicide results from its being a less strongly integrated church than the Catholic church." Jews, however, are the least "individuated" not because they are a more loosely integrated community than Protestants but because, on the contrary, they are even more tightly integrated than Catholics. Their high level of social cohesion arises instead from a combination of doctrinal and ritual complexity (the Talmudic Tradition) and "the [racist] hostility surrounding them." Mutual self-protection and strong communal empathy keeps social solidarity at a high level and the suicide rate low.

Suicide patterns vary not only by frequency but by type, declared Durkheim. He identified three forms of socially induced suicide which he labeled altruistic, anomic and egoistic. This, as we shall see, is where the Hanadi Jaradats and Muhammad Attas come in. Whatever the rate at which the members of given societies commit suicide, the reasons why they do it is strongly influenced by the specific interplay of cultural norms with material circumstances.

In Protestant societies where religious doctrines stress individual conscience as the pathway to salvation, the typical suicide occurs because the victim has failed to resolve the fundamental moral dilemmas which coping with them on his own recognizance minus priestly crutches poses.. Durkheim called this egoistic suicide.

In all societies, regardless of their dominant religious motif, disruptive disturbances in the "collective order" or the "social equilibrium," cause suicide rates to escalate. He found it didn’t matter whether such changes were for good or ill, only whether "readjustments in the social order" were "serious." People, in other words, become unhinged by radical change and resultantly increased numbers become so dysfunctional that they end their lives. Recall the stories of bankrupt financiers leaping from windows after the American Stock Market crash of 1929. This socially induced emotional state is known as "anomie," from which Durkheim derived the term anomic suicide.

It is the third category, altruistic suicide, that most interests us here. It refers to the kind of self-destruction that Durkheim associated with societies in which the socio-religious system stresses "insufficient individuation." That is, a premium is placed on rigid doctrinal conformity and the propensity to dissolve one’s individual identity in larger wholes. Transcendence of the individual Self and its dissolution into an all-encompassing Cosmic Being is the ultimate form of salvation in such "confessions." This tendency is at the heart of the mystical traditions propagated by both of the great Asian religions ­ Hinduism and Buddhism. The fiery self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war is a political exemplification of the inspirational power of this belief system.

A variant of the concept of total immersion of individual self in manifestations of Ultimate Being is a key doctrinal aspect of Islam as well. It enjoins complete submission to the will of almighty God, Allah. This type of "insufficient individuation" has always found its maximal expression in the political domain through the doctrine of Jihad ­ the obligation to wage holy war against unbelievers without regard to personal comfort or even survival. Today’s Muslim radicals, Osama bin Laden in particular, have harnessed this concept of total self-sacrifice, of altruistic suicide, of absolute subordination of self to the greater cause, as perhaps never before in all of Islamic history. They have created a pool of manpower, and womanpower, who willingly, nay eagerly, in the name of Allah and Muhammad, serve as Jihadi guided missiles aimed at Western infidels and indeed practitioners of middle-class life-styles wherever they exist. (Note the recent events in Turkey!) They fit Durkheim’s definition of altruistic suicide to a ‘T’.They are persons who, in Durkheim’s words, "Are almost completely absorbed in the group…"; who "completely [discard] their [individual] personalities for the idea of which they [have] become the servants."

It is this realization that compels the US and the other secular states who are currently combating terrorism in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere to stop dismissing jihadis as mindless killers who take perverse joy in killing and maiming innocents. They are in fact "true believers" in every sense of the word, the products of a socio-religious system which, as Durkheim astutely observed a century ago, successfully motivates persons who are culturally enmeshed in it to altruistically commit suicide for the greater glory of the doctrines that it espouses.

Coping with a social system that has produced Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, Muhammad Atta and so many more "insufficiently individuated" devotees like them will require more than smart bombs and denunciatory rhetoric emanating from the White House. It will require recognition of the fact that weaning the Islamic faithful away from the appeal of altruistic suicide cannot happen unless linked to substantial social, economic and doctrinal reforms that come more from inside the Islamic world than from anything outsiders can do.

HAROLD A. GOULD is visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be reached at: Harold.gould4@verizon.net.