Soon after an EgyptAir plane crashed into the Atlantic shortly after takeoff from New York in October 1999, killing 217, the plane’s copilot came under suspicion of intentionally bringing down the aircraft.
To which the Egyptian reaction was adamant: No way – Egyptians don’t engage in suicide. “Committing suicide is not a trait that Egyptians and Muslims are known for,” commented the head of the pilots association.
Islamist (or fundamentalist Muslim) leaders in the United States emphasized that, being a religiously observant Muslim, the copilot would never commit suicide. “Suicide is a major sin in Islam,” Maher Hathout, imam of the Islamic Center in Los Angeles, explained. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations pronounced that suicide “would not be in accord with Islamic beliefs and practices.”
Well, sort of. The Koran does tell Muslims, “Do not kill yourselves” and warns that those who disobey will be “cast into the fire.” The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that a suicide cannot go to paradise. Islamic laws oppose the practice.
This religious prohibition has had the intended effect. According to Franz Rosenthal, a scholar of the subject, “suicide was of comparatively rare occurrence” in traditional Muslim society. In contemporary Egypt, statistics bear out that suicide is exceedingly rare.
But those spokesmen are not telling the whole story, for Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad, or sacred war. Going into war knowing with certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the houris in paradise.
A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations but “heroic martyrdom operations” in which the kamikazes act not “out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors.”
In other words, Islamists find suicide for personal reasons abominable, suicide for jihad admirable. If the EgyptAir copilot brought the plane down because he was depressed about his daughter’s illness, he will burn forever in hell. If he did it to kill Americans in suburban Long Island, they might rejoice in his act.
Jihad suicide has been around for a millennium. The Assassins, a fanatical religious sect that flourished in the 12th century developed jihad suicide into a powerful tool of war that succeeded in killing dozens of leaders and cast a long shadow over the region’s politics for decades.
The Assassins’ suicide soldiers’ mission, as explained by the historian Bernard Lewis, had a distinctly familiar flavor: “by striking down oppressors and usurpers, they gave the ultimate proof of their faith and loyalty, and earned immediate and eternal bliss.”
In recent times, the revival of jihad suicide began as an Iranian project, starting with the 1981 blow up of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, killing 27, and followed by a long sequence of attacks on U.S. installations around the Middle East, killing as many as 19, 63 and 241 Americans. During its eight-year war with Iraq, Tehran dispatched young soldiers to detonate land mines, then commemorated their deaths as martyrs.
The Iranians also sponsored a suicide campaign against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon during 1983-85 that did much to push those troops nearly out of Lebanon. Tehran persisted afterwards too. Islamic Jihad, its main Palestinian anti-Israel ally, already complained in 1995 that it had just one problem: “We have too many candidates for martyrdom and not enough resources to prepare them all.”
The Palestinian Authority eventually noticed the effectiveness of this Iranian war instrument and recently adopted it, urging everyone from school boys to hardened criminals to hurl their lives against Israel, with many takers. Their actions have appalled Israelis while spurring impassioned support across the Middle East for the Palestinians.
The danger here is considerable: Yasser Arafat’s PA has successfully adopted what had been the unique tool of Khomeini’s Islamist regime, suggesting that suicide jihad is a flexible tool potentially available to a wide array of non-Islamist rogue Muslim states (such as Iraq, Syria and Libya) and maybe even to some terrorist organizations.
It’s yet another danger from the Middle East for everyone to worry about.
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