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Vested interests: What conditions create suicide bombers?

Sociologist Professor Riaz Hassan discusses the social and political environment that motivates some people to become suicide bombers. Riaz also explores whether there is a relationship between Islamism and terrorism. Presented by Jacky Angus.

"Suicide bombing occurs primarily in the context of important, endemic, intractable, political conflict between state and non-state actors. The second pre-condition for the rise of suicide bombing is that the state begins to use violence, sanctioned violence against the non-state actors. Then the non-state actors begin to respond through weapons which include suicide bombing." -- Prof Riaz Hassan




Prof Riaz Hassan
Prof Riaz Hassan

Professor Riaz Hassan is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Flinders University. He is currently working on a study of South Asian Islam. South Asia is now home to one third of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Using current religious, political and social conditions as contrasting environments, this study will investigate the nature and structure of Muslim religiosity and its sociological determinants and correlates in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This will be the first study of contemporary Muslim religious consciousness in South Asia. Professor Hassan has published two books on Muslim religiosity: Inside Muslim Minds (Melbourne University Press 2008. Also translated and published in Turkish and Urdu) and, Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society (2002 Oxford University Press. Also translated into Indonesian). He has written two books on the findings of his recently completed research on Suicide Bombings: Life as a Weapon: The global rise of suicide bombings (Routledge 2010) and Suicide Bombings (Routledge 2011). He has also published books, papers and policy studies on population, immigration, suicide, housing and Singapore society. He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and Member of the Order of Australia.

Professor Hassan was educated at the University of the Punjab, Lahore, Dhaka University and The Ohio State University as Fulbright scholar from where he received his doctorate in sociology in1968. He has taught at The Flinders University of South Australia since 1977. In 2005-2009 he was Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow. He has also held academic appointments at the National University of Singapore, Gadja Mada University, University of California Los Angeles, New York University Abu Dhabi and Yale University.

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineers: Kelvin Param and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JACKY ANGUS 
I'm Jacky Angus, thanks for joining us. As the eminent Islamic scholar, Bernard Lewis has said the emergence of the now widespread terrorism of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century. It has no antecedents in Islamic history and no justification in terms of Islamic law, theology or tradition. Both Western and Muslim scholars of Islam call such attacks a clear violation of classical Islam. However the Islamist groups that carry out such attacks say that they believe their actions fulfil an obligation of jihad against the oppressor and the infidel and they will be rewarded with paradise. To discuss Islamism and its expression in the act of suicide bombing we are joined by noted sociologist of Islam Professor Riaz Hassan from the National University of Singapore. Riaz Hassan is perhaps best known for his magisterial study of Muslim perceptions of Islam entitled Inside Muslim Minds and published in 2008. This exploration of the values, views and practices of Muslims was based on 6,000 respondents in more than seven countries. Hassan has also published two important studies on suicide bombing one in 2010 by that name and more recently Life as a Weapon; the Global Rise of Suicide Bombings in 2011. A further book Islam in Society is to be launched this year that's 2013 by Melbourne University Press. Well welcome, Riaz Hassan.

RIAZ HASSAN
Thank you, Jacky.

JACKY ANGUS
I'd like to focus on your work on suicide bombing, Professor. Your first study in 2010 covered the phenomenon from 1981 to 2006, I think, with the data from a range of places, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka. What were your general findings in comparative terms?

RIAZ HASSAN
Yes the five countries were, as you mentioned, Iraq, Pakistan, but not Kazakhstan but Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Palestinian territories. So I didn't actually study Kazakhstan. But it was Afghanistan because these five countries account for 90 per cent of all suicide bombing that took place in the world in the years between 1981 and 2006. My general findings were that suicide bombing is primarily driven by politics and not by religion. It occurs or is a phenomenon in the context of endemic conflicts, political conflicts over dispossession, occupation and political rights as citizenship rights. It's a modern phenomenon with historical roots.

JACKY ANGUS
Can you explain that a bit in what sense is it a modern phenomenon and why?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well it's the modern phenomenon in the sense that we think as if it is a new phenomenon, but it has historical roots in the sense that people over the last two or three thousand years - I go into some detail in my work. People have used life in order to promote their ideology, promote their values, promote political cause. I start with a Roman general, Cato and then go on to the Jewish sect of Sicarii in the first century of the Christian era when Jerusalem was occupied. And then go on to Cordoba, the Martyrs of Cordoba and then assassins in the 12th and 13th century. Then of course the more recent phenomenon which refers to the Kamikaze suicide bombers.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes, the Japanese.

RIAZ HASSAN
The Japanese and then the recent phenomenon which began in 1981 in Lebanon. The difference between the earlier phases and the modern phase is of course technology. In the past people did not have the kind of technology to blow themselves up. Of course the Japanese basically used the aeroplane to carry on suicide missions whereas modern technology allows people to explore their own bodies and kill other people.

JACKY ANGUS
So as a political strategy, how does the culture of suicide bombing fit in with the long term goals of jihadi Islamists for a global sharia state would you say?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well most jihadi Islamists, the majority I would say they have engaged in the violence in terrorism of some cause. But suicide bombing is a real phenomenon in the sense only four per cent of all terrorist attacks are suicide bombing but they are very lethal. About 36 per cent of all terrorist related deaths occurred as a result of suicide bombing. But suicide bombing itself constitutes a very small portion of terrorist attacks.

JACKY ANGUS
Now I'm interested to know this suicide cult if you like or the new acceptability of suicide bombing for lots of reasons, how is that viewed in those different countries? I imagine it's quite different for example when viewed by the Palestinians or when it's viewed perhaps in Afghanistan? I mean did you have comparisons on how it was perceived either by the bombers themselves or their relatives?

RIAZ HASSAN
The only information we have is that the approval rates of suicide bombing as a strategy that varies quite considerably over time in countries for which we have the data. For example in the context of Palestine the approval of suicide bombing as it happened actually it goes up and down depending on the political context of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. The same happens if you look at the approval of suicide bombing across Muslim countries. I don't have precise figures but it varies quite significantly. It has the lowest approval rate in countries like Turkey, Jordan again it fluctuates in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But during the height of the Iraq war I think the suicide bombing was still not approved by the majority of Iraqis.

JACKY ANGUS
So in the case of say women suicide bombers I gather that phenomenon does exist in certain areas and perhaps is more recent. How is that perceived? I mean that would be surely seen with some ambivalence by most people, most Muslims?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well the role of women in suicide bombing actually varies according to the position of women in society. I think the most prominent instances of women suicide bombing is in Sri Lanka, which is not a Muslim country.

JACKY ANGUS
Oh that's interesting.

RIAZ HASSAN
Yes and after that it is Chechnya. But in countries where the women have relatively equal position, equality of citizenship, the women tend to have greater participation in this rare terrorist phenomenon. But, in general, in other countries outside Sri Lanka, in the countries I studied women suicide bombing was very, very rare. Suicide bombing was much more common I think close to about 15 per cent of all suicide attacks in Sri Lanka were carried out by women.

JACKY ANGUS
This is Jacky Angus and Up Close. In this episode I'm talking to Professor Riaz Hassan about his research into Islamist suicide bombing. Now, Riaz, if we can put suicide bombing in the context of Islamism that is the ideology. Would you say that Islamism is itself still going strong in conjunction with the bombing? I'm thinking of scholars such as Roy Olivier for example who believes that Islamism will soon exhaust itself and that we're fast approaching a post-Islamist world. Now this has probably got echoes of Fukuyama's optimism regarding history. But is Olivier right?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well it depends on what you mean by Islamism and I understand in the context Olivier is using. But Islamism as a political movement or a movement in which people are seeking to establish an Islamic state I think that's not a very popular movement in the Islamic world. Some groups are prominent for example in the case of Indonesia, neither Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama, which are the two largest Muslim bodies in the world with 80 million members, they do not approve of suicide bombing. The Islamic scholars in Pakistan in general have a consensus position that suicide bombing is not sanctioned by religion. I think the point I want to make the nexus between Islam and suicide bombing again mistakenly connects religion and suicide bombing. My studies have clearly demonstrated, and I'm not the only one, to show that in fact religion is not the primary driver of suicide bombing but it's politics.

JACKY ANGUS
That's right and when I'm thinking of the Syrian scholar, Bassam Tibi, who regards all Islamists as promoting a pernicious form of religio-political imperialisms. In other words a very political thrust and for that reason he sees is very hard to root out. Well one reason for that of course is I suppose talking about Islamism in general and particularly in the Middle East the preoccupation with Jews and Zionists and of course Israel. Do you see that as sort of a continuing thing? I'm thinking of people like Qutb and Maulana Maududi and Qaradawi who keep on promoting this idea of the threat to Islam and to Muslims in general of Zionist plots to take over the world and so on. I mean the real jihadi threat clearly comes from the Muslims who outnumber Jews a hundred to one. But nonetheless I mean how do you see the future in terms of using violence as part of Islamism whether it's suicide bombing or violence in general?

RIAZ HASSAN|
Well it depends on the nature of conflict. Let's talk in the context of Israel and the Palestinian conflict is one of the most intractable, endemic conflicts. In fact anti-Semitism which is usually attributed to Muslims in the Middle East not to Islam in fact is a very new phenomenon. In fact anti-Semitism is much more embedded in Christian-Jewish history than in Islamic-Jewish history. Jews and Muslims actually have lived in much greater harmony over 1400 years with each other in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, without any violence. Of course there was violence partly because Muslims always thought that non-Muslims were infidels and therefore they did not have the equal citizenship status. And in my new book actually there is a chapter which explores the historical and sociological factors contributing to the rise of anti-Semitism. It begins with the Jewish migration to Palestine from Europe and then the Palestinian protest against that migration in the early 19th century. Of course the British did not pay much attention to it and as a result of that the Palestinians first carried out, you know, protests. They organised then some politically and then eventually I think this is true in almost all contexts, once all the strategies or political solutions fail then suicide bombing becomes one of the weapons which they use in order to continue their protest. But the point I want to emphasise is that my research shows that anti‑Semitism in the context of Islam actually is a very recent phenomenon. In the recent phenomena I mean it has emerged in the context of the last 150 years.

JACKY ANGUS
But modern anti-Semitism is quite clearly a factor in our world today. I'm just wondering whether this in fact links in with the current increasing antagonism that it’s really I suppose characterised as Islamism?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well as I mentioned Islamism is a phenomenon which refers to agitations, a movement for the establishment of an Islamic state, basically the introduction of sharia laws.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes.

RIAZ HASSAN
But it's a relatively small movement in most Muslim countries. But there are groups who are agitating for it. But Islamism is not to be confused with Islam.

JACKY ANGUS
Absolutely not, no I'm talking about Islamism as an ideology, derived perhaps in some false way from Islam, which we'll come to later. Now, Riaz, let's look at the scapegoating in a slightly different way the scapegoating of Jews and others. Because clearly it also includes, by Islamists the scapegoating of the USA and the West in general as well as African polytheists and the enemy, the unbeliever. I'm thinking of Abdallah Laroui, whom you know, regarded this as an excuse used by a lot of Arabs and of course Islamists, propagandists to avoid political responsibility in their own country. So that poor governance, lousy economic management and corruption and so on as well as the refusal to negotiate with the Israelis tend to be blamed by this school of, you know anti‑Semitic Islamism in such a way that really it prevents Arabs interpreting their own history. Now is that fair assessment of a key element in Islamist propaganda would you say?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well Islamists obviously use this as a slogan. But Islamism itself has its root in the failure of the national project in Muslim countries. After independence, as you know, that much of the Muslim world with the exception of Turkey and a few other countries actually they were colonies. After the 1950s when de-colonisation began and they became independent countries, most Muslim countries started off with a national project which essentially was geared towards providing social and economic benefit. But almost universally, governments in Muslim countries failed to deliver. You get the failure of the national project then gives rise to the rise of Islamism and Islamic movements which actually blame, not only their own countries but also the West.

JACKY ANGUS
On Up Close, this episode, we're talking with sociologist Professor Riaz Hassan about Islamism and suicide bombings. I'm Jacky Angus. Now, Riaz, if we can turn to your study on suicide as a military strategy. Could we consider more closely the jihadi militant ideal of the new Islamic world order as part of kind an Islamist dream to recapture the glories of the caliphate' You know based on the sharia state, a real Islamic order what ought to be the order, the fitra, you know the origin? I wondered if that sort of concept of world order was only entirely political, that pretending that it’s Islamic is in fact a sort of misnomer and a sham and a sort of misleading thing? I know that some scholars such as Tibi feel this strongly that people don't distinguish enough between Islamism as a desire for a new world order run by the sharia state and Islam itself?

RIAZ HASSAN
Yes, well the fringe groups who are the advocates of Islamism, I think they do have a rather bizarre notion of an Islamic caliphate. Yes but to me it's not realistic or not a position which can be associated to any mainstream Muslim parties in the Muslim world.

JACKY ANGUS
But surely the suicide culture is in fact driven, is lubricated by these kind of dreams?

RIAZ HASSAN
No I think again you are linking suicide culture, there is no suicide culture. Suicide bombing occurs primarily in the context of important, endemic, intractable, political conflict between state and non-state actors. The second pre-condition for the rise of suicide bombing is that the state begins to use violence, sanctioned violence against the non-state actors. Then the non-state actors begin to respond through weapons which include suicide bombing. In fact there's a mistaken notion that somehow the terrorists who advocate suicide bombing are so powerful they can take on the state army. No terrorist organisation can stand up to state armies. And the most obvious example is Pakistan, and Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers were defeated in 2009.

JACKY ANGUS
I'm thinking though that sometimes an awful lot of people get killed in the meantime. I mean Libya and Syria are cases in point. It just goes on and on and on despite, as you say, the inevitability of being destroyed and wiped out by a very powerful state. Nonetheless there's a sort of glamour in just keeping on going, isn't there and particularly taking your own life?

RIAZ HASSAN
Well again, I'm not sure exactly how this can be true in the sense that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and there were 2,000 suicide bombings.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes, so that's a good statistic.

RIAZ HASSAN
Okay, but what I'm saying is that 2,000 suicide bombings the majority of them were carried out by Muslims but the fact is that there are 1.6 billion  Muslims. In most Muslim countries they're endemic conflicts, suicide is thankfully a rare phenomenon.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes.

RIAZ HASSAN
But perhaps the most successful suicide missions were carried out by Kamikaze pilots who carried out 3,800 suicide missions in nine months in the dying years of the Second World War. That's the highest numbers of suicide attacks which were carried out I think in the recent times.

JACKY ANGUS
Now let's turn to Islamic sharia and explore that further if we may? I know that critics consider that the Islamist appeal to sharia law as immutable, is in fact an invention. That is the tradition of the sharia state is central to Muslim governance throughout history is based not on systematised, codified law, but rather on a raft of ethical conjunctions found in the Koran. So in other words the religious claim that sharia law has always been at the heart of Muslim governance seems historically false. Well as I understand it, this invention allows very little room for traditionalist ijtihad which is of course the independent thought that's allowed for a scholar in Islam. It doesn't take account also of the right for scholarly disagreement, which is ikhtilaf which is a very important right amongst Muslim scholars.

RIAZ HASSAN
I don't know the answer, but I think if I could just perhaps unpack the various dimensions of your question. Firstly in Islamic history, the Islamic state has not been a norm. In a very small number of cases primarily in the Middle East where there were monarchies based on lineage, there was a fusion of politics and religion in the state. But in general there's a consensus among scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars that the Islamic state is not a norm in the Muslim history.

JACKY ANGUS
No, indeed, but it has in fact been used as an ideal by Islamist ideologues and I'm wondering how you see that? I'm trying to get at this - the role of the sharia state.

RIAZ HASSAN
The role of the sharia state is essentially, in the modern world, a theocratic state and at the moment there are only two. One in the Islamic world would be Iran and would be Israel the second. I think you can probably with the various shades maybe Saudi Arabia would be one in some ways probably some parts of Pakistan can be treated as Islamic. But let me just go back to the very essence of the question, an interesting question you pose. For much of Islamic history it was very difficult for Muslims to travel and see various parts of the Muslim world. The travel was very difficult and so it was assumed the one religion, one culture that anybody when a society became Islamic it will automatically, somehow adopt the foundation culture of Islam which is Arabian culture.

JACKY ANGUS
Yes.

RIAZ HASSAN
But in fact with modernisation and globalisation one thing that has come about is that the Muslim world is a very hybrid world. So the problem is some Muslim intellectuals confronted with the notion of hybridity actually began to argue that hybridity is not authenticity.JACKY ANGUSYes, that's my next question, yes.

RIAZ HASSAN
Yes so authenticity, so Islamism as religious fundamentalism is in fact - is a modern movement in the sense that there is seeking to establish an authentic Islamic order. But unfortunately there is no authentic Islamic order.

JACKY ANGUS
Not in the sharia sense but can we end on this note that the notion of authenticity, 'asala, is obviously quite important also and in cultural contexts. So that for example, one thing I'm thinking is that the media debates in Egypt in the Nineties focused very much on what it meant to be a real Egyptian and authentic Egyptians. Commentators invariably link definitions of authentic national identity to an identification with Islamic civilisation, Muslim values, traditional customs. The sort of things you raised in your book, Inside Muslim Minds. Now do you think that the authenticity factor embraces not only culture but also this political ideal, even though it is a chimera, even though it is a fantasy?

RIAZ HASSAN
Yes, I think the big struggle in the Muslim world is between hybridity and authenticity and that is really the struggle which is now unfolding. But the fact is that much of the Muslim world in fact there are 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.2 billion of them live in Asia and only 300 million are Arabic speaking Muslims. In fact one third of Muslims live in South Asia and another third live in South‑East Asia and Central Asia. So primarily, if you look at South Asia and look at Central Asia and look at the South-East Asia, none of these countries are following what the Islamic fundamentalists will call authentic Islamic identity. They have their own versions of Islam, the Indonesians, the Malaysians, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Bangladeshi, the Kazakhs and the Tajiks, the Turks. They have their own Islamic tradition. Now if you assume, if one argues that they're not authentic, then I think we have this phenomenon of the struggle between authenticity and hybridity. I think in the Muslim world this is going to be the major source of conflict.

JACKY ANGUS
Well on that note we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much, Professor Hassan, for being on Up Close.

RIAZ HASSAN
Thank you very much.

JACKY ANGUS
That was the sociologist Professor Riaz Hassan from the National University of Singapore. We've been discussing Islamism and the phenomenon of suicide bombing as an instrument of war and political domination. Relevant links, a full transcript of this and all our other episodes can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on 25 January 2013, produced and created by Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. I'm Jacky Angus, until next time, thanks for joining us, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close. We are also on Twitter and Facebook. For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2013. The University of Melbourne.


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