Suicide terrorism continues to be one of the most misunderstood and under-examined phenomena in our recent history. A lack of objectivity coupled with an inherent repugnance of this concept on the part of the intellectual elite has rendered the Western World helpless in fully comprehending the dynamics at play in suicidal attacks. Often times naïve and minimalist interpretations are offered to explain the motives and the thought processes of the suicide bombers. They are portrayed as fundamentalist zealots who have nothing in life to look forward to and thus partake in these actions hoping to reap benefits in the afterlife.
The reality is that the suicide bomber is taking part in an act of self-sacrifice. He is killing himself (and the mostly innocent around him) as an offering to the gods. The gods in this case are nothing but his cause or the cause of his people. He and his people live in a time of unprecedented calamity. Unlike the subjugated peoples of the past, the suicide bomber is aware of his predicament and also knows the perpetrators. Thanks to the Information Revolution, the oppressed are no longer blessed by ignorance. They are world-savvy and often educated. By offering himself the suicide bomber is attempting to convince the gods to change for the better the circumstances under which he lives.
The practice of human sacrifice is as old as humanity itself. From the time our early ancestors had mustered up enough consciousness to be able to plan and engage in ritualistic activities, they began making human offerings to appease the deities who, in their view, controlled their world and their destinies. Times of natural calamity and war were especially prone to the prevalence of these practices in prehistoric times.
From the Egyptians to the Mongols and from the Celts to the Romans and the Chinese, the Indians and the Hebrews, all across the world, factual and mythological records of human sacrifice are to be found practically in every culture. Recent discoveries point to the existence of this practice among the Mesoamericans as late as in the 15th century. Elsewhere, one account by Ahmad ibn Fadlan as part of his account of an embassy to the Volga Bulgars in 921 claims that Norse warriors were sometimes buried with enslaved women with the belief that these women would become their wives in Valhalla. Adam von Bremen recorded human sacrifices to Odin in 11th century Sweden, at the Temple at Uppsala, a tradition which is confirmed by the Norse sagas. Historians also give us the account of the first anniversary of Chengiz Khan’s death when 40 virgins were killed and buried next to the Khan for his pleasure in the afterlife
Starting around 4000 years ago, cultures of the ancient world, one by one, began to realize the cruelty of human sacrifice and decided to end the practice. The Hebrews give us the tale of Abraham and his son Isaac to memorialize this turning point in their history. God orders Abraham to unbind Isaac and slaughter a ram in his stead. This act denotes the precise moment the Children of Israel abandon this ritual. Through the words of the Torah, this tradition is passed on to the Christians and then the Moslems (albeit with minor modifications).
The Greeks present a similar mythological story. Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the God Artemis. Artemis sends down a deer to be used instead and Iphigenia is thus saved.
In Chinese history Ximen Bao of Wei who lived between 5th century BC and 2nd Century BC, demonstrated to the villagers that sacrifice to river deities was actually a ploy by crooked priests to pocket money. In Chinese lore, Ximen Bao is regarded as a folk hero who pointed out the absurdity of human sacrifice.
Not much is known about this practice among the Iranian peoples. The fact that no viable evidence of human sacrifice has been found on the Iranian Plateau does not necessarily mean that such practices did not exist among the Iranian tribes. It could very well be that they had abandoned the practice before landing on the plateau or did so shortly after their arrival. In the absence of any mythological or other record relative to this subject, an interesting development in the transformation of the Iranian word for ‘sheep’ may be pointed out to draw a probable connection to our theme.
The obsolete Iranian word “choop’, meaning sheep, which still survives in the compound word ‘choopan’ meaning shepherd or ‘one who watches over the sheep’, bears reasonable resemblance to the German ‘schafe’ or Dutch ‘schapen’ or even the English ‘sheep’. At some point in history, most probably after the separation of the Iranians from those of their kinfolk who were to later comprise the Germanic tribes on the Steppe, the Iranian word for this animal changes to ‘goospand’ while the Germanic languages continue to maintain the old term to this day. This new Iranian word is comprised of ‘goo’ or ‘gao’ meaning cow and ‘spant’ meaning sacred. So this is the point where ‘choop’ is transformed into ‘sacred cow’.
But what is the reason for this change? Could this also signify the start of a new era for the Iranians when they made the switch from human sacrifice to sacrificing the sheep which was now designated (by some religious authority) as the sacred cow and as such fit for sacrifice?
In the context of the evolution of human consciousness, attempts by the civic and religious establishments to subdue the collective urge to perform ritualistic killings started to be made only relatively recently (i.e. within the last 4000 years). The act of making human offerings to the gods had been running unabated for well over 100,000 years prior to the advent of recorded history. Science tells us that behaviors repeated for hundreds of generations leave an organic imprint in the human brain; an impression nearly impossible to erase. Like instincts, the urge to engage in these behaviors may be domesticated but not completely eradicated. Given a strong enough stimulus and the right circumstances, the impulse could reemerge as strong as ever.
In the case of the suicide bomber, the right conditions and the required stimulus have been provided and the deep-seated urge to sacrifice has reawakened. Odds are that this behavior will continue until the improvements sought by the oppressed of the world are realized.