The Three Islamic Faces of Suicide Bombing

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Does Islam promote suicide bombing? Three answers seem to be circulating in the Muslim world.

The first could be described as “yes-yes.” It comes from the groups that recruit and use suicide bombers. Their argument is: Because we regard Israel as evil, we not only have a right but also a duty to fight it even in ways that are otherwise evil.

The second answer came from the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Malaysia this month. That answer could be described as “yes-but.” The ministers in effect approved of suicide bombing provided it was not used against their own governments. As for the definition of terrorism--the purpose of the gathering--they said that was a job for the United Nations. This was interesting because some participants also claimed that the U.N. was a mere tool of the United States.


The third answer could be described as “no-but” and came from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Since suicide is forbidden in Islam, the argument goes, we cannot sanction such acts. At the same time we cannot condemn people who, driven to desperation, use such methods.

All three answers are problematic. It is disingenuous to claim that suicide bombers are ordinary youths who suddenly decide to sacrifice their lives to kill some of the “enemy.” Organizing and implementing a suicide attack is a complex operation that requires recruitment, training, finance, logistics, surveillance and postoperation publicity. An 18-year-old girl may fancy herself as a suicide bomber but, alone, would not be able to organize an operation.

Suicide bombing must, therefore, be regarded as a deliberate act, decided, organized and promoted by politicians as part of a strategy. This is clear from statements by Palestinian leaders who say they ordered a halt to such attacks to encourage changes in Israeli behavior. When the changes did not happen, suicide bombings resumed.

Yet Islam forbids suicide--without any ifs and buts. Life belongs to he who grants it, not to mortal men who are its trustee. To violate that rule amounts to a claim of divine authority for mortal man.

The issue becomes more complicated when would-be suicide bombers are presented as martyrs. In Islam, a martyr is either one who suffers at the hands of the enemies of Islam, often to the point of death, because of faith--not politics--or someone who falls in a battle against aggressors. The martyr does not want to become one. He knows that the highest value is the preservation of life; he is put to death not by his own hands but by his oppressors.

Islam celebrates life and promotes its enjoyment. There is no cult of martyrs and saints in Islam. There also are no hermits, nuns, celibates and no acquiring of merit through self-torture. Islam teaches man how to live, not how to die. “The ends justify the means” has no place in Islamic ethics or philosophy.


Islam as an existential reality is something else. There are politicians who glorify suicide bombing. How representative are they? We will never know until there is an atmosphere in which opinions are aired without fear and without taqiyyah, or dissimulation.

Suicide bombing also is problematic on ethical grounds. Can we condone any suicide bombing, including the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon? And what about suicide bombings conducted by opposition groups in Iran and Iraq? If not, who decides which suicide bombing is good and which bad? Can anyone decide to become a martyr? If not, who distributes martyrdom certificates?

In any society the state on the basis of law must decide about life and death. Even war has laws. This is why there can be no revenge killing by individuals, no lynch mobs and no suicide in the service of any cause. And Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has condemned suicide bombings, at least when speaking in English.

It is easy to make heroic statements about Palestinians from a distance, as long as only the Palestinians and the Israelis pay with blood.

The key ethical questions for Muslims are these: Are you prepared to practice what you preach? Can you become a suicide bomber? Are you prepared to urge your offspring to become human bombs?

Ethics can explain, even understand, evil, but can never justify it, let alone confuse it with good.



Amir Taheri is a writer for Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia, where a version of this commentary appeared Tuesday. E-mail: amtaher