Allahu Akbar! Missing Dimensions in Contemporary Reportage

Michael Roberts

I recently watched a good part of Stephen Sackur’s dialogue with a French lady politician [whose name I have forgotten]. Sackur pursued his usual hard-line aggressive and bullying mode of questioning – posing vigorous criticisms of the French government’s position on secularism and its hostility to the carving out of sacred domains by French Muslim peoples.  The implicit suggestion[1] was that the British system’s tolerance of religious sensibilities was a better line of policy.[2]

Muslim protests … and the selfie proudly posted by the Islamic terrorist who was responsible for the killings in Nice in October 2020

Wreaths mark the killing grounds in the centre of Vienna after the outrage on 2 November 2020

This debate and the issues dominating French politics today are not my concern here. Rather I was induced to move tangentially to focus on a dimension that did not enter the discussion (and indeed could never enter Sackur’s closed mind). This dimension centres upon the concept of “self-fulfillment.” In my reading of recent world history, this principle, namely. SELF-FULFILLMENT, is the guiding motivation directing some extreme political acts of killing without regard to one’s own life.

By happenchance, moreover, an email message brought the life story of Lord Soulbury’s[3] son, James Ramsbotham, into my orbit this last week: a familial tragedy induced this well-endowed gentleman from the British upper class to pursue the path of mendicancy in India and Sri Lanka in the 1950s-and-thereafter. Ramsbotham spent many years in the island Lanka as an ascetic monk and was inducted as “Sri Santha Swami by the famous Yogaswami who sustained the Sivathondan Ashram at Chenkaladi in the Jaffna Peninsula” (see

Ramsbotham (extreme left) with other ascetics

This high-profile case serves to emphasise the chosen path of a small number of Sri Lankans from varied walks of life, including several from well-to-do circumstances, who have sought inner peace by discarding comforts and enclosing themselves in solitude as forest monks in isolated spots where caves or simple huts serve as their abodes.  One can point to the Na Uyana Aranya  or the Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya today. But the more imposing contemporary instances are the isolated cave and forest abodes in such regions .as Laggala and the island’s jungle areas in the southern and south-eastern districts. Two photographs must suffice to convey the environment of isolation, hardship and abstinence deemed conducive to reflections of a self-fulfilling character.[4]

Thus, here, I bring the assassin and the self-abnegating ascetic within one parasol: that of SELF-FULFILLMENT, a concept which refers to the ability to make yourself happy and complete through your own efforts” or the “fulfillment of one’s aspirations.”[5]

the arena where the Kudumbagala sanctuary reposes …. and a “reconstructed rock cave”  from the southern hills

In exploring this line of thinking, I sent a short preliminary note to several of my Sri Lankan friends to provoke reaction with insights. That line of exploration has been presented separately. Here, I seek to deepen our understandings by embracing two other categories of political action that have featured prominently in Asian history in the last hundred years or so within our survey. These are [C] monks and other individuals who set themselves on fire to highlight a political grievance and [D] personnel who fasted unto death in protest or in support of a worthy cause.

Perhaps the most prominent instance of fiery suicides in protest occurred in southern Vietnam on 11th June 1963 when an elderly Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, adopted the lotus position at a major boulevard in Saigon city and orchestrated the process of setting himself alight in flaming protest against the South Vietnam ruler, Ngo Thich Diem’s, repressive pro-“Catholic regime.

Engulfed by shock, a reporter, David Halberson, described this moment: [6]

“Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think …. As he burned, he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Thich Quang Duc’s stoic resolve demonstrated (demonstrates) commitment, satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Yes, self-fulfillment.

So, too, I suggest is the cry of committed Muslims who shout “Allahu Akbar” at their moment of killing and likely death. Those words are replete with meaning: ….. indeed, suffused with profound meaning. The actors are moving into the Prophet Muhammed’s world to lie at his feet: their murderous acts on behalf of the Islamic faithful is the culmination of life’s meaning and a fruition of self-within-and-for Allah.

While I could cite many instances in support of this speculative claim, let me take that from Sayyid Qutb’s world: Egypt when it was under the thumb of Sadat. The Muslim Brotherhood had emerged as a revolutionary group[7] set on ridding their country of the “near enemy”[8] — its existing rulers. As one strike in a wider endeavour involving several attacks within Egypt, one of its zealots within the military, Lt. Khaled al-Islambuli, succeeded in shooting President Sadat at a military parade on 6TH October 1981.[9]

Note his immediate expression of triumph: he jumped up and down shouting “My name is Khaled Islambuli. I have slain Pharoah. and I do not fear death.”[10]

Thus, I aver, for the committed Muslim who shouts “Allahu Akbar” at the moment of killing and likely death, the words are replete with meaning: ….. indeed, suffused with profound meaning. The speaker is moving into the Prophet Muhammed’s world to lie at his feet: his murderous act on behalf of the Islamic faithful is the culmination of life’s meaning and a fruition of self-within-and-for Allah.


When, in another life, so to speak, in the 1990s-to-2010, I addressed this type of topic, the concept I deployed as my overarching title was sacrificial devotion.” While this term is serviceable, it does not touch directly on “self-fufillment” and therefore falls short in its clarifications of the world of action that I am addressing here. Nevertheless, in encompassing instances of suicidal assassinations and public acts of self-immolation and/or seppuku in protest within this broad conceptual framework, the Indian/Sri Lankan and Japanese worlds were brought into juxtaposition with the Islamic in this exercise under the rubric of “sacrificial devotion.” Instances of fasts-unto-death in political protest, seppuku in protest[11] or flaming suicide within public space in sympathetic association with a leader’s demise,[12]  all these types of action were embraced within the umbrella of my concept “sacrificial devotion.” Thus, these brief explorations included the political ‘stardom’ of Bhagat Singh and associates in northern India in 1928, Nathuram Godse’s assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1949 and the Japanese novelist Yoshio Mishima’s public act of seppuku in 1970.[13]

Let me conclude here with references to two instances of public suicides directed in 1987 against the IPKF forces in Sri Lankan Tamil space in Sri Lanka: that of Tilīpan in Jaffna[14] in September 1987 and Annai Poopathy in the Batticaloa region in April 1988. Both were orchestrated by the LTTE leadership. Indeed, Tilīpan, aka Rasiah Parthipan, was one of the LTTE leaders and was on the leaders’ platform when the LTTE launched a public protest against the IPKF ‘invasion’ at a massed meeting at Sudumalai Kovil in the Jaffna Peninsula on 4th August 1987. His stage-managed fast at a central spot in Jaffna town began on 15th September and terminated with his death on the 26 September 1987. This incident could be said to have contributed massively towards the alienation of the Tamil people from the Indian intervention via the IPKF and promoted the increase of popular enthusiasm for the LTTE rather than the competing Tamil militant groups such as TELO, EPRLF and EROS.

Tilīpan on the stage during his fast-unto-death in September 1987

Annai Poopathi billboard shrine in Lotus symbolism in the Navaladiarea of Batticalao where she fasted unto death in April 1988

Six Tiger maaveerar in notebook I purchased in Kilinochchi in 2004 –incl.  Tilīpan and Annai Poopathy (Pix in the centre )

There is a large literature on the devotion to cause demonstrated by the Sri Lankan Tamils of the LTTE, with the ‘works’ of Peter Schalk, Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam, MR Narayan Swamy, Christiana Natali and Beate Arnestad among the best sources. As far as I recall. however, no investigator has devoted attention to the idea of self-fulfilment within the motifs driving the determination of the Tamil Tigers. It is the nihilist commitment to the wider collective cause that has been stressed: “the martyr sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the I” — as Hellmann-Rajanayagam has emphasized.[15]

That nihilist strand is clearly at work among the Japanese kamikaze strikes and the seppuku protests. But the suggestion, here, is that a satisfying notion of self-fulfilment also lies within the heart of these types of indomitable actors, whether Japanese, Vietnamese, Arab Muslim, Other Muslim, Tamil Tiger, Sikh, or ‘dinky-die’ Indian. Addressing the context of sporadic, but high-profile, Islamic “terrorist” killings within urban centres in Europe over the last ten years, this is the suggestion I place before students of that scene. European investigators must surely move beyond the tunnel-vision of a Stephen Sackur and explore Salafi (Wahhabi) thinking in all its ramifications and expressions – preferably in comparison with other forces pursuing violent redemption of some sort.

*****  *********


In late November 2007, with the aid of a grant provided by an Australian university agency, I organised a 2-3 day symposium at Adelaide University which brought together postgraduates and experienced scholars to survey virulent terrorist politics. The senior personnel included Riaz Hassan, Daya Somasundaram, Clive Williams, Rohan Bastin, Carl Thayer and Boria Majumdar.

Alas, my  records of this symposium are lost and my memories are defieicnt. I do recall that Majumdar received a call about the Pakistani terrorist attack on Bombay while we were engaged in our final panel. 

Fortunately, Daniel Nourry (a postgrad student from Sydney) pushed me into launching a web site on the broad topic. This site is now not in active operation –but its varied presentations can still be accessed: …..


Someone clearly needs to catalogue the items in this site.

*****  *****


Arnestad, Beate ??? “My Daughter the Terrorist,” ………………

Benjamin, Daniel & Steven Simon 2002 The Age of Sacred Terror. Radical Islam’s War against America, Random House.

 Calvert, John: The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb,” 15 December 2010,

Cook, David 2005 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Devji, Faisal 2005 Landscapes of the Jihad, London, Hurst & Co or Foundation Book.

Engel, Richard 1981 Sadat’s Assassination Plotter remains unrepentant,” 6 July 2011,s

Euben, Roxanne L. 1999 Enemy in the Mirror. Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism, Princeton University Press.

Hellmann-Rajanyagam, Dagmar 2005 And Heroes Die: Poetry of the Tamil Liberation Movement in Northern Sri Lanka,South Asia, vol 28, pp 112-54.

Hoffman, Bruce 1998 Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press.

[Roberts, Michael] 2020 The Muslim Commitment to Allah: Desultory Thoughts,” 3 November 2020

Roberts, Michael 2014a Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2014b Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2010a Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2010b “Sacrificial Devotion in comparative Focus: Kamikaze, Mujahid, Tiger,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 131-38.

Roberts, Michael 2010c “Self-Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 161-201.

Roberts, Michael 2010d “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond…Towards the Tamil Tigers,”

Schalk, Peter 1997a “Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of   Thamililam,” in Joyce Pettigrew (ed), Martyrdom and Political Resistance, Amsterdam: VU University Press, pp. 61- 84.

Schalk, Peter 1997b “Historicization of the Martial Ideology of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil    Eelam (LTTE),” South Asia 20: 35-72. 

Schalk, Peter 1997c “The Revival of Martyr Cults among Ilavar.” Temenos: Studies in Comparative Religion 33: pp.151–190 or http://www.    Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe.” in Martin Baumann et al. (eds.) Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat. Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.

TWE ???? TWE remembers: Thich Quand Duc’s Self-immolation,” ………………………………..


[1] It may even have been explicit [memory weak].

[2] In her quiet way the French lady impressed me. She was fully alive to the fact that her arguments got nowhere with Sackur – in other words his was a closed mind, a bigot of sorts in his adherence to “liberalism” without any regard to circumstances. is NOT this issue that I address in this article.

[3] Herwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury (1887-1971) led the British commission surveying Sri Lankan affairs in 1945 and eventually became Ceylon’s Governor-General from 1949-54.  See  …………………. ……………………………………………….  …………………,_1st_Viscount_Soulbury.

[4] Also see … AND ……………………………………………………………………………………………….

[5] See

[6] See TWE no date Halberson’s picture won the Pullitzer Prize that year.

[7] Re the Islamic Brotherhood and its plot against Sadat, see Sageman 000 and Benjamin and Simon 0000.

[8] In Sayyid Qutb’s thinking, the “near enemy” refers in accusative manner to those within the Islamic world who stand in the way of the Islamic people’s redemption at the Feet of Allah. This concept is the companion term for the “far enemy” – namely the dominating forces ensconced within the West, with USA as one of its prime targets. See Euben 1999: 56-57, 66-69 & 72-73 and Devji 2005: 23-24, 26, 44. Also probe the clarifications of the concept of jahiliyyah in the writings of such scholars as Euben, Devji, David Cook and others.

[9] See Engel 1981.

[10] Benjamin and Simon 2003: 83. Also see Bruce Hoffman 1998.

[11] Seppuku [also called hara-kiri by foreigners] is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment practiced by samurai in the past as a principle in their code of honour. It has been adopted in modern times by other Japanese and featured widely among the fighting forces during the world wars. Also see ……………..

[12] Some instances of such public acts of suicide in grief over the death of a revered leader have taken place in India in the last fifty years –instances being

[13] Thus, see Roberts 2007: 870-71 and 2010. Both Tilīpan and Annai Pupati are referred to reverentially as tiyaki (one who abandons) — thereby pointing the notions of “abandonment, renunciation and sacrifice linked to the Sanskrit concept of tiyakam.

[14] See and Roberts 2014: pix 24, 26a, 26b and 31.

[15] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 134. Dagmar Hellmann is a German whose husband is Tamil. Sh is competent in both Tamil and English.

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One response to “Allahu Akbar! Missing Dimensions in Contemporary Reportage

  1. REX OLAGASEKERAM in Sydney an old Peradeniya buddie, has corrected an error in one of my sources thys, 8 November 2020: …………………… “Chenkaladi is not in the Jaffna Peninsula. It is located approx. 15 KM north of Batticaloa (between Batticaloa and Passekudah).”

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