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Terror as Sacrificial Ritual?


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

With the global proliferation of suicide bombings, Emile Durkheim’s theory of altruistic suicide from 1897 has seen a new renaissance. For Durkheim this kind of voluntary death is the result of “over-integration” into society and is thus not repudiated, but highly praised. Several scholars refer to Durkheim’s seminal work, Suicide, although their use of its terms often diverges from its original use. This results in quite diverse interpretations of these concepts. Durkheim’s theory of altruistic suicide was based on his view of “lower societies.” Applying it to present-day phenomena is therefore linked with a number of challenges. Can the concept be separated from its nineteenth century social evolutionist baggage? How can social integration be operationalized? How can integration be distinguished from altruistic motives? How big is the social acceptance of these deaths really? Apart from Durkheim’s Suicide, fewer authors use the concepts of gift and sacrifice developed by other authors from the Durkheimian school. With few connections to the research on terrorism and political violence, Durkheim’s theories on ritual and ceremony are used frequently in media studies. Though not without critique, they are also applied to secular contexts. Dayan and Katz for instance regard media events as quasi-religious ceremonies that serve an integrating and community-creating function. Acts of terror have also been described as media events; however, they perform a diametrically opposed function due to their disruptive and chaotic nature. Acknowledging the multidimensional character of events that are perceived in various ways by different audiences, one can ask whether extreme violence like suicide bombings or beheadings can be fit into the category of Durkheimian ritual.

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