Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Who is Sayyid Qutb?

Suicide bombing is the targeted use of self-destructing human beings against noncombatants (“soft targets”), most often with the ostensible purpose of effecting geopolitical change. It is a psychological weapon, aimed not so much at a given bombing’s immediate victims but rather at the larger audience made to witness it. This deep understanding of the need to force others to witness makes the suicide bomber, by definition, a modern protagonist.

There are other levels of this modernity that bear close investigation. Why? Because to explain suicide bombings with reference to any single, overt “cause”—poverty, the Palestine question, or a reaction to Islamic eclipse—is to miss their essential nature. There are other things going on here.

Who Are They?

I feel it is naïve, perhaps even dangerous, to think in terms of a precise “profile” of the suicide bomber. Still, the phenomenon has been with us long enough for certain trends to emerge.

The experience of the suicide bomber has a coherent and rational connection to the rest of his (and, increasingly, her) life, concerns, and values, and general sense of how the world works. One key motivator is a profound dissatisfaction with, and alienation from, contemporary secular society. What little research there is (it’s tough to find subjects, since most of them blow themselves to bits) suggests that these suicide bombers have no appreciable psychopathology and are at least as well-off and well-educated as the surrounding populations. The suicide bomber tends to be older, better-educated, more widely traveled and well-read, and more sophisticated than those populations.

Suicide bombers apparently span the whole spread of their societies’ normal distribution in terms of education, age, socioeconomic status, and personality type. Their religiosity appears to be no more radical or strong than the surrounding population (which may be an alarming fact in itself, but that is another discussion). Bombers are generally men aged eighteen to forty (though there was a flurry of young, female bombers at one point). They express no socially dysfunctional attributes or suicidal symptoms.

With suicide bombers, then, the central challenge is to decipher why educated, nonpathological individuals respond in such a way, and in such numbers. Why this act? One would expect people like that to think twice about dying. Apparently not. Or maybe they did think twice—and did it anyway. Other than the one, final horror, the final exclamation point on an otherwise ordinary life, the suicide bomber as a type appears to be completely normal. Then why?

I would argue that a large part of what we are seeing is a deep philosophical hunger: a hunger for a simple, Manichean worldview; a hunger for an unconditional encounter with the real and a craving for an irrevocable decision. In some of the most unstable parts of the world, it is, not surprisingly, the most educated and worldly who will often feel this lack of decision, this lack of certainty—an ache in the soul, born of a deep intolerance of ambiguity coupled with an unquenchable hunger.

As if on cue, the unquiet ghost of Sayyid Qutb appears on the scene to feed that hunger.
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Alan said...

Thanks for the link. If it escaped your attention (I'm guessing it did not) there is also an excellent piece titled 'Judicial Activism’ and the Conservative Revolution in the same issue of the Free Inquiry.

Hume's Ghost said...

You guessed correctly.

Its an excellent article, as are Drury's other pieces for FI.