Socialist ViewPoint and analysis for working people

September/October 2005 • Vol 5, No. 7 •

The ‘Suicide Bombers:’ The Sacred and the Profane

By James Petras

One of the least discussed but most important aspects of the “suicide bomber” attacks is the Anglo-American systematic and profound degradation of that which the Islamic religion holds most sacred: its code of ethics, its mode of spiritual practice, its religious rituals, its sacred texts and its respect for the observant believer.

The neo-conservative, liberal and pro-Israel propagandists, both journalists and academics, focus on what they choose to call the “pathologies” of young Muslims, the fanaticism of their beliefs, their gratuitous violence, the “generational anger,” the “frustration” of living in “failed states” and a long litany of irrational behaviors which exonerate the Anglo-American and Israeli violence and torture.

A progressive school of thought emphasizes the “reciprocal nature of violence”—Anglo-American wars, invasions and occupations which engender Arab or Islamic terror as part of a spiral of violence. In some versions the religious element is subordinated to the political concern for self-determination in explaining the behavior of suicide bombers.

While the latter approach has the advantage of advancing beyond the vitriolic psychobabble of the neoconservative and Zionist “experts” of the “Arab Mind,” it fails to account for the depth and scope of the suicide bomber phenomena, especially the sharpening intensity during the occupation.

Beyond the general mayhem induced by Anglo-American wars, invasions and occupations, there are two forms of violence derivative from the general conception of war, which stand out as the direct determinants of suicide bombing.

The Anglo-Americans have theorized and put in practice the idea of “total war”—a war without legal, moral, geographic, temporal or spatial boundaries. As Bush, Rumsfeld and the Pentagon Zionists (Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and Company) declared, this is a different war in which the “enemy” is everywhere and attacking at all times. The final solution is to search and destroy them, their sanctuaries, their accomplices, their neighborhoods, families, religious institutions and any who might offer material or spiritual support, protection or encouragement. The theory and practice of “total war” obliterates the distinction between combatants and civilians, between military installations and civilian facilities, between military infrastructure and civilian transports systems, between the sacred and the profane.

The Anglo-Americans have imposed new norms of warfare and new practices for engaging the enemy which have been increasingly taken up by sectors of their adversaries. If Anglo-American imperialism can act with unrestrained violence against all military and civilian targets, so can the resistance—including the “suicide bombers”—whether they are Islamists or secular, poor or middle class. What determines the reaction of the adversaries of Anglo-American imperialism are their rules of warfare—the notion of “total war.”

Total war: content and consequences

There are different forms of imperial conquest. In one variant the purpose is to work through local elites who become the tribute collectors and gendarmes of the colonial powers, which gain control of the agro-mineral wealth and finance their privileged position via local taxes.

In another variant, the imperial powers destroy the pre-existing society and governing system, frequently uprooting the population and in the process physically annihilate its members and culture in the course of seizing its wealth. The degradation of the sacred is a prelude to attempts to impose a new set of beliefs more conducive to submission and exploitation.

A third variant is a combination or a sequential process of destruction, degradation and exploitation followed by efforts to “reconstruct” a colonized military, police and political structure willing and able to repress and contain anti-colonial resistance.

The U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan follow the third variant. In the initial phase, the imperial armies engage in total occupation, unrestrained pillage of historical sites, utter degradation of the population, destruction of cultural institutions, and the systematic assassination of leading members of the local political, civil service and professional classes. Following the growth of massive resistance by secular and religious forces, uprooted and divorced from their essential everyday living, under constant physical and spiritual assaults, the Anglo-American occupation regime moves toward the “reconstruction” of a colonial repressive apparatus and governing bodies—beyond the walls, barbed wire enclosures and watch towers of the colonial army.

Total war doctrine continues to wreak havoc with minor concessions to enclaves of collaborators, most of whom are dual citizens—exiles whose loyalties are first and foremost to the empire, whose homes, pensions and even families (not to mention bank accounts and English rose gardens) are located in the cities of the imperial countries.

Total war and the resistance

The practitioners of total war borrow heavily from the practice and doctrine of the Israeli colonial occupation of Palestine: practices of collective punishment, erasure of historical sites, destruction of homes, eradication of orchards and productive farms, bombing of small factories, building of ghetto enclosures (walls), massive forcible evictions, and especially torture and interrogation techniques designed especially to violate Islamic beliefs and the Arab identity. These techniques have been transmitted via Israeli advisers and training sessions to U.S. interrogators and incorporated into their manuals. It is precisely the common methods of both Israeli and Anglo-U.S. interrogation-torture techniques linked to the doctrine of total war, which has led to the common practice of “suicide bombers” against them.

Insofar as the interrogation-terror techniques strip their victims of all that is essential to their spiritual selves, they also force upon the victims and their sympathizers a “new morality,” one that no longer abides by the older moral-religious precepts. In its place the new morality is the mirror image of the practitioners of total war. The “suicide bombers” act without concern for civilians, locations, time and circumstance. Like their interrogators, they seek to inflict the maximum damage to the “Western mind”—exposing their weakness, increasing their anxiety and fears, while undermining everyday routines. The key to the conversion of Islamists and even the secular opposition to suicide bombing and the practice of the new morality is not merely the political-military colonial occupation and war, but the resort to the specific practices of degradation inflicted on the colonial victim.

Degradation: the logic of total war

The Israelis have practiced torture by degradation for decades and have a powerful army of overseas supporters—professors, neo-con officials, liberals, bankers, professionals, artists, journalists, and media moguls—providing justifications in the form of ‘ameliorating circumstances’ and ‘moral equivalences.’

The Anglo-American practitioners of total war, impressed by the power of Israel to sustain its colonial occupation of Palestine and its impunity, overlooked the negative effects: the “suicide bomber” phenomenon, and Israel’s repugnancy to the non-European world (and even among many Europeans).

Degradation is specifically designed to “break the Arab or Islamic mind”—as the Israeli psychological war experts labeled it—and secure an army of informers, agents and docile, terrorized released prisoners who would serve as exemplars to other would-be resistance fighters. While a few prisoners were turned through torture and blackmail and others were released as broken men and women incapacitated by profound psychological disorders, millions react with indignation, anger, and violence. And in some cases this has taken the form of suicide bombing. The word from the victim-survivors of Israeli brutality and visual images provides a terribly graphic reality of systematic degradation of all that Arabs—Islamist or secular—hold sacred.

The perception of the victims, their families, their people, their fellow believers, and their nation is that degradation of Iraqi prisoners is the technique authorized and approved by the highest levels of power and executed by the terror experts, from elite psychologists down to the lowest jailers. Nobody can claim, “We didn’t know.” Nobody, in a volunteer army, can claim they were just obeying orders. Citizens in electoral systems who voted for the imperial executioners cannot claim innocence.

The technique of degradation: the larger meaning

The book of virtuous living for the Islamist and even, to a lesser degree, the secularist, is the Koran. It is the “divine book,” which provides a moral guide and existential meaning to life. The torturers defecated and urinated on the Koran. They stomped on the Koran with muddy army boots. They flushed pages, held most sacred by the victims, down the toilet. They violated the most sacred single source of moral life.

The torturers systematically denied their victims water to clean themselves before prayer. Instead they defiled them with filth, scantily clad female interrogators smeared fake “menstrual” blood on bound prisoners, forced them to defecate on themselves and ridiculed their victims’ intense religious distress. They violated every taboo, every norm, including the deepest held moral codes. They forced (and photographed) deviant sex, prolonged nudity, raped men and women with cattle prods and other torture devices. They wrapped prisoners in the Israeli flag.

Such humiliating techniques have lifetime psychological consequences preventing the victims from ever marrying and maintaining normal family relations. The torturers specifically told their victims that the films and photos of their degradation would be shown to their families and neighbors to intensify their anguish after their release. The torture techniques specifically focused on Muslims and Arabs, but in general defiling all normal men and women’s sense of modesty.

They used gross sexual humiliation designed to break all political bonds between the degraded victims and their people. Women prisoners in Abu Ghraib reportedly sent out messages begging the resistance to kill them in their cells by mortar attacks. Mosques were destroyed or turned into slaughterhouses; wounded men huddled in the sacred halls were executed at point blank range. […]


From the “Shock and Awe”-bombing of cities, to the killing, maiming and destruction of millions, to the torture and profanation of the sacred, the orders have come from distant, faceless Generals, Presidents, Secretaries of War and have been executed, face to face, by average people, workers, employees, clerks…who “elected” these leaders. The many faces of the enemy in the eyes of the suicide bomber are concentrated in the faces and acts of those who degrade the sacred and attempt to destroy what gives meaning to their everyday life.

To the “suicide bombers,” the face of the enemy is the face of the people—rich and poor, powerful and powerless, General and foot soldier. Hence the suicide bomber, whose bonds with the sacred and moral have been broken by systematic degradation, feels no compunction in attacking ordinary people going about their everyday tasks in office buildings or subways.

Our analysis suggests a close relation between the Anglo-American practice of total war and its derivative policies of systematic degradation and the emergence of “suicide bombers”—one of the forms of rejection. If this analysis is correct, the demise of “suicide bombers” is most likely to occur when the practice of total war is ended.

This can only come about through a defeat of the colonial revivalist strand of imperialism in its U.S., European and Israeli variants. The question is how long it will take for domestic and external political discontent to coalesce a political alternative capable of formulating a strategy of military withdrawal and abiding by international law. Reconciliation between the Anglo-American and Islamic and Arab people can be achieved through a war crimes tribunal, similar to the Nuremburg Trials after the Second World War. The practitioners and proponents of crimes against humanity beginning with the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain should be brought to trial and accorded exemplary punishment to prevent recidivism. Peace and reconciliation is only possible if justice is meted to the architects and practitioners of total war and human degradation.

Rebelión, August 15, 2005

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