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Dying to Win

February 15, 2009

bkcover-dying-to-winA friend of mine—Craig Martin—recently posted a review of Robert Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism on his facebook profile. I thought it was worth sharing and he said he didn’t mind.

I just finished this and recommend it. The author argues that suicide terrorists are not poor, uneducated, disaffected, brainwashed dupes. He shows that suicide terrorist campaigns have a strategic logic, and that terrorism is on the rise because it often helps nationalist groups achieve their goals—that is, because it WORKS. He also persuasively demonstrates that suicide terrorists are not overwhelmingly Muslim.

Who are they? Mostly they oppose foreign occupation of their native land by alien democratic states, they are weak actors (they are outnumbered or outmatched by opposing forces), and they’ve found that guerrilla warfare has been unsuccessful.

Two weaknesses: First, he rightly recognizes that national identities are social constructions and treats them as such. He should have done the same when it came to “religious” identities—they too are social constructions. But instead, when he talks about “religion” he slips into essentialism, talking about religion as a “force” or something that “drives” people to do things. (I should point out, however, that his entire discussion of “religion” is mostly designed to show that it is largely irrelevant to explaining suicide terrorists’ motives—although not irrelevant to explaining their public rhetoric.)

Second, his conclusion should have been that democratic states should stop their foreign occupations. But, oddly, he basically says that “we” need the oil so we can’t withdraw. He was so straightforward with his recognition of the US’s vulgar material motives that I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or satirical. I assume he was being serious.

Let me briefly elaborate on what Craig means by religious identities being social constructions. Take, for instance, something like American nationalist identity. Few people these days think that there is some “American-ness” that underlies American identity and which forces Americans to behave the way they do. Instead, American identity is a social construct, including totems like flags, around which people rally and establish solidarity (for better or worse).

One could (and Craig things one should) say the same thing about religious identities. When someone claims to be Muslim, they’re rallying arround a socially constructed identity. But, alas, most people slip in some sort of essentialist talk and imply that Muslims are participating in some essential Muslim-ness that requires them to behave in predetermined ways.

It would have been easier to explain if I had just started out using Edward Said’s Orientalism as an example: there is no essence to Islam any more than there is an essence to the “East” or the “West.”

From what Craig has said (I haven’t read the book yet so I can’t say for sure), it looks like Pape slips into that kind of talk about Islam; even though he’s trying to prove that Islam doesn’t force people to be terrorists, he seems to assume that “religion” is some sort of essential force that drives people to do something.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2009 5:33 pm

    I have read the book though it was a couple of years ago. Other than the persuasive argument regarding the significance of foreign occupation as a motivation for (suicide) terrorism.

    I don’t really remember a significant essentialist emphasis in the book, although that’s not to say there isn’t.

    I am not sure though the social construction of identity and essentialism are really opposed. That there is is for most religious believer (I am one) an essentialist conviction (ie “you’re not a christian if …) the nature of the essentialism is not universal. In other words the content of the blank is not universally accepted but subject to observation and experience.

    It’s not the clearest of comments I know but I don’t see how any ideology, religious or otherwise can make any sense without an assumption of essentialism. Of course there are socially constructed but in the case of religions at least this construction does not evolve with an homogenous group but in the conflict of many completing understandings, hence my comment that the ‘essentialist’ facet is relative.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 20, 2009 7:31 pm

    Richard, if I understand your point, I think I would call what you’re drawing attention to “nominal essentialism.” As I use the term, nominal essentialism is sort of like having a stipulative definition: for our purposes we’re going to use the word X to apply to all things with characteristics A, B, and C–in which case A, B, and C would be the nominal essences of X.

    I think you’re suggesting that ideologies require us to rally around common characteristics, and we thereby create an essence: when we say we’re Americans, we mean we’re people with characteristics D, E, and F (recognizing that human beings made up that use of the term, making it a “social construction”).

    If that’s what you mean, I think I’m in full agreement, apart from the semantics.

    What I’m calling “essentialism” in Dying to Win is something like animism–I think sometimes Pape talks as if religion were some sort of force. He talks about “religion doing this and that.” It would be one thing to say “people who identify as Islamic are doing this and that,” but it is something entirely different to talk as if “religion” were some sort of libidinal drive underlying the behavior of practitioners. I don’t think that there is a storm god behind thunder storms any more than I think “religion” is some force directing the behavior or “religious” people.

    Does that make sense? Does essentialism in this sense seem different from nominal essentialism? Argh. Perhaps we need clearer vocabulary to make sense of all this …

  3. February 20, 2009 8:35 pm

    Yes that was my main point, although you’ve said it a lot clearer (I really should proof-read comments before submitting)!

    I would be very wary of the type of essentialism as you have Papes endorsing it. For one thing even if it were accepted that there is an essentialist “Islam” to use this interchangeably with the broader category “religion” seems dubious at best.

    However, I’ve not thought this out but isn’t something like a religious essentialism playing out in Feuerbach’s projection theory? (I mention this because I know you’ve posted on this recently) along with the critiques of many new atheists (eg, religion is …). Whereas for Papes this essentialism is as you have put akin to animism for Feuerbach et al it is a psychological deficit, or am I being unfair?

    I’d be interested to see non-essentialist atheism (as opposed to a non-christian / non-muslim etc) would look like, if indeed it would be logically possible.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 21, 2009 12:37 pm

    Richard, I’m glad I captured your point with some degree of clarity. I try to write clearly in order to make up for my manifest lack of originality!

    On Feuerbach: it has been years since I thoroughly read Feuerbach’s “The ESSENCE of Christianity,” but from what I remember he is an essentialist about religion. It’s no surprise—he’s utilizing Hegel’s essentialist teleology, according to which some sort of essence unfolds itself or develops itself out in human practices.

    And I think the new atheists do something similar. I cringe every time I hear one of them say “Religion is ….” I think the colloquial use of the word “religion” collects together a lot of dissimilar traditions, and there’s no one set of characteristics they all share in common—consequently, any statement that begins “religion is” is bound to be a false generalization.

    However, I think we can save some of what’s good about Feuerbach’s theory. What’s worth saving? For me, I want to hang on to the idea that what people say about the gods tells us more about the people than anything else. For instance, I think most of the answers to the question “what would Jesus do?” tell us more about the values of the people answering the question than about Jesus.

    I’m not sure what you mean by non-essentialist atheism. Can you say more about that?

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