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On mortal mission from Allah

Who are these suicide bombers who are sacrificing their faith, while trying to kill as many unbelievers as possible?


The Iranian professor Farhad Khosrokhavar has interviewed imprisoned Islamist terrorists, and in the book "Suicide Bombers – Allah's New Martyrs" he places the phenomenon in a social and historical context.

The book distinguishes between two types of Islamist martyrs: those from poor countries living completely cut off from modernity, and those from the middle-class diaspora in the big cities of the West. The author has interviewed 15 al-Qaeda sympathizers who served in French prisons in April 2001. Here he found none of the archaic mentality that characterizes the suicide bombers in Iran, Lebanon and Palestine, but they could not be characterized as "victims of modernity". They were all well versed in Western culture and spoke up to six languages. Most had university education, many in commercial and technical subjects. Many were married to women from the West. A prominent feature was that many had backgrounds from several western countries. So it was not about disoriented, misaligned individuals.

Suppressed Islam

What made these promising young men associate themselves with terrorist groups? Khosrokhavar, who has also studied martyrs' wills, found that they had all thrown a complete wreck on Western civilization, which they perceived as hypocritical in that its goal was to dominate the world in the name of democracy. They all believed that Islam everywhere was abused and suppressed, be it in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Algeria or in the western countries themselves. They did not come from particularly religious families, but it was their quest for Islam that had taught them about the religion, and in some cases also to speak Arabic.

Islam had crystallized their rejection of the West. This is nothing special for al-Qaeda, as Islam fits well as a religion for the oppressed. They had all been subjected to lesser but scathing experiences of racial humiliation, which had convinced them that their homeland could never become their homeland. This sentiment was reinforced by the cultural differences between Islam and the West: not only visible features such as the decadent, individual-focused consumer culture and the free relationship between the sexes, but also the bitterness associated with the anonymity and incomprehensibility of these communities. In a reality without anything to focus on, Islam can provide a framework for demonizing the West, which can be transformed into the Absolute Evil.

History of Martyrdom

Martyrdom has a long history, and it does not have its origins in Islam, but in antiquity and Christianity. The word itself is Greek and means "witness", but it was not until the second century that it began to mean "to die for a cause". It was initially a "defensive martyrdom", as the Christians refused to obey the Roman emperor in matters of faith, and the consequence could be death. The transition to an "offensive martyrdom" takes place with an expressed desire to kill the unbelieving and oppressive enemy. This can be sanctioned either through religion or nationalism, as it did during the French Revolution in 1789, both world wars (such as the Japanese kamikaze pilots), or in numerous national rebel movements such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

The phenomenon of "martyrdom" has a similar origin in Islam, probably in the seventh century, when the Muslims conquered Palestine. The word "shahid" ("witness") then took the meaning "holy death", but unlike in Christianity where the central thing was to refuse to submit to the religion of a powerful figure, in Islam it came to mean a death as a result of a struggle for God (Qur'an, IV: 74). This suren legitimizes violence in a way not found in Christianity, according to Khosrokhavar. And it is linked to the idea of Jihad, for which, in contrast to the Crusades, there is a theological basis.

Jihad was associated with the division of the world into two: the territory of Islam and the territory of war. During the expansive periods of Islam, which lasted from the time of Muhammad until the end of the 1600th century, the obligations to participate in Jihad delegated. It was not until the 19th century, when the Muslim territories came under European domination, that Jihad again took on an offensive significance. It is also important in some contexts to distinguish between the big and the small Jihad, where one means war against the unbelievers, and the other an inner struggle against the believer's tendencies to break God's commandments.

From Shia to Sunni

Martyrdom has a special position among Shia Muslims. Shiites make up about ten percent of Muslims and are in the majority only in Iran and southern Lebanon. They themselves have often been oppressed by the Sunnis. The reference is the Shia leader Husain, who died on the plains of Kerbala in present-day Iraq in 680. The breakthrough of martyrdom in the modern Islamic world came with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and Khomeini came to power. During the seven-year war against Iraq in the 1980s, theological opening was given to "imitate saints," such as Husain. Large groups of fairly young men, especially from the working class, not only said they were willing to die for Islam through rituals, but they were also willing to stage their own deaths. This is how it happened bass guitarthe martyrs, the "human waves" used in the war against Iraq. Khomeini (and the scribe Ali Shariati) tailored the tradition so that Husain also became a revolutionary. This humanization and modernization of Husain is of great importance to the Shiites. but the phenomenon could be adapted to the Sunni environment by emphasizing Jihad instead of Husain. Suicide bombing has been used by Sunnis in Kashmir, Palestine, Algeria, Egypt, Afghanistan and now in Iraq. It is worth noting that no Shia group has ever worked with al-Qaeda.

It is the Iranian Shariati who has formulated the quintessential sentence of martyrdom: "If you can, then kill, if you can not, then die." This message has gone from Iran via Lebanon's Hezbollah and to the Palestinian Sunni insurgents, who use this face to face with a superior Israeli opponent who makes any thought of victory impossible. Khomeini himself never accepted Shariati, who became a spokesman for the younger generation from when Khomeini's revolutionary project began to fail. The oppression of Israel, the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the dominance of the West contribute to the experience of "the impossible of living" is strong among many young Muslims.

A fragmented Islam

Khosrokhavar highlights polyphony as a prominent feature of Islam, in stark contrast to, for example, Catholicism, which has one unifying authoritarian voice on earth. While the earlier sects of Islam were convinced that their actions would bring about a new world at the expense of the old, the modern martyrs lack a central cause for a Muslim nation to fight for. They are looking to destroy a world that gives them no dignity, where there is really no room for them at all. The classic martyrdom, in which it is a matter of sacrificing life for an ideal that is greater than life itself, slips into what Khosrokhavar calls martyropathy, where the logic of death takes over from the logic that characterizes the struggle to survive and to pursue its ideals.

After reviewing the situations in Iran, Palestine and Lebanon, Khosrokhavar has an assessment of the "transnational neo-umma". In principle, this has the same religious and political basis in the context of globalization and the diaspora, but the ambition is different. It is no longer a question of founding Islamic nations, but global communities (hoping). The diaspora groups in the West are undergoing change. The minority that does not respond positively to integration is almost automatically radicalized. Some of these develop a kind of introverted neo-hoping in isolation, while others prefer an aggressive neo-hoping, where the goal in principle is to win the whole world for Islam. And thanks to the diaspora in particular, Islam has a much greater chance of gaining ground in the world market of religions than, for example, the Chechens have succeeded in founding a separate state. In the modern diaspora, heterogeneous Islamic groups can also cooperate, something we may see more of in the future.

What is common to the religion that al-Qaeda offers is hatred of the West. Al-Qaeda cannot exist without this enemy image. Taking part in a group fighting against Western hegemony and arrogance gives individuals a new sense of pride and can restore their dignity. The significance of the humiliation experienced by, for example, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia cannot be underestimated, nor can the many military operations from Bosnia to Iraq. Today's radical Islam strikes from below.

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