Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nasra Hassan's Conversations with Jihadists Hellbent on Paradise . . .

Nasra Hassan

Recently, there's been some discussion on this blog concerning the significance that hope of paradise holds in the minds of suicide bombers. Scott Atran interviewed jihadists and failed suicide bombers and was told by the leaders, and apparently even by the would-be 'martyrs' themselves, that Allah would not accept a 'martyr' who sought death motivated by the promise of paradise since that would be a selfish motive. I disagreed, saying that I didn't trust these statements, my thinking being that those who would carry out 'martyrdom operations' (suicide bombings) against infidels would certainly have no qualms about merely lying to infidels.

I did accept that seeking martyrdom out of a selfish motive, say, solely the prospect of transcendent sex with houris in paradise, would perhaps not be acceptable to Allah, but I held that such would not reduce the significance of that motive, rather that the motive would tend to be contextualized and that the would-be martyr, caught in the paradox of seeking paradise without seeking paradise, would play psychological games with himself over that motive.

Related to the point about deception, moreover, I noted that the facts established through interviews depend upon the questions posed, and -- I might also now add -- upon the relationship between interviewer and the one interviewed. Islamists are well known to say one thing to Westerners and something utterly different among themselves and to other Muslims. I therefore pointed to the rhetoric used by recruiters of suicide bombers, generally the promise of paradise and specifically the delights of 'marriage' to the beautiful houris, and I supplied the evidence offered by the practice of martyrs' weddings.

Such rhetoric and rituals would seem to support my claim concerning the motive of attaining paradise, but what do the would-be martyrs themselves say about paradise and its attractions? What might they say to a fellow Muslim in an interview? Let's find out by looking at the sort of evidence I've been seeing in print for the past twenty years and more.

Ms. Nasra Hassan, according to her profile on the Salzburg Global Seminar website, "carries out primary research on Muslim suicide terrorism and on jihadist militancy . . . . [and] her research data has been published and is widely cited in academic and other publications," so she appears to have at least some proper academic credibility. Nearly 12 years ago, Ms. Hassan published a fascinating article in The New Yorker, titled "An Arsenal of Believers: Talking to the 'human bombs'" (November 19, 2001). That was shortly after 9/11, but the interviews had been conducted a few years earlier, in the Gaza Strip, so let's see what she learned, beginning with a young man she calls "S.," a suicide bomber whose bomb failed to detonate. He was shot in the head and lay in a coma for over two months, but recovered and agreed to be interviewed:
"How did you feel when you heard that you'd been selected for martyrdom?" I asked.

"It's as if a very high, impenetrable wall separated you from Paradise or Hell," he said. "Allah has promised one or the other to his creatures. So, by pressing the detonator, you can immediately open the door to Paradise -- it is the shortest path to Heaven."
Hassan inquired about whether he and his two companions ever wavered:
"We had no doubts. We made an oath on the Koran, in the presence of Allah -- a pledge not to waver. This jihad pledge is called bayt al ridwan, after the garden in Paradise that is reserved for the prophets and the martyrs."
Hassan even watched a video of S. and the other two:
S. showed me a video that documented the final planning for the operation. In the grainy footage, I saw him and two other young men engaging in a ritualistic dialogue of questions and answers about the glory of martyrdom. S., who was holding a gun, identified himself as a member of al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, which is one of two Palestinian Islamist organizations that sponsor suicide bombings . . . . "Tomorrow, we will be martyrs," he declared, looking straight at the camera. "Only the believers know what this means. I love martyrdom." The young men and the planner then knelt and placed their right hands on the Koran. The planner said, "Are you ready? Tomorrow, you will be in Paradise."
There is a social aspect to martyrdom, for the martyrs serve as role models:
In Palestinian neighborhoods, the suicide bombers' green birds appear on posters, and in graffiti -- the language of the street. Calendars are illustrated with the "martyr of the month." Paintings glorify the dead bombers in Paradise, triumphant beneath a flock of green birds. This symbol is based on a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that the soul of a martyr is carried to Allah in the bosom of the green birds of Paradise.
This hope of paradise appears to play a great role:
A member of Hamas explained the preparation: "We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting the Prophet Muhammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they, too, can be saved from the agonies of Hell, on the houris, and on fighting the Israeli occupation and removing it from the Islamic trust that is Palestine."
Note that the jihad against Israel also serves as motive, and here is where Professor Scott Atran's analysis perhaps has something to add, for not every Muslim seeks martyrdom. Indeed, the vast majority of Muslims do not. There first must be radicalization. Martyrs appear more often where Muslims feel themselves oppressed, which certainly contributes to radicalization. The promise of paradise, however, remains a powerful, centrally crucial incentive, as Hassan recounts:
I was told the story of a young Palestinian, M., by two men who, at different times, had been his cellmates in Israeli prisons. In September, 1993, in a safe house just outside Jerusalem, M. had performed ritual ablution, said his prayers, and set off on his bombing mission. He had boarded a bus -- one on the same route on which S.'s bomb had failed to explode two months earlier. All he had to do was unzip his bag of explosives and press the detonator. "But at the moment he was to press the button he forgot Paradise," one of his former cellmates recalled. "He felt a split second of fear, a slight hesitation. To bolster himself, he recited from the Koran. Refreshed and strengthened, he again began to think of Paradise. When he felt ready, he tried again. But the detonator did not function. He prayed to himself, 'Please, Allah, let me succeed.' But still it did not work, not even the third time, when he kept his finger pressed firmly on the knob. Recognizing that there was a technical problem, he got off the bus at the next stop, returned the bag to the planner, and went home." (The Israeli security services subsequently arrested M. in another attack, and he is currently in prison.)
Very interesting. The would-be martyr is supposed to focus attention specifically upon paradise, or so M.'s case reveals. There's more:
Just before the bomber sets out on his final journey, he performs a ritual ablution, puts on clean clothes, and tries to attend at least one communal prayer at a mosque. He says the traditional Islamic prayer that is customary before battle, and he asks Allah to forgive his sins and to bless his mission. He puts a Koran in his left breast pocket, above the heart, and he straps the explosives around his waist or picks up a briefcase or a bag containing the bomb. The planner bids him farewell with the words "May Allah be with you, may Allah give you success so that you achieve Paradise." The would-be martyr responds, "Inshallah, we will meet in Paradise."
After a successful "martyrdom" operation, there follows one of those weddings I reported on recently:
The bomber's family and the sponsoring organization celebrate his martyrdom with festivities, as if it were a wedding. Hundreds of guests congregate at the house to offer congratulations. The hosts serve the juices and sweets that the young man specified in his will. Often, the mother will ululate in joy over the honor that Allah has bestowed upon her family.
All's well that ends well! A wedding is the happy ending to every popular fairy tale. But not for the victims. The carnage left behind, the lives taken and the lives ruined, the destruction that remains. And the image of Islam painted by Islamists in clotted blood grows ever darker. Little wonder the Islamists say, "We love death!" They have to.

All for paradise . . . and a little bit more.

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At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't get the impression that they were doing it so they could get into paradise. Rather, stories like those of M and S leave me with the impression that the belief in paradise gives them the mental strength to actually go through with the act and kill themselves (and others). It's a subtle but big difference.

Whatever your interpretation of these interviews, I think it's clear that Atran and Pape had a much, much larger sample size from which to draw conclusions. I counted about 5/6 people or so mentioned in this study. Only one interview was with an actual failed suicide bomber. As you yourself have noted, the role paradise plays in the thinking of these people will vary from suicide bomber to suicide bomber.

It may well be that paradise is a big motivator for a few. The discrepancy between this woman's data other studies can be explained by the fact that they interviewed different people.

At 4:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think the answer depends on what we mean by "motivation." There are 'background' motives and 'foreground' motives.

Background is the hope for paradise, a hope generally held by Muslims.

Foreground is the radicalizing motive, which may be any number of things.

Together, these help explain the widespread use of "martyrdom operations" in the Islamic world.

Jeffery Hodges

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