Suicide Bombings II – Who to blame: faith or mental illness?

By Dr Muhammad Naim Siddiqi & Dr Abdul Wahab Yousafzai

TWO articles published in these pages (of the newspaper DAWN) made some observations about suicide bombers. In one Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy (March 9) argued that human rights activists and religious scholars are hesitant to condemn suicide bombing because of its association with Islam. He added, “As the mullah’s indoctrination gains strength, the power to reason weakens.”

He further said, “For them [Americans] it [operating lethal drones] is a way to defend their country. What is harder to understand is how the Pakistani suicide bomber can kill people who are so close to him in so many ways.”

Dr Amin Gadit (Feb 26) explained the phenomenon in these words: “A disturbed neurochemistry of the brain cannot be ruled out either, as a number of them are either depressed or have suffered from depression.”

The history of ‘homicide by suicide’ shows that ever since two Jewish revolutionary groups were associated with this sort of activity in the period 4 BC to 70 AD, suicide bombing has been used as a war strategy by the Germans, Japanese kamikazes, the Palestinians and the Sri Lankans. Since the first suicide bombing took place on Nov 6, 2002 in Pakistan, nearly 2,000 people have died as a result of this form of violence. Suicide bombings can only be understood in reference to the context of individual cases.

As psychiatrists we will restrict ourselves to a psychological examination of this phenomenon. In a word, what prompts suicide bombers to destroy themselves while killing others?

One explanation lies in group dynamics which is one of the most powerful elements in terms of shaping a person’s behaviour. It provides him strong motivation, a source of support, a sense of belonging, a unique lifestyle and gives meaning to life. Pushing groups against the wall increases their cohesiveness and reinforces their determination to survive. The greater the oppression, the more powerful is the resistance. As such, use of disproportionate force does not work as the IRA and Hezbollah have demonstrated.

Another factor to which this phenomenon may be attributed is the frustration-aggression hypothesis. This suggests that frustration develops when a person is prevented from achieving his goals or needs, giving rise to feelings of rage and hopelessness. This leads to the belief that there is ‘no other option’. Feelings of revenge take over, prompting a person to join a group that shares these sentiments.

There could be yet another factor at work, namely the behaviourist model that believes that we learn behaviour, sometimes by mere association and at other times by the consequences of our behaviour. Such behaviour is sustained by positive reinforcement in the form of widespread support, appreciation and religiously defined rewards in eternal life as well as the perceived glory of military victory. Widespread condemnation could, conversely, work to discourage such behaviour.

One cannot overlook the dichotomous style of thinking that characterises the approach of many people in our society. For them there are only two sides to a situation: right or wrong. The wrong must be eliminated. It has been argued that the mindset of suicide bombers is dichotomous. Their mental state is therefore pathological; i.e. they are mentally ill. But dichotomous thinking is apparent in many of our leaders as well. They are, however, not perceived to be mentally ill.

No one has looked into the mental state of suicide bombers prior to their death. If these bombers are suicidal secondary to depression, their depression must be of a severe nature. Can a person depressed to this degree attempt such precise, complicated and highly motivated manoeuvres and carry them out with utmost precision? We should differentiate between the patients who take their lives because they want to die and those who want to kill themselves to take other peoples’ lives.

There is hardly any evidence to suggest that these people suffer from depression. Are we not increasing the stigma of psychiatric patients by labelling suicide bombers as depressive?

What determines the behaviour of such groups’ members is the absence of individuality and moral considerations. Obeying the leader even when his commands are unjust, illogical and fatal for the person and lethal for others is a well-known process of group dynamics. It can happen in the name of religion, faith, unity of command, defence of the motherland or honour. We must condemn the act of suicide bombing in our context. Nevertheless, mere condemnation will not stop these acts.

Until we are willing to know what pushes a person this far, and are determined to relieve his grievances, such sad but brutal acts are likely to continue. Calling the suicide bomber mentally ill or only motivated by religion is perhaps an oversimplification and complicates matters. Unfortunately, we are constantly providing suicide bombers the required ‘ammunition’ with our firm and uncompromised commitment to the war against terror. We are increasing their belief that there is no alternative.

Black-and-white thinking not only explains the actions of those who kill themselves to kill others. It also manifests itself in the thinking of those who oppose them.

The writers are consultant psychiatrists.


Filed under culture, Islam, Islamism, movements, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, Politics, psychology, Religion, Society, Terrorism

5 responses to “Suicide Bombings II – Who to blame: faith or mental illness?

  1. Lynell Frank

    Stumbled upon this site looking for Rumi images and read this–my thought about this was that if these people are depressed and possibly suicidal and feel their life has little meaning –could it be that they think this will give their life meaning? That they will be remembered? I have no idea but this thought entered my mind. If this is true then it wouldn’t be much different than something we are seeing more and more of in the US which is suicidal people taking out a number of people in a public place and then killing themselves. My interpretation of that is “I’m in pain so I’m going to make sure you’re in pain and now everyone will remember my name.” Very, very sad.

  2. Qandeel

    I empathise with your call to condemn these actions, but I was rather disappointed to see 2 psychiatrists give 3 very general explanations for the phenomenon of suicide bombing. I mean, *most* people in Pakistan are frustrated (and trigger-happy, especially in summer time), most are religious (fearing after-death consequences, etc), and, they’re not alone in this.

    To move away from the prevailing “dichotomous” paradigm, there is definitely a need to understand psychological and societal factors, and you’re right in saying that mere condemnation will not suffice. Which is why a more insightful understanding and explanation is required by doctors, social scientists, etc.

  3. Qandeel
    You make valid points – disappointing as it is this a slightly different take on the issue. Hence it found a way to PTH..

  4. Dear Lynell Frank

    Many thanks for visiting Pak Tea House and leaving your comment. What you say is partially the dynamic at work – it is a public act of misery and desperation that can be often couched in religious terms.
    Keep visiting
    cheers, Raza

  5. Short-term solution: pray for long lives of suicide bombers

    long-term solution: request Shoaib Mansoor to direct a series of long play abt issue to generate awareness abt the harmful consequences for every party concerned

    idea for first episode….suicide bomber went to a mosque blew himself, sadly his little brother was also killed, mother lost her mind after the incident..daddy was imprisoned..whole family ruined

    suggest similar stories or a better solution..ball is in ur court