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 position.
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 any cause.
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 human sacrifice.
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.