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Mindless "Martyrs"

Shahed Amanullah & Naeem Mohaiemen

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In the name of God, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful.

When talking about modern terrorism, the frequently evoked image is that of the fanatical Muslim suicide bomber. However, in the context of modern warfare, these attacks are not exclusive to a Muslim heritage. In the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers inflicted many suicide attacks in their fight for an independent Sri Lankan state (including the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi). In more recent times, however, suicide bombers have invoked “Islam” in attacks against civilians. Although this recent spate of killings is the work of Islamic fundamentalists, there is nothing truly “Islamic” about such attacks against civilians. It is imperative that Muslims speak out forcefully against this new cancer in society.


The ideological vacuum left by the eclipse of leftist guerilla movements has been instrumental in the rise of these suicide bombings. From the 1960s to the mid 1980s, angry, alienated youth often turned to leftist guerilla movements. Bangladesh’s Sharbahara, Peru’s Shining Path, Pakistan’s MQM, India’s Naxalites, and America’s Weather Underground all practiced armed insurrection aimed at destabilizing the state. While some of these groups maintained their identity as popular resistance movements fighting repressive states, others mutated to indiscriminate terrorism. “The figure of the guerilla has lost its former romantic halo,” wrote Mario Vargas Llosa in The Death of Che. “Now, behind the beard and hair blowing in the wind of that prototype, we can glimpse the fanatical and cowardly silhouette of the terrorist waiting in the shadows to blow up cars and kill innocent people.”

As the 1980s proceeded, leaders of guerilla movements were jailed or killed, and, in some cases, laid down arms and entered politics. But the genie of violence against civilians refused to return to the bottle. When secular forces failed to provide a viable movement, fiery and semi-fascist religious movements gained strength. In fact, there are parallels between today’s Islamic fundamentalists and the European fascists of the 1930s-- especially in the emphasis on soul-searching, tradition, and religion. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was one of the earliest sparks in this powder keg. Because their enemy was Communist, the mujaheddin fighters could not turn to leftist ideology. The power-base for the Taliban, aided by the always-savvy CIA, was created. From this core radiated deadly new mutations, eventually infecting conflicts in Palestine, Indonesia, Chechnya, and elsewhere.

Fanatical bombers talk about “Islam”, but in fact Islam condemns these acts of violence. The Prophet Muhammad gave Muslim armies clear instructions not to attack civilians—women, children, the elderly, and religious people engaged in worship (2:194). The Qur’an does not recognize “collateral damage” as legitimate even during war. Some have tried to arbitrarily label Israeli civilians as “combatants” to circumvent Islamic injunctions - a logic that has no precedent in Islamic history. This same argument, allowed to grow unchecked, has now been extended to Shias in Najaf, Muslim bystanders in Bombay, and Moroccan civilians in their homes.


Theological arguments aside, suicide bombings are a disaster for the Muslim world on many other levels. These bombings bring illusions of empowerment and success, but ultimately produce neither. Instead, they strengthen rightist, anti-democratic forces in the Muslim and Western worlds. The only democracy these attacks bring is the “democratization” of a weapon of murder. One misguided person can be judge, jury, and executioner. For the silent majority of Muslims who turn a blind eye to the moral ramifications of these killings, the murder of Shias in Najaf and UN staff in Baghdad will come as a rude awakening. If suicide bombings are accepted as a tool of liberation, these indiscriminate killings will only grow in scope and murderousness.

Tactically, suicide bombings have been a failure. The random murder of noncombatants has pushed populations to more conservative positions. Post 9/11 America has taken a gigantic shift to the right, with a clampdown on civil liberties and military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Israel, suicide blasts are largely responsible for the rise of Ariel Sharon’s “bone breaking” method of conflict resolution. Potential Palestinian allies among the progressive segments of Israeli society have been weakened, or worse, shifted to the right - allowing such formerly unthinkable projects as the “separation wall” to proceed in a desperate attempt to prevent terrorism. The moral high ground occupied by the Palestinian cause is fast eroding, with attention to terrorism obfuscating the pursuit of a just solution. Professor Edward Said highlighted this in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram (June 2002): “Arafat never really reined in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which suited Israel perfectly. It would have a ready-made excuse to use the so-called martyr’s (mindless) suicide bombings to further diminish and punish the whole people.”

The Muslim world is in a state of distress, stagnation and paranoia. Much work is needed to promote justice, freedom, and economic prosperity in these societies. Today, too much of our energy is spent searching for the “enemy.” Stereotypes of “Jewish cabals” or “Crusaders” are endless, but no one talks about the enemy within - the lack of open societies and self-reform in the Muslim world. Civilized nations require a respect for diversity, conflict resolution, and the sanctity of life. Suicide bombings cannot play a part in the liberation or improvement of the Muslim world. The psyche that accepts this as a legitimate tactic will prevent the emergence of a free and prosperous Muslim society in the future. Yes, Muslims are the new scapegoats in many regional conflicts, and action must be taken to bring justice in these cases. But unless the methods used to bring about this change are just, Muslims will continue to be stuck at the bottom of the global ladder.

Published Monday, October 6th, 2003 - 04:12pm GMT

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