One influential explanation for the prevalence of suicide attacks is ‘occupation theory,’ the idea that foreign occupation is the key force motivating this phenomenon. The most recent iteration of this argument can be found in Robert Pape and James Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse, published late last year by the University of Chicago Press. This recent book reaffirms the occupation theory advocated in Pape’s earlier volume Dying to Win, but also goes beyond that original thesis by arguing that foreign occupation is also the best explanation even for the motivations of transnational suicide attackers.
Yesterday I published a book review with the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, arguing that while the relationship between occupation and suicide missions is a subject worthy of serious attention, Cutting the Fuse ultimately fails as a book. It is characterized by straw man argumentation, contradictions, poorly defined critical concepts, and cherry-picked evidence. In fact, I contend that it may be the worst academic book on terrorism published in 2010.
An excerpt from my review:
Clear errors are evident in Pape and Feldman’s aforementioned refutations of other alleged causes of suicide attacks–because in many cases their refutations also undercut their own explanation of the phenomenon. The most glaring error is their explanation that Islamic extremism cannot account for the rise of transnational suicide attacks because such extremist ideology “is a global phenomenon, one that has been in existence in a variety of forms, not just for many decades, but almost since the
inception of Islam itself” (p. 53). Thus, they contend that religious extremism “cannot account for the rise of transnational suicide terrorism over the past 30 years.” In other words, since Islamic extremism has existed for such a long period, it does not sufficiently explain a phenomenon that has only arisen in the past three decades.
The historical illiteracy of this passage is remarkable for an obvious reason: Foreign occupation has also been in existence for many centuries, and even pre-dates the advent of Islam. Take, for example, one country–Afghanistan–whose suicide attacks are examined in Pape and Feldman’s book. It was first occupied twenty-six centuries ago, by Cyrus the Great. Thereafter it has been occupied by Alexander the Great, the Greek empire, the Kushan empire, the nomadic “White Huns,” the Persians, the Arabs, the Ghaznavid empire, the Ghorids, the Khwarezm, the Mongol army, the Safavid and Afsharid empires, the British, the Russians, and finally the United States. Though Afghanistan is unique in the large number of conquerors it has experienced, it is of course not alone in having been occupied. Muslim armies occupied Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Sicily, and many other areas; Ottoman armies occupied the Arab world; Western countries occupied most of the Muslim world, as well as Africa; Nazi Germany occupied France, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Serbia, and Ukraine, among others; after World War II the U.S. occupied both Germany and Japan; the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, East Germany, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and many others. The list goes on. For Pape and Feldman to claim that Islamic extremism cannot explain suicide attacks because it has existed “almost since the inception of Islam itself” ignores the far, far longer history of occupation. Indeed, under the standards by which Pape and Feldman refute their strawman, their own occupation theory cannot be true.
So too do Pape and Feldman, in describing how occupation triggers suicide attacks based on nationalist sentiment, provide an explanation that applies equally well to religious extremism. “National identities rest on the idea of a primary division of the world between ‘us’ and ‘them,'” they write, “a boundary that tends to harden under the circumstances of a foreign military occupation” (p. 49). But this division of the world into “us” and “them” is equally true of a pronounced religious identity. In Islam, the concept of kafir (unbeliever) signals this division. (There are, to be clear, similar “us” and “them” divisions within Christian and Judaic thought.) But consonant with the unequivocally forced conclusions that characterize Pape and Feldman’s book, they believe without justification that nationalism is the “taproot explanation” (p. 11) for how foreign military occupation might drive suicide attacks.
Read the whole review here.
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