A four pound bomb exploded outside a bus stop in Jerusalem today. It killed one Israeli woman, and injured more than twenty-five others. The attack has occurred in the midst of increasing violence in the region; however, this is the first such attack in Jerusalem in about four years.

The armed wing of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian Islamist group, claimed responsibility. It has vowed to continue targeting cities far within Israel.

Small metal ball bearings that were packed within the bomb were found more than twenty feet from the explosion.

Israelis and Palestinians have engaged in quid pro quo violence for the last several weeks in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Over the last week, Palestinian militants have fired more than 60 rockets into southern Israeli towns. Israel has threatened to retaliate with a large scale attack in Gaza should the violence continue.

There are arguments that both support and oppose the hypothesis that suicide bombers are foremost a product of religious extremism.

Since 1980, suicide bombings have been identified with a variety of religious and secular ideologies. These ideologies include: the Hindu BKI in India, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the SSNP in Lebanon, the PFLP in the Palestinian territories, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the PPK in Turkey.

Salafi, Deobandi, and Marxist ideologies are three of the most common belief systems that are associated with suicide bombings. Marxism is a socio-political and economic worldview that is not historically associated with religion. This would suggest that suicide bombings are at least not completely a product of religious extremism.

Focusing on the Deobandi and Salafi movements, both of which I have written on in this blog before, neither Deobandi nor Salafi are unified belief systems. There is no single authority on either. Quintan Wiktorowicz has written in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism that “(t)he divisions within the Salafi community, in part, represent a generational struggle over sacred authority–the right to interpret Islam on behalf of the Muslim community.” In other words, Wiktorowicz claims that there is no single and exclusive understanding within Salafi ideology regarding actions such as suicide bombings. With this knowledge, one can assume that other ideological factors other than religion are also contributors in the making of a suicide bomber. We can come to this conclusion, because there is no homogeneous authority within a belief system like Salafi to encourage every believer into becoming a bomber. If there were, the world would have experienced millions more of these bombings.

What Makes A Suicide Bomber?

Suicide bombers seek to coalesce their religious beliefs to existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political views. Therefore, they may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a suicide bomber as much as it is an approbation.

Individuals associated with suicide bombings tend to experience a progressive radicalization. A better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in that experience could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of suicide bombings.

A lack of data on successful suicide bombers is a contributing factor to the ambiguity that religion plays in these events. Many groups that plan the bombings put off releasing the bomber’s identities in order to protect their families and larger community from revenge. Yet, data from failed suicide bombers is available, and it is conclusive. There are plenty of instances where groups like the Taliban recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme religious ideology to incite and encourage them. However, there are just as many instances where failed bombers turn out to be extremely educated, and these people are just as likely to cite nationalistic and economic inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

One of the few consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

Suicide bombers are reactionary. They are reacting to their socio-economic-cultural realities. They are disgruntled by factors (both real and perceived) within their community, region, or nation state.

I think it is pragmatic to state that suicide bombings are not singularly a product of religious extremism. But, for those instances where religious extremism is a factor, it would be beneficial to ask if suicide bombers (who we know are religious) subscribe to an extreme religion because they are already disgruntled, or does an extreme religion advance their militancy?

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