Scripture cut short
Strident religious groups emphasise the self-sacrificial element of martyrdom attacks. But a collective, responsible, communal understanding of their impact is alarmingly lacking, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
A few days ago, I was looking over the Muslim Brotherhood Web site. The site's contents range from external matters (the confrontation with America in Iraq, or with Israel in Palestine) to criticism of government corruption and human rights abuses. It has complaints about the MB's exclusion from the national dialogue, commentary on historic events, and religious advice. Interestingly, the Brotherhood, a group that desires to be an Egyptian political party, if not an international political party, has little to say about Egypt and the world, aside from complaints and protest. The Brotherhood, of course, blames people in the government or in America for failing to resolve Egypt's problems, or for creating those problems in the first place. But if you were to take a closer look at this site, and read all the political and religious literature it includes, even if you were to go back to all Muslim Brotherhood statements and documents, you would hardly find any concrete views about investment in Egypt, unemployment, poverty, education, or technology. The Brotherhood has little to say about people's daily life, but much to say about the afterlife.
The main contention of this Web site and other Brotherhood literature is that things are bad because the Brotherhood is not in power. Were the Brotherhood to accede to power, things would get better, prosperity would just happen, and weakness will be turned into strength. Furthermore, if Egypt were to be a better place, the Arab world would be a better place, which would make the Islamic world a better place, which would make the world a better place still. The Brotherhood, as a political group, may be concerned about all aspects of society. But something is missing. There is hardly anything for a leader to learn from, or a politician to debate, dispute, or use to formulate a common ground.
I recently wrote about the moral dilemma facing the Arab world with regard to suicide/martyrdom attacks. Such attacks can be seen as a form of resistance against the Israeli aggression in Palestine and the US aggression in Iraq. Yet, when the same groups wage similar operations in our Arab and Islamic countries, as happened in Riyadh and Istanbul of late, they are called terror. Can a political or ideological group be virtuous one day and despicable the next while committing more or less the same acts? Can Arabs -- being in no mood to denigrate resistance -- continue to gloss over this matter and risk undermining their legitimacy and the very idea of a political community?
I have to admit that I have no solution to this dilemma. I did come across an essay on the Brotherhood Web site, however, entitled "Blowing Oneself Up Among the Enemy", which purports to offer a theological assessment of the practice. Though readers may wish to consult the original, allow me to provide some brief observations on the study.
A first observation: according to the study, the majority of religious scholars are clearly in favour of blowing oneself up to hurt the enemy, and see it as a legitimate and even commendable act of resistance. A minority, however, have reservations about the practice, either because it involves the normally- impermissible act of taking one's own life or because the perpetrators fail to consult ahead of time with any leadership.
A second observation is that the supporters of the practice rely totally on the "intention" of the individual in question; whether he or she intends to commit suicide or self-sacrifice for the cause of the resistance. So long as the "intention" is to resist and harm the enemy, the self-bombing operations are seen as legitimate martyrdom operations.
In my opinion, the real issue here is not the individual's "intention", because the outcome of the operation is something the entire society has to live with. For example, the reoccupation of Palestinian liberated territories, as a result of suicide bombing, is something that concerns the entire Palestinian society, not the bomber or his or her family alone. Current Palestinian public polls indicate that 63 per cent of Palestinians want a cease-fire. In other words, they want suicide bombing to stop being a means of repulsing the occupation. Can one distinguish, in societal matters, between individual and collective "intentions"?
The third observation is about resistance operations becoming an institutional matter; a matter linked to the chain of command and to the endorsement of strategy and tactics. I found it amazing that the Brotherhood study does not address such issues, although it admits that the "methods of our enemies are always the subject of development and of dazzling and rapid progress in matters concerning deceit and treachery, power and preparation, planning and arrangement."
The Islamic camp, the study continues, "should rise to the same level -- if not more -- of planning and arrangement, progress and development ..." Yet, the religious scholar who makes this statement does not seem much concerned with an Islamic camp that has one leadership in charge of deciding, with plans and thorough arrangements, when to carry out a self- bombing operation against the enemy. In fact, the Brotherhood does not advise the potential martyr to consult with his or her commander unless he or she knew beforehand that the latter would approve.
The fourth observation is that any religious scholar who gives such advice assumes the stance of a commanding officer, for he defends the operations regardless of their goal and their benefit to the cause of liberation. If the leadership has no say in the matter -- apart from blessing individuals who wish to carry out martyrdom operations -- then the whole Islamic community is in trouble. For who else is to undertake the careful planning and arrangements scholars call for in the aforementioned study?
The fifth observation is that individuals, including religious scholars, are prone to expand the circle of the enemy to include, besides Israel and America, their allies in NATO and the West, as well as Arab and Islamic countries doing business with any of the above. The circle of enemies has lately expanded to include Islamic communities on the pretext that they keep silent or pay taxes to collaborating governments: exactly the same argument previously reserved for US and Israeli citizens. The questions of "intention" and "the enemy" are essentially societal and institutional. To individualise such questions is to pose a great danger to Islamic countries, blurring the distinction between resistance and terror.
The sixth observation gets us close to the peripheries of the matter at hand, but is pertinent nonetheless. We have a moral problem. Killing, is an act abhorred by God and man, except in self-defence or resistance. Bombing operations do not exclusively kill combatants. In many cases, the victims are unarmed civilians. The Brotherhood scholars resolve that matter by claiming that Israeli civilians are combatants, being people who pay taxes to an aggressor. This does not really answer the question, however. Is it permissible to kill non-combatants and unarmed individuals, who could include innocent passers-by, anti-war activists, or even Palestinians -- as happened in the recent Jaffa operation? Can we justly regard children and old people as casualties of war, as Sheikh Al-Qardawi claims? In which case, is it enough to pay blood money to the families of the victims, by way of compensation and as a token of regret?
Clearly, the issue is complicated. No one disputes the fact that occupation is a good enough cause for resistance and that self- sacrifice is a commendable sentiment. But the issue at hand is more than "individual", for it goes way beyond the realm of the individual, and what he or she intends to do. The issue of resistance -- and this is my seventh observation -- is one of public interest, an inherently political matter, a matter involving negotiations and societal bargaining. We have to decide in a collective manner what should, or should not, be done at any given moment.
These observations have to be addressed. It is because we ignored such issues for so long that we ended up with the bombings in Al-Muhayya, Istanbul, and other parts of the Islamic world. We have to do something before more of our youth jump in line to blow themselves up against new targets, far and near.
* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.