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Those Atheist Terrorists
Suicide Bombings and Terrorist Attacks are Political, Not Religious

For several years the news media have focused our attention on the phenomenon of suicide terrorism. Our television screens have been filled with images of bloodshed, destruction and death in places like Jerusalem, Baghdad and London. In these news reports, the very image of the "suicide bomber" has been wedded to phrases like "Muslim extremism," or "Islamic Holy War." Looking behind these media driven clichés, Robert Pape who teaches at the University of Chicago has compiled the first complete database, reflecting a careful examination of every documented case of suicide bombing from 1980-2003. Pape's conclusions are contained in a new book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism."

Pape argues that the news reports about suicide terrorism are profoundly misleading. "There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions," Pape reports. After studying 315 suicide attacks carried out over the last two decades, the political science professor concludes that suicide bombers' actions stem from political conflict, not religion. While television viewers and newspaper readers in the US hear more about events in Israel, Iraq, Madrid and London, Pape points out that the Tamil Tigers, a group that most Americans have never heard of, are responsible for more suicide attacks over the last two decades than any other group. The Tamil Tigers have have been influenced by a Marxist/Leninist ideology which is largely atheistic and disavow any connection with the Hinduism practiced by many of the people the the region of Sri Lanka where they operate. The Tamil Tigers are engaged in a struggle for independence from the central Sri Lankan government.

Pape's strong conclusion is that religious fundamentalism is NOT the source of suicide bombings or terrorism. "What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland." This is true in Sri Lanka, it is true in the Middle East (where many terrorist groups consider themselves secular rather than religious) and, yes, in Iraq, where former Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein may use Islam as a cover and even a recruiting tool, but are motivated by clear political objectives: the pressure the US to leave Iraq so that the way will be clear for their own return to power. Worldwide, the struggle is about power and politics, not religion.

Bottom line: Asymmetrical warfare makes the world safe for suicide terrorism, while religion is a smokescreen and cover for what is actually happening. Focusing on "Muslim extremism" is therefore likely to make matters worse, rather than leading to a solution to the problem..

Atheist Tyrants

Moreover, when one considers earlier examples of mass murder and violence in history, the violence perpetrated in the name of God pales by comparison with the violence committed by those who disavow religion. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor recently, Dinesh D'Souza makes the point:

It is strange to witness the passion with which some secular figures rail against the misdeeds of the Crusaders and Inquisitors more than 500 years ago. The number sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition appears to be about 10,000. Some historians contend that an additional 100,000 died in jail due to malnutrition or illness.

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

Wanton violence and slaughter is, of course, deplorable whether committed under the cover of religion or secular ideology. In this, peace loving theists and atheists can agree ... and make common cause in the struggle to rid the world of war. And when the guns and bombs are silenced, we can get back to the question of God.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.