Last Updated : 2019-07-20 15:12:00

The ‘Martyrdom’ Myth

14 May 2019 05:15 pm - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


What is it that makes a suicide bomber tick?

In the Islamic religion, there are powerful prohibitions against conventional suicide. The pictures shows the destruction caused to St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo as a result of a suicide bomb attack carried out by extremist terrorist rebels (AFP) 


  • It is evident that modern day suicide attacks have revealed an inconsistency in profiling ‘the attacker
  • In the Islamic religion, there are powerful prohibitions against conventional suicide


Submerged in our current encounter with terrorism, devastation and anger provoke us to impulsively ascribe suicide bombing to the lunacy of the bombers themselves, or to something inherent in the ‘ideals’ of the bomber’s ethnic or religious group- which to those of us on the outside is blatantly brutal, inhumane and regressive.

The world however, having witnessed her fair share of suicide attacks, has challenged this perception in multiple senses. Following the 9/11 attack for example, US terrorism experts made a bold and counter-intuitive claim that suicide terrorists were psychologically normal. Some others argue that they are in fact suicidal and far from psychological normalcy.

It is evident that modern day suicide attacks have revealed an inconsistency in profiling ‘the attacker’. The wide cross-section of attackers have included both men and women, educated and uneducated, wealthy and poor, young and old. Moreover, it is unrealistic to bunch them all as one particular ‘suicidal type’.

Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya MD (Psychiatry) weighed in to discuss the topic at length.
“We are somewhat familiar with Tamil LTTE suicide cadres. They have been selected carefully, nurtured over a long period of time ( ‘brain washed’ as people say ) and have a clear cause, which they are ready to give their life for. Most of these attackers are direct or indirect victims of marginalisation or some other form of atrocity. These attackers had very clear targets, such as to assassinate a politician.


One hypothesis is that they firmly and wholeheartedly believed that this was a sure fast-track ticket to heaven

The attackers who took part in the Easter Sunday massacre were quite different. They were well educated, upper-class young persons who had travelled the world. They had a great life and a bright future. They were powerful and privileged. Why would somebody give away such a life for a suicide attack? One hypothesis is that they firmly and wholeheartedly believed that this was a sure fast-track ticket to heaven. Living another few decades they run the risk of distraction and being influenced by other forces and that way they risk losing their readily available chance to go to heaven. In heaven, they can meet their dead loved ones. People always chose, when they do have a choice, the better alternative,” he expressed.
There is widespread confusion about the psychology of Islamic suicide attackers. Is it glorified martyrdom, distorted theology, perceived religious and status rewards, hatred and revenge, insanity or an actual desire to die that drives these ruthless thieves of life? More importantly, finding this answer may be the key to reducing the number of people who carryout these deadly attacks.

‘Martyrdom’: a dangerous loophole

Following the Easter Sunday attacks, its victims are celebrated as heroes and martyrs whose deaths allow the nation to take action and  prevent any further losses. However, the suicide bombers who also died at those locations alongside the victims may also have breathed their last believing they were heroes. As irrational as that may sound, this is a conviction that may have fuelled all the violence. There are pre-requisites before a terrorist organisation will resort to suicide attacks.  There must be a culture of martyrdom within the organisation or the society which it represents.

In the Islamic religion, there are powerful prohibitions against conventional suicide. It would be considered an unforgivable crime against God.

“The Holy Quran and Holy Bible have verses, which indicate that martyrdom is admirable. They may have been used out of context to reinforce the belief that killing non-believers is a heroic action. Furthermore, they get the sure channel to heaven opened for them. It seems the attackers have believed that killing the most number of non-believers was their goal. In this context, it is really questionable if they were doing a sacrifice! As they have drowned their personal egos within the larger concept of a nation of believers fighting the non-believers, while believing that this is a ready sure channel to heaven, they were more selfish than altruistic or driven by a common cause. Once you are fully convinced, you reach a state of clarity and tranquility. Apparently they greatly lacked the ability to question their beliefs and practices,” Dr. Rajasuriya explained.

According to an issue of the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health (JMVH) on the Intrinsic and External Factors and Influences on the Motivation of Suicide Attackers:

 ‘They can have an apocalyptic view that the world is balanced between good and evil, and acting on God’s behalf to defend the faith is more important than life.  Suicide attackers are not motivated purely by perceived heavenly rewards but mainly by apparent political gains.  The heavenly rewards are a consolation or bonus, rather than the prime motivator.  Religion can remove the normal social, family and other worldly constraints and justify heavenly self-sacrifice.

And so we find that “martyrdom” has become a dangerous loophole: it is the only way ‘Islamic’ suicide attackers believe they can guarantee their own death, and yet go to heaven instead of hell. Whether they execute suicide bombings or use firearms instead of bombs, and plan on dying via “suicide by cop,” these attack methods help disguise their suicidal motives. It is commonly claimed that they do not want to die, they just care more about harming the enemy than they do about their own survival.

Many argue that the key to deterring extremist suicide attackers—both in Sri Lanka and around the world—is to expose their suicidal motives and close this “martyrdom” loophole, once and for all. Regardless of whether they are desperate, traumatized, and mentally ill people or logical, rational, “psychologically normal” altruists—revealing their real nature and the unquestionable wrong in their actions may lead to protecting the globe from extremist mass shooters who seek glory and heavenly rewards through death.

Training and recruitment

The JMVH’s issue also explains that recruitment and training are linked to motivation.  Ideally the process is started at the earliest possible age. The recruitment process involves school curricula, camp activities, TV programmes and religious indoctrination to convince children that ‘the enemies’ are sub-human and should be killed.  Impressionable children and adolescents are persuaded that “martyrdom” is the most noble of goals.They are trained to see suicide operations as an open door to paradise.  

The final days of training are far more rigorous and spent in near seclusion with other bombers-to-be, immersed in spiritual contemplation and prayer.  Once individuals join organisations that share their frustrations, they may undergo a process of indoctrination whereby their beliefs and behaviours are made to conform to the group’s basic principles. Within these tight-knit communities, the individuals’ fear of letting down their comrades becomes greater than their fear of dying. Many come to believe that their lives can take on a broader meaning by sacrificing their existence for the sake of the cause.

The ‘Suicide’ in ‘Suicide bombing’

Suicide we know, is the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally. Apart from the risk factors like mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia, substance abuse and serious intents to end one’s life, there exists certain protective factors related to suicide which society often overlooks.

“One major protective factor of suicide is the belief/ attitude and the norm that ending your life is not the answer to an issue in life… if the norm in a particular community or an individual is that suicide is not the answer to suffering, or does not feature in your list of ‘coping strategies’, then you are very unlikely to commit suicide no matter what happens. A stark example is found in the Muslim community, which firmly believes that suicide is taboo and readily practices it by looking down upon suicide. Suicide is very rare among Muslims the world over,”  Dr. Rajasuriya expressed.

This fact then arouses a contradiction in designating the extremists as ‘suicide’ attackers.

Addressing this conflicting psyche, Dr. Rajasuriya explained that, “based on the intent to die we can recognise two ends of a spectrum which people who attempt suicide are distributed within: Individuals with absolute intent to die on right-hand end and individuals with no intent to die on left-hand end…The more you move towards right-hand end, the more likely for you to have a serious mental illness and many other risk factors. The more you move to the left-hand side, the more likely for you to be free of a mental illness, but instead be rather impulsive. The people towards the left-hand end are the ones who are seriously influenced by the notion that suicide is an effective coping strategy to solve problems in life as well as a heroic thing to do, but really lack a serious intent to end their lives.

Current Islamist suicide attackers seem to have no desire to end their life (placing them towards the left hand end) but may desire a sure ticket to heaven. To make sense of having these two opposing beliefs and behaviours will need much more thinking and further research.”

Power of society

Society gives us language, a worldview, an identity, a set of rules and rituals to live by. In one sense, man who is a social animal, reflects his society’s image. Thus, when a society settles on a set of values and the accepted ways of upholding them, individuals within the society, any society, are compelled to follow that path.

In this context, some present suicide bombing as the latest twisted incarnation of a long tradition of socially-sanctioned brutal rituals enacted in different societies throughout history--from foot binding and witch hunting to duals, lynching, and systematic war rape.

‘There is social pressure on the local population to celebrate suicide bombers as heroes. They are glorified with cards, poems, songs and images as if they are sports heroes.  Children play games, such as mock funerals, glorifying suicide bombers.  Palestinian approval for bombings in Israel was 29% in 2005 and had risen to 77% …Community approval adds to the motivation and frequency of bombings.’ (JMVH)


Current Islamist suicide attackers seem to have no desire to end their life (placing them towards the left hand end) but may desire a sure ticket to heaven

And just as a society possesses the power to convince its people to promote, celebrate and encourage brutal self-sacrifice to eliminate enemies they deem less-human, and present suicide attacks as an attractive option that meshes with their ideals, we have seen its power in romanticising suicide itself. We witness the impact that mis-portrayed suicide on screens, paper and stages have on the waves of impressionable youth. We witness how something callous and heinous could be illustrated as desirable and justifiable.

There are no shortcuts to solve the problem of terrorism. Countering violent extremism through education in the values of tolerance takes a long time. 

But being witnesses to the power of society, it is crucial that we use this resource to  back-pedal the torrents of hatred, bloodshed and inhumanity. Just as society has constructed distorted versions of justice and heroism around the world, it has also shaped possibilities for world peace and unity. And to attain this seemingly overambitious goal, understanding these sources of violence, figuring out what fuels them and tapping into their core may take us further than we could imagine. 


  Comments - 2

  • Don Wednesday, 15 May 2019 01:08 AM

    People who believe in god are mad. They think there is a heaven somewhere, for them to go after their death. This is a death trap. If you go to any church, mosque or kovil there is no one to care you. If there is a god they should have given the suicidal-bombers a heart attack before the kill innocent men, women and children. We should teach everybody about Zero-God in the universe.

    Anne Hopkins Wednesday, 15 May 2019 01:30 AM

    anyone who carry arms is capable of killing! no need to analyse and write much. even a child knows its greed that leads to destruction. do a soul search whether one got that. there is enough for ones need but not for greedy.

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