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The Banality of Suicide Terrorism: The Naked Truth about the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing

The Banality of Suicide Terrorism: The Naked Truth about the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing by Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin. Potomac Books, 2010, 192 pp.

In seeking to understand the motivations of suicide bombers who engage in a “death fusion,” Dr. Nancy Kobrin—a psychoanalyst with degrees in Romance and Semitic languages and semiotics—theorizes that “the political violence of Islamic suicide terrorism is directly related to domestic violence” (p. 101). She contends that “Islamic suicide bombings are a form of displaced violence about the Early Mother in life, especially the Early Muslim Mother and the disavowed wish to murder her because she is experienced as engulfing and smothering” (p.13). The author perceives that the typical Muslim woman in the Middle East—who is caged within her burka, has limited higher education, and exists within a society that curtails much social interaction between men and women—grows up “as a devalued girl.” She also maintains that Muslim societal norms educate men to look down on women, an action that “internalize[s] the males’ sexism and hatred of the female as self-hatred” of himself (p. 13).

From her analysis Dr. Kobrin concludes that suicide bombers are motivated by “a profound terror of abandonment that is rooted in the mother-child relationship. . . . this terror is so great in the would-be suicide terrorist that he or she must commit suicide in order to fend off that terror of dependency and abandonment. The suicide terrorist seeks a return to the bond with the mother of early childhood—known as maternal fusion—by means of a ‘death fusion’ with his or her enemies, who subconsciously represent the loved (and hated) maternal figure” (inside dust jacket).

Since the author is analyzing unconscious behavior, it is difficult to conclude that she has discovered the ultimate causal factor that rhetorically “births” a suicide bomber. Somewhat skeptical of Kobrin’s theory that a suicide bomber’s fate may be determined from a failure of “good love” bonding between mother and son during early childhood, one of her colleagues dubbed her work the “Mother’s Sour Milk Theory” (p. 100).

Muslim theology includes the concept that after death, people are not automatically transported to paradise (al-Jannah), but reside in a purgatory-like state of suspended animation (al-Barzakh) until the “Day of Judgment” (al-yawm al-Fasal). Then Mohammad and Jesus return to earth to advise the Muslim god Allah as to which of the deceased should be resurrected (ma’ad) into heaven or instead be delivered to hell (al-Jahannam).

An important influence the author was either unaware of or failed to discuss is the Muslim belief that a suicide bomber dying in the act is recognized as a worthy shahid (martyr). The significance is that a shahid is granted the only certain and immediate way to enter paradise to service his 72 houri (perpetual virginal wives). A shahid gets to bypass Barzakh entirely and must not await the uncertainty of selection when Judgment Day arrives. Only a shahid gets the 72 virgins, not rank-and-file Muslim males who die a natural death (they may get only two houri and their current wife(s)) in the after-life. These sexual-theological influences may have a greater conscious appeal of enticing a suicide bomber shahid to martyrdom than Dr. Kobrin’s unconscious death-fusion theory.

How relevant then is her book to the patrolling infantryman trying to avoid a suicide bomber? In partially answering this question, Dr. Kobrin cautions that the theory espoused in her book “is not meant to serve as a predictor for who will become a suicide bomber and who will choose not to do so. Rather, it is intended to provide a deeper understanding behind the roots of terrorism by focusing on its participants’ behavior” (p. xvii, emphasis added). To provide some “deeper understanding,” she reviews how the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book) and the ahadith (the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad) also influence a terrorist’s thinking. Nonetheless, she wrote, “it is not the book’s main intent” to determine “why does someone become a suicide bomber?” (p. xviii).

Even her recommendations as to what can be done to “stop Islamic suicide terrorism” seem to be less than useful for the soldier engaged in counterinsurgency operations. In part, Kobrin recommends that “there should be an international ban on burkas,” Muslim girls “must be protected from all forms of child abuse” (female genital mutilation, verbal scorn, and financial abuse), and a “massive reeducation” program is needed to wipe out Muslim female low self-esteem (pp. 100–5). While these are all laudable initiatives, one must not expect this to happen soon in Southwest Asia.

Dr. Kobrin’s book is an informative and contemplative read, but despite the book’s subtitle a reader is not fully exposed to the “Naked Truth” about the psychology of Islamic suicide bombing. Nonetheless, it is a thoughtful piece and reference for those interested in this topic. Almost a third of the book consists of notes, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Although Dr. Kobrin is not a psychologist, she does cite the works of psychologists who have studied other possible motivations of suicide bombers, such as Dr. Avner Falk, who analyzed dozens of suicide bomber “causation” theories in his well-written book Islamic Terror: Conscious and Unconscious Motives (2008). For additional readings, I highly recommend Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom by Mohammed Hafez (2006) and The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers by Anat Berko (2009).

COL William Garrison USAR, Retired

Civil Affairs

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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