The suicide bombing phenomenon is inextricably bound up with a crisis in young Arab masculinity.
The psychology of suicide bombers is one of the most puzzling issues for westerners to grasp: the religious motivation, the fearlessness of death and the calmness - banality, even - with which many of these people approach their end leave most westerners bewildered. The comment of the 9/11 bombers that has proved the most haunting is: "You love life; we love death."
Timothy Garton Ash's considered some of the causes of this complex phenomenon in his column the other day, but a conversation with Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University's Middle Eastern studies department recently in Turkey convinced me of another dimension that needs to be incorporated into our understanding.
A prominent scholar of the Islamic world, Bulliet argues that the formation of male identity in Islamic societies needs to be part of the explanation; suicide bombers have a lot to do with gender politics.
The backdrop to his argument is demography. As Samuel Huntingdon has widely argued, the terrorism originating in the Muslim world has much to do with a population bulge that is currently peaking with millions of young men in their teens and 20s. This period in the male life course most closely associated with crime and violence in many cultures, and this is exacerbated in many Muslim countries, where the economy is not growing fast enough to meet growing demand.
Combined with this expanding young unemployed male population is a rapid process of urbanisation across the Middle East and north Africa. As the cities expand, old cultural mores around the roles of women are difficult to enforce and in some places are breaking down. At the same time, mass communications make porn more available. Young men are presented with multiple challenges to the traditional expectations of women they have inherited from their fathers.
Yet despite the increased proximity of unchaperoned women and porn, there are still strict religious expectations of virginity to adulthood. Bulliet argues that its not uncommon for Arab males to still be virgins in their early 30s; marriage can often be cruelly delayed by the shortage of jobs and the high costs in cities of finding apartments for a wife and family. The sexual frustration must be severe, particularly for those young men living in a western culture, as the 9/11 bombers were in Hamburg and then the US.
The Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, often cited in connection with the ideology of violent Islamism, wrote with revulsion of the sexual culture he found in the US in the mid-20th century (which would be extremely modest by contemporary standards).
Traditionally, in Islamic societies, this period of masculine development, between leaving one's birth family and beginning a family of one's own, focused on strong bonding between young men. Sometimes these young male networks could become formalised into groups with their own cultures of close support, loyalty and honour. Violence could break out between rival groups, but within the group it was strictly controlled. These kind of male networks are discernible over centuries in different Islamic cultures.
In that respect, al-Qaeda is a development of very old traditions, as its recruitment videos demonstrate. An inordinate amount of time in several of the videos is devoted to scenes of young men in the training camps in Algeria. They are pictured doing mundane tasks such as making bread, stitching equipment or hiking; the theme is the self-reliance of the male community. The scenes from Afghanistan emphasise the virility of military training. In short, it is much like a version of the scouts or the Territorial Army.
Into this promise of familiar, reassuring and attractive male camaraderie is then introduced a viscerally powerful appeal to honour and men's duty to protect. The point in the recruitment videos that usually hits home most powerfully to Muslims who have studied them is when there are pictures of Palestinian women and children being mistreated, and the voiceover pleads for their brothers to protect them.
The recruitment video thus offers you a means of becoming a man. If you are alienated in terms of your national and religious identity and disorientated in your masculine identity, then the appeal of these kinds of messages is obvious: we will make you a real man.
The masculine identity on offer incorporates fearlessness, purpose and meaning. The argument runs that we all die; we can be run over any hour of any day in a pointless death, so why not make your life meaningful by the manner of your death?
To those frustrated by their own inability to protect those very Palestinian women and children (or those of Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir etc), a suicide bombing offers a brief, vicious form of impact on the political map. Lives that seem meaninglessly devoted to consumerism can serve a purpose, the propaganda concludes.
It is a complex combination of appeals to the political and the most personal of identity conflicts. And, as Garton Ash points out, we need to grasp all of that complexity if we are to know what we are dealing with.