listening to private debates about terrorism, the most puzzling reality for people to wrap their mind around is the one of suicide bombers. human beings who prefer to blow themselves and other unknown civilians into pieces – why would anyone take this radical a career choice? the answer most often given with a smirk or other ridiculing face expression is a reference to islam and the many virgins one is promised in the afterlife. it is indeed a humoring vision for non-believing-in-anything-else-but-the-power-of-money hypocrites that the version of heaven would look like a jacuzzi with young, untouched women all around one martyr, when this is something any oil tycoon could buy you right here and now in this life with the additional pleasure of doing the same thing over and over again.
not only are those highly polarized pictures used in public debate a reflection of how black and white we view the muslim world in an ever widening contrast of either having veiled, voiceless objects of women, taliban, beduin riders, nomads on camels and terrorists on the one hand or money overloaded, dubai lifestyle of extravagance, oil supported modernity on the other, but those pictures are also highly wrong.
in a recent debate with a pakistani ngo involved in fighting extremism, i ran into my own stereotype of thinking that terrorists are uneducated people from the country who do not know any better and are easily influenced by let’s-save-the-world-with-one-bomb-solutions. on the contrary it turns out that ‘terrorists’ are neither just from one or two specifically unstable countries of the world, but there is actually a sort of ‘terroristic tourism’ happening from all around the globe, and most of these people are highly skilled, wealthy, well educated and yes even ‘western’ socialized in many cases. and the one thing that they all have in common is – if you thought the belief of islam in the moment of reading this, i ask you to get up, look into the mirror, because this is exactly what an unreflected stereotype looks like! – the one thing the all have in common is their belief in the greater good of their cause.
this view is supported by the study of the national consortium for the study of terrorism and responses to terrorism (start), currently based at the university of maryland, and presented by professor arie kruglanski, who conducted several thousand interviews with tamil tigers (ltte) suicide bombers to understand the source of their career and life choice. what he came up with is astonishing and should be a lesson to each and everyone: both terrorists and suicide bombers are “normal” people like you and me. and the reason why they chose such a radical and violent path is an underlying motivation that rests within all of us: the quest for personal significance.
people want to be seen, and heard, and loved and respected. people want to feel some meaning, some bigger purpose to their life. the thought of us being a useless little particle in a huge cosmos that we will never quite understand is frightening to our strong belief to be the highest creation on earth. yet even this highest creation on earth fails to withstand the forces of life and there is no infinity and eternity that we will ever experience. and having a meaning, even if it is just in this life now, is the one thing that makes people the most inventive, creative, caring, hard working and socially engaged creatures. but it also makes them a ticking bomb if this quest is not satisfied or lost, especially if taken by outside forces and especially when this loss of significance comes along to an ideology that the only way to regain your dignity and meaning of life is through a violent path of fighting for it.