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August 20, 2017


In a photograph dated 1984, children sit on the ground at a madressah in Afghanistan, learning the finer points of the anatomy of what appears to be a gun | Photo from the book
In a photograph dated 1984, children sit on the ground at a madressah in Afghanistan, learning the finer points of the anatomy of what appears to be a gun | Photo from the book

American anthropologist David B. Edwards wants to know why so many young men are willing to kill both others and themselves in suicide attacks. And because he has lived in Afghanistan, in his book Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan, he restricts his study to South Asia’s violent jihadists. His first point is that the motivations of Afghan fighters have altered over time. Before the anti-Soviet jihad, most Afghans resorting to violence were driven, above all else, by the defence of their honour. That has changed, especially since 9/11. With traditional tribal structures being challenged by religious parties, honour-based codes have given way to religiosity and the desire for ‘martyrdom’.

The post-9/11 trends did not come out of nowhere. In fact, champions of ‘martyrdom’, inspired in part by the ideas of violent Arab jihadists, were producing magazines as far back as the 1980s. One particularly disturbing image reprinted in the book shows the cover illustration of a 1981 magazine of the Jamiat-i-Islami, a militant religious party in Afghanistan: a young man kneeling on a prayer mat, holding his own dismembered head in his outstretched hands. Blood drips from this decapitated head as well as from the man’s neck, now a stump. Tracing these attitudes through poetry, Edwards cites a writer, Rafiq Jan, who met some success before 9/11, distributing on cassettes his verses that appealed to notions of bravery and shame: “Safis! Before you were heavy, why do you weigh so little now?/ Don’t be cautious. Shoot all of the [Marxists] with your five-bullet guns.../ Safis! Before you were heavy, but now you are as light as straw.”

More recently, Afghans listening to poems — increasingly being distributed online — have been given distinctly different messages about mutilated bodies sacrificed to a higher cause: “The martyr is that one who is sprayed by the enemy’s bullets/ Martyrdom is chosen by those youths who don’t care about food...”

How the human body changed from being a passive recipient of bullets into a deadly weapon in itself

The willingness to embrace death in the name of jihad was the first step towards the acceptance of suicide bombing, not only as a legitimate tactic, but also as a praiseworthy act of self-sacrifice. It was a development that involved transforming the human body from a passive recipient of bullets into a weapon in itself. Violent jihadist leaders and propagandists such as Osama bin Laden’s Peshawar colleague, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, achieved this in part by producing accounts of ‘miracles’ related to ‘martyrdom’. Edwards records that the most commonly told story described the “incorruptibility of the martyr’s body; the sweet, musk-like odour that emanates from the ground where the body is buried; the wounds — like stigmata — that continue to bleed long after the martyr’s death, and the shafts of light that shine from his grave up into the sky.”

Then there was the emphasis on the houri that Edwards argues was an “untapped source of energy to fuel the sacrifice machine.” It was these ideas that gradually persuaded Afghan fighters that their long-established view — that even if death in battle could be honourable it was better to stay alive — should give way to the idea that ‘martyrdom’ was more desirable than life. As time passed, ‘martyrdom’ became the subject of even more detailed and comprehensive popular literature. Edwards quotes a leaflet entitled ‘Mufti Sangar’ that outlines no fewer than 50 separate categories of ‘martyrs’. Those who die protecting property, for example, are less virtuous than those who die trying to kill an oppressor.

Edwards has produced an unusual hybrid of a book. Part memoir and part anthropological treatise, it is full of colour and by no means a dry academic tome. In fact, for all his impeccable scholarly credentials, it seems similar in style and content to the kind of book produced by foreign correspondents. Having said that, Edwards makes frequent reference to his wide reading of the academic literature that informs the modern study of anthropology. It is not clear, however, that the citations add much to his analysis. Similarly, his passages on the meaning, nature and function of ‘sacrifice’ in society, whilst interesting enough, don’t seem to shed much light on the central question he is seeking to answer: what motivates suicide bombers in Afghanistan?

When he does directly tackle that question, his answers are not so very different from those of newspaper writers, media analysts and policy researchers in think tanks. Edwards argues that much of the Western media tends to claim that suicide attacks are almost entirely religiously motivated. He then goes on to reject that view. But whilst the tabloid press in the West may stress the role of Islamist extremism, more considered elements of the media landscape have explored — as Edwards does — the role of identity politics, Western foreign policy, psychological issues, social deprivation and other non-religious factors.

Edwards’s book seems to miss an important aspect of the phenomenon of suicide bombing in Afghanistan. Research by the police in Peshawar has confirmed the observations of the clerics who used to run the suicide bomb factories on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: it is far easier to persuade a 15-year-old to kill himself than an 18-year-old. The reason is that with only partially formed personalities, 15-year-olds have less of the autonomy required to resist the admonitions of their instructors. That’s not to say 18-year-olds cannot be persuaded to kill themselves. They can. But typically it takes several more weeks to do so.

In this respect the situation in Afghanistan might be different from other conflicts, such as in the Gaza Strip, where — if the reporting is accurate — the average age of suicide bombers tends to be older. Certainly it is difficult to imagine Hamas taking cash payments — as the Afghan Taliban have allegedly done — to provide a suicide bomber to attack a party to a land dispute. The suicide bombing industry in Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to have a degree of cynicism absent from some other campaigns around the world.

Edwards has produced a highly readable account of a grim subject. His digressions from the main theme are always engaging even if, taken as a whole, his analysis doesn’t add much to the established literature about radicalisation.

The reviewer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm

Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and
Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan
By David B. Edwards
University of California Press, US
ISBN: 978-0520294790

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 20th, 2017