Acts of suicide for a cause, or “martyrdom,” among Muslims today are more numerous than in the past, and far more complex than generally thought, according to two recent books on the subject.
Sociologist Farhad Kohosrokhavar of the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has published a new book in French on “martyrdom” in the contemporary Muslim world, Les Nouveaux Martyrs d’Allah (Flammarion). The book is based upon the study of written material as well as upon observations during the Iranian Revolution and interviews with 15 Muslim extremists currently jailed in France.
Another recently published book by a Lebanese academic, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbullah: Politics and Religion, (Pluto Press, 2002), throws some light on the ideology and justification of violence by the Shiite Hizbullah. What most Westerners consider as terrorist actions and suicide attacks is interpreted by a number of Muslims as “martyrdom operations,” especially in the Palestinian context (some firmly condemn Al Qaeda attacks while still accepting Palestinian suicide attacks).
There are also different types of “martyrs”: in Palestine, the title is given to all those who have been killed by the enemy. Hizbullah’s definition of martyrdom covers both premeditated deaths resulting from suicide missions and unpremeditated deaths on the battlefield or outside of it, explains Saad-Ghorayeb. But the fighter who has embarked on a suicide mission “is deemed to have served Islam and himself [i.e. eternal blessing] to the furthest possible extent”.
Strategic considerations are however not absent in Hizbullah’s “martyrdom operations;” they can be religiously sanctioned only if they have a real impact upon the enemy.
In contrast with Christianity, martyrdom in Islam does not preclude physical violence against the enemy. In an interview with RW, Khosrokhavar remarked that “martyrdom” as we see it today however represents a new form, first due to its proliferation: whereas martyrdom tended to be something unusual, there are many candidates to martyrdom today. Religious beliefs are not always required: what is needed is the sacralization of some cause, which often can be a national cause.
According to Khosrokhavar, one should distinguish between two types of “martyrs”, even it they are often lumped together. On the one hand, there are those who sacrifice their lives for a cause which may be Islamic, but at the same time is a national cause (Lebanon, Palestine, Kashmir, etc.).
On the other hand, there are those affiliated with transnational, radical groups, not rooted in a specific national context, and aspiring to avenge humiliations which they feel Muslims experience around the world as well as to create a new global Islamic order which is understood in very vague terms. “They know what they don’t want, but are far from knowing what they want,” Khosrokhavar said.
Asked about the motivations of those Al Qaeda types of people whom he met in French jails, Khosrokhavar reported that they indeed hated the West and pro-Western Muslim regimes, and aspired to establishing an ideal Muslim world. But they were not originally pious Muslims: “It is not because they were Muslim believers that they became radicals.”
Their hatred of the current world order preceded their Islamization, which they then fed with extreme forms of Islam. They are no foreigners to modernity: often able to speak 3 to 6 languages, familiar with the West, they might well be radicalized children of globalization.
— By Jean-François Mayer