Thursday, October 8, 2009

Suicide Bombing as Worship - Part II

by Denis MacEoin

2nd part of 2


Religion in the Jihad against Israel

Suicide bombers from Hamas or Islamic Jihad or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades cannot be understood as creatures of Palestinian nationalism, as the spawn of the Palestine Liberation Organization or Black September. The religious war against Israel best explains the deep impulses that propel so many young Muslims to choose death for this cause. No other conflict engages international Islamic opinion like this one. "Palestine" has become a rallying cry for Muslims everywhere.

Benny Morris, a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict, correctly argues that it was religion rather than nationalism that inspired the 1948 invasion of Israel. He considers it a mistake to ignore the religious rhetoric that accompanied the 1948 assault by Arab armies. "The 1948 War, from the Arabs' perspective," he writes, "was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory."[22] The Muslim Brotherhood, the mufti of Egypt, [23] Egypt's King Farouk, King 'Abdullah of Transjordan, and many others spoke of a holy war, a jihad against the Jews. It was not a purely nationalist struggle then, nor is it today. The "[violence] did not emerge only from 'modern' nationalist passions; it also drew on powerful religious wellsprings. Nothing, it seemed, could mobilize the Palestinian Arab masses for action more readily than Muslim religious rhetoric and symbols."[24]

Little has changed since the 1940s. With the rise of radical Islam and the expansion of violent recourse, Arab irredentism has continued to have a religious focus, sometimes on "Palestine" and sometimes on the umma, the abstract nation of all Muslims. And it is as Muslims more than as Arabs (or Iranians or Afghans) that today's leading enemies of Israel view the conflict.

Palestinian violence against Israelis is one of the earliest expressions of Islamic rage against modernity. Its most recent manifestation, Hamas, is, according to its 1988 Covenant, "an Islamic resistance movement."[25] Hamas is, in fact, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, still one of the leading forces of Islamic radicalism on the planet. Article one of the covenant starts as follows: "The Movement's program is Islam. From it, it draws its ideas, ways of thinking and understanding of the universe, life and man. It resorts to it for judgment in all its conduct, and it is inspired by it for guidance of its steps." [26]


Female Suicide Bombers

In hard-line versions of the Islamic faith, unrelated men and women never meet, never so much as exchange glances. Islamic society is patriarchal and, like other patriarchal societies, it diminishes the energies and abilities of its women. Palestinian society links the repression of women to a male need for honor. The "core of gender inequality in [Palestinian] society resides in patriarchal control and repression of female sexuality. … The control of female sexuality maintains male power, privileges and prerogatives. … Control of women is the most important, if not the only, component of the honor code left to men."[27] Sexuality and the honor code have played a major part in the recruitment of suicide bombers; but it is the emergence of the female bomber that is most intriguing, given that such women represent a challenge to conventional Islamic notions of female inferiority and Arab cultural demands for women to be restricted to their homes or dressed by Islamic standards.

A tiny number of women took part in jihad in the early years of Islam, but this practice seems to have been abandoned by the second generation or so. Nevertheless, some hadith do permit it, and Shari'a law rules that women may engage in jihad when, for example, the Muslim state comes under attack. In recent years, women have volunteered for membership in a range of terrorist outfits from the "black widow" bombers of Chechnya[28] to Kurdish rebels[29] to the "martyrs" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.[30]

Every suicide attack by women from 1985 to 2000 was motivated by secular goals. Since 2000, however, as Hamas has grown in importance, religiously-motivated female terrorists have carried out more than two-thirds of the suicide attacks by women.[31]

The religious leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, had originally restricted or denied women the right to take part in jihad operations:

In our Palestinian society, there is a flow of women towards jihad and martyrdom, exactly like the young men. But the woman has uniqueness. Islam sets some restrictions for her, and if she goes out to wage Jihad and fight, she must be accompanied by a male chaperon. We have no need for suicide operations by women now because preserving the nation's survival is more important.[32]

By 2004, however, Yasin had reversed his theological understanding of the matter, and stated: "Exactly when there is an invasion to the holy land, a Muslim woman is permitted to wage jihad and struggle against the enemy ... the Prophet would draw lots among the women who wanted to go out with him to make jihad. The Prophet always emphasized the woman's right to wage jihad."[33]

Yasin was, in part, motivated by existing notions of honor and shame, according to which a woman who is deemed to have done something shameful (in the sexual sense) may be killed by members of her family in order to expunge that shame.[34] Even though issues of shame and honor may have their roots in communal psychology rather than faith, it is a constant justification of "honor" killings and related crimes that the Qur'an and Shari'a legislation already demand punishments such as flogging or stoning for sexual crimes. At some point it seems to have dawned on Yasin that a dishonored woman might be cleansed of her "wrongdoing" and at the same time be employed as a living bomb capable of passing unsearched through male-controlled checkpoints in order to detonate herself in the midst of as many Jews as possible. According to Mira Tzoreff, a Middle East history specialist at Tel Aviv University:

An intensification of the shahidat [female martyrs] phenomenon is represented by the [2004] suicide of Rim Riashi at the Erez check post, not only as the married mother of two small children, but also because of the sanction she received by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Indeed, it was not long before it became clear that Rim Riashi had requested Yassin's sanction only after her relationship with a lover had … become a known matter. Thus, the act of istishhad [dying as a martyr] was the only way to remove the stain of dishonor from both herself and her family.[35]

How was the "stain of dishonor" manipulated to wear a religious stamp through the expiation of martyrdom?


Shame, Honor, and Martyrdom

Religious idealism cannot fully explain this desperation, this intense craving for a martyr's death among so many young Palestinians. But without a religious framework, it is highly unlikely that any of these women would seek to kill others through their own deaths. There might be "honor" killings and beatings, and some women would run away from their families, but there would be no suicide bombings. There seems to be an affinity here with two related drives in the Arab psyche that not only puts female suicide bombers into perspective but demonstrates important links between them and their male equivalents. One of these drives is the acute awareness of shame mentioned above, an emotion sharply contrasted with honor. Muslim societies are shame societies. This is noticeable in Arab countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other places where honor resides in the family above all, and, in particular, in the women of the family or, more accurately, their sexual probity.

This is not to say that men do not suffer dishonor, but for them this is projected outwards, towards rivals or enemies and, of course, towards the women and sometimes towards the men they believe have compromised their honor.[36] The honor/shame dichotomy is responsible for the widespread practice of "honor" killings, something found in many parts of the Islamic world from Morocco to Pakistan, and always committed against women. Though these killings form no part of Islamic law and are not exclusive to the Muslim world, the vast majority do take place in Muslim countries where killers are seldom prosecuted.[37] That the Islamic clergy rarely condemn these practices as anti-Islamic provides them with a religious cover. Should a girl become pregnant outside marriage, or a wife commit adultery, or a daughter refuse an arranged marriage or even be seen outdoors with an unrelated boy, it becomes the inescapable duty of her father, husband, brothers, or cousins to kill her in order to restore the family's honor in the eyes of the local community. According to UNICEF, in 1999 more than two-thirds of all murders in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were "honor" killings.[38]

By transcending ordinary emotional ties and by putting on a cloak of religiosity, the female suicide bomber sets out to expunge the shame she feels on behalf of family, community, or nation, both by accepting death as a martyr and by inflicting death on others as a holy warrior. The bomber's victims may be non-Muslims who, by definition, have been "brought low" by Islam yet who persist in their arrogance by asserting equal status with Muslims or who surpass Muslims in one way or another. This humiliates the Muslim community, making it imperative that the non-Muslims be put back in their place or extinguished. In the past, this was done in conventional ways, through imprisonment, flogging, or decapitation. Similar punishments were used on deviant Muslims, apostates, and those who transgressed Shari'a law. But the use of suicide killing as a means of control is less easy to explain.

The idealization of sexual honor and sexual shame carries heavy symbolic weight outside the sphere of family relations. Jehoeda Sofer, author of Sexuality and Eroticism among Males in Moslem Societies, quotes a Palestinian Arab as follows: "If the Arabs would have had war with the Israelis using [their] ***s, we would have defeated them easily. The Israelis are a bunch of feminine males who want to be and should be *** by the Arabs."[39]

Several years ago, Malise Ruthven, a British authority on Islam, pointed out that much Muslim outrage about The Satanic Verses was expressed in sexual language. Zaki Badawi, the late principal of the Muslim College and a moderate British Muslim, for example, wrote: "What [Rushdie] has written is far worse to Muslims than if he had raped one's own daughter. … It's like a knife being dug into you—or being raped yourself."[40] Ruthven suggests that Rushdie's crime was to enter the sacral space occupied by the Prophet: "That entry is perceived as a violation, as a kind of rape."[41]

When first the Christians and later the Jews ventured to turn their status as protected but inferior peoples upside-down, Muslim societies felt shame at their own weakness, at the possibility that the old world had disintegrated, never to return. It is a shame akin to what is felt when a woman "gets above herself" and rejects the "protection" of father, husband, or brother. Beyond that, it is a shame akin to being raped, in this case by Jews and Christians, deemed "women" in relation to "masculine" Islam. In all cases, the only restitution is death.

The suicide bomber enters this sphere of shame like a rapist and in doing so invades sacral territory. The Jews, as protected people, constitute a sphere that should be inviolate to Muslims; instead, the fida'i goes directly into Jewish space and there commits an ultimate act of rape, thereby restoring the masculinity of Muslim people. Even the female martyr, by throwing off her inferiority as a weak-bodied woman and exercising the courage of a man, rapes the Jews she slaughters.


Since the Qur'an commends violence and the Hadith literature is steeped in the blood of martyrs, killing and dying violently are not breaches of the moral code or infringements of divine law. They are, on the contrary, regarded as some of the highest achievements of Islamic spirituality. Asked who was the best of people, Muhammad replied, the "believer who fights in the path of God with his self and his property."[42] The martyr enjoys double the pleasure of paradise and dwells there in an abode superior to its other denizens.[43]

What can be done about this? For most Western countries, the Israeli option, to build a defensive barrier between us and the homes of the bombers, will not work. We can profile; we can infiltrate; we can discover and share intelligence; we can carry out targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders, trainers, and motivators; we can pinpoint and destroy terrorist training camps. Like the Israeli fence, constant vigilance will reduce the numbers of bombers, sometimes dramatically. But engaging the problem at the grassroots level is clearly more difficult because the phenomenon is so deeply entrenched in the cultures that produce the bombers, in the religious values, the sexual practices, and the shame and honor systems they inculcate. If we are to modify those cultures in a positive way, perhaps we have to introduce sanctions that punish countries dependent on Western aid every time a terrorist or suicide bomber from that country is identified. We have to make suicide bombing an affront to religion and a matter of great dishonor. Set beside a system of rewards for identifiable counterterrorism initiatives, above all, education programs designed to reject religious and social propaganda, this may set in motion new ways of altering the suicide mindset. But until such measures begin to bite and societies prone to this malaise start to shift toward moderation across the board, it is the intelligence and security services who will have to shoulder the burden of defense. There are no quick fixes, but there are long-term goals that we need to plan for now.


Denis MacEoin is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

[1] "Children in the Service of Terror," Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch 2455, July 2009.
[2] The New York Times, Mar. 20, 2006.
[3] The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 19, 2001.
[4] Vamik D. Volkan, "Suicide Bombers," Virginia University, accessed July 17, 2009.
[5] "Committing Suicide Is Not a Way Out," Islam Online, June 24, 2002.
[6] Daniel Pipes, "The [Suicide] Jihad Menace," The Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2001.
[7] Michael Bonner, "Martyrdom," Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice (Princeton: Woodstock Publishers, 2006), chap 5.
[8] Ibid., chap. 7.
[9] Sheikh Gibril Fouad Haddad, "Inghimas In 'Suicide' Warfare," citing Mansur al-Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina, 2007, p. 1.
[10] Ibid., p. 3.
[11] Ibid., p. 12.
[12] Ibid., pp. 12-3.
[13] Abu Ja'far Muhammad al-Tabari, G. H. A. Juynboll, trans., The History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, Southwestern Persia, and Egypt, vol. 2, p. 554.
[14] "The Highest Ranking Palestinian Authority Cleric: In Praise of Martyrdom Operations," Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch, no. 226, June 11, 2001.
[15] Marvin Hier, Abraham Cooper, and Leo Adler, "Waving the Flag of Hatred," Calgary (Can.) Herald, Aug. 16, 2006.
[16] Steven Stalinsky, "Dealing in Death," National Review Online, May 24, 2004.
[17] Daniel Pipes, "Can Infidels Be Innocents?" Daniel Pipes Blog, Aug. 7, 2005.
[18] "What Does the Religion of Peace Teach about … Violence," accessed July 17, 2009; Bonner, "The Quran and Arabia," Jihad in Islamic History, chap. 2.
[19] See, for example, Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, trans. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1955); Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad "al-Waqidi," ed., Kitab al-ta'rikh wa 'l-maghazi (London: Marsden Jones, 1966).
[20] Ibn al-Hajjaj Muslim, Sahih Muslim (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Misri, n.d.), chap. 41, hadith 4681.
[21] Benjamin Blaney, "The Berserker: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature," Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado, 1972.
[22] Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 394.
[23] Ibid., pp. 394-5.
[24] Ibid., p. 12.
[25] The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Aug. 18, 1988, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, accessed July 6, 2009.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Cheryl Rubenberg, Palestinian Women: Patriarchy and Resistance in the West Bank (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), p. 253.
[28] Lorenzo Vidino, "How Chechnya Became a Breeding Ground for Terror," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2005, pp. 57-66.
[29] EU-Digest, July 17, 2005.
[30] Debra D. Zedalis, "Female Suicide Bombers," Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 2004; Yoram Schweitzer, "Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?" Tel Aviv University, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Memorandum 84, 2006.
[31] Paige Whaley Eager, From Freedom Fighters to Terrorists: Women and Political Violence (Aldershot, U.K. and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), p. 172.
[32] Maria Alvanou, "Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers: The Interplaying Effects of Islam, Nationalism and Culture," Strategic Research and Policy Center, National Defense College, Israel Defense Forces, Working Papers Series, paper no. 3, May 2007, pp. 26-7.
[33] Barbara Victor, Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers (Emmaeus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2003), p. 113.
[34] James Brandon and Salam Hafez, Crimes of the Community: Honor-based Violence in the UK (London: Centre for Social Cohesion, 2008), p. 41; Phyllis Chesler, "Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?" Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2009, pp. 61-9.
[35] Mira Tzoreff, "The Palestinian Shahida," in Schweitzer, Female Suicide Bombers, p. 21.
[36] Daniel Pipes, "'Honor Killings' of Muslim Males in the West," Daniel Pipes Blog, updated July 25, 2009.
[37] "Case Study: 'Honour Killings' and Blood Feuds," Gendercide Watch, accessed July 17, 2009; Chesler, "Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?"
[38] "UNICEF Executive Director targets violence against women," Information Newsline, Mar. 7, 2000.
[39] Arno Schmidt and Jehoeda Sofer, eds., Sexuality and Eroticism among Males in Moslem Societies (Binghampton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1992), p. 109.
[40] Malise Ruthven, A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam (London: The Hogarth Press, 1991), p. 29.
[41] Ibid., p. 31.
[42] Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (Lahore: Kazi, 1979), hadith 2578;, Mawsu'a al-hadith ash-sharif, accessed July 17, 2009.
[43] Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 4, book 52, hadith 48.


No comments:

Post a Comment