May 14, 2005


Honour and martyrdom: Suicide bombing isn't as new or alien as westerners imagine (Madeleine Bunting, May 14, 2005, The Guardian)

One of the most chilling aspects of the Iraqi conflict is that suicide bombings have now become a matter of everyday routine. During April there were 67, a new record. On Wednesday there were no less than five separate suicide attacks across Iraq, killing 71 people and injuring scores of people.

The rate of suicide bombings - the seemingly endless supply of people prepared to blow themselves up - leaves a western audience utterly bewildered. What kind of psychology motivates people to such violent extremes? [...]

Even more closely related to Iraq's suicide bombers is the fascinating description of early Christian martyrdom in Farhad Khosrokhavar's new book, Suicide Bombers. The suicidal recklessness of a large number of early Christians, aimed precisely at bringing about their martyrdom, bewildered and horrified contemporary commentators. But martyrdom was an astonishingly effective propaganda tool designed to inspire awe - and converts. The Greek origin of the word martyr is "witness". Interestingly, it prompted exactly the same sorts of criticism among pagan Romans as today's Islamist militants do in the west: the Christian martyrs were accused of dementia and irrationality. Such was the flood of Christians in pursuit of martyrdom by the third century that the theologians had to step in to declare this thirst for a holy death to be blasphemous.

That concept of using your death to bear witness to a cause, without killing others, has prompted more than 1,000 suicides since 1963, when a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest against the oppression of Buddhism in Vietnam. Global mass media ensure that this individual protest has impact across the world; it is a desperate but hugely effective way to give the cause prominence.

Elements of all these precedents can be traced in the research done on motivations of suicide bombers in Palestine, Chechnya and al-Qaida and probably now those in Iraq.

Ms Bunting apparently can't grasp the difference between suicide and mass murder.

'Martyrs' In Iraq Mostly Saudis (Susan B. Glasser, May 15, 2005, Washington Post)

Before Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani exploded himself into an anonymous fireball, he was young and interested only in "fooling around."

Like many Saudis, he was said to have experienced a religious awakening after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and dedicated himself to Allah, inspired by "the holy attack that demolished the foolish infidel Americans and caused many young men to awaken from their deep sleep," according to a posting on a jihadist Web site.

On April 11, he died as a suicide bomber, part of a coordinated insurgent attack on a U.S. Marine base in the western Iraq city of Qaim. Just two days later, "the Martyrdom" of Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani was announced on the Internet, the latest requiem for a young Saudi man who had clamored to follow "those 19 heroes" of Sept. 11 and had found in Iraq an accessible way to die.

Hundreds of similar accounts of suicide bombers are featured on the rapidly proliferating array of Web sites run by radical Islamists, online celebrations of death that offer a wealth of information about an otherwise shadowy foe at a time when U.S. military officials say that foreign fighters constitute a growing and particularly deadly percentage of the Iraqi insurgency. [...]

In a paper published in March, Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on terrorism, analyzed the lists of jihadi dead. He found 154 Arabs killed over the previous six months in Iraq, 61 percent of them from Saudi Arabia, with Syrians, Iraqis and Kuwaitis together accounting for another 25 percent. He also found that 70 percent of the suicide bombers named by the Web sites were Saudi. In three cases, Paz found two brothers who carried out suicide attacks. Many of the bombers were married, well educated and in their late twenties, according to postings.

"While incomplete," Paz wrote, the data suggest "the intensive involvement of Saudi volunteers for jihad in Iraq."

In a telephone interview, Paz said his list -- assembled from monitoring a dozen Islamic extremist Web forums -- now had more than 200 names. "Many are students or from wealthy families -- the same sociological characteristics as the Sept. 11 hijackers," he said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 14, 2005 6:42 PM

Just as there is a difference between suicide and mass murder, there is a difference between suicide and Christian martyrdom. Witnessing your faith even though you can expect to be unjustly killed for it is not suicide. What would it be, suicide by lion? You have neither willed nor directly caused your own death, the act of the Roman authorities being a superceding cause.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 14, 2005 7:36 PM

There's a distinction without much of a difference.

However, she's wrong about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the church.

It may be true that the early Church sopped up a large part of the crazies of the Empire -- everything else about early Church history suggests this -- but the fact is, martyrdom was not a good recruiting tool.

Very few pagans -- R.L. Fox estimates at most 3 or 4% -- opted for Christianity until compelled by threat of death.

The exhaustless supply of suicide bombers in Islam demonstrates that they really are not like us. But in the big picture, the number of Christians seeking martyrdom, or getting it without seeking it, isn't even a blip when charted against the number of non-Christians not seeking martyrdom who were murdered by Christians.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 14, 2005 9:57 PM


Fortunately, they don't count until they are.

Posted by: oj at May 14, 2005 10:00 PM