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Neil L. Whitehead and Nasser Abufarha Suicide, Violence, and Cultural Conceptions of Martyrdom in Palestine MUCH OF THE SCHOLARLY DISCOURSE ON “ SUICIDE TERRORISM” FOCUSES on the political strategies of these acts of violence and fails to consider their cultural dimensions, which are key to understanding how these acts gain popular support and become potential individual motiva­ tions. These forms ofviolence are conceived in cultural forms related to local knowledge and historical memory that are poorly understood by Western researchers and reporters. The difference in the terminology of describing the act as “suicide” in Western discourse while it is refer­ enced as “martyrdom” in Palestine signals the width of this epistemological gap. These acts are far more complex than a desperate “suicide” or a unstoppable desire to “kill the enemy.” Through their performance and wider representation such acts generate collective cultural concep­ tions among Palestinians and at the same time continue a violent dialogue with the Israeli state. Almost all theoretical, academic, and research approaches to violence begin with the assumption that at its core violence represents the breakdown ofmeaning, the advent ofthe irrational and the commis­ sion of physical harm. Certainly the violence of language, representa­ tion, and the structures of everyday life are acknowledged as relevant examples of harm but these are peripheral phenomena and dependent social research Vol 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 395 on the existence of bodily damage and vicious attack as a substrate to these more ethereal examples of violence. A similar ambiguity exists with regard to the way in which natural processes or zoological behav­ iors exhibit physical and material damage of a fleshy kind, but here the supposed reign of instinct and survival invites repugnance but also an absence of ethical evaluation. This informal cartographyofthe idea ofviolence inmodem Western thinking indicates that orthodox solutions or responses to the problem of violence can only envisage its suppression as a behavior inappropriate or misjudged to its ends. But what if violence is considered ennobling, redeeming, and necessary to the continuance oflife itself? In other words, the legitimacy of violent acts is part of how they are constituted in the minds ofobservers, victims, and the perpetrators ofsuch acts and matters of legitimacy are not at all separate from the way in which given acts and behaviors are themselves considered violent in the first place. Consonant with the recognition that violence is not a natural fact but a moral one, current anthropological thinking has moved steadily away from the notion that it is a given category of human behavior, easily identified through its physical and bodily consequences and understood as emerging from the inadequacies and failures of indi­ vidual moral or social political systems of restraint, or underlying genetic proclivities. In the light of not only encountering violence more frequently as part of ethnographic fieldwork itself, but also though more properly understanding the historical importance of colonialism and neocolonialism in establishing certain codes of violent practice, anthropology has now moved more toward ideas that stress the central­ ity of bodily and emotive experiences of violence as part of the normal functioning ofany given cultural order, including that ofthe West itself. The problem is not how to end “suicide-terrorism” but to understand why it occurs in the way it does. This involves recognition that “suicideterrorism ” is as much a part of meaningful and constructive human living as it is also an imagination of the absence and destruction of all cultural and social order. 396 social research This essay outlines the role “suicide terrorism” can play as mean­ ingful cultural expression, whatever its apparent senselessness and destructive potential. This exercise entails a questioning of assump­ tions as to the self-evident nature of “violence,” how issues of legiti­ macy critically influence understandings of violent acts, and how such acts themselves are often complex social performances expressive of key cultural values. It also implies a critique of analyses that suggest historically transcendent biological and evolutionary homologies in human violence, as well as of Hobbesian-style analogies drawn between a supposedly “primitive” and savage past and contemporary “tribalism” and “terrorism” (Stewart, Strathem, and Whitehead, 2005). W H EN HAMAS FIRST CARRIED OUT OPERATIONS IN THE ISRAELIinhabited towns of Afula and...


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