Young men who don’t have anyone to screw blow themselves up?

May 10, 2010

While I am generally respectful of the journal International Security‘s clear effort to publish more gender-related work, Bradley Thayer and Valerie Hudson, in “Sex and the Shaheed” have managed to write about gender while missing the conceptual foundations and research insights of decades of work in feminism, gender, and IR.

This article ranges from factually partial at best and inaccurate at worst. It focuses on male suicide terrorists when a significant percentage of suicide terrorists are women. It treats the Middle East as if it were a “real” region and homogenous in respect to propensity to suicide terrorism. It focuses on Islamic Suicide Terrorism as if: a) the majority of suicide terrorism is Islamic fundamentalist (which is likely untrue, and if true, recent in the last year or two), b) Islamic “suicide terrorism” is a separable phenomena from Islamic terrorism more generally which shouldn’t be explained at the same time with the same factors, and c) the religious and the political have an easy relationship where “Islam” is the political cause of those who engage in martyrdom missions and are Islamic. “Real world” suicide terrorism is, of course, messier: it is not universal to the “Middle East,” it is carried out by persons who are not Islamic (until recently, the LTTE held the record for the highest number of suicide attacks), it is carried out in service of causes other than the politics of Islamic religion (for example, Chechen suicide terrorism is aimed at independence from the Russian state), and it is carried out by (elite and non-elite) men and women from all over the world.

The conceptual work in this article is as wanting as the factual work. There are, of course, a much broader range of explanations for (Islamic) suicide terrorism than are discussed there (where the authors mention international anarchy, U. S. hegemonic involvement in Islamic states, and Islamic fundamentalist belief systems). To start with, of course, only a small minority of suicide terrorist attacks are aimed at the United States even indirectly. But above and beyond that, political scientists have offered other explanations (e.g., Mia Bloom‘s understanding of the contribution of personal trauma and Bob Pape‘s use of both regime type and actor strategic interest as explanatory variables, not to mention more nuanced/sophisticated accounts). There are also a number of psychological accounts of suicide terrorism, some of which account for explanations interested in sex and belonging like the one in this article (for an overview, see Chapter 7 of Caron Gentry and my Mothers, Monsters, Whores book on women’s violence).

If both the factual and conceptual work are problematic, so are the politics of this article – even beyond what is implied in the discussion above. For example, on p.47, “though the concepts of honor and virility may be hard for a Western academic audience to understand ….” and other references throughout the article to the uniqueness (and impliedly, degree) of masculinity/masculinism in the Islamic world are both patently false and culturally problematic. To whom among us are the ideas of honor and virility really foreign? And what leverage is gained by making them sound foreign, in setting up an “us/them” dichotomy between (sane) white, Western academics and (suicidal) young, Arab/Islamic men?

I’d better stop now, or I’ll be stealing the thunder of people who will write a response to this from an article. But if someone wrote about deterrence without citing the decades worth of literature on deterrence in IR, no reputable journal would accept it. So why is it still okay to write about gender in IR without engaging decades worth of literature on gender in IR relevant to the point at hand (and now years worth of work on gender and terrorism, of course)? And who is responsible for the result?


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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.