‘Can Muslims be Suicide Bombers?’ An Essay on the Troubles of Multiculturalism
Volker Kaul, LUISS University 17 December 2013

In a sense, 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid have come to constitute a major challenge to the paradigm of multiculturalism and constrain multicultural theories to reason and argue about the question if Muslims can be suicide bombers. Any multicultural theory has to avoid at whatever cost the impression that Islam could give rise to anything such as suicide bombing and terrorism. My thesis is that theories of multiculturalism cannot deny the claim that Islamic fundamentalists crashing airplanes into the twin towers realize their true and inner selves, at least not without adopting the classical liberal conception of autonomy according to which cultural identity and religious commitments are obstacles to the realization of the person’s true will. Multicultural theories cannot avoid the conclusion that under certain circumstances devout Muslims cannot help but become suicide bombers. They collapse into the paradoxical claim that Muslims gain only full autonomy in their proper death. The problem is certainly not Islam in itself or cultures and religions in general; the problem is a philosophy that makes Islam the foundation of personal autonomy.

There exist three theories of multiculturalism: a communitarian version, a psychological account and a liberal approach to multiculturalism. All three theories of multiculturalism have in common that they conceive identity to somehow constitute personal autonomy and practical reason and that they are critical of the liberal, Kantian conception of agency and the self. But just because they conceive identity to be the source of normativity, all the three theories run fundamentally into the same problem, once culture and religion come to justify oppression, discrimination and belligerence, in the way Islam is currently be used to justify terrorism and fundamentalism. Hence, it comes as no surprise that multiculturalists are extremely sensitive to the criticism of liberal hawks, such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, that accuse them to be the intellectual allies of Bin Laden and co. But at the same time, none of the multiculturalists does want to fall into the trap of the liberals that consider Islam to be the political problem underlying suicide bombing, justifying surveillance and assimilation of Muslim minorities at home and forced interventions in Muslim countries abroad. That’s why they are multiculturalists in the first place.

The classical paradigm of multiculturalism is certainly communitarianism and has its foundation in Hegel’s theory of freedom. Only communitarianism attributes intrinsic value to communities, cultures and religions, whereas the psychological and liberal theory of multiculturalism consider them to be rather of extrinsic and contingent value. And since communitarianism makes our agency entirely dependent upon the values of our community, it seems as if it were the communitarians who have the real trouble with cultural and religious fundamentalism such as radical Islam. After all, the psychological account, whose origins can be traced back to David Hume, criticizes the communitarian thesis that individuals have an irreducible interest in culture and considers fundamentalism to be merely the product of resentment and to play only a functional role in a person’s psychological economy depending upon the particular historical context. And the liberal model of multiculturalism is precisely conceived to give the voice back to the individual reintroducing the agential first-person point of view and to avoid any form of cultural and historical determinism.

Yet, even if the Hegelian and Humean theories have very different, actually opposing starting points, considering themselves to be the worst foes, communitarian and certain neo-Humean positions that endorse a conception of personal autonomy[1] tend to converge on the question of suicide bombing: Both come to agree that the reason why Muslims blow themselves up is because of their commitments to the community, that if they would not do this, they couldn’t any longer consider themselves to be the persons they actually are, good and upright Muslims. Hegelians and Humeans would certainly tell us very different stories about how it comes that Muslims have the fundamentalist commitments they have, but at the end of these stories they both could arrive at the conclusion that Muslims cannot help but to become suicide bombers. For sure, both Hegelians and Humeans try desperately to avoid such an outcome, according to which it seems that Muslims can realize their freedom and autonomy only through terrorist attacks. But as I would like to maintain here, both strategies are not particularly promising and convincing: Hegelians and in particular certain neo-Humeans must eventually concede that in their respective theories suicide bombers realize themselves as Muslims.

According to liberal multiculturalism, self-constitution is not merely reactive and defensive but the product of our agency and freedom of the will. However, in order to criticize the excesses of identity politics, liberal multiculturalism has to presuppose that an active agent with self-knowledge is by definition a responsible person with a moral identity. Still, if a Muslim’s moral identity trumps his Islamic identity, Islam stops to be the source of normativity and multiculturalism is heavily watered down becoming undistinguishable from liberalism.

The structure of the essay is the following: In a first part, I discuss the communitarian’s difficulties with Islamic fundamentalism. In a second moment, I illustrate the Humean helplessness in front of suicide bombers. The concluding remarks shed some doubts on the strategy of liberal multiculturalism to distance itself from radical Islam.

1.Communitarianism in the face of Islamic suicide bombing

No communitarian would ever want to maintain that Islam is motivating the terrorist attacks – communitarians criticize their liberal counterparts precisely for making Islam responsible for such actions. But it is certainly a core claim of communitarianism that our cultures and religions provide us with the values and ethical frameworks within which we are organizing our lives. Communitarians disagree fundamentally with Humean theories of action that consider values to be merely the product of our projections, expressions of our desires, feelings and tastes, a matter of what gives us pleasure and what causes us pain: “The complete Utilitarian would be an impossibly shallow character” (Taylor 1985: 26).[2] Yet, they also deeply contest the existentialist claim that we have a choice about our values, that we invent values rather than discover them, that values are creations of our free will: “A choice utterly unrelated to the desirability of the alternatives (…) falls ultimately into a criteria-less leap which cannot properly be described as choice at all” (ibid.: 32-3). Hence, in order to choose anything and to act as a person at all our will needs to be bound by values that are given and have their source outside of the individual. According to communitarians, our individual volitions are constituted by the ethical life of our community and are deeply embedded in culture (ibid.: 111). Thus, our cultural identity is constitutive of our agency, our personal autonomy; stepping outside the limits of the strongly qualified horizons of our cultural identity “would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood” (Taylor 1992: 27), “shorn of these we would cease to be ourselves, (…) our existence as persons (…) would be impossible outside the horizon of these evaluations” (Taylor 1985: 34-5).

Given this premise, communitarians cannot just ask suicide bombers not to act upon their Muslim identity and condemn them for having violated some universal moral principles – as persons, they have no other choice than to act as Muslims; they are free and autonomous only insofar as they act as Muslims. Since communitarians cannot question identity as the source of normativity, the only instrument at their disposal to stop suicide bombers is to question if a pious and upright Muslim really has to engage in terrorist attacks against infidels – they have to put into question the specific content of a person’s Muslim identity that makes him to become a terrorist. Communitarians must maintain that he, as a Muslim, gets it wrong to kill innocent people. If it is true that we “become incapable of understanding any moral argument at all”, if we abstract from what we are “morally moved by”, then the only way we have to convince fundamentalists of the irrationality and wrongness of their acts is to change “[their] reading of [their] moral experience” (Taylor 1992: 73). And we do this by way of “comparative propositions” showing “that the move from [fundamentalism] to [moderate Islam, for example] constitutes a gain epistemically”, demonstrating“ for instance, that we get from [fundamentalism] to [moderate Islam] by identifying and resolving a contradiction in [fundamentalism] or a confusion [fundamentalism] relied on, or by acknowledging the importance of some factor which [fundamentalism] screened out, or something of the sort” (ibid.: 72). We try to convince fundamentalists that a moderate interpretation of Islam is a superior perspective to fundamentalism and contributes to moral growth (ibid.: 71-2).

If practical reason is rooted in the specific cultural and religious identity of a person, communitarianism has to moralize this very identity if it wants to avoid relativism and nihilism. In a communitarian theory the moral law must be part of and literally inscribed in a culture and religion. There are two ways communitarians can get the moral law inside Islam, either through a perspective from within Islam or trough an external perspective on Islam: Either communitarians enter into a theological debate about what it is to be a Muslim or they emphasize the pluralism that must prevail in Islam. For what concerns the internal approach, reformists have to demonstrate that Islamic fundamentalism is an inadequate and wrong interpretation of the Koran. Abdullahi An-Na‘im (2010) argues, for example, that the Koran’s insistence on voluntary acceptance of Islam makes Islamic principles more consistent with the ideas of human rights and liberal citizenship than with the coercive enforcement of Sharia. Or, Andrew March (2009) maintains that Islamic theology and history provide very strong arguments for accepting the principles of liberal democracy. The obvious problem with the internal strategy is that it has to presuppose an authentic and true Islam and has to essentialize Islam distinguishing between a good and a bad Muslim, a strategy actually not dissimilar to the one used by fundamentalists. And, I, personally, would not dare to challenge suicide bombers on any account of coherence and consistency conjecturing a conflict within their value system; it seems impossible to have a more integrated value system than a person who is ready to die for his ideas.

Most communitarians are notoriously known for avoiding and actually dismissing any claims that go into the direction of an objectification and reification of cultures. Their strategy for rejecting fundamentalism is, on the contrary, to show that there does not exist just one, true interpretation of Islam, but that Islam is pluralist in nature – and they do this precisely by emphasizing the many possible interpretations that have been given and could be given of Islam. Nasr Abu-Zayd, for example, insists on a hermeneutical and historical reading of the Koran and invites us to understand the justification of the use of force against non-Muslim communities in the Koran against the background of the political dangers Muslims had to confront. Therefore, “it is absurd to think that [the practical and legal norms of the Koran] could or should be transferred into today’s world in their exact form” (Abu-Zayd 2010: 293) and that “the spirit and culture of Islam can be found in those early years and in the foundational scripture” (ibid.: 283), as it is maintained by Islamic fundamentalists. Also Seyla Benhabib (2010) stresses the fact that the meaning of Islamic norms underlies a process of ‘democratic iterations’, renegotiations and appropriations, and is determined by the subjective choices and attitudes of Muslims. Yet, this approach risks to impose the moral law upon Islam from outside and not gain a moral perspective from within a Muslim identity. If communitarianism does not want to fall into the essentialist trap, it has to allow fundamentalism to be one possible interpretation of Islam. But why should the fundamentalist then accept moderate versions of Islam? Fundamentalists certainly cannot tolerate dissidents from within their own Muslim identity – it just tells them to kill the infidel. It must therefore be a voice independent of and contrary to their own Muslim values telling them to have a more complete and broader picture of what it actually means to be a Muslim and to accept pluralism within Islam – and this is the voice of the Kantian moral agent.

Eventually, the communitarian line of argumentation against suicide bombers and Islamic fundamentalism collapses into the very position that liberalism sustains: Suicide bombers are victims of their religious identity; Islam is the culprit. If liberals claim that Islam makes Muslims blind to the principles of morality, communitarians maintain that some forms of Islam are backward, incoherent, confused, ignorant and morally inferior. Certainly, liberals tend to accuse Islam as such and communitarians limit their critique to certain tendencies in Islam only, but in the final outcome, the problem is and remains a person’s particular Muslim identity.

2.The moral psychology of suicide bombers

Humeans are certainly not known for being diehard multiculturalists. Indeed, they criticize communitarians for “reversing the critical sense of the contingency of [social and cultural] arrangements to an elite, perhaps, or at the limit, to the theorist himself” (Williams 2005: 33). Not only do they question the normativity of identity – after all Hume has a causal and not normative concept of action; but, traditionally, Humeans are also very critical of the very idea of personal identity (Hume 1978: 251-63). The most they could say about suicide bombers is that they must be crazy”, that suicide bombing is “lunatic”, “unthinkable”, that “it does not fall within the range of what we understand to be normal; rather, it strikes us as unnatural or even monstrous. That is why the notions of irrationality and insanity seem germane” (Frankfurt 1988: 185-6).

Yet, Hume famously maintains that “tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (Hume 1978: 416). And this for the following simple reason: “Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chooses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it” (ibid.). If reason alone or beliefs can never motivate action and are only the slaves of our passions, then just the means and never the end itself of an action can be unreasonable or irrational, as long as the end is not based upon false information. But if actions have their origin in our passions, “what is unthinkable for a person may [not only] vary from one time to another” but it is also “subject (…) to changes in the contingent circumstances from which [our passions] derive” and “susceptible to being affected by causal forces” (Frankfurt 1988: 187-8). Harry Frankfurt concludes that “the ability and the inability [to perform a certain action] depend [perhaps] on beliefs, commitments, or personal idiosyncrasies – having to do with matters of taste, politics, religion, love, or the like – with respect to which it is natural and in no way pathological for people to be diverse. We know that preferences or types of conduct that are irrational in one cultural locale may often be entirely rational in another” (ibid.: 186). Humeans would like to make their theory of action immune to any philosophy of history and culture, to any form of Hegelianism – and this for the obvious reasons that we have seen above. But eventually they cannot!

Human nature is supposed to limit the ends a person can possibly adopt. “There are certain things that no thoroughly rational individual [or basically sane person] would ever consider doing“ (ibid.: 189). First, it lies in our human nature “that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carry’d to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction” (Hume 1978: 414). Secondly, “the minds of all men are similar in their feelings and operations, nor can anyone be actuated by any affection, of which all others are not, in some degree, susceptible. Thus it appears, that sympathy is a very powerful principle in human nature, (…) and that it produces our sentiments of morals” (ibid.: 575-7).

But obviously suicide bombers are neither concerned with their proper well-being, nor do they seem to have any compassionate feelings for their victims. And Humeans have an explanation of why Muslims could come to ignore their most profound interests and moral feelings: Because Muslims find themselves to have a value commitment to Islamic fundamentalism. In the last centuries, humiliation and resentment have been central elements in the self-constitution of the Muslim world. Akeel Bilgrami claims that we have to understand Islamic revivalism as a “defensive reaction caused not only by the scars and memories of Western colonial rule but by the failure of successive governments to break out of the models of development imposed on them by a dominating neocolonial presence of the superpowers through much of the cold war” (Bilgrami 1992: 209). In order to compensate the subsequent loss of the sense of autonomy and dignity and protect themselves against Western subjugation and condescension Muslims have come to endorse not only their religion and culture in general, but particular aspects of Islam that stand in strong opposition to their enemies. In accordance with the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” resentment has made Muslims identify with those parts of the Koran that call for a holy war and depict the infidel as the enemy. And this defensive function of commitments to Islam “leaves [also moderate Muslims] open to be exploited by the political efforts of absolutist movements” who accuse more accommodating positions to “surrender to the forces of the West” (Bilgrami 1992: 212) and to betray the cause of Islam. A proper Muslim today has to be fundamentalist.

The fact that “cultural identities arise (…) as the consequence, not the cause, of conflicts” and enmity between cultures (Appiah 2005: 64, see also 114-141) explains Islamic fundamentalism, but not necessarily suicide bombing. Humeans could in a certain sense accept fundamentalism as one possible result of their projectivist theory of value, but they could still claim that a Muslim’s other fundamental projects and loves balance and actually outweigh the most extreme demands of Islamism. Muslims have to kill and, if necessary, sacrifice their life for the sake of Islam, for sure, but aren’t their love for their family, children and other ideals impeding them to live up in all respects to their commitments to Islam? Muslims are not only Muslims, but they are most probably also parents, lovers, women, laborers, human beings belonging to a specific class, ethnic group and nation. Muslims, as any other person, have a plurality of identities and loyalties and their value system is not exhausted by religious commitments alone.

Yet again, the psychological approach has an explanation of why Muslims today may not only sacrifice all of their values and interests for the sake of Islam, but also their life, if the fundamentalist ideology requires this. Our identity tends to create practical and volitional necessities precisely because of its psychological foundation. Bernard Williams shows the intrinsic connection between our identity and the emotion of shame. “Shame looks to what I am”; “the structures of shame (…) give a conception of one’s ethical identity” (Williams 1993: 93). Our identity is given and revealed by what Williams calls the internalized other, who “is indeed abstracted and generalized and idealized, but he is potentially somebody rather than nobody, and somebody other than me” (ibid.: 84). We discover our identity in our conscience, in the super-ego, to use Freud’s term, that represents the values of our community and gives voice to other people’s expectations about us. Their imagined gaze, their imagined contempt or derision or avoidance, in case that we do not live up to the expectations the world has about the kind of person we are, arouses our shame and lowers our self-respect to such a degree that we do not see any other possibility than to conform to our role, if we want to go on having the life with others as we know it. Given the present value structure of Muslim communities, Muslims could gain recognition only as suicide bombers.

“Hany Abu-Assad’s film Paradise Now (2005) illustrates brilliantly the role shame plays in motivating suicide bombing. At first, Said, one of the two protagonists from Nablus, only reluctantly accepts to engage in a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv having all the ‘Humean’ scruples above described: He is in love, has to take care of his mother, enjoys his social life and is appalled by the idea of murder. Yet, the profound shame he feels for his father, who was executed when he was 10 years old because he was a ‘collaborator’ with the Israelis, helps him to overcome all his qualms and gives him the deep and strong conviction that as a Palestinian and Muslim he has to engage in the mission in order to restore honor upon his family’s name.”

Traditional Humeans could accept that in their theory social pathologies could indeed give rise to such extreme hostilities. Yet, they would insist on the point that suicide bombing is after all the result of a psychological aberration, of a pathology, that suicide bombing has nothing to do with auto-realization, autonomy and freedom. Certain neo-Humeans, however, such as Frankfurt and Williams, who make psychology and identity the foundation of a conception of personal autonomy (Frankfurt 1988, 2006; Williams 1981, 1993), find themselves in the same dilemma as communitarianism: They lack arguments against the claim that truly autonomous Muslims today have to be suicide bombers.

3.In lieu of conclusion: multiculturalism in search of the emergency exit

Both Anthony Appiah and Bilgrami are sympathetic with identity politics that aims to redress past injustices. In certain contexts, such as that of (post-)colonialism, being treated with equal dignity might not be enough, “and so one will end up asking to be respected [as a Muslim]” (Appiah 1998: 98). Yet, “the acute consciousness of and obsession with the historical cause of their commitment has made [Muslims] incapable of critical reflection about the commitment itself” and, therefore, they fail “to live up to the basic conditions of free agency” (Bilgrami 1992: 213). Making the first-person point of view central to our self-conception, Appiah and Bilgrami hope to liberate Muslims from an identity that is “too tightly scripted” and “too constrained by the demands and expectations of others” (Appiah 1998: 99) and to introduce the possibility of self-constitution: Muslims are free to distance themselves from certain doctrinal commitments and can choose what sort of Muslims they want to be – it is up to them to determine what it is to be a Muslim. For Bilgrami, Muslims with a critical self-conception have to become some kind of reformers who oppose fundamentalism and endorse the Koranic verses “with the more purely universalist and spiritual claims and commitments” (Bilgrami 1992: 216) – they are certainly not fond of suicide bombing.

Yet, it is not clear why self-reflective Muslims have to be moral persons. If Muslims are free to choose their values and identity, why should their freedom prevent them from becoming fundamentalists? Bilgrami recognizes the possibility that someone with Islamic commitments might have a second-order commitment that “entrenches them and guards them against a time when there might well be a weakening or a loss of the commitments” (Bilgrami 2006: 9). Muslims in fact are not simply passive and reactive treating themselves as objects, when they endorse an anti-reformist, fundamentalist stance, even in times in which this attitude could seem to be rather obsolete. Reflective endorsement does not limit the range of our possible identifications – at least, unless we do not consider our freedom to have transcendental implications. Christine Korsgaard argues that we have a free will only qua human being and that “if we do not treat our humanity as a normative identity, none of our other identities can be normative. Moral identity is therefore inescapable (…) and exerts a kind of governing role over the other kinds” (Korsgaard 1994: 129-30). Muslims are given a human identity, that they cannot violate if they want to be Muslims at all.

Liberal multiculturalism, making identity a matter of choice rather than pure discovery, tries to distinguish the good from the bad and the ugly of identity politics (Gutmann 2003). Yet, for that the good identities prevail the bad and the ugly identities, liberal multiculturalism must come dangerously close to a Kantian conception of moral autonomy and risks, in fact, to adopt the same righteous attitude towards Islam as traditional liberalism. The emergency exit for multiculturalism remains, after all, liberalism, criticizing but also victimizing Muslims as alienated from their true moral nature by Islam. Isaiah Berlin (1966) perfectly sees these problems underlying the theory of positive liberty based upon a conception of personal autonomy. Yet, should we give up on the notion of autonomy, it is not at all clear how we can save Berlin’s beautiful intuition that we nevertheless have a right to negative liberty or to freedom from interference, despite the fact that we might not be autonomous. But this I leave for another occasion.

This article has been written in occasion of the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011. I would like to thank Ingrid Salvatore for pushing my question to the extremes.

The final/definitive version of Volker Kaul’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 389-398, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/38/4-5.toc


[1]Some neo-Humeans, such as Harry Frankfurt and Bernard Williams, make, contrary to Hume, psychology the foundation of personal autonomy and normativity (see also section 2).

[2]See also Alasdair MacIntyre’s polemic against emotivism (McIntyre 2007: 6-35).


Abu-Zayd, Nasr (2010): “The ‘Others’ in the Qur’an: A Hermeneutical Approach”, in Philosophy & Social Criticism 36 (3-4), pp. 281-94.

Appiah, Anthony (1998): “Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections”, in Appiah, A. & Amy Gutmann (1998): Color Conscious. The Political Morality of Race, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, pp. 30-105.

Appiah, Anthony (2005): The Ethics of Identity, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.

An-Na’im, Abdullahi (2010): Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press.

Benhabib, Seyla (2010): “The Return of Political Theology: The Scarf Affair in Comparative Constitutional Perspective in France, Germany and Turkey”, in Philosophy & Social Criticism 36 (3-4), pp. 451-71.

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Bilgrami, Akeel (1992): “What is a Muslim? Fundamental Commitment and Cultural Identity”, in Critical Inquiry 18 (4), pp. 198-219.

Bilgrami, Akeel (2006): “Notes Toward the Definition of ‘Identity’”, in Daedalus 135 (4), pp. 5-14.

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Hume, David (1978): A Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge & P.H. Nidditch (eds.), Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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March, Andrew (2009): Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Charles (1985): Philosophical Papers: Human Agency and Language (Volume 1), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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Williams, Bernard (2005): In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.



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