Sacrifice, Gift and the Social Logic of Muslim ‘Human Bombers’

Ivan Strenski

To understand Muslim ‘human bombers’, we obviously must see them within the discourse of jihad, but also within that of ‘sacrifices’ and ‘gifts’. From this perspective, ‘human bombers’ act because of their social relationships—whether these are with other human beings or with divine persons, conditions, or states of affairs. ‘Human bombings’ are not, therefore, simply matters of utilitarian military tactics, but are also religious and social—as gifts, martyrdoms and sacrifices.This article assesses conceptual issues thrown up by the phenomena that Raphael Israeli calls ‘human bombs’. It proposes that we need to pay greater attention to the ‘sacrificial’ designations of these ‘human bombings’.

Regarding sacrifice and suicide, it is, arguable that ‘jihad’ holds the key. I shall refer at length to Raphael Israeli’s persuasive arguments that jihad overshadows and invalidates the view that ‘human bombers’ should be called ‘suicides’. I am also less sure that jihad is a mightier concept in these examples of self-inflicted death than ‘sacrifice’. In fact, I am arguing that ‘sacrifice’ is set on a course of its own, woven into the discourse of jihad.

Despite the clear jihadist conception behind ‘human bombings’, they persist in being conceived as sacrifices by their perpetrators. Beyond their action in service of jihad, the ‘human bombings’ are also seen as supreme gifts given in the interests of enhancing the conditions of others. One way that this gap between the utility of military attack and the symbolism of the sacrificial deed is bridged will be by recourse to the alternative description of these ‘human bombings’ as ‘martyrdom operations’. They are deaths suffered in active struggle on behalf of Islam or Palestine. Thus, sacrifice bombers can also, and at the same time, be martyrdom bombers.

Jihad is only a part of the ‘human bombers’ story. Even from a strictly military point of view, it seems strategically of dubious efficiency to undertake operations that in effect guarantee the loss of one’s fighters in every assault. Ideally, for a movement aimed at actual military victory, it would seem to make more sense if, instead of killing themselves in the process of making their attacks, the ‘human bombers’ could have gone on killing many more Israelis in subsequent non-suicidal attacks.

I believe that we need to adopt an even more Islamic frame of reference for definition and diagnosis if we are to comprehend the underlying motives of this unparalleled mode of self-sacrifice. A great part of that ‘Islamic frame of reference’ for the ‘human bombings’ is sacrifice. If in Israel/Palestine one goal of these deaths is to attack others outright in jihad, then another, simultaneous one, is to create a Palestinian political entity by making a sacrificial offering to Allah and the umma.

Once attention is drawn to talk of violence, we see that words like sacrifice, suicide or homicide are not neutral designations, but ‘loaded’ words—evaluations of certain actions. Language becomes an integral part of the physical struggles involved, not things set aside and independent of them. Calling a death a suicide or homicide is rhetorically a means of loading it with a certain dubious value, while calling it a sacrifice or act of martyrdom is to raise it to transcendent heights—thereby to religious levels of discourse and behavior.

In calling a death sacrifice, it is typically ennobled, raised to a level above the profane calculation of individual cost-benefit analysis—to the level of a so-called ‘higher’ good, whether that be of a nation or some transnational or transcendent reference, like a religion.

For this reason, the neutral term coined by Raphael Israeli, ‘human bombers’, serves a useful purpose. Human bombing—whether to do jihad, sacrifice or even to commit suicide—happens not only because of personal, self-contained motivational structures, but also because of their relationships with others (whether these be relationships with other human beings or with divine superhuman persons, conditions, or states of affairs).

Maurice Halbwachs came up with a formula that seemed to ease the conceptual tangle over sacrifice and suicide left behind by Durkheim. Whether something was a ‘sacrifice’ rather than a ‘suicide’ depended upon the viewpoint of the respective societies of reference. Halbwachs tells us that ‘society claims sacrifice as its own proper work’, accomplished ‘within the bosom of the community, where all the spiritual forces converge.’

Society thus ‘presides’ over sacrifice, says Halbwachs; it ‘organizes’ it and ‘takes responsibility for it’. By contrast, society ‘repudiates’ suicide. Thus to Durkheim’s attempt to define suicide—‘We call suicide all those cases of death resulting from an action taken by the victim themselves, and with the intention or the prospect of killing oneself’—Halbwachs added the phrase ‘and which is not at the same time a sacrifice’.

Halbwachs was, in effect, saying that the only feature making suicidal and sacrificial deaths different was society’s attitude. Suicide and sacrifice differ because of their relation to society. A death, such as that of a sati—in traditional India—might be considered a sacrifice under the conditions typically prevailing there, but it most certainly ‘becomes a suicide if it loses its ritual form’.

Human bombings are exemplary signs intended for certain audiences to read and receive, and are therefore profoundly social acts. Their success seems to rely upon the communal recognition and subsequent ritual celebration of the operations by the community from which the bomber comes. Avishai Margalit observes how much social prestige accrues to the bombers. Everyone knows their names. Even ‘small children’ know the names of human bombers.

Raphael Israeli brings home the point of the ‘jihadist’ nature of the ‘human bomber’ attacks, as we have already discussed. But, he notes beyond this that such an individual death is a profoundly social act: it is done so that the ‘entire Islamic umma is rescued’. Bin Laden likewise made clear that in his mind, the 9/11 hijackers belong intimately to the community and are duly celebrated: ‘The 19 brothers who sacrificed their lives in the sake of Allah were rewarded by this victory that we rejoice today’. If we are to take radical Islamist Palestinians seriously in describing the self-immolating deaths in Israel and the territories as ‘martyrdoms’, then we need to think about these acts of religious violence—as ‘sacrifices’.

This is precisely what Halbwachs had in mind in speaking of society ‘claiming sacrifice as its own proper work’; of sacrifice accomplished ‘within the bosom of the community, where all the spiritual forces converge’: or of a society that ‘presides’ over sacrifice, ‘organizes’ it and ‘takes responsibility for it’. Sacrifice is a profoundly social action, involving a network of relationships, typically actualized in terms of systems of social exchange.

What is more, sacrifice is not just a social deed. It also has potent religious resonance. Durkheim and another two of his co-workers, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, argued that sacrifice is more than just a socially sanctioned kind of self-inflicted death. It is also a ‘making holy’, as the Latin origins of the term indicate— ‘sacri-ficium’. Sacrifice for the Durkheimians is indeed a giving up or giving of that makes something holy.

Thus, for Durkheimians, these ‘human bombings’ would not tend to be conceived as simply utilitarian acts. The ‘human bombers’ are regarded as ‘sacred’ by their communities of reference. They have been ‘made holy’ in the eyes of the community that ‘accepts’ them and their deed. They are elevated to lofty moral, and indeed, religious, levels, as sacrificial victims themselves or as kinds of holy saints.

Taking together both that social recognition and high religious or moral qualities color these bombing operations, I conclude that these are neither easily described as straightforward utilitarian attacks nor pitiful suicides. They are not mere attacks because they are systematically careless of preserving the life of the attacker—and in doing so seem to take their meaning and rationales from the prestige accorded them by their social group of reference and their transcendent religious location.


FOR OTHER INSIGHTS, amongst the prolific literature on the topic, SEE  “The Last Night,” a document that was probably drafted by Mohammed Atta, the operational commander of the Al-Qaida strike-force behind 9/11 –as clarified by David Cook in an article in  Novo Religio 2002.

This comparative perspective and  data from the Islamic and kamikaze worlds has been incorporated in my several essays on the Tamil Tiger suicide operations, so it is disappointing that world authorities such as Strenski do not expand their visions to look decipher the sacrificial devotion of Tamil Tiger suicide attacks, many directed against military targets, especially at sea. The drive and imperative of the Tigers was  informed by cultural factors alongside prac advantages (precision, low cost et cetera). For aspects, see the following essays by MICHAEL ROBERTS.

2005c “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites”, Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

2006a “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

2006c “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I” Lines May-August 2006, vol.5, 1 & 2, in

2007b “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30: 857-88.

2007c “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.

2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’, Anthropology Today, June 2008, 24/3: 22-23.

2014 “Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War & Assassination: Tantric Principles in Tamil Tiger Instrumentalities,” in Social Analysis, sp. issue on War Magic ed. by D. S. Farrer

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Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sociology of religion.

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