New Year's Day, New York -- This week's news reports out of Egypt of a suicide bombing targeting Alexandria's Coptic Christians in a New Years Eve mass are a sobering start to the New Year. At the present time seventeen are reported to have been killed and many more injured. The prevalence of suicide martyrdom operations has now become so commonplace that as a viewership we are badly inured to them. Its worth remembering that the ideology supporting these fanatical attacks may begin long before the bomber reaches adulthood.
Last spring I received a letter from a Saudi father in Jeddah. His twelve-year old daughter had returned home from school that day, casually mentioning that her Saudi teacher had endorsed suicide attacks as permissible in Islam. The matter had been discussed in the context of Palestine. He writes:
"... my daughter was confused another topic which totally contradicts what I say to her on how its nice to have friends from all over the world regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Her teacher, originally from Palestine, was talking to her class on how becoming martyrs on the road to freeing Palestine from infidels is the highest and most noble thing -Islamism is spoon fed to our kids. I used to think to be a good parent all one had to do was ensure one's child gets a good education. Now I realize to be a good parent these days I have to protect my child from education!"
He added a link to a video, which had been circulating at the time. It was a highly produced, glossy arrangement featuring a handsome Arab male lead and a young singing companion. The melody was very catchy, and bore repeated viewing very well. The child's angelic voice was sweet and pure, an excellent contrast to the Arab male's heartening and sexy baritone. Dressed head to foot in black, with a dash of designer stubble, he was a no less than a Lebanese Ricky Martin.
I followed the song in translation. The verses were about dying for Palestine, wanting to become bride to the beloved Palestinian soil and looking forward to martyrdom. The pretty five-year-old child was enunciating every word perfectly, in a highly produced, moving hymn to martyrdom.
I sent the link on to a former colleague of mine from Riyadh, now a stay at home mom in Jeddah. Watching the video she realized this was the tune her five-year-old had been singing for weeks. She wrote to me at once to tell me why she recognized the song that her child had been singing.
'She most probably heard it in school. I did nothing. You must realize Qanta that with 5yr old kids that is the best policy because they forget so easily (she has actually forgotten it as I write to you because this was a few months ago) and they cannot understand this anyway. Palestinian kids live this and it is a reality for them. And yet I don't believe as you do that television programs can actually brain wash children unless the parents allow that to happen. I believe that parents are the ones that shape the beliefs of children at this age unless they forgo that responsibility'.
I asked the mother, how her daughter could have seen the video.
'I never said she saw the video. She must have heard the song from one of the other kids at school because at the time when I asked her what she was singing (because it was all warbled) she couldn't elaborate. They do watch some things at school but related to the educational material that is being discussed or cartoons if they stay beyond hours which fortunately my kids don't'.
I asked how she handled this as a mom.
"We didn't do anything Qanta. She is five years old. Children have very short memories at that age. She has probably forgotten...."
Developmental psychologists know that children do not forget. In fact, there may be no other more critical time (when children are forming tenacious attachment to imaginary figures, including God and God-like figures) than the tender ages of five and seven.
Political powers espousing radical contemporary Islam which foster martyrdom as a form of preemptive asymmetric warfare aim to influence children at exactly these ages. The broadcasts of Palestinian's authorities on Hamas TV are an extraordinarily prescient example viewed from an developmental psychological attachment-maturation perspective.
Hamas TV's Sesame Street-like broadcasts have become widespread, hosted by children of similar age broadcast to their peers advocating martyrdom to their child viewership. The shows have an enormous popular appeal and are widely accessible, adding materially to the belief that there is more value in uniting with the non-corporeal entity of God than seeking attachment to any other entity, and that willful death can be the only consummation of such attachment.
As is often said of the media, Hamas TV is not only the OTHER parent, in Gaza it is the ONLY parent. Data gathered by Palestinian Media Watch reveals Hamas TV broadcasts children's programming which routinely dehumanizes Jews ( and by extension Palestinians), murdering Jews and eating them, albeit in puppet form. Organizations like Children's Rights Institute are among the first to articulate the exposure of children to such ideology as a form of child abuse. These images and actions are likely therefore to be incorporated into very real and lasting constructs for the preschool Palestinian watching them, effectively enshrining dehumanization at the earliest stages of development. Repetition of content has the effect of both maintaining attention and sustaining retention over prolonged periods of time.
As helpless onlookers, we soothe ourselves by suggesting the martyr bomber is psychiatrically ill, unstable, acting from a position of psychotic break or merely 'brainwashed'. We soothe ourselves without support for this in scientific data, yet we cling to this belief simply because it makes us feel sane, stable, psychologically well and, in contrast, human. Distancing ourselves from the perpetrators enables us to remain safely apart and firmly unshaken in our elite isolations while they are portrayed as increasingly inhuman.
When we think of martyr-suicides within a framework of 'suicide is sick' we avoid the more chilling construct of 'suicide is wrong but rational". By assigning a sick role to the concept of suicide we are spared considerations of its morality and accompanying dilemmas. When suicide is seen as sick it is spared a moral judgment -- instead it is seen as essentially amoral. The act is condemned but the perpetrator is not judged, because he or she was 'sick'. Suicide bombing becomes amoral, rather than immoral.
The event -- which results in the death of so many -- is in fact one of many calculated, considered and measured choices. This is evident in the bomber's preparation before departure for voluntary missions, paying unsettled debts, being unusually tender to family members, preparing a final video-taped exhortation ( which acts as a social contract), donning the clothing, mounting the transportation (which often costs more than the materials which will shortly detonate) and finally choosing the agreed target, evading capture and detonating the explosive. This is a series of calm, considered and fully premeditated, rational acts. Suicide bombing by default is elective, not compelled -- elective acts to choose one's own death amidst those of so many others. Suicide bombing therefore is fundamentally immoral against the actions acceptable to wide swathes of humanity, irrespective of faith compass.
The recipients of the attacks -- New Yorkers, Londoners, citizens of New Delhi or Bali, Israelis, Iraqis and American forces in Iraq and most recently and ferociously of all -- Pakistanis -- see the suicide bombing as morally reprehensible, repugnant and fundamentally immoral in a way that overshadows any other immoral event. However from the vantage of societies from which suicide bombers emanate: Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon (ironically often the very same places targeted for attack) the suicide bombers are seen simultaneously as morally exemplary by segments of society. Such exemplars are they, that they are canonized immediately after death, their funerals become processions, their names bestowed on streets, schools, and computer labs, football teams and entire communities are effectively institutionalized memorials to terror. Such subliminal and overt veneration builds an environment where the moral foundations of a community firmly rest on the decapitated shoulders of martyr-murderers.
While the martyr may have fervent supporters who vigorously sustain these acts, many in the audience attempt to sidestep engagement or comment, forming the silent, reluctant majority. Willing spectators, nonetheless, they seek to remain uninvolved, disengaged, and neutral. This is precisely the group most sought after by the martyrdom operatives because this majority remains available to mobilization. Potentially, their masses can be motivated to fall behind the cause and generate perpetuating vitalizing momentum. The silent majority, therefore, are the most critical component of the societal audience, an audience which today comprises of hundreds of millions if not more.
Conversion is in fact the ultimate goal of the martyr. He seeks to generate greater and greater subscribers to his politico-religious viewpoint through his highly televised, promotional death. When narratives fail to evoke sufficient pathos, or when audiences are saturated and inured to violence and mayhem, such aims fail, and do so categorically.
Explicit accounts, videotapes, cassettes, internet uploaded movie files all seek to ignite the collective guilt and repentance for being less worthy, less pure, less valiant than the martyr. Repeated recitation, canonization, rote ritualization, all are deployed to sear the martyrdom act into societal memory for maximal impact and manipulation. Modern day Islamist terrorists know this and apply it with an almost unparalleled mastery. They add scripture to support their evil rationale. The most often quoted verse from the Quran has become the foundational mantra for modern day contemporary Islamist terrorism.
'And do not think those who have been killed in the way of Allah as dead; they are rather living with their Lord, well provided for. Rejoicing in what their Lord has given them of His bounty, and they rejoice for those who stayed behind and did not join them, knowing that they have nothing to fear and they shall not grieve'. Quran 3:169-70
This verse is perhaps the most direct proof that martyrs are separated from other Muslims, though martyrdom is hardly a central tenet of belief. Instead this verse is to comfort those bereaved during legitimate just warfare deemed (in the words of the Prophet (SAW) 'the lesser Jihad'.
The jihadist literature has taken this verse and distorted its intent to the extreme degree, justifying preemptive acts of terror in the interests of political and ideological gain as a means of inferring martyrdom status on those who perpetrate terror through premeditated suicide attacks.
Ayatollah Khomeini changed modern Muslim attitudes to Islamic martyrdom by focusing on the epicenter of Shi'ism, the martyrdom of Al-Husain. Al Husain was portrayed by Khomeini was a willing martyr rather than a tragic figure doomed to die. In this revision of the ancient martryology, Khomeini catalyzed the evolution of quietist Shi'ism into radicalized, proactive advocates of political martyrdom. Khomeini articulated this equal-opportunity martyrdom crisply.
" the action of seeking out martyrdom is among the highest forms of martyrdom and sacrifice in the path of religion........there is no difference between male and female ( in this) "
Other leading Shiite clerics augmented this new, aggressive view:
'What does a martyr do? His function is not confined to resisting the enemy and in the process either giving him a blow or receiving a blow from him. Had that been the case, we could say that when his blood is shed it has been a waste. But at no time is a martyr's blood wasted. It does not flow on the ground. Every drop of it is turned into hundreds of thousands of drops, nay into tons of blood and is transfused into the body of his society... Martyrdom means transfusion of blood into a particular human society, especially a society suffering from anemia, so to speak, of true faith. It is the martyr who infuses such fresh blood into the veins of such a society '.
The color red signifying blood is a central theme. In Gaza, and other disputed territories, sites of suicide attacks are ritually refreshed with lamb's blood to keep this association acute, and vivid, days after the remains have been cleared. Modern poets do that too, revealing the extent to which beliefs about the values of martyrdom have become internalized, globalized and accepted even at the echelons of power is captured in a poem written by the late Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the UK ( 2002) Ghazi- Al- Qusaybi.
'For the Martyrs (Li'l-shuhada')'
God bears witness that you are martyrs; the prophets and friends (of God) bear witness. You have died so as to glorify the word of my Lord, in the dwellings glorified by the Night Journey (of the Prophet Mohammed).
Have you committed suicide?? (No) we are the ones who have committed suicide in life, but our dead are alive.
O people, we have died, so prepare to listen how they eulogize us.
We were impotent until even impotence complained of us, we wept until weeping had scorn for us.
We prostrated until prostration was disgusted by us, we hoped until hope asked for assistance.
We licked the shoe of (Israeli Prime Minister) Sharon until the shoe cried: Watch out, you are tearing me!
We repaired to the illegitimate rulers of the White House whose heart is filled with darkness.
O people we have died but dust is ashamed to cover us
Tell Ayyat (Al Akhras): O bride of the highest heavens. (We) ransom all beauty for your pupils.
When champions are castrated, the choice (ones) of my people.
Beauty confronts the criminal, she kisses death and laughs in proclamation- when leaders flee from death.
Paradise opens its gates and is cheerful. Fatima the splendorous (daughter of Mohammed) meets you!
Tell those who have embellished those fatwas against suicide attacks): Grant a delay. Many fatwas have heaven in an uproar.
When jihad calls, the learned man is silent, the reed (pen), books and the jurisprudents.
When jihad calls, there is no asking for fatwas: the day of jihad is (a day of) blood
Ambassador Qusaybi further underlines the emasculation of collective manhood by singling out a female martyr in the figure of Ayyat Al Akhras who in her final exoneration videotaped before her suicide attack asked " Where are the Arab Leaders?" and "I am going to fight instead of the sleeping Arab armies who are watching Palestinian girls fighting alone,".
Reviewing the literature over past months around these areas has been deeply unsatisfying, posing more questions than revealing answers. In the process, I have discovered myself firmly on an insurmountable boundary as defined by modern Muslim martyrdom: on the side of the denouncers. This in itself is a source of deep personal discomfort since it separates me from much of the most vociferous kinship of the modern global Ummah endorsing unconditional support of the Palestinian Cause, overlooking the moral dilemmas this poses for a believing Muslim.
Separation of Muslim from Muslim within Islam is a highly charged, lonely, and negatively regarded position for a Muslim to take, but some of us must choose this place of exile if we are to go on being believing Muslims. And so, if exile is my only salvation, I must choose it.
This article first appeared in Dutch National Trouw on December 11th 2010, edited by Ms. Andrea Bosman, translated by Ms.Sarah Lawson. The article is an extract from my Templeton-Cambridge thesis submitted for the 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship in Journalism, Science and Religion.