The phenomenon of suicide bombing by Muslims has become common in many parts of the world, particularly in the past 10 years. The psychodynamic process that leads to suicide bombing is complex; nevertheless, given a basic premise of all psychodynamic theories, psychic determinism, most will agree that the act is not a random one. Muslim terrorist group leaders such as Osama Bin Laden are not suicide bombers and are not the focus of this article. Instead, this piece is an attempt to understand the personality of these mostly young men who are used as a weapon by their leaders and give up their life, and to look at the associated psychodynamic processes. More specifically, my purpose is to speculate on the psychological developmental trajectories of a child in the context of family environment, religious schooling, and culture that can contribute to the making of a suicide bomber.
As a psychiatrist and a psychodynamic psychotherapist who has lived and practiced in Pakistan, I have had the opportunity to observe extremist Muslims and their psychological makeup. Observing interviews in the media of some unsuccessful suicide bombers who were arrested sheds no light on this process because, as Bloom (2009) and Hafez (2006) describe, there is significant similarity between suicide bombers’ reasons for their actions. They say only what they are consciously aware of. Their justifications include various reasons that fall under the general categories of religion, nationalism, and revenge. These influences certainly play a role; but from a psychodynamic perspective, the first question becomes “What is unique about these individuals’ personalities, compared to the rest of the population, that they believe in the cause to the extent that they are willing to kill themselves and others?” The second question is “Do they really believe in the cause, or is this rationalization a defense mechanism that allows them to act on other unconscious drives/motives?” The only way I know of that one might have a better understanding of the phenomenon than what I attempt in this article is to have many “suicide bombers-to-be” in psychoanalytic therapy as willing participants. Given that that option is highly unlikely, I make an attempt here to put together indirect evidence to develop a theory. It is important to emphasize that the dynamics I describe apply to tens of thousands of children who grow up under such circumstances, but only a small fraction of them will commit the act. Many individuals might be supportive of such violence; but, for most of them, all the dynamics do not come together in a way that they reach the point of no return.
Psychodynamic Factors That Contribute to the Personality Traits of a Suicide Bomber
Based on the available evidence, the proposed theory suggests that certain psychodynamic factors may contribute to the development of personality traits that are common among suicide bombers. These factors include being abandoned by one’s family; having a deranged experience of puberty and adolescence that leads to identity foreclosure; experiencing cruel, guilt-inducing, and physically abusive disciplining; and being unable to accept the unsettling reality of mortality.
Abandonment by the Family
The first factor in the making of a potential Pakistani Muslim suicide bomber is abandonment by one’s family. This abandonment can lead to low-self esteem, low self-worth, anger, and unhappiness in that individual.
In 2005, Pakistan had 20,000 madrassas (Islamic religious schools), with an estimated 1.7 million students enrolled, compared to 137 madrassas at the time Pakistan gained its independence in 1947 (Lawson, BBC News, July 14, 2005). Several other sources (e.g., Human Rights Commission Pakistan, International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, Pakistan Ministry for Religious Affairs, The World Bank) give higher or lower madrassa counts; but, irrespective of the accuracy of the exact numbers, all the sources accept that the number is in the thousands. Typically, most students of these madrassas are from very poor families with multiple children. These children often receive no schooling, and, for many parents, even feeding them is a struggle (VJ Movement journalists). For these parents, a madrassa, which is free Islamic schooling with free board and lodging, is a good option for one or more of their children.
Learning and memorizing the Quran is one of the ultimate goals of madrassa education. The person who has memorized the Quran is known as “Hafiz-i-Quran.” Besides free living, the following teachings become further rationalizations for the parents to abandon their children by sending them to a madrassa:
He who learns the Qur’an and practices upon it, his parents will be made to wear a crown on the day of Qiyamah [Judgment Day], the brilliance of which will excel that of the sun if the same were within your worldly houses. Hence, what do you think about the person who himself acts upon it? (Abu Dawood)
Whoever reads the Qur’an and memorizes it, while he regards what it makes lawful as lawful and its unlawful as forbidden, Allah will admit him into Jannah [Heaven] and will accept his intercession on behalf of ten such persons of his family who were doomed to the fire of Jahannam [Hell]. (Tirmidhi)
Parents justify sending a child to the madrassa as the right thing to do that will benefit both the child and the parents in the life hereafter. However, according to Freud’s ego psychology, doing so is a good example of using the ego ideal as rationalization (a psychological defense mechanism) against the guilt (super ego) of being an abandoning and selfish parent.
Unfortunately, young children who are cognitively in the stage of concrete operations (Piaget) cannot make any sense of this reasoning by their parents and can only experience being sent away as abandonment by their family. And if only one child among many is sent, the experience can create yet stronger feelings of being unwanted. Kohut’s theory of self-esteem development (1971) places emphasis on validating and loving responses (“the gleam in the mother’s eyes”) from parents to fulfill the narcissistic needs of a child. In that context, one can only imagine what this kind of abandonment can do to the child’s self-esteem. I suggest that the action leads to serious narcissistic injury and low self-esteem. I have seen some patients who were sent to a madrassa because they were considered the bright and intelligent ones and more likely to do well at memorizing the Quran. They were considered the special ones among their siblings. This context certainly is better than just feeling abandonment; nevertheless, their unconscious resentment for being used was many times evident and contributed to their symptoms of depression.
In July 2007, Lal Masjid, a madrassa in the heart of Islamabad, was under siege for 8 days by the Pakistan army. When negotiations failed, an intense battle ensued between the heavily armed madrassa students and the Pakistan army. Women inside the madrassa were given free passage out of the combat area. Not even thinking of how concerned her parents might be, a journalist, asked a 14-year-old girl why she resisted coming out. She responded that her parents had eight children, and if one of them died in the name of Islam, why would that be a concern for them? One could clearly see her resentment and anger toward her parents for abandoning only her out of the eight children. One can also assume that her death wish developed not only because of low self-esteem and unhappiness, but also as the result of unconscious wishful thinking that dying would make her parents regret their decision of abandoning her; she felt she might gain their love through her dying and their mourning her loss.
In this example, Islam as a cause is irrelevant and is only rationalization for this complex dynamic. This scenario is similar to that of a patient who overdoses on the medicines his psychiatrist has prescribed, as opposed to taking more lethal over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). Having developed transference, the patient sees his psychiatrist as uncaring, unloving, or unavailable, like a past parent figure. The patient perceives that overdosing on the prescription medication is a good way to make the psychiatrist regret his attitude.
Cruel, Guilt-Inducing, Physically Violent Discipline
Cruel physical discipline is the second factor that leads to unconscious murderous rage toward authority figures or symbols of authority. This combination, in turn, can contribute to the development of a Pakistani Muslim suicide bomber.
Islam is taught to most children in a harsh and violent manner in some madrassas. I have personally witnessed this mistreatment as a child when I went to a local mosque only for a brief time after school. Belonging to an educated and affluent family, I was spared; but most other children around me were treated cruelly.
The guilt-inducing and physically abusive teaching in some Muslim religious schools is a well-known phenomenon. Discouragement of independent thinking is the norm. Students can question or discuss nothing. Everything is shoved down their throat. They are made to memorize for several hours every day. I remember a 9- or 10-year-old boy being hit with a stick because he momentarily looked at the boy next to him and uttered a few words instead of memorizing. An enormous amount of guilt is induced in students for innocent childhood behavior. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these children are robbed of their childhoods.
According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, these children are at the level of concrete thinking and clearly unable to have any meaningful understanding of religion and the concept of God, and of why they are subjected to such cruelty. For them, the experience is of being subjected to anger and violence from authority figures. As a reaction, they develop unconscious murderous rage toward authority figures or symbols of authority figures.
One can see much indirect evidence of such rage in the society. An example is those who experience blasphemous thoughts as part of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In my 8 years of clinical experience in the United States, where I see many patients suffering from OCD, I have seen none with blasphemous thoughts. In Pakistan, blasphemous thoughts are a common presenting symptom of OCD. The psychodynamic understanding is that Islam is harshly and sometimes violently imposed on most people, who then develop enormous rage toward authority figures and Islam. That anger or rage remains unconscious because of the associated guilt. Then it comes out symbolically in the form of uncontrolled ego-dystonic thoughts of abuses toward the Prophet, Allah, and the Quran because they not only represent Islam but also are ultimate symbols of authority. Islam and the authority figure is exactly what the unconscious rage is harbored against. One example is having thoughts of throwing away or kicking the Quran. Listing other examples would be inappropriate and disrespectful to Islam.
Patients would relate their experience with great difficulty; after I responded calmly by describing their thoughts as a common mental illness for which Allah wouldn’t hold them accountable, they would sigh with relief. Many said that they were afraid they would be wajib-ul-qatal (deserving to be killed) if they told their experience to someone. I see this concern as a paranoid position: projecting one’s own murderous rage onto others. However, many such stories appear in the news about people who actually have been killed by the mob in Pakistan for blasphemy. One report was of a manic patient who claimed to be the Prophet and was then attacked by the mob and stoned to death before anyone could intervene.
The dynamics of such acts are that the mob’s own unconscious rage toward religion, which makes them feel very guilty, is projected onto a scapegoat. Once they see it in someone else in the form of blasphemy, their inner “evil” faces them extraneously in the form of this other individual, whom they attack and kill. Along with soothing their guilt, this action also gratifies their murderous rage. Of course, they do all this in the name of Islam, for which Allah will reward them in life hereafter. In other words, there are two unconscious gains and one conscious gain.
The issue of the Danish cartoons in 2005 and 2006 that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, and the total furor by many in the Muslim world in response also reflect this phenomenon. In contrast, many other Muslims who truly believe in Islam and have genuine respect for the Prophet saw the cartoons only as a joke in bad taste.
Deranged Experience of Puberty and Adolescence
The third factor that can contribute to the making of a Pakistani Muslim suicide bomber is deranged experiences in puberty. Such experiences can lead to identity foreclosure for many adolescents.
As the result of thorough brainwashing with heavy doses of radical religious stereotypes and discouragement of independent thinking, these youths are poorly prepared to deal with this stage of identity formation. One can assume that many of them would end up with what Erikson (1968) called identity foreclosure. Before this stage, most of us live with a borrowed identity from our parents. The concepts of right and wrong, ethics, morality, the general belief system, and so on are based on what we have learned or seen around us. During adolescence, this identity is tested, debated, and experienced otherwise before we internalize all of the above to form a stable identity. For these religious-school teenagers in Pakistan, there is no such debate, and their identity is foreclosed at this stage. They might have a clear answer about what is right or wrong, a clear distinction between good and evil, and a simplistic or even dangerous view as to the purpose of life; but they are deeply confused about their identity, even without being aware of this confusion. The more they are confused about their identity, the less able they are to tolerate or debate confusion about the purpose of life and the unknown.
A well-known quotation by Bertrand Russell comes to mind: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” The only difference here is that these students are not stupid because this is not an issue of intelligence. It is more a maladaptive personality trait that makes them appear ignorant and stupid. There are millions of Tablighees (men who spread Islam) in Pakistan, many of whom I have come across, and they all say the same thing: “This is the right path. If you follow it, you will go to heaven; if you don’t, you will go to hell. Come with us so that you also spread this word.” In the past 25 years of my adult life, having received hundreds of such dawats (invitations [to Islam]) by Tablighees, I have yet to hear anything different.
We also have to keep in mind the energy of sexual drive during puberty, which challenges the psyche of the teenager. We must remember that teenagers are very prone to guilt, and if guilt is induced for innocent child’s play, sexuality becomes impossible to deal with. The children and adolescents in madrassas are segregated as males and never get to see or interact with females. Any sexual thoughts, feelings, and masturbation are absolutely forbidden. I know from clinical experience that even nocturnal emissions and associated dreams are difficult for these youth to deal with. Their absence of a sexual outlet leads to sexual energy that needs to be discharged.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse of children in madrassas* also is very common. Many times, when they are older, these youth in turn sexually abuse younger children or resort to situational homosexuality, which in itself results in very guilt-ridden individuals. They often have significant guilt about being sexually abused, or sexually abusing others, or experiencing situational homosexuality. This deranged experience of puberty and adolescence often leads to identity foreclosure.
Unsettling Reality of Mortality
A fourth factor that can contribute to the making of a Pakistani Muslim suicide bomber is the inability of many madrassa students to accept mortality.
All animals are instinctually hardwired to avoid death, but they do not cognitively understand the phenomenon of death. Only the human species has become aware, through evolution, of its mortality and the phenomenon of death. For children between the ages of 5 years and 7 years, cognition has developed to the extent that they begin to understand death’s three main components: irreversibility, nonfunctionality, and universality (Speece & Brent, 1984). When existential issues begin to arise, the human psyche is challenged in a troubling manner, particularly in the early teenage years, at the stage of formal operations (Piaget & Inhelder, 2000).
I don’t think there is any mechanism in the evolutionary process that prepares us as humans for this new, unsettling awareness. We have to deal with it in some adaptive or maladaptive manner. There are many symbolic ways to become immortal. The two most common and healthy ways are passing on the genes through procreation, and leaving behind some memorable word or deed. Sublimation of the sexual drive usually leads to the latter. For example, Sigmund Freud continues to “live” not only through his children but also, and even more so, through the theory he developed. At best, these examples represent symbolic immortality and are not absolute.
Therefore, the issue of one’s immortality continues to be troubling, in some way, over a lifetime. The most common way to achieve what many humans consider “absolute” immortality and find so appealing is through religion and the concept of life hereafter that is common to most religions. Even before contemporary religions evolved, humankind was obsessed with immortality, as we can see in early Egyptian civilization—for example, God Osiris, the God of the afterlife and the related elaborate myths that evolved around life after death.
Greek civilization was no exception. Even outside the context of religion, there are other examples, such as Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC), the Chinese emperor, and his extensive army of terracotta soldiers that were buried with him outside Beijing after his death for protection in the afterlife. These artifacts are a testimony to his inability to reconcile with mortality (Lewis, 2007). Interestingly, Qin Shi Huang, even though he was a ruthless killer himself, was known to be obsessed with becoming immortal. He tried different kinds of elixirs to live forever but ironically died prematurely at the age of 49 after he ingested mercury in an attempt to become immortal. Ironically, he feared death so much that, just like a suicide bomber, he died in his effort to become immortal.
I also see not accepting mortality as the collective narcissism of humankind: Despite the fact that we have no evidence whatsoever for immortality, we generally agree that our lives have more meaning than just being here in life like other animals and plants and then ceasing to exist by becoming one with nature. For the madrassa students in Pakistan, life is generally miserable. Consequently, in terms of religion and the afterlife, to believe that there is nothing after life becomes even more unacceptable to them unlike someone who has lived a good life. They develop a rigid belief that not only is there an afterlife, but also that becoming a suicide bomber will ensure them eternal life in heaven.
Personality Profile of a Pakistani Muslim Suicide Bomber
I hypothesize that, because of the four factors discussed above, suicide bombers have many of the following personality traits:
A young man is harboring unconscious murderous rage toward authority figures. The rage is unconscious because he is prone to severe guilt.
Because his rage is unconscious, he can readily displace it to someone else to bypass his guilt.
He suffers from identity foreclosure, which leads to his inability to explore different aspects of his self in different areas of life, including his identity related to his work and role within the family and with friends. There are no romantic relationships. His isolation leads to an inability to explore and identify his desired role in such a relationship, and to longings and an attitude toward such issues that result in his experiencing his life as meaningless.
Because of his identity foreclosure, his potential is great to believe in the violent version of anything presented to him (including Islam) that also resonates with his inner rage.
Because his independence of thought has been discouraged, he has an ability to develop a clear distinction between the self and the enemy, with the enemy being perfectly evil with malicious intent, and certainly not human.
He suffers from unhappiness and low self-worth because of an emotionally deprived childhood.
He cannot reconcile with mortality and strongly believes in life hereafter because it is too hard to accept the pain of this life and the thought that there might not be anything afterward.
Sex is either not a part of life or is marred by severe guilt as the result of his having experienced pedophilia or situational homosexuality.
He is prone to developing idealizing transference, not having grown up with parent figures worthy of idealizing (Kohut, 1971).
Willing to perform as a result of mirroring transference, he is eager to do anything that would get him appreciation (Kohut, 1971).
I discuss the last two traits in more detail later.
The Circumstances in Pakistan
In the past decade, terrorism and the war on terror have left Pakistani society very scarred, and US foreign policy has created anti-American sentiments in many segments of the culture. Also as the result of US support of Israel, a Jewish state against Palestinians, and of continued US fighting against the Taliban, Pakistanis see America as anti-Islam. In these circumstances, it is easy for Pakistani leaders to put the ordinary Pakistani in a paranoid position by instilling in him a fear that “they are here to get you.” It is not only true for Pakistani leaders but also for leaders around the world. As an example, George W. Bush very successfully capitalized on this fact in the United States and got reelected, scaring ordinary Americans by calling the September 11 tragedy a war against the United States instead of a crime committed by a group of people in the name of a certain ideology (italics added for emphasis):
On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war on our country… Americans have known the casualties of war—but not at the center of a great city… All of this was brought upon us in a single day—and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack. (George W. Bush, “Address to Joint Session of Congress and the American People, Sept. 20, 2001,” par. 6)
Bush continued with the themes of freedom being attacked and of being at war till the end of his presidency. Given their patriotism and inherently suspicious nature, ordinary people can easily take a paranoid position. If people can still be easily misguided in a country such as the United States, where there is relatively more freedom, awareness, and education than in many other countries, one can only imagine how easy it would be to misguide people in a closed and less aware society such as Pakistan. Because of the events of the past decade, the perception in Pakistan that the United States of America is against Islam and Islamic ways of living comes rather naturally among ordinary people. Religious extremists take every advantage of this situation and capitalize on any group’s capability to develop an “us against them” mentality. The US approach to the war on terror, with drone attacks in Pakistan and the associated “collateral damage,” does wonders for Muslim extremists’ mission of instilling hatred against the United States of America.
US foreign policy also has contributed to a common picture painted everywhere across Pakistan that helps demonstrate the sentiments of many of these Muslim extremists: “Allah is the only superpower.” This position is in the context of the United States and its allies. On the surface, this is defiance; but it still identifies the United States as a power in a position of authority. Another statement written frequently is Jihad qiyamat tak jari rahay ga, which means “Jihad will continue till Judgment Day.” This statement has a popular appeal to these people because perpetual jihad is a justified vehicle for their unlimited murderous rage. Otherwise, why not strive for peace and the prosperity of Muslims?
Another example is the following popular verse of the famous national poet of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal, which is introjected as the ego ideal (Freud, 1953–1974) among many other messages. I am sure he did not mean it in the context of suicide bombing; nevertheless, it is not a very peaceful message for the nation.
Shahadat hai matloob-o-maqsood-e-momin
Na maal-e-ghaneemat na kishwar kushaaee
Martyrdom is the requirement and goal of a Muslim
And not the booty of war or appraisal
In Pakistan, young, vulnerable individuals are identified, and hatred is instilled in them. A man** in his twenties who worked for my office in Islamabad shared his teenage years’ experience with me. When he was recruited by jihadis (ones who engage in jihad), he went to Afghanistan for training, where, from the very beginning, he was shown pictures of Muslim women and children killed and raped, supposedly by the Indian Army in Kashmir. Recruits would be given lectures about how this would happen to their mothers and sisters if they didn’t stop the perpetrators. He was sensible enough to run away from there and started working at a firm in Islamabad. This young man also had grown up being physically abused by his father, older brother, and schoolteachers. Once, I was standing behind him looking at what he had typed. He asked me to leave because he was getting tense and could not type anymore. I respected his wish but later talked to him to understand what had happened. After some exploration, it turned out that, when he was a student in a local government elementary school, teachers would walk behind students doing their work; if a teacher saw any mistake, without warning the teacher would hit the child with a stick. This experience explained the young man’s getting tense, but he also had rage toward authority figures and a need to discharge it. That is why jihad became appealing to him as a teenager. However, one could also argue that he had seen good times with friends playing cricket and doing other fun things, he had a loving mother, and he grew up in an intact family that was all-protective; and his better sense prevailed before too long. One could also hypothesize that, during his adolescent stage of identity crisis (Erikson, 1968), he had to explore and experience his role and identity as a jihadi but soon rejected it and started working in an office as an assistant. Unfortunately, it seems that, for some, that identity as a jihadi for just a short period is not what happens, and few go so far as to become suicide bombers.
The concept of terrorists receiving a number of virgins in heaven (Hurs) upon their death is also relevant. The Quran does not give a number, but another source (The American Muslim) suggests the two numbers quoted the most are 70 and 72. Even though the pleasure of sex with so many beautiful young women seems to be the only thing that many see as an attraction, there is more to it. It is always emphasized that the Hurs are virgins. Virgin obviously means that these women have never been with any other man before. To receive 70 beautiful women who have never been with another man wanting to serve one man, including sexually, clearly makes the individual very special. One can imagine how powerful this fantasy can be for a person who was abandoned as a child and never treated well, let alone never made to feel special in any way. I would argue that, in the context of virgins, these men’s desire is not just sexual; they can have a profound longing for being loved and cared for.
The Dynamics of Interaction Between Personality and Circumstances
From a psychodynamics perspective, any situation that develops or events that occur for an individual are the result of the interaction of one’s personality with the circumstances. Keeping in mind the above-described personality traits and the circumstances in Pakistan, I hypothesize the following dynamics that lead to the occurrence of a suicide bombing:
Through brainwashing and rhetoric, the United States of America and its allies, which can also include Pakistani security forces, become symbolic representatives of the evil authority figure. In addition, Bush and his team’s strategy for 8 years to fight terror by invading and occupying two Muslim countries and incurring the associated collateral damage of death, destruction, and displacement of innocent Muslims only serves to reinforce the image of the United States as an evil authority or power.
This process occurs more effectively through the exploitation of idealizing transference (Kohut, 1971). Having grown up without a parent figure worthy of idealizing, vulnerable Pakistani youth are very prone to idealize a parent-like figure—in this case the leader of a terrorist organization—who portrays himself as being selflessly committed to this noble cause. Because these individuals see their self-worth in the context of an idealized parent figure whom they have put on a pedestal, it comes naturally for them to fully agree with that person’s point of view.
The murderous rage that these young people experience is displaced onto the symbol of authority (United States of America, allies, white people, infidels, etc.).
Mirroring transference (Kohut, 1971) also occurs. Having grown up without validating and loving responses from parent figures, the potential suicide bombers, much more so than an average person with a healthy self-esteem, long for appreciation and to be treated as special. They go a long way to achieve those results, being willing to perform the act of suicide bombing for the leader’s validation and love. There are many unconfirmed reports in the media about how they are indulged and treated specially before the mission.
By committing a suicide bombing, one displaces the murderous rage of childhood years onto a symbol of authority to achieve gratification. In this case, one also perceives that the act is for a great cause. One feels glorified with the image of being a martyr. Here, the murderous rage of the id (Freud, 1953–1974) joins hands with the superego (ego ideal—martyrdom). In the presence of an ego too weak to intervene in this situation, the individual carries out the deadly act. Usually, the id and the superego are in opposition, but in psychoanalysis it is a recognized phenomenon that they occasionally join hands, which can result in the sort of the outcome suggested here.
Psychodynamic Purposes Served by Suicide Bombing
Suicide bombing serves the following psychodynamic purposes:
The murderous rage that has been increasing since childhood years is gratified.
The ego ideal of martyrdom is achieved.
The significant guilt associated with sexual issues ranging from having strong sexual fantasies, to having committed pedophilia or situational homosexuality is soothed. The guilt of feeling dirty and guilty for having been sexually abused might be a factor in some cases, as well. There is also guilt about the rage such individuals live with, and the possible guilt of resentment toward one’s parents, which is strongly discouraged in Islam under any circumstances. Because of their black and white thinking, these individuals see the effect of suicide martyrdom as washing away all their sins, like a reset button. Therefore, carrying out a suicide bombing soothes all their guilt.
Potential suicide bombers’ ongoing low self-esteem immediately converts into pride in themselves when they commit to the action.
They infrequently have had an opportunity in their lives to do what their hearts desire. Nor can they otherwise think of ways to become symbolically immortal by having children or doing something that will be remembered. All this adds up to their experiencing life as quite meaningless. By carrying out a suicide bombing, their meaningless lives end in a way they feel is meaningful.
They have issues with mortality and find difficulty reconciling with it. Becoming a suicide bomber settles this issue by helping them achieve absolute immortality.