Saturday, July 23, 2005

HOMICIDE BOMBERS -- BLAME THE JEWS? And Christians. There's an article by a psychologist named Rona Fields in a Canadian publication called the Tyee which tries to explain the mentality and historical origins of homicide bombing.
The Deadly Martyr Complex
Suicide bombers seek love and acceptance

The subtitle may be tongue in cheek, but it's still tacky and insulting to the many who have been murdered and maimed by these monsters, including the recent victims in Iraq, London, Israel, and Egypt. But authors don't write headlines, so this is probably from an editor who was trying to be cute.

I won't comment on the psychological part of the article, but here's what she has to say about historical origins:
Their choice isn’t a new one. Terrorism became the primary tool of anarchists and nihilists in the late nineteenth century. But martyrdom homicides go back historically to at least the time of the ancient Zealots of Judea.

Two millennia of martyrdom

The idea of martyrdom never had a name in Hebrew or Aramaic. Instead it derives from the Greek, mytros or witness. The early Christians, who were tortured to death for their witnessing for Christ, became the martyrs memorialized on icons. These iconic images proved a powerful attraction both for group memory and for exciting new adherents or followers.

Islam adopted the martyrdom image despite he fact that they eschewed graven images of human beings. But the grandson of Mohammed who stated that it is better to die in dignity than to live in humiliation became the iconic figure for Shia Islam. Those who die on the path to Allah become martyrs in Islam. Similarly, Pope Urban II recruiting for the Crusades promised that all who died in the reclamation of the Holy Land from the infidels would be forgiven all venal sins and ascend immediately to Heaven (paradise).There is historical precedent on all sides.

There's quite a bit of goalpost moving here. The "Zealots" (I think she means the Sicarii) did not engage in homicide "martyrdoms." The Latin word sicarius means "dagger assassin." They would get close to a target in a crowd, stab the target with a small dagger hidden on their person, then melt back into the crowd and get away. This is assassination, it is not a homicide "martyrdom": the objective was for the assassin to get away.

One could argue that the Sicarii who died at Masada were "martyrs" and that they committed suicide, but they were not suicide martyrs in the sense the phrase is used today in militant Islamist circles. According to Josephus' account (Antiquities 8.8-9, the specifics of which we, however, have considerable reason to doubt), they voluntarily committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. This was a horrific decision based, rightly or wrongly, on their unwillingness to submit to slavery or worse by the Romans. Perhaps Dr. Fields considers them "martyrdom homicides" because they killed their wives and children too. Again, without trying to justify that decision, it was an intragroup attempt to choose the least of very great evils for the group and, according to Josephus, the wives were fully involved in the decision. But this, if anything like it really did happen, is quite different from today's "suicide bombers": the Sicarii did not use suicide as a way of killing innocent civilian noncombatants on the enemy side as a terror tactic. This is one of the reasons I prefer the term "homicide bomber" to "suicide bomber" (although neither is entirely satisfactory). The point is that the suicide is used to kill innocent people on the other side.

In short: the first-century "Zealots," i.e., Sicarii, did not engage in "martyrdom homicides" in the modern sense.

Two small points: you would think that someone who had just written a book on martyrdom would be able to write out the Greek word for "martyr" (martys or martus -- μαρτυς [sorry, originally had genitive form here]) properly. And you would think that she would have found out that the Hebrew term for "martyrdom" is qiddush ha-Shem (קדוש השם), "sanctification of the Name (of God)."

Then there's the matter of Christian martyrdom, which has been a value in Christianity pretty much from its inception. But nonviolence and purely passive resitance have been part of this ideology from the beginning. The martyr does not commit suicide; he or she declines to resist when someone, usually the authorities, executes the martyr because of the martyr's religious beliefs. No suicide and no killing other people.

Then there is the issue of martyrdom in war: the doctrine that soldiers who die in battle for a particular cause will go immediately to heaven or paradise. This has certainly been an Islamic idea going back to the Hadith (the early non-Qur'anic traditions about the life of Muhammad). I wasn't aware that the Crusaders used it as well, but it doesn't surprise me that they did. But even this -- and, again, I am not justifying it -- is quite a distance from homicide "martyrdom." Telling a soldier that if he dies in battle he will go to heaven will make him a fiercer fighter, but it's not the same as telling him to kill himself in such a way that he murders as many innocent civilians as possible (thousands in the case of 9/11). There is no moral equivalence.

When did homicide "martyrdoms" start?
Nationalist ideas blended with religious, and the connection of maryrdom with terrorism merged fully during the Civil War in Lebanon in the 1980’s. Suicide bombings of the American Embassy in Beirut and the Marine Corps barracks on the perimeter of that city and the relentless suicide bombings of the Israeli forces and their Lebanese allies, the SLA in southern Lebanon were claimed by their perpetrators as the most successful weapon of mass destruction and least costly to produce.

In the 1980s in militant fundamentalist Islamist circles. This is what Dr. Fields pretty much admits here, it's what I read elsewhere, and it agrees with my own memories.

I hope the pyschology part of this article is better researched and reasoned than the historical part.

UPDATE: The Sunday Times repeats the same meme. Response here.

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