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#711, 28 February 2002
An Inquiry into Suicide Terrorism I: Sociological Perspectives
D Suba Chandran
Research Officer, IPCS

Suicide terrorism has assumed greater significance after the attack on the US in September 2001. In South Asia , Sri Lanka and Kashmir have been witnessing this phenomenon.  The background of the suicide terrorists reveals that they are neither fanatics nor mentally deranged nor uneducated persons; instead they seem to have come from a higher economic and educational background.



What makes them willing to make the supreme sacrifice? The sociological and psychological causes for committing suicide must be analysed to understand suicide terrorism.



According to Emile Durkheim, (1856-1919) the French sociological thinker, who propounded a theory on suicide, they are of three basic types. First, the egoistic suicide, in which an individual commits suicide if he fails to integrate himself with his family and society. The individual’s beliefs and value systems are not approved by societal values and belief systems (which includes one’s own family) or the individual does not approve of society, which results in his alienation from society and results in egoistic suicide.



The second form of suicide is anomic, in which the individual commits suicide due to anarchy in society. If there is a breakdown of regular life, especially in economic matters, due to industrial, financial and social insecurity, the individual feels helpless, which influences his decision to commit suicide. Here, the suicide is out of frustration, which differentiates it from the third form of suicide.



Third category of suicide is altruistic, in which the individual commits suicide due to his integration with prevailing social values and belief systems. An analysis of suicide terrorism and motivations of the suicide bombers reveals that it falls in the third category. The individual feels a part of a whole and believes that there is no hope for the individual, if the society is under threat. The individual is therefore ready to give up his life, so that his “whole” might survive. The society to which the suicide bomber belongs makes him believe that the “collective whole” is under social, cultural, economic or political dominance by an external force, which drives him to self-sacrifice himself for the sake of society. This belief is generated within individuals by various means both intentional and un-intentional. An understanding of the linkages between the society, its value and belief systems and the phenomenon of suicide bombers is essential. 



First, the role of the family. Factors vary from the loss of prestige and employment to the loss of lives due to the policies pursued by the government and its security forces; they have a negative effect on the perception of the families, especially the younger generation. Both in Kashmir and Sri Lanka , the policies pursued by the state, have resulted in the loss of family business, unemployment, killings and related violence. The views of the family of the state as evil has a great bearing on the younger generation, which is willing to defend the honour of the family and society.



Secondly, education largely shapes the values and belief systems of the individual, and imposes these values and beliefs on individuals. If the education system is not under the control of the State, then the possibility of non-state actors using education to impose their version of history becomes easier. In the Kashmir valley, a number of madrassas have proliferated in the last two decades which inculcate a value and belief systems. When mis-interpretation of history to suit the political objectives of religious and political organizations is imposed through these madrassas, it results in raising the level of violence among the current generation, who are its products. In northern Sri Lanka , which is under the control of the LTTE, the education system is controlled by this organization. 



Thirdly, society imposes its values on individuals and demands more from them through charismatic leaders, who define the history, objectives and future of the society. Prabhkaran, leader of the LTTE, decides what constitutes the “Tamil Eelam” and how to achieve it. Prabhakaran is worshipped in Tamil society and there are many LTTE cadres who are ready to become Black Tigers, since this would ensure an exclusive meeting and dinner with him. There is a direct linkage between the leadership and suicide bombings, as seen in the case of the PKK Kurdistan Workers Party. After the arrest of its leader, Abdullah Oclan in March 1999, there have been no suicide attacks by the PKK. There were around 20 suicide attacks carried out by the PKK between 1966 and 1999 killing 19 persons and wounding more than 100 persons, but there have been no suicide attacks since 1999.



Thus the assimilation of the individual into society, especially in a conflict environment, assists the birth of suicide bombers. The society seems to approve their acts as they increase its cohesiveness. This approval is apparent from the fact that suicide bombers are glorified as martyrs to their common cause. In the case of the LTTE, July 05 is celebrated as the day of the Black Tigers, when a number of ceremonies are performed; the families of the suicide bombers are honored and the brave deeds of the Black Tigers are publicized. The societal approval and admiration of these suicide bombers inspires others to carry out such terrorist suicide attacks. 




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