Hashmi in the Washington Post: "Not What The Prophet Would Want, How Can Islamic Scholars Sanction Suicidal Tactics?"

Monday, June 10, 2002 - 12:00

This opinion piece ran in The Washington Post on Sunday, June 9, 2002

For months, a chorus of Western leaders has joined the Israeli government in demanding that Yasser Arafat condemn Palestinian suicide bombings, and that he do so in Arabic. But Wednesday's attack at Megiddo, and several others during the past three weeks, demonstrate that no matter how loudly or in what language Arafat condemns the attacks, they will continue.

The emphasis on Arafat and his Palestinian Authority is misplaced, for what drives the bombers is not just a volatile combination of frustration, hatred and political ambition, but the potent sanction of religion. It is the religious scholars as much as the bomb makers who are responsible for sending young men and women -- often impressionable teenagers -- on their murderous missions with promises of a martyr's reward. Religious imagery and justifications suffuse the videotaped "suicide notes" of even the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, an offshoot of Arafat's generally secular Fatah organization. When a BBC interviewer recently suggested to Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahhar that his group's tactics were nothing but murder, Zahhar retorted, "That's not the opinion of our Islamic scholars."

Zahhar's generalization is only partially correct. The upsurge in suicide attacks as the preferred tactic of groups claiming to be Islamic warriors has sparked controversy among some of the leading interpreters of Islamic law.Most scholars of any standing were quick to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States as contrary to Islamic injunctions to spare noncombatants. But as has happened many times in the past, excuses and exceptions have been made in the Palestinians' war against Israel. The popular Egyptian scholar Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, now based in Qatar, strongly condemned the terrorist attacks against American civilians. Yet last December he publicly challengedSheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the rector of Egypt's al-Azhar university and mosque, for condemning the killing of innocents in Israel.

Reflecting this turmoil in intellectual circles, a meeting of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference ended in early April with a communique pledging Muslim support for the war against terrorism, but -- under pressure from Arab members -- rejecting "any attempt to link terrorism to the struggle of the Palestinian people." In the wake of Israel's military actions in the West Bank and Gaza, Muslim voices to the contrary have fallen silent.

It is simplistic to lump the Palestinian terrorists with al Qaeda in terms of their motivations or how to deal with them. Only the most morally obtuse would deny the genuine suffering of the Palestinian people during the past 60 years or the legitimacy of their demand for a state. But it isn't simplistic to argue that their methods and the destruction they cause are morally equivalent to al Qaeda's terrorism, and, no matter how different the circumstances or justifications, that they amount to murder. This conclusion is supported by the long and rich tradition of Islamic moral reasoning on martyrdom and war. It is time for the Muslim scholars who hold this view to tap Islamic resources to develop and sustain a clear moral position that unambiguously renounces the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Suicide bombings challenge two fundamental principles of Islamic ethics: the prohibitions against suicide and the deliberate killing of noncombatants. Suicide for any reason has been strongly condemned throughout Islamic history and its practice is extremely rare in Islamic societies. In the context of war, however, the line between suicide and combat is often extremely fine and easily crossed. Just as some Americans still commemorate the "suicidal" military exploits of the defenders of the Alamo or Gen. George Pickett's division at Gettysburg, so Muslims honor many a doomed struggle, most famously perhaps the challenge of the prophet's grandson Husayn to the Umayyad caliph. Husayn's stand against all odds at Karbala in 680 has made him the "prince of martyrs" for both Shiites and Sunnis.

Yet the prophet Muhammad, the principal exemplar of Islamic ethics (including military ethics), clearly sought to draw a line separating martyrdom in battle from suicide. According to several reports, the prophet repudiated those who deliberately took their own lives in the course of battle, even the soldier suffering from severe wounds. The Muslim fighter enters battle not with the intention of dying, but with the conviction that if he should die, it is for reasons beyond his control. Martyrdom is the will of God, not humans.

Suicide bombers cross another line clearly drawn in Islamic military ethics when they intentionally set out to kill civilians. Again, numerous traditions of the prophet establish the principle that noncombatants, especially women and children, are not to be directly targeted.

At the same time, Muslim theorists have long recognized the possibility of "collateral damage" and excused Muslim fighters who unintentionally kill noncombatants in the course of military operations. But the Muslim scholars who defend Palestinian bombers can hardly raise the issue of collateral damage when it is apparent that families eating in a pizzeria or riding a bus are themselves direct targets. So they have turned to other justifications, such as the argument that every Israeli is involved in the oppression and killing of Palestinians because they are citizens who support their state, or that every Israeli adult is a potential soldier. They are saying, in effect, that in Israel, there are no civilians.

These contentions, however, cannot be reconciled with Islamic teachings on discriminating between those who are fighting and those who are not. How is the random targeting of people in a hotel or a marketplace a blow against Israeli military occupation? Nor can these contentions be reconciled with Islam's rejection of the idea of collective responsibility. How are teenagers in a disco or a baby in a stroller responsible for the alleged crimes of "their" government?

Another argument frequently made by Muslim scholars is that of reciprocity. As Sheik Ahmed Yassin, leader of Hamas, has repeatedly said, "As long as they target our civilians, we will target their civilians." No doubt Israel's occupation and attacks have inflicted terrible civilian casualties, if not through direct targeting, then through the disproportionate use of force, such as sending tanks against boys throwing stones or using helicopter gunships to assassinate suspected militants and to bomb targets in heavily populated areas.

But the justification of suicide bombings as retaliation is a curious moral position, if it can be called that at all. It not only abnegates moral responsibility, it also effectively demolishes the ethical underpinning of the jihad tradition, which is that Muslims behave according to the dictates of divine law, not in response to the actions of their enemies. The argument for reciprocity is generally made on the basis of Koranic verses such as, "Fight the polytheists all together as they fight you all together" (9:36). The scholars who cite this verse usually fail to consider its historical context, as well as how it ends: "But know that God is with those who restrain themselves."

Leaving aside the principled objections, suicide bombings also must be rejected because of the adverse consequences that result from them. Again, Muslims hold that there is no greater exemplar of the military strategist or tactician than the prophet himself. He was no leader of a suicide cult. What stands out clearly from the prophet's actions is his flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances. For the first 12 years of his mission, he pursued a policy of nonviolent resistance grounded in principle and prudence. For the next 10 years, he did not hesitate to fight when required, but he also continued to use nonviolent means when appropriate, including diplomacy and tactical retreat. Above all, his policies demonstrate an abiding concern for the welfare of the people he led, not just in their immediate, individual circumstances, but also in their evolution as a community.

The Palestinians who defend suicide bombings -- or terrorism in general -- must ask themselves if their tactic is yielding any result except death and misery for themselves and the Israelis, not to mention an erosion of international confidence in their willingness to live peacefully within their own state. Beyond that, they must ask what type of nation they hope to become. The way people struggle against oppression determines in large part what type of nation they will be once they are free. The Algerian struggle against French colonialism saw atrocities committed by all parties, leaving a fractured society and polity once the occupiers had left. The wounds from that liberation struggle festered into the gruesome civil war of today.

Finally, those Muslim scholars who justify Palestinian terrorism must weigh the consequences of any exception to the rule against killing innocents. If young Palestinians are justified in strapping bombs to themselves and killing randomly in Israel, then it isn't a far stretch for young Egyptians and Saudis to crash civilian airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of Islam. Once the rule against killing innocents is breached, what comes next? The use of anthrax or nuclear weapons? If Muslims are to excuse these acts, then they might as well discard the centuries-long tradition of moral reflection on jihad and instead embrace the idea that harb (war) is hell.

Sohail Hashmi teaches international relations at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.