Sbarro restaurant after suicide bombing
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Martyrdom is by no means a new concept. In Arabic-Islamic society, the idea of terrorism, or the intentional instillation of fear in the masses, using militant-martyrs appeared in the 11th century in the form of a Shi'i Islam sect known as the Nizari Isma'ilis, or Assassins (Campbell, 2004; Hudson, 1999; Kermani, 2002; Kjeilen, 2003). The Assassins would perform public political murders with nothing more than a dagger so that the act would be well known. In most cases, his target’s bodyguards would immediately kill the Assassin. According to Kjeilen (2003), the Assassins were instrumental in turning terrorism into an Islamic religious duty.
According to Hashhash (2006), “martyrdom is an everyday event that continues to perpetuate itself in Palestine and its representation is a frequent visual motif in Palestinian art, media, and life.” Still, martyrs have been heralded in every religion and every corner of the earth, not just Palestine. However, in recent times, militant martyrdom has almost become synonymous with radical Islam, if not Islam in general, in the minds of some Westerners. After all, Muslim society has endorsed associated tactics. For example, the Shi'ite martyrdom zeitgeist resulted in Iranian soldiers rushing forward into Iraqi mine fields during the Iran-Iraq War (Kermani, 2002). Further, many who were killed or injured were children and teenagers. This same culture of martyrdom opened the door in 1983 for a member of Hezbollah to commit a suicide bombing for the first time in Lebanon (Kermani, 2002).
Haifaa Jawad, an Islamic studies lecturer at Birmingham University, relays the story to Gibson, Chu, and Hasnain (2001) of young Britons turned potential-martyrs in jihad against the West because of belonging to a generation of Muslims who feel unaccepted by Western society. Furthermore, young Muslims turn towards religion as a way to gain some sense of identity (Shameen, 2002). Returning to Palestinian militant martyrs, Timmerman (2002, para. 13) relates the story of two 11-year-old middle-class girls interviewed on television: "they explained that their goal was not to become doctors or teachers, but to achieve a proper death through martyrdom for Allah." In 1993-94, with no escape plans or guidance, young Palestinians embarked on suicide campaigns aimed at Israelis, using weapons such as knives and axes. Further, Laqueur (2004) exclaims that in Arab countries, terrorists arise in places where there is a high concentration of radical preachers. Given this history, it is a common mistake to associate most suicide bombings and attacks with Islamic fundamentalists.
Non-Islamic Militant Martyrdom
In actuality, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a secular Marxist-Leninist group consisting largely of anti-religion Hindis, in their fight for liberation in Sri Lanka, are the world leaders in suicide attacks (Hudson, 1999; Kermani, 2002; Ness, 2005). While it is not certain that Christians actively participated in suicide bombings in the Middle East, the Syrian Nationalist Party, consisting of an especially high percentage of Arab Christians, carried out the first suicide bombing against Israel in the early eighties (Kermani, 2002). Thus, a review of recent history reveals that the Laqueur’s (2004) argument of militant martyrdom as the result of fundamentalist Islam does not hold up. Further, after conducting his research on Palestinian attacks during the Second Intifada, Moghadam (2003) concludes that it is not likely that “a profound religious belief alone” will generate a willingness to engage in suicide attacks. Following this sentiment, Hamilton-Hart (2005) points out that “the closure of options to pursue goals politically, repression, and human rights abuses lead to adoption of extreme solutions.” Such extreme measures can be observed in the actions of Japanese Kamikazes pilots in World War II and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. This alone, however, does not necessarily lead one to acts of militant martyrdom.

Theories of Martyrdom
There are several theories regarding how terrorism actually evolves. The first formal theory as outlined by Hudson (1999), in his intelligence report for the CIA, is the frustration-aggression theory. Frustration-aggression theory, one of the first and enduring theories of terrorism, has been at the forefront of thinking in this area since the 1940s (Halebsky, 1974; Ross, 1994). This theory states that living organisms react aggressively because of frustration (Miller, 1941). It is based on the relative deprivation hypothesis that purports that aggressive actions are the result of a disparity between what the individual expects to receive from his environment and what the environment actually provides. Miller’s initial theory asserted that aggression was the natural consequence of any frustration (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). However, even according to Miller, the originator of this theory, frustration-aggression theory does not provide a full explanation for human aggression, much less suicide attacks. Lange (1971) summed up Miller’s 1941 revision of his theory stating that while “frustration was no longer explicitly a sufficient cause for aggression…frustration is still a necessary factor in aggression.” This conclusion seems more accurate when one considers that some individuals from presumably similar frustrating environments engage in militant martyrdom and others do not. Still, additional research shows that murder, at least, is positively associated with frustration (Palmer, 1960).
A second theory given by Hudson (1999) is the narcissistic rage theory. This theory arises out of narcissism-aggression theory. Narcissistic rage theory suggests that unchecked narcissism leads to violent behavior with little regard for pain caused to others. As pointed out by Hudson, this theory does not seem to apply to those who take their own life or willingly sacrifice their life for a cause. In fact, this seems the antithesis of such actions. Further, additional research suggests that most militant martyrs are not sadistic individuals who delight in violence for violence’s sake or possess more aggressive tendencies than anyone else possesses (Soibelman, 2004).
Some researchers have hypothesized that militant martyrs are experiencing psychosis. Salib (2003) suggests that suicide attackers are experiencing shared delusions. Rosenberger (2003) describes militant martyrs as having paranoid delusions. While these informal assessments certainly cannot be ruled out completely, they require making rather large leaps in logic and excluding more thorough explanations. Volkan (2002), on the other hand, describes potential martyrs as having disturbed egos or personal identities. These disturbances are likely the result of erratic or psychologically detrimental upbringings.
In line with this idea, many researchers have hypothesized that social problems are the root cause of a martyrdom culture (Elnur, 2003; Hammond, 1998; Hill, 2002; Shaffer, 1975; Von Hippel, 2002). A synthesis of many of these suggested problems include low socioeconomic status, inadequate education, unemployment, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, rapid urbanization, corrupt governments, and lack of access to weapon building technology.

There are particular societal factors that may be conducive to the development of a culture of militant martyrdom. Some point to findings that those from lower socioeconomic classes and the uneducated are more likely to fit within this culture (De Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001; Shameen, 2002). Other evidence argues against this (Coney, 2003; Hudson, 1999; Krueger & Meleckova, 2002; Kushner, 1996; Laqueur, 2004; Taylor, 1988). Coney (2003) provides additional confirmation, indicating that, in fact, suicide attackers are more likely to come from higher-class levels than from impoverished families. Krueger and Meleckova (2002) conclude their extensive study stating, “The evidence we have assembled and reviewed suggests that there are little direct connections between poverty, education, and participation in or support for terrorism.” Their findings confirm the conclusions drawn from similar studies on the issue (Hudson, 1999; Kushner, 1996; Laqueur, 2004; Taylor, 1988). A 2001 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) poll of 1,357 18-year-old or older Palestinians yielded somewhat different results (Krueger & Maleckova, 2002). Results from the PCPSR poll showed a negative correlation between unemployment and support for armed attacks. That is to say, there was less support for armed conflict among the unemployed than there was among college students, merchants, and professionals. Taking all of these findings into consideration, it can be concluded that if there is, in fact, a correlation between poverty and support for militant martyrdom within the Palestinian Territories, it is a negative correlation. Based on this, an alternative explanation for a culture of militant martyrdom must be sought.
Some may suggest that a culture of martyrdom arises from societies being at war. Human history appears laden with wars in which there are examples of militant martyrdom at play. However, whether formal wars have been waged, with or without the systematic use of militant martyrs, seems beside the point. After all, most terrorist groups claim that their actions are “acts of war” regardless of whether there has been an official declaration or they have the support of there purported constituents. As such, the issue of war becomes irrelevant and the potential martyr’s claim can better be explained as acting out in frustration than a politico-social conflict between two opposing states or groups.
This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.
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