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     Jul 16, 2005
God's madmen
Suicide Bombers. Allah's New Martyrs by Farhad Khosrokhavar

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

The specter of ghoulish suicide bombers shaking normality in Iraq has re-ignited the question of the motivations and intentions of martyrdom. Why would any normal person want to blow him/herself and others up in this macabre fashion? Iranian intellectual Farhad Khosrokhavar's new book argues that Muslim human bombs, far removed from traditional atavism, are in fact products of modernity and Westernization. They are extreme forms of subjectivity that embrace violence and death through a complex mental construction of the modern world, not merely naive creatures manipulated by a few masterminds.

Khosrokhavar starts with a basic distinction between defensive and offensive martyrdom. The former is non-violent defiance of oppressors that ends in the agents of "evil" putting the martyr to death. The latter is a violent fight to annihilate the enemy, a legitimate killing of the infidel in which course the martyr could lose his life. The Muslim shaheed differs from the Christian martyros , who did not seek to inflict death on Roman pagans. Physical violence against enemies of Allah "has immense merit" and enough justifications in Islam to "slay or be slain". (p 12)

Jihad has a theological foundation in Islam, whereas "crusade" doesn't in Christianity. Jihad can be waged to defend Islam against repression (interpreted in its broadest sense) or to ensure its expansion across the world. "On the whole, Islamic thinkers reject the quietist and mystical vision of jihad against the ego." (p 15) Read independently, verse 29 of the Koran's Repentance surah justifies all-out war on non-Muslims. Da'wa, in the literal sense, forces Islam on non-believers.

In Shi'ite traditions, the militant martyrdom of Husain in the battle of Karbala encourages the idea of a fight to the death against injustice. Across Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, young men who commit to martyrdom humanize Husain and follow in his footsteps. Hassan-i-Sabbah's Assassins (11th century), who executed Islam's enemies before forsaking their own lives, were followers of Ismailism, a form of Shi'ism.

Morteza Motahhari, an ideologue of the Iranian revolution of 1979, lays down that "Islam's roots lie in the joy of achieving martyrdom". Ali Shariati declares, "Martyrdom is the heart of history. If it is possible, kill the enemy. If that is not possible, be prepared to die." (p 44) Besides semantic continuity with the past, today's Shi'ite martyrs have a suicidal dimension born from despair at modern life's meaninglessness. Influenced by media reports, they rely on statistics of deaths caused on both sides of a war to vindicate their actions.

In the Sunni world, Pakistan's Maulana Maududi merges deen (religion) and daula (power) by stipulating holy war as the "dominant fundamental principle of Islam" to be launched against those who usurp Allah's rule (p 28). Destruction of Satanic powers will herald Islam for the whole of humanity. Syed Qutb of Egypt exhorts the true Muslim to be heroic and inflexible in war and sacrifice. For Muslims to fight Western materialism and "bestial secularism", they must overcome fear of their own weakness. To emerge victorious and accept martyrdom, Muslims have to develop honor and warrior virtues. Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman considers it a duty of Muslims to fight idolatry and ignorance.

Candidates for martyrdom in the Middle East, South Asia and Maghreb are in search of dignity that will let them escape insignificance and hurtful inferiority. Radical Islam "guarantees a happy end whereas life on earth is profoundly unhappy". (p 45) Be it Palestine, Chechnya or Kashmir, Muslims suffer an "impossibility of being" that demands blood. Martyrs of al-Qaeda are crisis-laden individuals who live the obloquy of their imaginary brethren vicariously, and globalize death. Their sole ambition is to die and destroy as many enemies as possible, watering the tree of Islam that cries for blood.

The ambivalence of Islamist ideologies - empowering the mujahid and yet subordinating the individual - destabilizes the martyrs' minds. They believe that predecessors are waiting for them "on the other side". Fascinated with the hateful enemy, homo occidentalis, they demonstrate their own superiority and purity in marrying death. Islam is defined as the antithesis to Western hedonism and perversion. Moderate Muslims are considered Western lackeys or evildoers. Algeria's Armed Islamic Group stresses the necessity of eliminating traitors who shirk Islamic duties. To overcome fear, martyrs subscribe to a vision that Allah predetermined everyone's moment of death. Murders and massacres are viewed as religious rituals, "as extensions of the sacred act of cutting a sheep's throat". (p 69) Modern martyrdom debuted in an Iran traumatized by the anticlimax of the revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. The Bassidji model of martyrdom made sense to susceptible young men. Fearless and utterly devoted to the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the regime, they competed with one another for martyrdom in the mass guilt of having under-served Islam. Their exaggerated puritanism and anti-social sense of identity intimidated society. Holy death conveyed ecstasy and effervescence to the necrophile martyrs. Those who clung to life were blacklisted as cowards. Khomeini's death in 1989 disintegrated the Bassidji.

In Palestine, martyrdom is a reaction against the paralytic nation-building of secular organizations. Caught between Israel's domination and the Palestinian Authority's greedy dissolution, "martyrdom became a way of totalizing life" during the al-Aqsa intifada. (p 111) Sacrificing life for Islam is a way of showing the mighty Israelis that they, too, are vulnerable. Explosive living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank give rise to an extremism that knows no fear. "Death is a glorious escape from spatial and economic confinement." (p 137) Hamas and Islamic Jihad dehumanize Jews based on Islamic tenets of impurity of other religions, easing ambiguity or doubt. The feeling that God is on their side drives some fedayeen to divorce themselves from the original goals and treat "killing and being killed as an end in itself". (p 140)

Coveting the reward of being with Allah, the supply of martyrs far exceeds the demand in Palestine. Not all of them are poor or refugees. Khosrokhavar emphasizes that fedayeen are not sacrificial victims whose consent is manufactured. The lure of houris (virgins from Paradise) is not a major goading factor for these neo-ascetics who cultivate beards.

Between 1975 and the late 1980s, martyrdom flourished in a Lebanon torn by Israeli invasion and civil war. Designating the enemy's religion as absolute evil, Hezbollah's martyrs destroyed the "other" as a form of self-assertion. Holy death was the fulfillment of a burning desire to meet Allah after fighting the ungodly enemy.

Al-Qaeda's martyrs dream of a world-scale umma (brotherhood of Muslims), especially in the West. They affirm that the West must turn to Islam to halt its own decline. Western arrogance and humiliation by proxy pervade their existence. Terror operations "give a new sense of pride and restore lost dignity". (p 152) Western love for life is termed a weakness that should be exploited. Innocents can be killed "in the higher interests of Islam". Homosexuality and loss of male authority and virility enrage transnational martyrs who are well educated and convinced that Islam is being mistreated everywhere. "The idea that Islam is in danger and must be saved has deep roots" in their psychology and is juxtaposed with a mythical age when the Prophet's banner was triumphant.

Competition for centrality is intense among harbingers of the neo-umma. The Pakistani groups Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami and Jaish-i-Mohammed try to outdo each other in producing shaheeds for a "free Kashmir". Heterogeneous terrorist groups also work together, sharing the common need to fight for Islam. Transforming "inauthentic Muslims" into authentic zealots is one of the projects of such actors. The Muslim soul has to be de-contaminated from "Westoxication". Khosrokhavar establishes fascistic tendencies in the determination to turn the world away from kufr (heresy) so that "nothing exists outside Allah". Having no concrete referent but the Koran and the hadiths, Hizb ul-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun, organizations run mostly by British Pakistanis, press jihad into service for establishing a caliphate in the West. They are anti-Semitic, anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh, anti-feminist and homophobic.

A category of martyrs in the West is that of Christian converts who submit to Islam due to its non-avoidance of legitimate violence. To them, radical Islam is "a new kind of Nietzscheanism" (p 215) Being martyred in jihad is a restitution of sacredness to a Western society that lacks "noble causes". Converted martyrs marry Muslim women who are "more docile", thus boosting their masculinity. To prove their affiliations, proselytized jihadis like Wadi-al-Haj, Richard Reid and John Walker Lindh are more bigoted than born Muslims. They long to provoke Apocalypse instead of remaining passive witnesses to its constant postponement.

Diasporic martyrs find it easier to overcome fear of death due to their disillusionment with the cold, impersonal life in Western mega-cities. Feelings that human relations are vacuous and reality is evanescent dominate their psyches. The unending crises of atomization and urbanization are likely to multiply the ranks of such disoriented jihadis. "The future may witness mimetic generalization of this form of holy death". (p 229) New training grounds in Pakistan and Iranian Balochistan (for Sunni martyrs) will keep this problematic pathology alive, even if Afghanistan ceases to be the blessed finishing school.

Khosrokhavar's psychoanalytical exegesis, drawn from numerous interviews of hardcore Islamists, is compulsory reading for persuasively rationalizing the irrational actions that dot the terrorist map of the 21st century. It provides madness a much-deserved reason and context.

Suicide Bombers. Allah's New Martyrs by Farhad Khosrokhavar. Pluto Press, London, 2005. ISBN: 0-7453-2283-2. Price: US$27.50, 258 pages.

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