Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005) (I cannot recommend this book enough!!) is, arguably, to date the most extensive survey of suicide terrorism. In it, Pape argues that the general agreement that suicide terrorism is the product of radical Islam is dangerously misleading. Because US foreign policy has largely rested on this assumption, we are actually at risk of suffering more suicide attacks instead of fewer. Understanding the true causes of suicide terrorism is the only way to adequately address the conditions that can lead to fewer suicide bombers.
Pape takes a few jabs at non-believers, so I hope he will forgive me for using some of his findings and arguments to form my hypothesis in this blog post. My hypothesis: If the conditions that Pape presents that lead to suicide terrorism in Muslim countries are met in the US, we should expect to see Christians strapping bombs to themselves. Ugh. That’s a horribly worded hypothesis.
Pape finds that suicide terrorism is the product of foreign occupation by democratic states who practice a different religion than the occupied society. Let’s break this down:
Occupation: The society and the state must be sufficiently weak that a foreign military force sets up shop in the weak state. If the people and the state were strong enough, they could defeat the foreign enemy, and therefore suicide terrorism would be unnecessary.
Democratic occupiers: Authoritarian regimes are largely immune from suicide terrorism. Pape believes this is because democracies are more malleable. They are more likely to concede to the terrorists demands. To illustrate this point, Pape shows how Israel often gives into terrorists’ demands.
Different religions: If the occupied society’s religion differs from the occupier’s religion, then the occupied society will fear that the occupier might try to compel members of the society to switch religions. On a long enough timeline, this might lead to permanent conversion and a loss of national identity. Religion plays a major role in national identity. The fear of losing it is very compelling, even more compelling than the fear of death.
Bin Laden attacked the US because the US had its military stationed in the Persian Gulf. The occupiers were largely Christian, and the state was a democratic regime.
Pape finds that these conditions are sufficient (although, admittedly, not necessary) to cause people to conduct suicide terrorist campaigns. Islam, itself, is an unnecessary variable. Indeed, many suicide campaigns are by secular (albeit also Muslim) groups, such as the PKK.
Currently, there are very few, if any, suicide terrorism campaigns conducted by Christian groups. Is this because Christians are less likely to resort to violence? Is it because Christians are less likely to commit suicide, even altruistic suicide? No. History is quite clear. Christians have every propensity to commit violence as any other group. Furthermore, even in the US, it was largely Christians who committed suicide protest by self-immolating themselves during the Vietnam War. Christians are not beyond altruistic suicide. So what would it take to make otherwise non-violent, non-suicidal Christians turn to strapping bombs to themselves and killing scores of innocent civilians?
Let’s take Pape’s argument and see.
In my hypothetical situation, let’s assume that the US becomes sufficiently weak that a foreign occupier can assert a monopoly of violence over the US society. Let this foreign occupier be Saudi Arabia (which is about 90% Sunni Muslim). For whatever reason, in my hypothetical situation, Saudi Arabia is a democracy instead of an absolute Islamic theocracy. Under these conditions, it would be reasonable to believe that American Christians would resort to suicide terrorism against Saudi Arabian civilians and military posts.
Of course this hypothetical situation is extreme, given that Saudi Arabia is definitely not a democracy. We can swap out Saudi Arabia for Bangladesh, which is a democracy with about a 90% Muslim population. Or maybe India, a democracy with an 80% Hindu population. Or scores of other democracies that have a majority population of a religion other than Christianity.
Some, if not most, Christians in the US believe that their religion is superior to other religions because of its relative passivity. But we have every reason to believe that even American Christians would commit mass atrocities against innocent civilian populations if the following criteria were met: The US is occupied by a democratic regime, and the regime is of a religion different than Christianity. The threat of assimilation of America’s national identity into another religion is a very compelling reason to commit such atrocities.
Indeed, it must also be assumed (as Pape did) that atheists would be blowing themselves up alongside the Christians because they would fear the encroachment of Islam into their society. In other words, this is human nature under intolerable conditions. Christianity will not prevent you from becoming a suicide terrorist.*
*Indeed, three of Hezbollah’s suicide bombers during it’s suicide campaign against Israel in the 1980s were Christian. So technically, there already have been Christian suicide bombers.