A recent poll released by the Pew Research Center indicates that, among other things, support for suicide-attacks—or, what are known in Islamic terminology as “martyrdom operations”—is on the decline in the Islamic world. There is no denying that there are a number of factors contributing to this new shift—not least of which is the fact that, increasingly, it is Muslims themselves who are suffering at the hands of suicide-bombers, such as the daily occurrences in Iraq. But how can we better understand this issue and, more importantly, what can be done to help eliminate suicide-attacks altogether? In this regard, we should bear in mind that, irrespective of popular support for suicide-attacks (or lack thereof), the real issue lies with the actual and potential suicide-bombers: how can we convince them, the actual doers, that their doings are “wrong”?
To that end, it would seem that the most effective way to build on the promising poll results is to attack the question from a purely theological angle, since it is often from a purely theological angle that suicide-attacks are justified.
Rational or humanitarian arguments presented through a non-Islamic paradigm are futile when directed at zealots, which is what potential suicide-bombers tend to be. Nor is it enough for Muslims and non-Muslims to say that the Koran forbids it. Those holding to the opposite view have constructed elaborate and sophisticated—and ultimately compelling—arguments to the contrary, all articulated through the meticulous standards of Islamic jurisprudence, which is all that counts when it comes to Islamic rulings. Elaborate treatises such as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents,” which offers all sorts of compelling proofs on behalf of suicide-attacks, must be addressed, dismantled, and refuted—also through Islamic jurisprudence.
After enumerating a good number of Koranic verses, canonical hadiths, and the consensus of many authoritative Islamic scholars—all which laud and exhort Muslims to fight infidels to certain death—Zawahiri, through the process of analogy (qiyas), which is a well recognized tool of Islamic jurisprudence, concludes that
“[I]t becomes clear that there is no difference between the one who causes his own death through his own command…or through his own actions…or through the actions of another… All of these are praised for their steadfastness in that they sought to benefit and empower the religion. Therefore, this clearly demonstrates that there is no difference between the man who kills himself, or who plunges himself into the ranks of the enemy and they kill him, or who commands another to kill him—provided that this is all done for the good and glory of Islam…. Thus the deciding factor in all these situations is one and the same: the intention—is it to service Islam [martyrdom], or is it out of depression and despair [suicide, which is forbidden] “(The Al Qaeda Reader, p.156-7).
Furthermore, there is no denying that the carnal lure of paradise—replete with rivers of wine and 72 “wide-eyed” and “big-bosomed” women of “another quality” for those who die in battle—is a compelling factor in winning over at least some suicidal recruits (who, in general, tend to be in their late teens or early twenties, i.e., impressionable and fanciful). This must be replaced with a very real fear of the unquenchable fires of hell. Just as jihadi literature abounds in picturesque descriptions of paradise awaiting the “martyr,” compelling and descriptive proofs of the severe and sure torments awaiting the suicide-bomber must also be elaborated.
Finally, all this must be performed by authoritative Muslim clerics who are no moderates and preferably not affiliated with the US or West, which would totally compromise their authority. Put another way, if the authority refuting suicide-bombings also just so happens to be against jihad and the draconian measures of Islamic law (e.g., religious discrimination against non-Muslims, death to apostates, and a male-centric sexual hierarchy)—all those things that under Islamic law are not open to debate and are refuted only by the “moderate”— his views will be considered tainted and automatically discredited.
Thus, when it comes to discrediting “martyrdom operations,” we, the “infidels,” are totally impotent: all our pleas and rational or humanitarian arguments are futile—worse, they are seen as sure evidence that suicide-attacks are clearly taking their toll and are therefore truly effective. No, this issue must be addressed from within the Muslim body and especially by its religious authorities. The problem, however, is that it is not only “aberrants” such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri who produce lengthy and compelling treatises supporting suicide-bombings; highly authoritative Islamic scholars, such as Sheikh al-Qaradawi, perhaps the premiere voice in Sunni Islam today, who is often accused by more radical elements of being too “moderate,” is nonetheless supportive of suicide-attacks against Israel and has issued a fatwa to that effect.
Many excuse Qaradawi’s position by pointing out that he is adamantly opposed to suicide attacks outside of Israel—the logic being that it is only in Israel that a truly extreme form of injustice is befalling Muslims, and so suicide-attacks, which are equally extreme, are justified only there. In other words, his only reservations revolve around the who,what, where, and when. Suicide-attacks, in and of themselves, however, are still presented as legitimate—and highly praiseworthy—forms of warfare in Islam.
That the West and the rest of the non-Islamic world has no say-so when it comes to issues pertaining to Islam’s sharia—such as the legal status of martyrdom operations—and that both popular Islamic figures (e.g., Bin Laden and Zawahiri) as well as authoritative Islamic figures (Sheikh Qaradawi) do support and extol martyrdom operations, is, unfortunately, a sure bet that the specter of suicide bombings will not go away anytime soon. Indeed, what the PEW results fail to point out is that, while Muslims may be less supportive of suicide attacks, the fact remains that suicide attacks are still daily occurrences, as attested by daily headlines.