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Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall,
S.J. | August 24, 2005
After the London subway bombings, the father of Mohammed Atta, the lead
suicide pilot in the World Trade Center destruction, denounced as traitors
those fellow Muslims who condemned these "terrorist" bombings.
He would encourage more attacks. Indeed, he would donate five thousand
dollars (such is the apparent cost of such acts) to carry out another
such bombing. That is how much, he thought, it would take to finance another
London attack, another "volunteer" to kill others by killing
Suicide Bombers Treated As Martyrs
A July 30th report in the London Spectator depicted
the in absentia funeral in Pakistan of one of the London suicide
bombers, Shehzad Tenweer. The Koran was read; a large crowd was
present. Tanweer was popularly considered a "martyr" for his
"heroic" act that killed seven people. It is this topic that
I wish to discuss the notion that a "suicide bomber"
is a "martyr," a hero, to be imitated and encouraged, while
those who oppose such actions, even if they are Muslim, are condemned.
In his recent
address to Muslim leaders in Cologne Benedict XVI, seeking some common
ground between Muslims and Christians, remarked, "I am certain that
I echo your own thought when I bring up as one of our concerns the spread
of terrorism. Terrorist activity is continually recurring in various parts
of the world.... Terrorism of any kind is a perversion and cruel decision
which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines that
very foundations of all civil society." Presumably, suicide bombings
are a sub-set of "terrorism," itself an abstract word that avoids
the explanation of "by whom?" and "for what purpose?"
The question is, does this "common ground" exist and what is
its basis? Clearly, no common ground exists between the positive promotion
of and the absolute condemnation of suicide bombing. Either it is right
or wrong. If it is wrong, any organization or movement promoting it as
a matter of principle and policy cannot be a valid religion or philosophy,
no matter how earnest or sincere its proponents may be. Are those Muslims
who do have "common ground" with Christians and Jews in condemning
suicide bombings say on the basis of "rights" or natural
law or reason also thought to be "heretics" by accepted
Muslim standards? Ought "suicide bombing" to be encouraged under
any conceivable circumstances?
This claim of the moral approval of suicide bombing, clearly found within
uncomfortably large segments of Islam, is surely the point of many Muslims
calling a suicide bomber a "martyr." Historically, a martyr
was not and could not be a "suicide." Even Socrates at his trial
had to explain why his acceptance of death at the hands of the State,
even his self-administration of the death penalty, was not a suicide.
Nor was Christs crucifixion a voluntary suicide. In fact, a martyr
is the exact opposite of a suicide bomber. A martyr is someone who upholds
by his being unjustly killed the Socratic principle
that it is never right to do wrong, even to oneself, no less to others.
More bluntly, a suicide bomber, by any objective standard, cannot
be a martyr, though he may be the cause of the martyrdom of others. Both
John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said that such deeds can never be justified
by reason or religion, even when some religions or sects evidently do
so justify them. A line is drawn in the sand. To approve and foster suicide
bombing is to make something intrinsically evil to appear as good. This
position has serious implications. Positive advocacy of suicide bombing,
not to mention terrorist bombing that does not include suicide, indicates
that the teaching of persons or groups holding the doctrine supporting
it cannot be true.
Italian journalist Sandro Magistro, in a
long essay, charted the connection between the leaders of Muslim groups
in Germany, with headquarters in Cologne and Munich, to the Muslim Brotherhood
with Egyptian and Syrian connections. Indeed, we know that at least some
of the World Trade Center attacks were originally planned in Germany.
"In 1994, a frequent visitor of the mosque in Munich, Mahmoud Abouhalima,
was given a life sentence in the United States for having organized, one
year before, the car bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
But it was only after the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11,
2001, that investigations into the connections between terrorism and the
radical Islamic circle in Germany intensified."
BBC report (August 21), in a Panorama debate about whether the British
Muslim community refuses to look at the extremists among them, cites the
leading British Muslim politician, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. He "condemns
suicide bombings by British Muslims anywhere and said there was no difference
between the life of a Palestinian and the life of a Jew and that all life
was sacred." But just to confuse things, "in a separate interview,
a senior spokesman for one of the MCBs (Muslim Council of Britain)
main affiliates, the Muslim Association of Britain, appeared to condone
the glorification of suicide bombers." Numerous Muslim sources can
be cited as approving this latter view.
Led by Prime Minister Blair and President Bush, Western leaders, both
religious and political, have sought valiantly to maintain the separation
between "peaceful" Muslims and "terrorism." Implicitly
this distinction implies that only "peaceful" Muslims are "really"
Muslims, if this liberal and theological distinction is correct. Unfortunately,
the "terrorists" themselves do claim with considerable historical
and doctrinal evidence, on Koranic grounds, that they are in fact the
true interpreters of Islam. In one sense, it is "illiberal"
not to take them at their word. One of the problems with understanding
Islam is that it has no final authority within itself to decide which
of these two interpretations is valid. For every fatwa that pronounces
suicide bombing wrong, another from another equally credible source pronounces
it valid. This situation is perhaps why Blair and others are more and
more insisting that Muslims, so that they can be held accountable, stand
up and be counted in public as rejecting "terrorism" not only
as a practice but as inherent in Islamic sources.
The test of Pius XII was Nazism. The test of John Paul II was Communism
and absolutist liberalism. The test of Benedict XVI, for better or for
worse, is Islam and this in the context whether or not the absolutist
liberal theory can tame it. But Islam, unlike Nazism and Communism and
likewise unlike many academic analyses of it, is not primarily understood
in terms of Western (often German) philosophical or social movements.
Indeed, attempts to understand what is going on by these categories is
more likely to obscure the truth than to clarify it.
By its record and its own theological presuppositions, Islam itself does
not have and does not seek to have a regime of neutrality or tolerance.
Its civil polities now and historically unite Islam and the state in various
configurations. What Islam practices for non-Muslims within areas it politically
controls, as Bat Yeor has graphically shown in Eurabia, is
a theory and practice of subservience. Jews and Christians may be given
a special place of subservience, sometimes called tolerance, but it is
still subservience. The Copts in Egypt are perhaps the longest lasting
example of this (see First
March, 2005, 47-50). The persecution of Christians in Sudan is the
most graphic example.
The Final Goal
The first step in dealing with any movements or religion is to know what
it is, what it holds about itself. Often, to be sure, a difference can
be found between what one says he holds and what he holds to act on or
practice. But not a few thinkers, like Hitler or Lenin, did tell us what
they held and what they intended to do before they went ahead and did
it. No one believed them until after they did what they told us that they
intended to do.
In this sense, Mohammed and Islam itself, in word and action, do tell
us what they have done and what they intend to do, if they could. One
can say with little doubt that Europe today was intended by Islamic warriors
to be Muslim. Europe, as Africa and the Middle East, was invaded for that
purpose. And this purpose was conceived to be a religious purpose; the
armies were fulfilling a mission. This goal is still held to be the purpose
of the Muslim factions called "terrorists." The only reason
Europe is not Muslim today is that Muslim armies were defeated by hard-fought
military action in France and Austria. Many Islamic thinkers do not admit
that any area that was taken back from Muslim control (Spain, for instance)
is still not theirs. There is no legitimate "taking back," something
that makes the Spanish elections after their own recent "terrorist"
bombings doubly ironical.
Moreover, most of the world that is officially Muslim today is Muslim
because of long strings of military victories and conquests which have
remained to form, in one way or another, present Islamic configurations.
This situation is simply a fact, whatever we make of it. Terrorist actions
today are generally formulated in terms either of winning back former
Muslim lands (Spain, Israel, Balkans) or pursuing the Muslim goal of peace
by which is meant the whole world under Muslim law. This rule indeed would
be a kind of "peace" with all external opposition eliminated.
The present Islamic division between the "world of war" (non-Muslim
lands) and the "world of peace" would be eliminated. No doubt,
the unexpected rise of a visibly militant Islam in recent decades is the
result of certain Muslim theoreticians who see the West as morally weak
and degenerate, unwilling or unable to resist a concentrated attack, inspired
by suicide bombers. The fact that no reputable Muslim army is capable
of fighting well-equipped troops, as the two Iraq wars show, does not
mean no war exists. Rather it means that we have an unlimited or unrestricted
war that is fought with unconventional weapons.
The only thing really new today is that Islam, if patient, might well
take over Europe and other areas through a combination of self-inflicted
and rapid population decline among European peoples paralleled to continued
rapid increase of Muslim birthrates in this area. This latter drama should
be of especial interest to Catholics who once doubted the relevance of
Humanae Vitae. In this light, it now appears as one of the most
important documents of the twentieth century. In this sense, it is conceivable
that Islam may not succeed precisely because it did not follow the "peaceful"
population route but provoked the one power capable of using systematic
force against it. But it remains to be seen whether a long-term political
will to oppose the "terrorist" agenda can be sustained in democracies.
The terrorists themselves seem sufficiently sophisticated to realize that
the war is one not just of armies but of ideas and nightly news.
Little can be done about any dangerous threat until this clarity about
its nature is forthcoming. And even when its reality is recognized
I think of the Munich agreements or the control of Eastern by the Soviets
after World War II will and decision to do something about it must
follow intelligence, assuming it is accurate. A German publisher has famously
described contemporary Europe as a continent that completely lacks courage
to face what threatens it. The vaunted European "diplomacy"
to use "other" means than force, as in the case of trying to
convince Iran not to produce nuclear weapons is simply not effective.
The Horror of Terrorist "Martrydom"
Perhaps nothing has needed clarification more at every level from theological
to political to medical and commonsensical than the difference between
suicide bombing and martyrdom. It seems almost obscene to see them linked
together as manifestations of the same thing. We should begin by affirming
that the Muslim apologists and those who follow them do hold that suicide
bombing is "martyrdom." It is an act chosen to further their
destiny with Allah by killing themselves and others in a "cause"
of furthering Muslim goals that are at the same time political and theological.
Whatever we think of this view, it is held either actively or in sympathy
by a large part of the Muslim world. Though there are those who do, few
within the Muslim world itself voice much effective criticism of this
association of suicide and martyrdom.
It is well and good for us cynically to think, using our own uncomprehending
categories, that for the various Bin Ladens of this world this suicide
bombing is just a form of "realpolitik," with no religious overtone.
We might reinforce our view by noting that few Al Qaeda leaders themselves
have been suicide bombers, though not a few have been shot by various
military and police forces, both of Muslim governments and by the American
army. Suicide bombing is definitely an instrument of war, but that does
not, in theological terms, prevent it also from being something like an
act of devotion, a martyrdom. Wars can be "holy."
One thing is quite clear and this is found even in Aristotle
that if a man is willing to give up his life to attack or kill someone
else, it is very difficult and often impossible to stop him. Groups or
institutions such as the Secret Service and Scotland Yard are in part
designed to prevent the killing of politicians and their families from
such suicide bombers. A number of American presidents have been killed
by men who did not care for their own lives. But rarely was their motive
religious. This power of the man who cares not for his life means, in
practice, that if we know someone is on a suicide-bombing mission, he
must be stopped or killed first if innocent people are to be protected.
The only alternative is to let it happen because this killing is what
the terrorist intends to do and will do, as we see in hundreds and hundreds
of instances. I recently came across a website
that listed, with times and places, 2400 acts of terrorism since 9/11
in various parts of the world. These were from Muslim sources involving
the killing of others (but not all suicide bombings, of course).
The Islamic suicide bomber does not think that those who are killed in
their "mission" are "innocent." Subjectively, they
understand that they are killing "enemies" of Allah even if
those killed are women, children, elderly, or just passers-by. This is
a radically erroneous conscience, of course, but it seems to exist. Suicide
bombing is rarely random. Someone orders it to happen; someone obeys the
orders. The purpose of suicide bombers is precisely, by carrying out orders,
to help to extend Islam to its "rightful" immediate or long-term
dimensions, the conquest of the world for Allah. This great "cause,"
nutty as it may sound to us, is evidently what gives nobility and dignity
to such acts of what the rest of us call "terrorism."
The Erroneous, Deadly Conscience
As I wrote immediately after 9/11 (www.tcrnews.com,
15 September 2001), even on the principles of Catholic moral thought which
says that a truly erroneous conscience must be obeyed (Veritatis
Splendor, 57-64), it is possible that the suicide bombers went
to heaven along with those they killed, if we can assume they were true
religious believers and following their consciences with no chance within
their culture or personal history of correcting themselves. This view
does not make the act right or eliminate its consequences, but it takes
seriously what some Muslims evidently hold.
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II spent a considerable
time discussing the notion of martyrdom. Ironically, that 1993 encyclical
was not written with the suicide bombers in mind, though they were already
active. The notion of dying for ones faith is an ancient and noble
one. It attests to things more important than life. Sometimes, in the
course of too many human lives, the only choice they had was between dying
or doing evil. To choose to stay alive and renounce ones beliefs
or understanding of virtue meant implicitly a denial of the principle
at stake. The only way to uphold the principle in fact would be to accept
death, but it was not ones choice to die as such, hence not suicide.
The traditions of St. Stephen and Thomas More, following Christ, was to
forgive, but not condone, those who carried out the death sentence, both
the executioners and those morally responsible for ordering it.
"Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can
lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom," wrote John
Paul II (Veritatis Splendor, 89). He went on: "The relationship
between faith and morality shines forth with all its brilliance in the
unconditional respect due to the insistent demands of the personal dignity
of every man, demands protected by those moral norms which prohibit without
exception actions which are intrinsically evil" (90). Among such
actions, the document points out (80), is "voluntary suicide."
But "suicide bombing" is something more than just "voluntary
suicide." Back in the Vietnam War, we had instances of Buddhist monks
burning themselves to death in protest against something or other. Though
the act was bad enough in itself, those monks did not intend to take anyone
else with them.
The whole point of the contemporary suicide bomber is precisely to "take
someone else with him." And who are these "someones"? They
can be soldiers usually in areas where obvious distinctions of
combatants and non-combatants is deliberately obscured. But they can be
and often are passengers in buses or airliners, or shoppers in markets,
or just about anyone. The bombing is of the innocent is precisely to make
publicity and cause civil unrest and even retribution against some outside
If the analysis presented here is generally valid, the major conclusion
is that any group, religion, philosophy, or world-view that positively
advocates and carries out this practice of suicide bombing cannot be true.
What is at stake is not merely a distinction between two divergent groups
within one religion, but the very possibility of any truth existing in
that part of the religion that advocates suicide bombing as "martyrdom"
in its religious "cause.
Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:
On Learning and
Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3
On Writing and
Reading: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 2 of 3
and Politics: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3
the Delight of Truth
The One War, The
On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither
Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness
On Teaching the
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including
Another Sort of Learning,
Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of
Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing,
Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal
Read more of his essays on his
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