The question is emerging as a topic in the so-called dialogue of
civilizations. As far as this writer can make out, three answers are circulating
in the Muslim world at present.
The first could be described as "yes-yes". It comes from the groups that
recruit and use would-be suicide-bombers. Their argument is: because we regard
Israel as evil, we not only have a right but also a duty to fight it, if
necessary, in ways that are otherwise evil.
The second answer came from the meeting of the foreign ministers of the
Organization of the Islamic Conference in Malaysia, last month. That answer
could be described as "yes-but". The ministers had gathered to define
terrorism. Confronted with the issue of suicide bombers, their debate was put
off course. The ministers, in effect, approved suicide bombing as a legitimate
form of action provided it was not used against their own governments. As for
the definition of terrorism, the purpose of the gathering, they said that was a
job for the United Nations. This was interesting because some participants also
claimed that the UN was a mere tool of the United States.
The third answer could be described as "no-but" and has come from
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad. The argument is: since suicide is
forbidden in Islam we cannot sanction such acts. At the same time we cannot
condemn people who, driven to desperation, use such methods.
All three answers are problematic. It is disingenuous to claim that suicide
bombers are ordinary youths who suddenly decide to sacrifice their lives to kill
some of the "enemy." Organizing and implementing a suicide attack is a
complex operation that requires recruitment, training, finance, logistics,
surveillance and post-operation publicity. (Often, there is a video cameraman to
film the would-be suicide bomber's carefully written testament.) An 18-year
old girl may fancy herself as a suicide bomber but, alone, would not be able to
organize an operation.
Suicide bombing must, therefore, be regarded as a deliberate act, decided,
organized and promoted by politicians as part of a strategy. This is clear from
statements by Palestinian leaders who say they had ordered a halt to such
attacks to encourage positive evolutions in Israeli behavior. When that did not
happen, suicide-bombings resumed.
To promote suicide bombing as a sign of political valor or nationalist fervor
is one thing. To present it as a model of Islamic behavior is something else.
Islam forbids suicide without any "ifs" and "buts". Life belongs to
He who grants it, not to mortal men who are its trustee. To violate that rule
amounts to a claim of divine authority for mortal man. The issue becomes more
complicated when would-be suicide bombers are presented as "martyrs". In
Islam, however, it is not up to mortal man to decide to become a martyr. A
martyr is either one who suffers at the hands of the enemies of Islam, often to
the point of death, because of his or her faith, not politics, or someone who
falls in a battle against aggressors. The martyr does not want to become one. He
knows that the highest value is the preservation of life; he is put to death not
by his own hands but by his oppressors.
In a recent editorial, The Washington Post claimed that Islam promoted a cult
of death. What the Post ignores is the difference between Islam as faith and
Islam as existential reality. Islam, as faith, celebrates life and promotes its
enjoyment. There is no cult of martyrs and saints in Islam. There are also no
hermits, nuns, celibates and no acquiring of merit through self-torture. Islam
teaches man how to live, not how to die.
Anyone familiar with Islamic ethics and philosophy would know that the rule
of "the ends justify the means" has no place in either. There are no
circumstances under which suicide could be sanctioned, let alone glorified, in
the name of Islam. This writer does not know of anything in the Qur'an, or
from any prominent Muslim theologian, dead or alive that would qualify that
Islam, as an existential reality, is something else. As noted, there are
politicians who glorify suicide bombing. But how representative are they? We
will never know until there is an atmosphere in which opinions are aired without
fear and, more importantly, without taqiyyah (dissimulation). In the meantime to
brand a whole civilization as a "cult of death" is unfair, to say the least.
Suicide bombing also is problematic on ethical grounds. Can we condone any
suicide bombing, for example the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington?
And what about suicide bombings conducted by opposition groups in Iran and Iraq,
among other Muslim countries? If not, who decides which suicide bombing is good
and which bad? Can anyone decide to become a martyr by killing himself and
others? If not, who distributes martyrdom certificates? The key question in any
society is: who decides about life and death? The most accepted answer is: the
state on the basis of the law. Even war has laws. This is why there can be no
revenge killing by individuals, no lynch mobs and no suicide in the service of
In the case of the Palestinians, the decision must come from the Palestinian
National Authority, their embryonic organ of state. That authority, as far as
this writer knows, has never organized or condoned suicide bombings. Its head,
Yasser Arafat, has condemned such acts on several occasions, at least when
speaking in English. No state can order suicides because that would amount to
It is easy to make heroic statements about Palestinians from a distance, as
long as only the Palestinians and the Israelis pay with blood. The key question
in ethics is this: Are you prepared to practice what you preach? In this case:
can you become a suicide bomber? Are you prepared to urge your offspring to
become human bombs?
Ethics can explain, even understand, evil; but can never justify it, let
alone confuse it with good.