Sex and suicide attacks

Are suicide bombers motivated by the promise of virgins in heaven? A provocative new film says yes.

Published October 27, 2006 2:15PM (EDT)

Last year, "Paradise Now," a Palestinian-directed film about suicide bombers, drew criticism from some Israelis for being overly sympathetic to its subjects. Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle profiled a provocative new film on the same subject, which some might say isn't sympathetic enough. "Suicide Killers," directed by French-Jewish filmmaker Pierre Rehov, posits that bombers and would-be bombers are "influenced by a religious culture that represses sexual desires and channels the resulting frustration into homicidal rage," the Chronicle reports.

The documentary's subjects are Palestinians currently imprisoned for attempted suicide bombings; according to the article, they cite revenge, anger and the desperation and hopelessness induced by the prolonged Israeli occupation as motives for their actions. Rehov, however, fixes on another incentive. As one young man tells Rehov, "Those who blow themselves up get a good bonus from God -- they marry 72 virgins."

Apparently, every subject Rehov interviewed mentioned this motive; one young woman prisoner even wants to be one of the virgins, saying, "I would have been the prettiest of all." Rehov also mentions high levels of sexual frustration among the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, claiming that students say "it is not possible to have a normal life."

In an interview with the Chronicle, Rehov describes meeting a 17-year-old survivor of a suicide attack. The survivor told him that a man approached her and showed her the dynamite under his shirt. Rehov explains, "I've studied psychology, and there are a lot of things connected to flashers -- they want to destroy innocence... This is when I understood there is something really sexual about this extreme act they want to commit."

Rehov acknowledges the combustible nature of the material, noting that his film "is not a scientific study ... I would call my film propaganda if I hadn't tried to get the answers from the suicide attackers themselves."

Of course, religion doesn't murder people; people murder people. Attributing the motives of suicide bombers to repressive culture runs the risk of denigrating Islam or trivializing Palestinian desperation. On the other hand, it's worth considering all possible explanations for suicide attacks, and though comics, cartoonists and journalists have darkly suggested that acts of terrorism express sexual frustration, the notion hasn't yet developed into a cross-cultural dialogue. I look forward to seeing "Suicide Killers"; I hope it holds some insights.

By Adrienne So

Adrienne So is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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