Dying for your group, or for your ideas? On the power of belief

ABSTRACT: Whitehouse’s theory offers one plausible pathway towards extreme self-sacrifice, but it fails to explain sacrificial acts that are inspired by heartfelt ideological beliefs, including jihadi terrorism and mass suicide in cults. If he wants to offer a “single overarching theory” of self-sacrifice, he will need to take seriously the power of belief. 

Good scientific theories have to make risky predictions. In his target article, Harvey Whitehouse shows an admirable willingness to ‘sacrifice’ his theory on the altar of empirical evidence, helpfully laying out two ways in which it can be falsified. I will argue for what he calls the “somewhat less disastrous” scenario: a reduction in explanatory scope. His theory of “identity fusion” offers one plausible pathway towards extreme self-sacrifice, but it fails to account for the most important case on which he brings his theory to bear, namely jihadi suicide terrorism.

According to Whitehouse, extreme self-sacrifice is motivated by “identity fusion”, in which people form such strong bonds with their groups that they become willing to lay down their lives for them. But how does this theory account for mass suicides, in which the whole group perishes? In 1997, the leader of Heaven’s Gate cult, Marshall Applewhite, persuaded 38 of his followers to commit collective suicide. After the destruction of their physical bodies, so these people believed, their souls would board a spacecraft trailing comet Hale–Bopp. In another example, on November 18, 1978, a total of 918 members of the People’s Temple in Jonestown, including cult leader Jim Jones himself, poisoned themselves in an act of “revolutionary suicide”.

In a heroic act on the battlefield, one soldier might jump on a grenade so that his comrades may be saved, but this logic breaks down for mass suicides. What is the point of sacrificing yourself for the sake of the group, when the objective of the mission is for the whole group to perish along with you? Can one explain the extreme self-sacrifice of the Heaven’s Gate cult members without mentioning their professed beliefs about the spacecraft rescue?

Many jihadi terrorist plots, such as the 9/11 attacks, can also be seen as cases of mass suicide. The 9/11 terrorist cells were highly cohesive and their members may well have achieved “identity fusion”, but they were in it to die together. Perhaps Whitehouse can retort that the hijackers also intensely loved the “brotherhood” of the Al Qaeda organization as a whole, which is certainly true. But as he himself writes, bonds with larger group categories are weaker than “local fusion” between people who know each other personally. Another – somewhat opposite – problem is the recent phenomenon of “lone wolf” attacks. These are carried out by individuals who typically pledge allegiance to ISIS (e.g., in a video recording) before carrying out their suicide mission, but who have radicalized themselves online, having had little or no contact with the organization itself (Juergensmeyer, 2005; Stern, 2009). Being relatively isolated, how could these loners have undergone the “collective experiences” required by Whitehouse’s theory, such as painful initiation rites?

Is it possible that jihadist terrorists are motivated by specific ideological beliefs after all? One major incentive for extreme self-sacrifice is the belief, professed by many jihadists, that a martyr who dies in the righteous cause of jihad will be cleansed of all his sins and gain direct entrance to paradise (along with 70 family members, according to some). Strictly speaking, suicide is forbidden in Islam, but fundamentalist scholars have developed arguments to work around this problem. In effect, as long as the objective of the attack is to kill unbelievers, while the death of the attacker is merely incidental, the attacks do not qualify as ‘suicide’ for these religious jurists (Cook, 2005, pp. 141-146). As Bernard Lewis summarizes the point, the “suicide bomber is … taking a considerable risk on a theological nicety” (Lewis, 2004, p. 38). Do these theological justifications play a role in real life? In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright recounts the story Mohamed Al-Owhali, one of the perpetrators of the 1998 US embassy bombings. Al-Owhali’s job was to force the guard to raise the drop bar, so that the truck filled with explosives could be driven as close as possible to the embassy. But when he threw a stun grenade into the courtyard, attracting potential victims, he suddenly faced a theological dilemma:

He had expected to be a martyr; his death in the operation would assure him his immediate place in Paradise. But he realized that his mission of setting off the stun grenade had already been accomplished. If he were to go forward to his own certain death, that would be suicide, he explained, not martyrdom. Damnation would be his fate, not salvation. Such is the narrow bridge between heaven and hell. (Wright, 2006, p. 271)

Many jihadi terrorists talk about afterlife rewards in their video testaments (Hafez, 2007; Kruglanski at al., 2009; Oliver & Steinberg, 2006), and about of the joys and honour of martyrdom. Their families receive gifts when the martyr’s mission is completed. Some mothers even encourage their sons to volunteer for a suicide mission, and are overjoyed when they succeed (Barlow, 2015). According to Pentagon intelligence documents, the 9/11 hijackers had doused themselves with flower water in preparation to meet the dark-eyed virgins in paradise (Sperry, 2005). In one of his speeches, Osama bin Laden says: “[These youths] have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner” (Greenberg, 2005, p. 182). During the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of Iranian children were sent to walk through minefields to die as martyrs. They had signed "Passports to Paradise" and were even given plastic keys to ensure entry into heaven (Kumar, 2017, p. 170).

Hard though it may be for secular westerners to accept, some people really believe that 72 dark-eyed virgins await them in paradise (Boudry & Coyne, 2016a, 2016b; but see Van Leeuwen, 2014). Unfortunately, Whitehouse does not even mention afterlife rewards, and rejects the role of belief out of hand: “willingness to fight and die is not motivated by doctrines and ideologies, religious or otherwise, but by a particularly intense love of the group.” But of course, most people who intensely love their group (e.g., sports fans) don’t commit suicide attacks. If Whitehouse wants to fulfil his ambition of offering a “single overarching theory” of extreme self-sacrifice, he will need to take seriously the power of belief.


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