In a recent conversation with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins raised a question about terrorist suicide bombers: "what's turned them into this kind of lunatic?" Dawkins' answer to the question was that he could only think it is the powerful force of childhood religious indoctrination such as at a Madrasah or Jesuit school.
Sam Harris replied that the data shows that suicide bombers are not primarily people raised in madrasahs but rather those that convert later in life. Harris's explanation wss that "Its just the spread of memes and people are ready to believe in paradise. There's not that much cognitive work they have to do to believe [in paradise] and if Islam is their source of faith you just have to connect the dots to [religious war and terrorism]. These people really believe what they say they believe, which is not true for most christians"
An alternative theory is presented by Robert Pape from the University of Chicago in his book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism". Pape developed the first comprehensive database of terrorist activity from 1980 to 2003. His results contradict the standard model that terrorism is primarily a product of Islam. In fact his theory rules out religion at all as the primary cause for suicide terrorism.
Pape performed extensive statistical analysis on his database of suicide terrorism. As a result he developed a theory in stark contrast with those presented by Dawkins and Harris. Pape's theory is that suicide terrorism is caused by three factors:
1) A nation (or a group such as the Tamil Tigers that perceives itself as an occupied nation) resisting a large occupation army of another democratic nation.
2) A religious difference between the occupied and occupying nation.
3) An organized campaign with specific political (not religious) goals, such as removal of the occupying troops from part or all of the disputed land. In this campaign the occupiers have an overwhelming military advantage over the occupied people such that conventional military resistance is futile.
The fact that democracies, and only democracies, are targeted for suicide terrorism is an important component of the theory. A favorite talking point of Sam Harris which he uses to support his claim that suicide terrorism is essentially caused by Islam is "where are all the Tibetan terrorists?" China has occupied Tibet for decades and has been as brutal as or more brutal than many of the nations that are targets of suicide terrorism. Why are there no Tibetan suicide bombers? Pape's theory accounts for this. If suicide terrorism is designed to change the behavior of a government it stands to reason that it would be used only against democracies since only democracies are susceptible to public opinion within their own country. The data that Pape analyzes from 1980 to 2003 strongly supports this. All of the targets of suicide terrorism for that period were democracies. Some such as Russia and Turkey were fledgling democracies but all were democracies. The case of Russia is an especially strong supporting data point. There have been Chechens advocating for independence from Russia for a long time but they only turned to suicide terrorism when Russia became a democracy.
Pape does not discount the motivating power of religion to incite violence. However, his theory is not that it is childhood indoctrination (Dawkins) nor a specific religion
(Harris) that incites suicide terrorism but rather a difference in the religion of the occupier and the occupied. Again, his theory is strongly supported by the data. In virtually every case of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003 there was a religious difference between the two sides. For the Tamil Tigers it was Hindus vs. Buddhists. For Al Queda it is Islam vs. Christianity.
The third element of Pape's theory also contradicts those proposed by Dawkins and Harris. Both emphasize the irrational nature of suicide terrorism. Pape shows that on the contrary, all the perpeatrators of suicide terrorism in the time period he studies had specific often realistic goals that they were trying to attain. In fact in some cases the terrorists achieve these goals. Hezbollah achieved their goal of removing US and French troops from Lebanon via the suicide bombing of the US marine baracks. Al Queda achieved its goal of removing US troop from Saudi Arabia via 9/11. Of course the Bush administration would deny that they removed the troops to placate Al Queda but from the perspective of Al Queda this was a victory. Al Queda also achieved its goal of removing Spanish troops from Iraq by the suicide bombing of Spanish trains.
Other example data points from Pape's research are:
* The group responsible for the most suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2003 was the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. A group of Marxists. The Tigers also have the dubious honor of inventing the suicide vest. They are not Muslims. The Tamil Tigers represent Hindus in the small nation of Sri Lanka fighting for independence against a government that represents the Buddhist majority. As Marxists many of the Tigers themselves were actually atheists.
* Even for suicide attacks in Muslim countries for the same time period secular groups account for over a third of the attacks.
* Overall, Islam was associated with approximately half of the suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003.
Part of Pape's research was to interview terrorists he could get access to in captivity.
This video contains an example terrorist interview starting at apx. minute 12
Here are some quotes from that interview that support Pape's theory:
"[The Western Powers] have intentionally targeted Muslim civilians in both the first and second Iraq wars,Somalia, Afghanistan, the Sudan just to give you a few examples and they've done this with the support and backing of their populations and electorates."
"Even if there have been some feeble protests,... the governments that started these wars have been re-elected. They kidnap people and send them to be tortured. I've carried the victims in my arms. Women, children, babies in the womb, you name it they've probably bombed it."
"Five American soldiers gang rape an Iraqi woman and then to hide the evidence kill her and three members of her family."
These quotes support Papes first principle that advocates of suicide attacks were far more concerned with violations of their national boundaries and crimes committed by occupying armies than by religious differences. Suicide terrorists also took into account and assigned moral responsibility to the civilian population of democracies that they felt violated their national sovereignty.
Unlike Dawkins and Harris, Pape's theory is supported by virtually all the data we have on suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003. As advocates for critical thinking Dawkins and Harris need to apply the same rigor and objectivity to discussions of political issues as they would to scientific ones and not simply embrace theories that blame religion without a theoretical framework or supporting data.
In fact, if we look at research described by Robert Trivers in his recent book The Folly of Fools, atheists who truly believe in critical thinking should be especially rigorous when analyzing explanations that blame religion for crimes. In that book Trivers shows overwhelming evidence that people, even scientists, have a predisposition to seek out data that fits into their existing knowledge base. If an atheist is truly interested in the truth, she will be especially diligent when analyzing theories on the negative effects of religion and be open to alternative theories that are supported by strong data.