Kamikaze, Mujahid, Tamil Tiger: Sacrificial Devotion in Comparative Lens

Michael Roberts, reprinting an essay drafted in 2007 and since presented in Fire & Storm in 2010 (chapter 19: 131-38)

  • Gandhi tried for years to reduce himself to zero” (Dennis Hudson 2002: 132).
  • Hitler: “You are nothing, your nation is everything” (quoted in Koenigsberg 2009: 13).
  • LTTE: “the martyr sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the I…” (Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s interpretation of a Tamil Tiger supporter’s poem; 2005: 134).
  • Spokesman for Al Qaida after the Madrid bombing: “You love life and we love death”
  • Col. Karuna, ex-LTTE: “Death means nothing to me….”
  • The Hagakure is “a living philosophy that holds that life and death [are] the two sides of the same shield” (Yoshio Mishima in his The Way of the Samurai, quoted in Moeren 1986: 109-10).
  • Bushido means to die” (Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney 2002: 117).
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVpbl0azdFM …. Kamikaze strike

Over the centuries some individuals have revealed a remarkable quality of selflessness in their commitment to a cause. Even where this has involved massive killings, their zealousness cannot be questioned. Whether in suicidal act of assassination or as soldier for state or revolutionary cell, the roots supporting their fervency of purpose becomes a field of inquiry.

This determined intensity of commitment is seen within acts of mass suicide: for instance in the case of Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978 and the “Heaven’s Gate” (Nike) suicides in California in March 1997; and also applies to some of the operations of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Western Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, the Sekigun (Red Army) of Japan in the late 1960s/70s and the Aum Shinrikyo of the 1980s/90s. Again, such steadfastness in ideological goal apparently fortified the equanimity with which Timothy McVeigh faced the fate of capital punishment when brought to book for his atrocious act of bombing in Oklahoma.2

Liberal humanism, the dominant ideology within academic corridors, has struggled to engage with such zeal, especially when it is associated with nationalist goals and religious fundamentalism in settings beyond the West. I believe that one of its difficulties lies within the individualist epistemology embedded within the secularised Christian universe. Another difficulty derives from the popularity of psycho-babble in Western circles. A third problem develops from the overwhelming weight attached to instrumental-cum-materialist forms of reasoning in both the West and within intellectual circles attached to variants of Marxist thought.

These and other difficulties have been evident ever since 9/11 produced an explosion of writing on “suicide bombers” and “suicide terrorism.”3 These terms have since become part of a vocabulary that de-legitimises the goals of Islamic radicals who pursue their goals through what they themselves call “martyrdom operations” (Cook 2004 & 2005).

A veritable propaganda war is taking place at the moment. Where the hegemony of Western state interests prevails, as I discovered in exchanges with an academic journal recently,4 one is expected to abide by such condemnatory labels as “suicide terrorism.” I refuse to do so because all sides in most conflicts have indulged in acts that terrorise civilian populations; but also because of a desire to distance myself from ethical debates and image-building of a propagandist character, including lines of emphasis pressed by individuals who present themselves as holier than thou.

Moreover, both labels, “suicide bombers” and “suicide terrorism,” deflect one away from my central interest in the force of selfless sacrifice for a cause that seems to motivate individuals on suicide missions, whether a cause that has been largely defined by the activist (as, say, with Nathuram Godse,5 the killer of Mahatma Gandhi in 1949, or with Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist who committed seppuku in protest in 1970)6 or a cause defined by an organisation which one has joined.

Moreover, with the LTTE in Sri Lanka these labels deflect attention away from the fact that the Tigers established the idea of defensive suicide as a fundamental oath for all their fighters from 1983/84 onwards. Each fighter commits himself or herself to biting a cyanide capsule (kuppi) when on the verge of capture — in order to avoid torture and to protect the LTTE. At their passing-out parade each fighter receives a capsule as emblem-cum-seal of induction after the body of personnel has repeated this chant in unison in response to their commander’s initial prompt:

“Our revolutionary organisation’s purified aim

is for a free society to achieve Tamil Eelam

My life and soul and all this I sacrifice to

our organisation’s leader, our brother, Mr Prabhākaran

We fully accept that for him we will be very faithful and trustworthy

The aim of the Tigers – Tamils’ freedom.” (BBC Inside Story Series, “Suicide Killers,” 1991).

Adele Balasingham filmed by the BBC team that composed “Suicide Killers” in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1991

On this occasion the Australian Tigress, Adele Bālasingham, told the BBC in matter of fact style that “the cyanide capsule has come to symbolise a sense of self-sacrifice by cadres of the movement, their determination, their commitment to the cause, and ultimately, of course, their courage.” Note that the LTTE leader, Pirapāharan indicated that he himself had adopted the idea of carrying a cyanide vial for protective purposes at a much earlier date (his comment in BBC ”Suicide Killers,” 1991). One can add that he had probably been inspired to adopt the device by the act of cyanide suicide committed by Ponnudurai Sivakumāran on his own initiative in 1974 two years before the formal birth of the LTTE (Roberts 1996).

As stressed by many scholars, there is tactical advantage when an organisation adopts the method of suicide bombers as a form of attack or assassination. It is a low-cost precision weapon and it is for this reason that it has been adopted by parties to a warring conflict who are outgunned and in a position of relative weakness. But the pragmatic utilitarian advantages of such weaponry, whether in defence or in attack, must not be permitted to obscure the manner in which such action is valorised by segments of the population for whose (alleged) benefit the conflict is being waged. This appreciative reception points to cultural ingredients in the context that must, therefore, have guided both the organisation and those members who committed suicide — whether in defence of comrades, in protest (as with Thilīpan and Annai Poopati of the LTTE) or in attack.

It is in order to focus on selflessness, the differing ways of expressing selflessness and the different cultural contexts conditioning such ways that I have argued for the use of the concept “sacrificial devotion” as an overarching umbrella term for our studies and debates.7 In this usage the term “devotion” does not necessarily embrace a religious dimension, but certainly connotes reverence for a cause and thus points towards selfless dutifulness.

Black Tigers marching through Kilinochchi

As an umbrella term, “sacrificial devotion” suggests that there may be commonalities in most contexts that we propose to draw into our comparative studies. But that does not preclude significant differences. For instance, it has been argued that the concept of “sacrifice” is deployed in different ways in the Christian realms from that of the Islamic Arab world (Asad 2007: 44-45). Likewise, during the World War II “neither the [kamikaze] pilots themselves nor the Japanese public considered their acts to be acts of suicide” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: 17). Indeed, there are three different words in the Japanese language to refer to suicide and two of them “suggest an honorable or laudable act done in the public interest.” Among the Japanese, therefore, “suicide …does not have the immoral connotation… that it has in the English language” (Axell & Kase 2002: 4).

The focus, then, is upon the meaningful world from which the perpetrators of zealous action, whether organisational or individual, spring. This world is at once political and cultural in the widest — and intertwining — meaning of both terms. The political imperatives are usually threaded by cultural ingredients of a specific kind. “Sacrificial devotion” is one of the tools that can be deployed to explore the enabling capacity provided by each set of cultural ingredients in dynamic process over time.

My special interest has been in the comparison of selfless commitment to cause displayed in the three contexts surrounding the Japanese kamikaze, the Tamil Tiger fighters (1976 onwards) and the radical Islamic mujahidin, or “fighters in the path of Allah,” in the contemporary era.8 To the extent that we can generalise, it is my hunch that different cultural conceptions of personhood animate the zealous activists in the three different settings.

Since the term shahāda translates as “martyrs/martyrdom” and since the use of the term māvīrar (literally “great hero”) is also glossed within LTTE representations in English as “martyr,” this comparative sweep promises to be a study of martyrdom in both diachronic and synchronic sweep. At the same time, however, the comparative focus that is pursued here implicates the difference between “hero” and martyr” in the Western world. The Battle of Britain fighter pilots are said to have “sacrificed their lives” to protect Britain, but these heroes are not conventionally depicted as “martyrs.” Why? This issue, as well as other spin-offs, will hopefully be among the productive lines of inquiry generated from the type of pursuit that I have outlined.

Concluding Reflections as Fragments

The widening of scope through such a comparative exercise encourages a researcher to explore more fully the ingredients that motivate the personnel involved in these actions because the widening encourages a concentration on the selfless zeal that often impels both an organisation’s leaders and its personnel. Thus, while not denying the partial validity of transactionalist or interest group theories of political action, the starting premise moves beyond such instrumentalist thinking towards other domains of possibility.

Moreover, in pursuing such a path I am both sidelining and challenging those who rely solely on the idea of “brainwashing” or “indoctrination” by an organisation as a major explanation for the action of militant groups. It is not that brainwashing does not occur in military outfits, but that many recruits are volunteers rather than conscripts in these fighting forces and that this volunteer characteristic also holds true, usually, for those who join the specialist suicide corps.9 So, it is the full stop that is placed after a scholar postulates a theory of “brainwashing” that I am challenging as an approach that forecloses other fruitful avenues of assessment.

Methodology and theory are intertwined within these paths and can be summarised thus in point form:

  1. Firstly, as my title indicates, this approach is guided by a comparative method, one which juxtaposes different cases so that they inform each other and throw up unusual questions. In other words, lateral thinking is treated as a virtue and a source of insight.
  2. Secondly, my perspective is hermeneutic: seeking to decipher ideological form in circumstantial context by attending to the embodied practices of significant actors, taking note of their taken-for-granted ways of being as well as the assumptions that can intrude into a researcher’s analysis.
  3. Thirdly, there is a bias towards historical specificity and thus a dependence on solid empirical and ethnographic information.
  4. Fourthly, the emphasis is on human agency, that is the rounding of analysis/theory in people and their practices, an approach that eschews abstraction for the sake of abstraction or political posturing by analyst.

My pursuit of this combination of perspectives in this cluster of settings, however, is constrained by my inability to read or converse in Japanese, Arabic and Tamil. So I have always proceeded as an outsider at the edge of each field, fully aware that my “conclusions” are necessarily tentative. Only the future will show whether specialists in each field profit from this perspective.


Asad, Talal 2007  On Suicide Bombing,  New York, Columbia University Press.

Arnestad, Beatrice 2008 “Sri Lanka:  A Terrorist in the Family. Inside the Life of a Female Suicide Bomber,” Film Documentary, 2 October 2008.

Axell,  Albert and Hideaki Kase 2002 Kamikaze. Japan’s Suicide Gods, London, Pearson Education.

Cook, David 2004 “The Implications of Martrydom Operations for Contemporary Islam,” Journal of Religious Ethics, vol 23, pp 29-51.

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

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

Hudson, Dennis 2002 “Violent and Fanatical Devotion among the Nayanars: A Study of the Periya Puranam of Cekkilar,” in Alf Hilfbeitel (ed.) Criminal Gods and Demon devotees, Delhi, Manohar, pp. 375-405.

Jaffrelot, C.  2003  “Opposing Gandhi: Hindu Nationalism and Political Violence,” in Denis Vidal.G. Tarabout & E. Meyer (eds.) Violence/Non-violence: Some Hindu Perspectives, Delhi Manohar, pp.299-324.

Moeren, Brian 1986 “The Beauty of Violence: Jidaigeka, Yakusza and ‘Eroduction’ in Japanese Cinema,” in  D. Riches, (ed.) The Anthropology of Violence, Oxford, Blackwell, pp. 104-117.

Koenigsberg, Robert 2009 Nations have the Right to Kill. Hitler, the Holocaust and War, New York, Library of Social Science.

Ohnuki-Tierney, 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms aand Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, Michael 2007a “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism , vol 30, pp 857-88.

Roberts, Michael 2007b “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’in Sri Lanka,” Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics.

Starrs, Roy 1994 Deadly Dialectics. Sex, Violence and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima, Honolulu, University of Hawai Press.

ALSO SEE https://www.libraryofsocialscience.com/newsletter/


This essay was drafted in more or less this form in December 2007; but appeared in print only in my collection of essays within Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010, chap.19, pp 131-38.

1 = This presentation was drafted in 2007, though the opening epigrams have been inserted since then, and some minor embellishments have been inserted. However, the basic ingredients and much of the text follows my arguments within grant applications sent to the Australian Research Council in 2003 and again in 2004 via the University of Adelaide. Both applications failed to pass muster.

2   I am assuming that many readers will have some inkling about these events. Those who do not have this knowledge can easily acquire basic details by inserting each named event and/or person into the google box on any internet service.

3   Note my criticisms of a scholar who has secured the heights of public attention in the US academic circuit, namely,Robert Pape (Roberts, “Blunders in Tigerland,” 2007).

4   This was Terrorism and Political Violence which, under the guidance of Alex Schmidt, rejected my manuscript on “Blunders in Tigerland” (2007) in the year 2007 because it was deemed supportive of the LTTE.

5   For information on Godse and his thinking, see Jaffrelot  2003 and ………………………… http://library. thinkquest.org/26523/mainfiles/nathuram3.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathuram_ Godse.

6   See Starrs 1994 and Roberts 2007a for more information on Mishima.

7   It is for this reason that a web site was set up with the aid of Daniel Nourry, Vasee Nesiah and Faye Ruck-Nightingale. See http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.co.

8   Those mujahidin who die in the course of their jihad are deemed to attain the state of shahāda, namely the state of “martyrdom or bearing witness” (Cook 2005: p. 97). Compare the manner in which shahāda is defined in Wikipedia: “The Shahada is the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet.”

9   See, for instance, Beate Arnstead 2008; K. Mylvaganam, “Black Tiger – An Inside Report,” in both Tamil Canadian and Tamil Sangam, 2008 ……………………………(http://www.sangam.org/2008/04/Black_Tiger.php?uid=2869); ……………………………  and http://www.nfi.no/english/norwegianfilms/show.html?id=768.


Filed under accountability, arab regimes, atrocities, Australian culture, australian media, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, chauvinism, communal relations, conspiracies, cultural transmission, economic processes, Eelam, ethnicity, European history, female empowerment, fundamentalism, historical interpretation, immolation, Indian Ocean politics, Indian traditions, Islamic fundamentalism, jihad, landscape wondrous, law of armed conflict, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, meditations, Middle Eastern Politics, military strategy, nationalism, patriotism, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power sharing, propaganda, psychological urges, religiosity, religious nationalism, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Sri Lankan scoiety, suicide bombing, Taliban, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, violence of language, war reportage, world events & processes, Zen at war

2 responses to “Kamikaze, Mujahid, Tamil Tiger: Sacrificial Devotion in Comparative Lens

  1. Dilkusha Joseph

    Thank you. I had no idea death was glorified in so many cultures and groups around the world.

    As a non academic wondering if life as a gift under whatever circumstance is valued above all else as the belief of any society. What comes to mind is the toast to life ” L’chaim” by the Hebrew people (In the movie Fiddler on the roof) and even after unimaginable hardship in many instances. Any suicide bombers in Hebrew culture. Any thoughts?

    • A Vvery good question Dilky. I am not versed enough to answer it BUT let us hope that some scholar or person versed in Jewish culture can provide chapter and verse in answering your QUERY.

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