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 himself.
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."
A 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 Things, 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.
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