How Suicide Bombings Incorrectly Became Synonymous With Islam
After a soccer match earlier this weekend in Turkey, a twin suicide bombing took the lives of 38 people and injured more than 160 others. Officials believe the bombings were the work of Kurdish terrorist group TAK, an offshoot of the PKK.
This is the 19th terrorist incident in Turkey in 2016. In 2015, suicide attacks around the world reportedly killed or injured 9,109 civilians. Most suicide bombings target Muslims rather than non-Muslims. Yet there is a widespread perception in the West that suicide bombings tend to be carried out by Muslims against non-Muslim targets and serve a religious purpose rooted deep within Islamic doctrine.
Suicide bombings have been around since the 18th century, but I want to talk about suicide bombings as a tool of modern terrorist warfare and how it became the archetype of Muslim violence. Because while popular culture depicts Muslims as trigger-happy suicide bombers, suicide has always been a cardinal sin in Islam.
Suicide or Martyrdom in the Quran
By contrast, martyrdom – or when Allah decides when you die in battle while protecting your country – is sanctioned in certain verses throughout the Quran.
Frequently cited is the Al-Baqara verse:
“And say not of those who are killed in the Way of Allah, ‘They are dead.’ Nay, they are living, but you perceive (it) not.”
I mention this distinction because, despite what both Islam’s fiercest critics and most fervent adherents say, there are no verses in the Quran that explicitly urge Muslims to take their own lives and many that describe suicide as a sin.
The First Step With Self Sacrifice
The connection between suicide bombings and militant Islamic ideology can be traced back to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iran-Iraq war that raged during the 1980s. Khomeini took the concept of self-sacrifice, already prominent within Iranians’ Shia interpretation of the Quran, and extended it to taking one’s life for the greater cause of promoting the Iranian revolution. And for Khomeini, that included expanding Islam’s role in the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Khomeini picked young boys who were susceptible to indoctrination and marched them into minefields – using their bodies to clear paths for Iranian forces to walk through. He would give these children keys to symbolically represent that they would be unlocking the gates of heaven.
Hafez al-Assad’s Evolution
While many within the Islamic world were horrified, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, father of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, saw an opportunity. He then expanded on the idea of using self sacrifice not only as a means of defense, but also as an offensive weapon when he sent Shiite suicide bombers behind the wheel of a bus packed with 2000 pounds of explosives into a US Marine base in Lebanon.
These Shiite militants Assad helped assemble eventually became what we know as the Hezbollah.
Suicide is a sin in Islam, just like in the other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism. But these new interpretations, combined with the near-constant struggle against what were perceived as occupying forces, created a new reality within the fringes of the Islamic community that glorified suicide.
Sunni Adoption of Suicide Bombings in Israel
Fast forward a couple years later to Hamas’ adoption of this radical interpretation, and suicide bombing suddenly became a tactic employed by Sunni as well as Shiite militants. This is also when the truly devastating power of suicidal attacks became apparent. In the 90s, Hamas started targeting Israeli citizens by strapping explosives made from household items onto women and children and detonating them in public places.
This was out of the norm for two reasons:
While the Shia interpretation of the Quran offers some leeway around self-harm to allow for self-sacrifice, the Sunni interpretation strictly prohibited it.
Also, until this point only occupying combatants had been targeted, whereas now civilians were being victimized.
Egyptian Sheyk Yusuf Al-Qaradawi offered a unique justification. For him, all Israeli citizens including women and children were occupying forces – because all citizens had to serve in the Israeli military.
Sunni extremists’ adoption of suicide bombing that targeted civilians proved critical. Once attacks against civilians could be justified, the words in the Quran no longer meant anything. According to a 2012 study published in the National Counterterrorism Center, Sunni extremists accounted for the greatest number of terrorist attacks and fatalities for the third consecutive year where. More than 5,700 incidents were attributed to Sunni extremists, accounting for nearly 56 percent of all attacks and about 70 percent of all fatalities.
This perverted version of Islam that upends more than a thousand years of a consensus interpretation of the Quran has been used to indoctrinate youths in countries crippled by war. In states where citizens have very little access to the basic amenities that many governments elsewhere provide, young people with nowhere else to turn seek answers from religious leaders. And those religious leaders are not shy about pointing the finger of blame at western occupying forces and justifying attacks against fellow muslims as a means of advancing their own agendas.
While power-hungry religious clerics – and other Islamic leaders – have promoted suicide bombings as a justifiable tool of war, the majority of Muslims condemn it – just like the Quran does.
Suicide bombings have always been used to achieve political ends and have nothing to do with waging holy war, no matter what western media, Islam’s critics or religious clerics will have you believe. The attack committed by the PKK on Turkish soil is merely the latest example. Religion is simply a recruitment tool targeting the undereducated, the vulnerable and the disaffected…a violent means for a violent end.
Author: Hasan Piker is a political commentator.