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The psychology of martyrdom is a growing area of interest in today’s world. The need for viable means of confronting, addressing, and ultimately preventing the development of cultures of martyrdom is increasingly drawing the attention of world governments. The following six-part article series, entitled Ego Strength-Frustration Tendencies (ES-FT): Toward a model of predicting militant martyrdom by examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” reviews relevant literature on the topic of martyrdom. Four typologies of martyrdom are defined, with militant martyrdom (i.e., suicide attacks) serving as the focus of the article series. The author reviews different perspectives of the etiology of militant martyrdom, reviews the literature, and concludes that frustration-aggression theory and the effects of systemic psychological victimization best explain this phenomenon. The author further proposes an ego strength-frustration tendencies (ES-FT) model for predicting the tendency toward related social roles based on the interaction of ego strength and frustration. The article series concludes with a discussion of the advantages, disadvantages, and implications of ES-FT. A complete reference list is provided at the conclusion of the series.


On September 11, 2001, the homeland of the United States of America came under attack by Islamic terrorists. While publicly disavowed by most Middle Eastern leaders, many of the populace celebrated the attacks and viewed the Islamic hijackers as martyrs giving their lives in the name of Allah. Since that time, there have been a series of suicide attacks by militant martyrs throughout the world. In post-U.S. invasion Iraq, suicide bombings have come to be a daily occurrence. Likewise, this trend has been seen in Afghanistan. Suicide attacks in England, Spain, Indonesia, Northern Africa, and Chechnya in recent years have caused additional alarm. The issue of the causes of militant martyrdom is a complex topic that requires considerable reflection and contemplation.   
The field of psychology is primed to take the forefront in contributing to this area of study. Psychology is the study of human behavior. Certainly, terrorism, of all kinds, is by definition human behavior. If there is to be some understanding of such acts, we must first understand the conditions that lead to a culture of militant martyrdom. This understanding is essential to the field of clinical psychology as Western Society looks for an explanation and means to combat the psychological complexities contributing to and resulting from a culture of martyrdom.
            Several theories have been proposed to explain this complex phenomenon. One of the first to gain substantial following is frustration-aggression theory and it has been one of the leading explanations for terrorism for several decades. While frustration-aggression theory, or some variation, continues to be at the forefront of this field of study, it is this author’s position that it does not provide a complete explanation for this behavior. It does not account for why some groups experiencing frustration engage in militant martyrdom and others do not. Specifically, in the Palestinian Territories, frustration-aggression does not fully explain the culture of militant martyrdom that has existed since the 1990s. After all, frustration certainly existed prior to this. Furthermore, frustration theory leaves unanswered questions when the topic of terrorism as specified to suicide bombings and it does not fully explain the extraordinary lengths that militant martyrs go to in an effort to destroy other lives, and does not provide a complete explanation for how a culture of militant martyrdom develops. There should be no argument that there must be different psychological processes at work when comparing those who engage in violently devastating actions from a distance and those that willingly “sacrifice” their own lives for a cause that they will not see to fruition. Frustration-aggression theory may provide an adequate explanation for the former, but it alone is an inadequate explanation for the latter. After all, why would the potential militant martyr not simply impose his or her devastation from a distance? Why would he or she seek out or accept such an assignment in the first place? This article series seeks to answer these questions. In summary, what role does psychological trauma play in promoting a culture of militant martyrdom in Palestinian males in the Territories?
      This article series will take an in depth look at this problem of militant martyrdom and its etiology. The purpose of this study is to contribute to the growing body of knowledge concerning this ever increasingly important concern and provide a more complete theoretical explanation for how a culture of militant martyrdom has developed in the Palestinian Territories. This article series will attempt to complete the complex model of militant martyrdom, specifically in the Palestinian Territories, of which frustration-aggression theory is a significant but insufficient explanatory factor. The author proposes that frustration, combined with systematic psychological traumatization, promotes the culture of militant martyrdom currently seen among Palestinian males.
            The implications of arriving at a more complete understanding of the psychological etiology of militant martyrdom are significant. In their efforts to combat this ideology, the actions taken by some nations may contrarily contribute to the sustaining, or even spreading, of the martyrdom culture. To wage war on an ideology that is dubiously understood, at best, may do more harm than good. A greater understanding has the potential to save human life and decrease human suffering throughout the world. The development of an explanatory theory that is non-politically-biased and comprehensive will go far in subduing the overt and covert hostilities that give way to cultures of militant martyrdom. Such a theory should stand up to scholarly scrutiny and have practical applications. It will open new ways of conceptualizing the potential martyr’s worldview and self-image. Better treatment options available to mental health providers should become more apparent, as a result. Additionally, such a theory would allow the impacted groups insight into their dilemma and provide a means, through psychosocial interventions, to resolve it. The result should be a population that has more pro-social methods of dealing with the demands of their environment. In order to accomplish this, the author reviews existing literature on the frustration-aggression theory, psychological programming, the impact of psychological abuse, psychosocial rewards of self-sacrifice, Islamic teachings, and the self-report of motives found in interviews and other documents left behind by successful and failed (now-incarcerated) martyrs.
In order to accomplish its goal, this article must establish a working definition of martyrdom compiled from available literature. Then, discuss the historical significance of martyrdom in Islam. Finally, an examination of the link between Islamic martyrdom and terrorism is accomplished. 

Webster's New World Dictionary provides the following entry for the term martyr: "martyr (mart'er) n. [[< Or martyr, a witness]] lone who chooses to suffer or die for one's faith or principles 2 one who suffers misery for a long time -vt. to kill or persecute for a belief-- ­mar'trdom n. (1990, p. 362)." Further, most, if not all religions have similar or related definitions as they pertain to their belief system. Cunningham (2002), Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, offers the following statement based on the writings of Thomas Schubeck and Pope John Paul II:
The criteria for contemporary martyrdom might be summed up by applying three criteria: (1) someone must have been murdered or died as a result of mistreatment; (2) the persecutor had to have been motivated by hatred of the faith or hatred of the practice of some virtues essential to it; (3) the martyrs had to have acted with that awareness that their conduct might cost their lives. (p. 378)

In less exclusive terms, but no less a Western concept, Richmond (2003) describes a martyr as someone who dies under the persecution of those "who have too much to lose by listening to the truth [of the principles of peace]" (para. 18). He further qualifies a martyr as refusing to hate their persecutors while maintaining a hope that one day the persecutor will repent their actions.

However, a modified and more comprehensive definition of the word martyr is proposed by this author as a result of reviewing available literature from various fields on the subject (Coney, 2003; Cunningham, 2002; Jensen, Burkholder, & Hammerback, 2003; Vigne, 2004). This author argues that there are two main categories of martyrs, each with sub-categories. The first category of martyrdom proposed by this author is passive martyrdom. This category consists of individuals or groups that have been killed because of standing for a cause or belief system. Within this classification are two sub-types. This author refers to the first as the cognizant-martyr. This type of person openly and often publicly expresses what he believes, regardless of endangering his life (e.g., political assassination). Notable figures include Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Maximilian Kolbe (Cunningham, 2002). The second sub-type of passive martyr is the accidental-martyr, a term coined by Lacy Smith (Jensen et al., 2003). In this situation, the individual does not intend to be a martyr and actually has no belief that there is any danger. Such a person may be killed accidentally, but because of her beliefs or activism in a particular arena is elevated by like-minded individuals usually by means of rhetorical actions as a symbol of that particular cause (e.g., a striking labor union worker who is accidentally run over by a passing vehicle while picketing).
Opposite of passive martyrdom is what this author has termed active martyrdom, in which the individual martyred actively sacrifices his life under his own efforts to call attention to an important issue or to obtain a particular religious, political, social, or other ideological goal. It also has two sub-types: self­-sacrificial and militant. The self-sacrificial-martyr takes his own life, usually in a public way, or places himself in a position in which he knows his life will be taken as a means of protest, to fulfill a purpose, or as a call to attention to an issue as in Japanese hara-kiri (Jensen, et al., 2003; Vigne, 2004). The militant martyr takes her own life, with the intention of killing or harming others around her or destroying property or some other asset. One of the most common forms of this martyrdom type is suicide bombings (Coney, 2003). Throughout this article series, the terms militant martyr and terrorist may be used interchangeably as the presumption is that both attempt to infuse fear in others as a means of accomplishing some goal.
The following is a table illustrating the categories and sub-types of martyrs:
Table 1
Martyrdom Typologies                                                                    
Passive                                    Active                                               
Accidentala                              Militant
Cognizant                                Self-sacrificial
a “Accidental martyr” taken from "Martyrs for a just cause: The eulogies of Cesar Chavez." by R. J. Jensen, T. R. Burkholder, and J. C. Hammerback, Pall 2003, Western Journal of Communication, 67(4), p. 335-356. 
Click here for Article Two

This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.
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