Due to continued propaganda by various Islamist groups and ulemas, mainstream Muslim perceptions of what constitutes legitimate “martyrdom operations” in war seem to have gained wider latitude, writes independent scholar Shireen Khan Burki in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence (September-October).
In Muslim tradition, there had been a strong taboo against suicide in any form. This underwent a gradual re-examination, however, following the advent of unprecedented suicide attacks since the 1980s, Burki observes. Some people considered as scholars attempted to distinguish between such sacrifice operations and suicides, provided some rules are respected (such as pure intent or inflicting losses on the enemy). Several leading Islamic scholars (both Sunni and Shia) have consistently condemned any type of suicide attacks.
Others, however, have come to justify them in some circumstances (notably Palestinian resistance against Zionism) or have vacillated between condemnation and justification, especially in situations where there is considerable military imbalance. Most Muslims continue to reject the legitimacy of suicide bombings in any case. However, the fact that a percentage (varying from one country to another: up to 39 percent in Lebanon, 34 percent in Nigeria, but 20 percent in Pakistan or Egypt, according to Pew polls) expresses support for the use of suicide attacks in defense of Islam “suggests a disturbing evolution in thought on behavior traditionally considered haram [non-permissible].”
The fact that Muslims often fall victims to such attacks obviously hurts the Islamist case; but there has been increasing support, according to Burki, for operations targeting non-Muslims. On the other hand, the lack of a strong response by many people in the clerical establishment and the contradictory opinions among them have served the Islamists. While jihad followed clear rules of engagement, the ambiguities regarding suicide attacks have opened a door to “anarchical jihad.”
(Terrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis, 325 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106)