To understand the recent suicide attacks that have occurred in London, Madrid, New York and Bali we need to understand how the Muslim suicide attacks originated and objectively determine if religion played a significant contributory factor. This understanding may be able to prevent further attacks.
The Palestinian use of suicide terrorism is a good starting point in understanding this phenomenon. After the initial futile traditional war of 1948-49 the Palestinians in the 50s and early 60s tried unsuccessfully to approach world institutions to overcome the initial Israeli land capture. The pre-emptive strike by Israel in 1956 and 1967 and the final Arab attack of 1973-74 resulted in further capture of Palestinian lands by Israel and increasing marginalisation of Palestinian rights. These events led directly on to the early Palestinian terrorists of the 70s (Munich 1972, hijacking of Pan Am flight 110, etc.).
These were the traditional nationalistic terrorists with a secular outlook. The first Palestinian suicide attack in Israel did not occur for a further twenty years till April 1994 (8 people killed) in the town of Afula. This attack, according to Hamas, was a direct response to the killings with a Galil assault rifle of Muslim worshippers at the Machpelah Cave by Dr. Baruch Goldstein in February 1994 (29 dead and wounding 125). It is a point worthy of note that the Palestinians did not engage in suicide attacks till 1994 despite of the fact that their struggle had continued since the early 1950s. However, the first suicide attack in the Middle East pre-dated the Palestinian suicide attack by some ten years. Following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (June 1982, first invasion in March 1978) and the international community’s connivance, or at best ambivalence, to that invasion, Arabs of that region experienced further humiliation and desperation culminating in the massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982 (killing of up to 3,000 men women and children). This act and other acts of aggression, this time on the part of the US navy led directly to the first suicide attacks in October 1983 against the USA and French marine compounds (242 US and 54 French marines killed, scores injured). The suicide attack was carried out by Shia Muslims as opposed to Sunni Muslims. This attack followed in the wake of a conflict that had been continuing since the early 1970s and political/economic tensions that had existed in Lebanese society since the early 1960s.
During roughly the time that the Shia Muslims had started to engage in suicide attacks in Lebanon, in a conflict that was basically nationalistic, Afghanistan was fermenting a Sunni Jihadist movement created with the financial, military and ideological support of the USA. The USA was calling for a “Muslim Holy war” against the Soviet Union invasion of December 1979. It is ironic that at the time the USA was actively helping to create an Islamic Jihadist movement in Afghanistan it was also opposing another Islamic revolution namely the Shia Islamic Revolution that occurred in Iran (November 1979).
One of the heads of the Afghani foreign Muhajadeen was, our very own, Osama bin Laden. However, there were no incidents of suicide attacks against the Soviets over and beyond the suicidal attacks that soldiers commit in gaining ground and by the way our perverse society world-wide decorates such acts of violent suicidal heroism with medals of honour posthumously given. In Afghanistan no suicide attacks were happening, mainly because the Muhajadeens were rightly thinking that they were winning and their struggle was being recognised. No suicide attacks were happening despite the fact that the resistance had an overtly Sunni Islamic Jihadist ideology and over 100,000 recruits from all over the Muslim world had entered to fight and do “God¹s work”. Meanwhile, as Iran and Lebanon gained their political independence Shia suicide missions quickly went out of favour.
As the Soviet Union was forced out through this “Holy war” against the Soviet infidel, other events in the Sunni Muslim world were now causing tensions with the once favoured friend, the USA. In India, the Kashmir armed insurgency gained ground in 1989. The majority of the population did not want independence or to secede to Pakistan but wanted better economic prosperity and greater political autonomy. The ham-handed approach of the Indian Government coupled with the religious fighters that had entered from the Afghanistan conflict succeeded in making this conflict another one of “God’s work”. The even greater suppression of the average Kashmiri’s basic rights by the Indian soldiers played into the hands of the religious extremists and alienated large sections of society. Twelve years into the conflict in May 2000, Afaq Ahmad Shah, a 12th grade student blew himself up along with his Maruti car attacking the 15 Corps Headquarters in Badamibagh Cantonment and became the first suicide bomber in Kashmir.
In 1991, after the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq, the USA led a coalition of countries to evict Iraq out of Kuwait. However, amongst the Muslim populace (and many others) this was less a war of Liberation and more a war to gain control over the Middle East. The continued presence of the US army in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (recently removed to Qatar) only strengthened that feeling and gave support to the religious right claim that the Muslim “holy lands” were under occupation.
In 1991, Chechnya declared independence from Russia in the wave of other such declarations. However, this independence declaration was not accepted and through internal misrule Chechnya became a lawless territory. In 1994, President Boris Yeltsin ordered 40,000 troops to take back Chechnya in what he thought would be a quick, politically advantageous and popular move. In fact, it turned out to be a quagmire and another fertile ground for religious extremists who came over again from the Afghan conflict to do “God’s work”. Russia was again fighting the same enemy but now in its own back yard. The Russian military use of heavy weaponry and extreme violence against the already traumatised populace only created greater resentment and violence. In May 2003 two female suicide bombers attacked Chechen Administrator Mufti Akhmed Kadyrov during a religious festival in Iliskhan Yurt and became the first Chechen suicide attackers. Kadyrov escaped injury, but 14 other persons were killed and 43 were wounded. Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility. As in Palestine, Lebanon and Kashmir this conflict had been continuing for over ten years before the recourse to suicide attackers and still only military/political targets were chosen by the suicide bombers and again the ultimate goal was secular.
In 1992 Algeria went to the polls and a religious party FIS won over half the seats in the first round of elections but not enough to form a government. The second round of elections was called off as the Army took over and banned FIS. Although FIS’s democratic credentials were dubious at best they had nevertheless won in a democratic ballot. The response of the West, in effect, was to support the Army takeover. Again, although many Muslims did not support FIS the fact that the West did not strongly protest against a military junta taking control of a country and annulling elections proved in the minds of many Muslims that the West had a deep-seated hypocrisy towards Muslim countries. The religious extremists were then able to claim that they tried the democratic route but this was denied.
In 1996 the Kosovo war began after former Yugoslav republics wanted independence, starting with Croatia. However, the Serbs were not willing to lose “their country”. In this conflict the Bosnians who enjoyed a multi-religious society became classed as the Muslim Bosnians and were prevented by the West from arming themselves to defend against Serb aggression. For their own part the Bosnian political leaders had their own ambitions of leading “their own country”. The policy of denying arms eventually led to the shameful genocide of over 7,000 men and boys, under the noses of the Dutch UN soldiers, by General Ratko Mladic and Dr. Radovan Karadzic’s forces (the two men later were to receive an award on behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church for doing “God’s work”). This genocidal event was not only the most shameful in modern Dutch or UN history but also served the cause of the religious extremists who argued that “Muslims must protect and defend themselves” and only a Muslim Khilafat (state) could do this. Of course, they are incapable of acknowledging that the “West” also came to the aid of Bosnia they only see a homogenised Christian West and a homogenised Muslim world.
Political failures rather than religion
These events laid the seeds of hostility, humiliation, desperation and a kind of “occupation of the mind” even amongst people not living in occupied lands and the view that the West is complicit in subjugating the Muslim world and is highly hypocritical. Of course, the finer details that every society is heterogeneous by nature and that millions are fully committed in Western democracies to root out exploitation is often forgotten in the heat of a debate. However, the fact that all these conflicts have a political basis and that religious extremists are able to highjack these for their own causes reflects the failure of politics and conflict resolution and not the attraction and persuasive abilities of the religious right or the cult of the suicide attacker. We have seen that in each incidence the suicide attack is a weapon of last and not first resort despite the alleged promise of heaven and heavenly pleasures.
The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through the use of highly sophisticated, though largely indiscriminate, high altitude weaponry against, in one instance, a basically unarmed country and in the case of the other a primitive army has further fuelled resentment against the USA and its coalition allies. This despite the fact that the Taliban government was deeply unpopular with most Muslims worldwide as demonstrated by the proclamations of horror at the mindless destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues. The Iraq war and the false reasons given to justify it has conclusively proven to many Muslims that the USA and its allies cannot be relied upon as being honest brokers and are only in Iraq for its natural resources. Again, the deposing of a hated ruler, Saddam Hussain, did not bring any plaudits from the Muslim world as the intentions of the allies were fundamentally questioned and the hypocrisy of supporting Saddam in the Iranian conflict and now deposing him was apparent. In both these countries where occupation exists and life is intolerable the political and religious extremists have found plenty of recruits who are willing to become suicide bombers (roughly 1 a day in 2004 in Iraq). Again, this reflects the desperation of the situation and the failure of the occupying forces rather than some fatal attraction on the part of the populace to the cult of suicide bombers. Further, in both these countries conflict has been occurring for more than twenty years and only now have they both resorted to suicide attacks. A more subtle point coming out from the use of force by great powers is the rationalisation on the part of the disadvantaged that only through violence can political aims be achieved. The continuing injustice in Palestine further assists the religious extremist’s mono-spectacled view of the world.
Surely, as we have seen an end to Shia suicide attacks in Lebanon as it started to determine it’s own political future through a multi-party democracy and we even see not just the theocratic state of Iran not supporting suicide missions but also the general population not being drawn towards such extremes as they themselves now control their own political future, we need to politically address the fundamental reasons behind the Sunni suicide attacker.
The cause of recent Sunni Muslim suicide attacks are purely political and result from a feeling of desperation, alienation, “occupation of the mind”, poor understanding of political realities, especially on the part of the actual suicide attacker, and not from theology. The religious element in the current wave of Muslim suicide bombers is used as a justification but if there was not a religious justification then it would be justification in another guise and the attacks would still continue. We only need to see the Tamil Tigers’ suicide attacks to realise that there is no religious foundation to suicide attacks. In fact the numbers killed by Tiger suicide attacks suggest that they are the most adept at this form of terrorism with the first attack occurring on July 5, 1987, with the objective of preventing Sri Lankan troops from advancing to Jaffna town, the political and cultural capital of Tamils. Again this attack was out of desperation (the attack killed 40 government troops). The fact that this attack occurred in 1987 some seven years before Sunni Muslim suicide attacks and only four years into the Tamil conflict again highlights the point that resorting to suicide attacks is fundamentally a political and not a religious action. Further, in Tiger folklore, human bomb volunteers (as they are called) are held in high esteem. He or she is extended the ‘privilege’ of having the ‘last supper’ with LTTE chief Prabhakaran before setting out on the mission. This is very reminiscent of the Palestinian bombers’ cult and is worthy of note that each group hold in high respect the suicide bomber and their “sacrifice”.
Of course, those religious clerics who justify and encourage suicide attacks do play a role in the minds of the actual attackers. Here we do need to make a distinction between suicide attacks that occur in a conflict zone, be it Palestine or Chechnya, and those that occur outside a conflict zone such as New York, Madrid, Bali or London. This is not to say that the pain and suffering caused by such acts is less in a conflict zone but that the mentality that is at play is certainly different since the problems facing the attackers’ community is more immediate.
An eye for an eye
Taking the case for attacks only in non-conflict zones we see that the latest trend in the suicide attacks is to choose “soft” targets, i.e. hotels, public transport systems and buildings mainly because the “hard” targets are just too difficult to reach, e.g. the protection offered to say President Bush or Prime Minister Blair or other senior political figures and institutions. The extremist religious clerics have therefore reinvented the teachings of the Koran by taking out of context a few lines thereby perverting it’s meaning to justify attacks on purely civilian targets, e.g. the Bali bombings. Their political rational is that all targets are justified as all targets are political and economic (even young people having a drink at a tourist location) and that “we will hit you if you hit us” “an eye for an eye” making the whole world blind, paraphrasing the words of that great soul Mahatma Gandhi. Their view of “us” and “them” includes anyone who fully agrees with them or slightly disagrees with them respectively, irrespective of religious affiliation (“You are either with us or against us”). Their ideology is basically fascist in nature and they offer a simple, often violent, solution to the prevailing injustices and are able to “play” with the minds of young people whose minds are already under a perceived “occupation” very similar to other fascists around the world, be they religious or secular.
These extremist clerics need to be challenged directly and forcefully by right thinking people worldwide including Muslims. Muslims living in pluralistic countries (and these are not just in the West) in particular need to give a lead in redefining what it is to be a Muslim in a multifaith society (after all the first Islamic state of Medina was a multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith society). One method may be to insist that Mosques and all religious institutions have democratic procedures in place before local authorities give planning permissions for mosques, churches, synagogues, etc. to be built or even further that their licence may be revoked if democratic procedures are not implemented. Also, such religious institutions should not receive public funds unless such democratic procedures are in place. This will have the impact on at least reducing the ability of extremists to take over religious institutions, but this will need to be done to all religious institutions.
However, just redefining Islam will not be enough for it needs to be coupled with an understanding of politics and personal identity, and governments can play a very crucial role in this process by creating a greater dialogue between institutions to enable people to understand the “other point of view” and see the complexity of each society. Otherwise, we will remain in a religious cycle with no reference to the prevailing conditions of the actual world. It is only through this process of education that those who feel alienated against the West for injustices in the “Muslim” world will recognise that there is no homogeneous West or a homogeneous Muslim world and that within the “Muslim” world injustices are being perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They will recognise that the root causes of conflict are not religious by nature or nationalistic but economic and all our hands are dirty if not bloodied and no simple violent solution exists. Banning of extremist clerics is a short term solution (fraught with issues of freedom of speech and is also full of hypocrisy) but will not undermine extremist ideology as this can be transmitted through other networks and in cyberspace. Their ideology needs to be confronted by positive constructive counter-arguments for if we cannot win the debate against such fundamentally flawed views then our society itself must be fundamentally flawed.
However, to lay the emphasis of the present crisis firmly at the extremist clerics’ door would both be an insult to the innocent victims of their attacks and remove reason from the debate on how to counter such behaviour. After all, most religious texts have references to the use of violence (Old Testament, Exodus 22:20, Bible, Matthew 10:34, Quran, 4:89) and all societies use such references when justifying their political deeds. One only needs to look at Jews being blessed for occupying Palestinian lands, Christian soldiers being blessed for going to war, Muslims being blessed for driving out non-Muslims, to appreciate how religious texts are so widely misused.
If we are ever to resolve this conflict then we need to appreciate that religion is not underpinning these conflicts and be vigilant against falling into the trap set by the extremists that all conflicts are fundamentally religious and can only be resolved through religion. It seems that the world is ever moving closer to dividing itself along religious lines, e.g. Iraq divided along Shia and Sunni lines, Lebanon along Sunni, Shia and Christian lines, the USA is being increasingly controlled by evangelical parties, Israel is dominated by religious political parties, as is Pakistan, and secular India has a Hindu fundamentalist party as the main opposition. We need to address the fundamental politics behind the attacks so that political reasons underpinning exploitation, greed and power are exposed and at least moderated if not removed altogether. We further need to appreciate the inherent contradictions within the global economy and the increasing hypocrisy required to justify its present model and the increasing disparity of power between the State and the individual. Only then can the world “dry up the swamps of discontent” that lead to alienation and rid itself of the cycle of violence and counter-violence in which the most innocent are killed.
If we fail in addressing these fundamental issues then young minds that see the hypocrisy but do not understand the root causes or solutions will be further drawn towards desperate measures which will become more and more desperate and the violence increasingly random.