Roundtable From Religious Self-Sacrifice to Suicide Terrorism: Martyrdom in the West during the Nineteenth Century Compared with the Middle East Today

AHA Session 2
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Sponsored by the AHA Working Group on Religion, Peace, and Violence
Mark J. Sedgwick, University of Aarhus

Session Abstract

Since Hezbollah first made systematic use of modern suicide terrorism in the Lebanon War in 1981, this tactic has spread across the globe. Between 1981 and 1990, 4.7 suicide attacks took place per year on average worldwide; in 2005 it was one per day in Iraq alone.  Moreover, some of the most deadly and influential terrorist attacks in the recent past were suicide attacks, for example, the bombing of the French and U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, the 9/11 attacks, and the 7/7 bombing in London. The overwhelming majority of groups perpetrating suicide terrorism are jihadist. They encounter little difficulty in recruiting bright, idealistic young men and women who are willing to die in order to kill. To these young people, martyrdom for the sake of jihad appears as life’s noblest cause, and their families and peers often agree.

In Western media and the public at large, the idea of martyrdom and suicide terrorism in radical Islam is widely viewed as irrational and foreign, if not pathological. In academia, Jihadist terrorism is often treated as fundamentally different from revolutionary, nationalist or vigilante terrorism in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States. Since the first step towards solving a problem is to understand it, however, it does not help to see suicide terrorism and the idea of martyrdom in radical Islam as something utterly alien.

In fact, martyrdom and self-sacrifice were also important concepts in nineteenth-century political terrorism in Europe and the United States. With this panel, we first want to examine the influence of these concepts on the self-understanding and public perception of political terrorists in the nineteenth century. Second, we intend to explore the transformation of the idea of martyrdom from a Christian ideal into a modern political weapon. Third, we will analyze the way in which forces of modernization—such as the mass media, a romantic literary imagination or a secular scientific worldview—facilitated and shaped this process. In this way, we aim to compare the modernization of martyrdom and the changing relationship between politics and religion in nineteenth-century Western movements with analogous phenomena in the Middle East today. Our working hypothesis is that martyrdom and self-sacrifice in radical Islam might look more familiar than is generally assumed.

The panel will have three speakers, a commentator, and a chair. Bruce Hoffman will chair the session.  Klaus Ries will present a paper on the French Revolution and the Jacobin-inspired group in Germany around Karl Follen. Carola Dietze will speak on John Brown and John Wilkes Booth. Ana Siljak will present her findings on Russian terrorists, especially women like Vera Zasulich and Sofia Petrovskaya. Finally, Mark Sedgwick will comment.  Through its emphasis on changing martyrdom concepts in modernizing societies, the panel directly addresses the annual meeting’s theme of “History, Society, and the Sacred.” It will appeal to conference participants interested in modernity and modernization in both the “West” and Middle East, terrorism studies in general, the history of terrorism in the West, and everybody else interested in suicide terrorism today.

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