Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Wiktorowicz on Islamist Suicide Bombings

Suicide Attack . . .
. . . or martyrdom operation?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Wiktorowicz, in his article "A Genealogy of Radical Islam" (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28:75-97, 2005), makes some interesting points about suicide bombings.

He notes, for instance, that these began with Shi'ites, not Sunnis:
Like civilian targeting, the issue of suicide bombings or "martyrdom operations" is relatively recent. The use of suicide bombings by Muslims began in Lebanon and was popularized by Hizballah. Tactically speaking, this influenced Palestinian groups. Theologically speaking, however, it is unlikely that Hizballah directly influenced Al Qaeda and the Sunni jihadis because its arguments derived from Shi'ite traditions of martyrdom (and it focused on military and political targets). The real debate about the religious permissibility of these kinds of operations among Salafis, in fact, did not emerge until the mid-1990s and was a response to its widespread usage by Hamas and other Palestinian factions. (Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," page 92)
Wiktorowicz does not specify, but the first Muslim suicide bombing used against the US was in the 1983 attack upon the US Marine barracks in Lebanon. I don't know the "Shi'ite traditions of martyrdom" that Wiktorowicz refers to, but I strongly suspect that the justification would be similar to that used by Iran to justify sending "Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines . . . . [to march] in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies" (Matthias Kuentzel, "Ahmadinejad's Demons," The New Republic Online, April 24, 2006; republished in SPME). Technically, of course, these children weren't committing suicide, for they're not dying by their own hands, but what of their intention toward dying? This is where the issue lies for those who glorify the so-called "martyrdom operations," as we shall see in a moment.

But first note that this Shi'ite method was initially adopted as a tactic by Sunni Palestinian groups in the 1990s and used in suicide attacks without any real theological justification, nor has any clear theological support ever been provided, according to Wiktorowicz:
What is interesting about the current jihadi arguments about suicide bombings is how little attention seems to be given to constructing a theological argument justifying such attacks. Instead, the vast majority of materials focus on extolling the virtues of martyrdom. Abdullah Azzam's Virtues of Martyrdom in the Path of Allah is a classic example. In it, he elaborates twenty-seven points of evidence about the benefits of martyrdom. Most writings argue that the martyr has a seat in Paradise, avoids the torture of the grave, marries seventy black eyed virgins, and can advocate on behalf of seventy relatives so that they too might reach Paradise. Scholars from all ideological persuasions agree about the virtues of martyrdom. (Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," pages 92-93)
The emotionally laden emphasis upon the virtues and rewards of martyrdom suggest that a theological problem is being papered over. Not that the question of suicide can be totally ignored:
Since the 1990s, Al Qaeda and the jihadis have been forced to . . . . [ask:] are martyrdom operations suicide? This is critical because Islam explicitly prohibits suicide. (Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," page 93)
I wish that Wiktorowicz had quoted passages in the Qur'an and hadith supporting this prohibition, for I'd like to see just how specific the prohibition is. He does cite the older generation of Salafi clerics, who tend to oppose the "martyrdom operations" as clear cases of suicide:
Some of the more senior Salafi clerics in Saudi Arabia have argued that these attacks are prohibited. Muhammad Bin Salih Bin Uthaymin (d. 2000), for example, argues that, "as for what some people do regarding activities of suicide, tying explosives to themselves and then approaching disbelievers and detonating amongst them, then this is a case of suicide . . . . So whoever commits suicide then he will be considered eternally to Hell-Fire, remaining there forever." In making this condemnation, the focus is on the act itself: consciously killing oneself. (Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," page 93)
Wiktorowicz emphasizes here that these opponents base their critique on the action taken, namely, the fact that suicide bombers consciously kill themselves by their own hands. The proponents, by contrast, emphasize the intention of those killing themselves in "martyrdom operations":
The jihadis, however, focus on the intent of the perpetrator. Although he is not as radical as Al Qaeda, Yusuf al-Qaradawi outlines the basic reasoning:
He who commits suicide kills himself for his own benefit, while he who commits martyrdom sacrifices himself for the sake of his religion and his nation. While someone who commits suicide has lost hope with himself and with the spirit of Allah, the Mujahid [holy warrior] is full of hope with regard to Allah's spirit and mercy. He fights his enemy and the enemy of Allah with this new weapon, which destiny has put in the hands of the weak, so that they would fight against the evil of the strong and arrogant. The Mujahid becomes a "human bomb" that blows up at a specific place and time, in the midst of the enemies of Allah and the homeland, leaving them helpless in the face of the brave Shahid [martyr] who . . . sold his soul to Allah, and sought the Shahada [Martyrdom] for the sake of Allah.
Here Al Qaeda shares its view of suicide bombings as legitimate martyrdom operations with less radical, conservative Sunnis. This includes not only figures like al-Qaradawi, but also Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the Sheikh of al-Azhar in Egypt. (Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," page 93)
The quote comes from our 'moderate' friend, Qaradawi, the Egyptian scholar whom I've previously mentioned and whose defense of the 'self-martyrdom' tactic is summed up in this central distinction: "While someone who commits suicide has lost hope with himself and with the spirit of Allah, the Mujahid [holy warrior] is full of hope with regard to Allah's spirit and mercy." One's intention, it seems, can override the fact that "Islam explicitly prohibits suicide."

I'd still like to see that prohibition, and if any reader has the sources from the Qur'an and hadith, please link to these.

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At 7:07 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

There is only one verse in the Koran that contains a phrase related to suicide: "O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way-rather through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you." (4:29)


At 7:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jeanie. I happened across that one myself after posting this entry. I may blog on it tomorrow, for there's apparently a grammatical ambiguity that jihadis use to their advantage.

But the hadith ought to settle the issue...

Jeffery Hodges

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