Monday, May 11, 2009

Samson as 'Suicide Bomber'

Samson Destroys the Temple of Dagon

The Milton List has been conducting a discussion about John Milton's Samson Agonistes, under the somewhat provocative thread heading "Samson as Suicide Bomber" -- the obvious allusion being made to current-day suicide bombings.

The scholar Carroll Cox offered some rather provocative comments of his own about the allusion:
There is an elephant in the room -- so far delicately ignored: "Suicide Bomber" refers, of course, to Arabs, who have replaced "dirty commies" in the mythology of u.s. politics. But that is not the elephant but merely the context. The elephant is that, through discussing Samson in theological terms, one implies that the suicide bombers of the daily newspaper are acting or claiming to act from theological motives -- that they are religious fanatics.

But they are acting from strictly secular motives, as a study of a year or so established: they represent frustrated nationalism! So if we want to discuss Samson as a suicide bomber, we need to discuss his politics, not his religion.
Not his religion? Well, Cox often presents a Marxist analysis, emphasizing political motives as more fundamental than religious ones. Be that as it may, in the case of "suicide bombers," he is wrong to state that "they are acting from strictly secular motives," as I noted in a response:
The expression "Suicide Bomber" refers to anyone who blows himself or herself up to kill others, usually in a terrorist act. The bomber can be any ethnicity and any religion -- or even have no religion. Currently, most such bombers are Muslims radicalized by Islamism. They may act out of a combination of motives, but religion is certainly one of these. Moreover, regardless of the motivation, Muslims would be unlikely to engage in "suicide" attacks if these had not already been declared not acts of suicide and if these had not already been theologically justified by Islamists. According to such Islamists, the reward for the Muslim 'suicide' bomber is paradise -- which is why . . . ["suicide bombings"] are called by Islamists "martyrdom operations." Religion certainly plays a major role in the phenomenon, and it cannot be ignored.
A number of other scholars disagreed with Cox -- including Noam Flinker, Salwa Khoddam, James Rovira, Stella Revard, and Feisal Mohamed. Feisal's response was the most interesting for my purposes:
I believe Carrol Cox has in mind the work of Robert Pape, now available in the important book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape and others have shown that the Tamil Tigers, which is not a religious movement at all, is one of the groups most frequently engaging in suicide attack. But complicating the assertion that this is only the military tactic of a nationalist struggle is the culture that has developed in the Tamil cause, which elevates self-sacrifice to the kind of cosmic virtue that one would associate with religion.
Feisal's point about the Tamil Tigers is very interesting since this group is often put forward as evidence that suicide bombers can have entirely secular motives. Apparently, that's not quite the case. I suspect that any 'military' strategy requiring 'suicidal' missions would tend to offer religious motives even if the struggle were otherwise wholly secular. At any rate, Cox seems to have backed away from his assertion that suicide bombers "are acting from strictly secular motives," for he contacted the journalist Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing religious movements, asking for his opinion of Pape's book. As Cox acknowledges, Berlet responded that Pape's analysis is a:
"Highly flawed analysis because the concepts of apocalyptic belief and religious nationalism were simply dismissed."
Cox therefore restated his position -- or, rather, repositioned himself, dropping his own dismissal of religion as a motive:
I do want to insist that when writers speak of "suicide bombers" they should recognize that the subject is a complex one. The phrase is firmly embedded in contemporary politics, and to use it raises contemporary political issues. (Just as it is impossible to discuss Milton's concept of freedom in PL without overlapping 21st-c theological disputes.)
This is a rather far cry from his original claim that suicide bombers "are acting from strictly secular motives" and appears to be an implicit acceptance of my own position (though Cox and I would cash this out rather differently).

Anyway, the comparison of Samson to a suicide bomber is not new, for Noam Flinker dealt with it as early as 1991, and the comparison became quite popular after 9/11. I haven't dealt with this particular issue much, for I'm not an expert on Milton's Samson Agonistes.

But perhaps I ought to look into it.

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At 3:19 AM, Blogger Christopher Smith said...

Your post is a quite interesting and well-written summary of a debate I hadn't realized was even an issue: the political vs. religious motivations of suicide bombers. I thank you for bringing it to my attention!

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Chris, thanks for visiting and for the comment. I have a number of posts on suicide bombers and Islamism though I have no truly helpful idex to guide one. A search might turn up other posts . . . if you're interested.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that this brings up a point you made in an earlier post (with a kind nod to me): it is dangerous to transfer modern terms to Milton. Was Milton "gay"? That is a meaningless question since this modern term does not relate to Milton's view of male-male relationships. It arises only in the minds of biographers who do not read the poetry. Using the term "suicide bomber" in relation to Milton is just extreme posturing. Samson is a symbol for the obvious point, I know. But talk of suicide bombing is a perversion of Milton's view of matyrdom. I believe you are absolutely right when you say that suicide bombing has to exist within a religious framework--such has to come to terms with the taking of life and "self-slaighter". Was Hamlet a suicide bomber?

At 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

self-slaughter...of course...have just slaughtered English!

At 8:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Certainly, many of the 'parallels' are bogus. I've even seen people cite the two pillars that Samson toppled as parallel to the two towers that the 9/11 attackers brought down.

But it would be legitimate to ask if Milton thought that Samson had committed suicide in his final act -- and a troubling question for the Islamists to pose to Christians . . . and to Jews.

That would lead to some interesting parallels, the sort that Michael Bryson would take an interest in.

Jeffery Hodges

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