Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Suicide Bombers and Simplistic Explanations

What motivates the Muslim suicide bombers? Is it their religion? Is it historical, social, and psychological factors like unemployment, fear, resentment, shame, humiliation, hopelessness, social chaos, limited options in new, strange, and threatening environments? Do the actions of the United States and other Western powers in the world in the imperialistic past and self-interested present, especially our one- sided support of Israel and corrupt, tyrannical Arab countries, and our dogged determination to maintain access to oil in the Mideast have anything to do with it? Or is it evil choices made by some individuals in the name of distorted values and extremist religion?

The answer is yes, all of the above, and probably more that requires more knowledge than we have. It is not just the Muslim religion alone, or social and psychological factors generated by the local environment alone, or personal choice unconditioned by history, culture, social location or religion but some complicated combination of all and more working itself out in a variety of configurations in different people but leading to volatile, violent, tragic outcomes for them and others. We need to focus on the Muslim religion in a particular historical, cultural context under certain psychological and social conditions eliciting personal decisions that lead to terrorist acts. Efforts to reduce terrorism must work at all these levels and include all these dimensions.

We cannot avoid the religious dimension by simply repeating the mantra that Muslim means "peace" or "jihad" means personal struggle against internal evil. We cannot escape by saying naively that the Muslim religion doesn't really teach that. There are elements in the Koran and in Muslim history that can be appropriated to justify in their minds their terrorist acts. Similarly Christian Klu Klux Klansmen and Nazis could quote Scripture and employ Christian symbols to support their racist violence. We could refer to the Book of Joshua and Esther 9 as precedents for most any kind of aggression in the name of God we wanted to imagine. Remember the rural Georgia dictum: "You can prove anything by the Bible," and forget all the obscure, thick books by German scholars on hermeneutics.

It is futile in the short run to argue about what the Bible or the Koran or Christianity or Muslim faith really stands for historically if properly understood. These traditions finally mean in practical, experiential terms what somebody here and now believes them to mean, imply, and require. Actual beliefs and practices are what count not some idealized essence of the Koran or the Bible created by scholars and historians. What they "really teach" is operationally a useless category in the immediate situation and in any situation unless somebody's mind is changed in the process.

Social and psychological factors arising out of a particular ensemble of destructive environmental factors do shape and condition minds and lead to destructive behavior. Personal decision and commitment to live, believe, and act a certain way under these social conditions while professing a particular religious faith complete the pattern.

Is it a matter of religion? Yes. It is a matter of environment and culture? Certainly. Does individual choice play a role. Of course. Is it hard to put all this together with more to get a universal, simple explanation? Absolutely. We should resist simplistic explanations, especially those that serve the self-interest or ideology of those putting them forth, e. g., presidents, preachers, politicians, professors, pundits, and prostitutes, to risk redundancy.

Religion, History, Culture, and Choice -- all are involved in various ways and degrees in different inviduals in the production of terrorists who blow up buildings, buses, trains, and people. We neglect any of them at our peril. Propagandists -- politicians, religious dogmatists, pundits, e. g. -- with their own ideologies and agendas are quick to offer trite nostrums. We must resist and condemn them and demand comprehensive analysis and realistic responses if we want to put an end to terrorism while there is still time.

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