Must Innocents Die? The Islamic Debate Over Suicide Attacks

Over the last two years, the issue of suicide attacks or “martyrdom operations” against Israel has dominated public discussion throughout the Arab world. Since the outbreak of the current Palestinian intifada, in September 2000, the Palestinian resort to suicide attacks has won widespread Arab public acceptance as a legitimate form of resistance against Israeli occupation. Some Muslim clerics and other commentators justify them on political, moral, and religious grounds. Even those attackers who bomb and kill women and children are hailed as martyrs for their heroism in confronting the enemy.

It is often said that the “martyrdom operations” are acts of religious extremism. The operatives who recruit young men and women to detonate themselves in crowds of Israelis manipulate religious fervor by wedding the ideas of heavenly reward to martyrdom. A young believer who detonates himself in the midst of the enemy will ascend straight to heaven and enter paradise—so he or she is indoctrinated. This is presented as the ultimate sacrifice and reward for a devout young Muslim.

But the operations themselves are very carefully calculated maneuvers. Islamist and other groups launch suicide attacks because they are seen as effective means to demoralize Israel. The “martyrdom operations” are deemed the only answer to the vastly superior military capabilities of the Israeli army. In the words of the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, “Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defense. But right now, we can only tackle the fire with our bare hands and sacrifice ourselves.”

Advocates have described the attacks as the most important “strategic weapon” of Palestinian resistance. And while religious justification of such attacks is important for many Muslims, secular groups related to Fatah such as the Tanzim and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have resorted to similar tactics.

Suicide attacks enjoyed almost unquestioning support in the Arab world—until the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001. Overnight, Muslims everywhere found themselves defending their religion against charges of espousing violence and terror. Many Muslim scholars have responded by condemning the assault against America as terrorism. But even as they affirm that the attacks in America were terrorism—because they killed innocent civilians—many of the same scholars still regard attacks carried out against Israeli civilians as “martyrdom operations,” a form of legitimate resistance to occupation of holy Muslim land. These scholars now seek to explain the difference between suicide operations in New York and Washington and those perpetrated in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The acceleration of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in spring 2002 complicated the issue still further. The “martyrdom operations” against Israeli civilians, following one another in rapid succession, licensed Israel to launch massive reprisals. Before these reprisals, Arab governments and opinion-makers had been content to let the “suicide fever” run rampant, in the media and in street demonstrations. But as Israeli military responses escalated, Arab governments sent their clients—Muslim clerics, journalists, and officials—to throw cold water on the frenzied enthusiasm of the masses. The specter that such operations might spread to their own countries, threatening their own security, cannot be far from their minds.

In short, three main arguments have emerged: the first, endorsing the attacks of September 11 and against Israeli targets; the second, rejecting attacks like September 11, but supporting attacks against Israeli targets; and the third, rejecting all suicide attacks, wherever they take place. The debate is now fully engaged, yet it is not entirely new. The debate over “martyrdom operations” goes back to the 1980s, when various groups employed the technique against U.S., French, and Israeli forces in Lebanon. But the sheer number of Palestinian “martyrdom operations” against Israel and the unprecedented number of Americans killed in New York and Washington have imparted a new urgency to the debate. What follows is a sketch of the recent arguments for and against the operations against Israel. It is important to acknowledge that a debate is underway. It is also crucial to recognize that those who sanction attacks against Israeli civilians seem to be winning it.

For and Against

The debate began in early December 2001, when a deadly wave of suicide operations struck Jerusalem and Haifa, leaving 26 Israelis dead.

The bombings constituted the first major wave of terrorism, post-September 11. They came at a time when the leadership of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose nationals had been implicated in the September 11 attacks, were still reeling from criticism that they had not done enough to battle terrorism and suicide fever in the region.

After September 11, the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia faced severe criticism for the role their nationals played in the attacks. They also deemed it in their interest to promote a more conciliatory image of Islam—to argue that it opposes the killing of innocent civilians and is based on ideals of peace and justice. In November, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Abdullah called a meeting of senior Islamic clerics including the grand mufti of the kingdom, to urge them to exercise caution in their public declarations, and to remember that their words were now under unprecedented international scrutiny:

Brothers, you know that we are passing through crucial days. We must be patient and you must clarify to your brothers in good words since you are now the target of the enemies of the Islamic faith…do not be unnerved or provoked by passion.

President Mubarak of Egypt made similar appeals to religious scholars and preachers during the holy month of Ramadan. He stressed the tolerant nature of Islam, calling on the religious figures to “clarify the real nature of Islam’s divine message, that it is the religion of tolerance and mercy, that it forbids the killing of innocent civilians.”

The December 2001 bombings in Israel immediately put Egypt and Saudi Arabia to the test. Would their religious leaders finally speak out against the widespread glorification and acceptance of “martyrdom” and indiscriminate killing that had taken root in their own societies?

Two of them did. Sheikh Muhammad Sa’id Tantawi, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, had been equivocal about the issue in past declarations. Now he reiterated the government’s position, declaring that the shari’a (Islamic law) “rejects all attempts on human life, and in the name of the shari’a, we condemn all attacks on civilians, whatever their community or state responsible for such an attack.”

Echoing Tantawi’s ruling, Sheikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdallah as-Sabil, member of the Saudi council of senior ulema (clerics) and imam at the grand mosque in Mecca, also decried the suicide attacks. “Any attack on innocent people is unlawful and contrary to the shari’a,” he announced, adding, “Muslims must safeguard the lives, honor, and property of Christians and Jews, attacking them contradicts the shari’a.” The Islamic legal arguments against the operations relied upon three principles of Islamic law: the prohibition against killing civilians, the prohibition against suicide, and the protected status of Jews and Christians.

But would these arguments hold? For centuries, Muslim rulers have paid the salaries of religious figures and used them to boost their own legitimacy. The highest religious leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are government-appointed officials. Any edict emanating from these religious bodies inevitably reflects state policy. Both governments tap their religious establishments whenever they need religious backing for controversial policies. In the past, the Sheikh al-Azhar, the head of the Azhar theological seminary, provided Anwar Sadat with a religious edict, or fatwa, in support of the peace treaty Sadat signed with Israel. During the Kuwait war, the late grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, ruled that the presence of foreign troops was permitted on Saudi soil to defend the kingdom from Saddam Hussein. He also issued an extremely controversial fatwa in 1995, ruling that the shari’a permitted peace with Israel, under certain conditions. The dependence of the clerics on the rulers has sometimes eroded the credibility of state religious officials and their edicts. In any event, no Muslim authority exercises a kind of “papal” authority over his coreligionists. And so it was not surprising that the declarations of Tantawi and Sabil, far from ending the debate, actually intensified it.

The harshest rebuttal came from the Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who currently heads the Sunni studies department at Qatar University. Sheikh Qaradawi is a consistent critic of the United States as well as many pro-Western Arab governments, and is increasingly popular throughout the Muslim world. He was also one of the first religious scholars to sanction the use of suicide attacks by Palestinian militants during the waves of Hamas-led bombings in the mid-1990s. Qaradawi has gained popularity and legitimacy throughout the Arab world by questioning the authority of the state, and he reaches a broad audience through his regular appearances on the Arabic satellite channel, al-Jazeera. Qaradawi has emerged as one of the preeminent Islamic religious figures in the Arab world and arguably represents the mainstream of Arab Muslim society.

“I am astonished that some sheikhs deliver fatwas that betray the mujahideen, instead of supporting them and urging them to sacrifice and martyrdom,” announced Qaradawi.

Responding specifically to the imam of Mecca, Qaradawi stated, “It is unfortunate to hear that the grand imam has said it was not permissible to kill civilians in any country or state, even in Israel.” Qaradawi based his opposition to these fatwas on the premise that Israelis were not civilians but rather combatants in a war of occupation waged against the Palestinians. He argued that

Israeli society was completely military in its make-up and did not include any civilians…How can the head of Al-Azhar incriminate mujahideen who fight against aggressors? How can he consider these aggressors as innocent civilians?

While sanctioning suicide attacks against Israelis, Qaradawi quickly condemned the September 11 attacks against American civilians, claiming that “such martyrdom operations should not be carried out outside of the Palestinian territories.” Attempting to differentiate between terrorism and “martyrdom,” Qaradawi declared, “The Palestinian who blows himself up is a person who is defending his homeland. When he attacks an occupier enemy, he is attacking a legitimate target. This is different from someone who leaves his country and goes to strike a target with which he has no dispute.”

Qaradawi distinguished “martyrdom operations” from terrorism as an act of self-defense and thus a legitimate form of resistance. He continues: “The Palestinians have a right to defend their land and property from which they were driven out unjustly…the Palestinians have a right to resist this usurping colonialism with all the means and methods they have. This is a legitimate right endorsed by the divine laws, international laws, and human values.”

Qaradawi was also at pains to distinguish between suicide and martyrdom. Islam clearly prohibits suicide, yet views martyrdom as a noble act, assuring individuals a place in heaven. In an interview with al-Jazeera, Qaradawi rejected the term “suicide operations.”

This is an unjust and misleading name because these are heroic commando and martyrdom attacks and should not be called suicide operations or be attributed to suicide under any circumstances.

He clarified that the term suicide applies to someone who kills himself for personal reasons and is therefore a coward. In contrast, an attack against Israel is defined as martyrdom and therefore legitimized as a brave, unselfish sacrifice carried out on behalf of the entire Muslim community.

Other critics of the edicts issued by Tantawi and Sabil based themselves on the status of Jews and Christians in Islam, considered “people of the covenant”—ahl adh-dhimma, or dhimmis. There are clear guidelines in the Qur’an and Sunna for Muslim relations with Jews and Christians, providing for the protection of their lives and property. But as one commentator argued, “preserving the life of the dhimmis is conditional on their living under Muslim rule in a Muslim state. This does not apply to the dhimmis mentioned by the imam [of Mecca], since they are living in their own state that has usurped the rights of Muslims and occupied their lands.” Jews and Christians are protected under Islam, but only when they live under Muslim rule; outside the boundaries of Islamic rule, they are no longer protected. According to this chain of reasoning, it is permissible to kill Jews in Israel who live in their own state, especially as its territory has been usurped from Muslims.

Other religious scholars within the Azhar establishment continued to challenge the prohibition on killing civilians espoused by Tantawi and Sabil. ‘Abd al-‘Azim al-Mit’ani, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University, rejected arguments differentiating between Israeli civilian and military targets claiming, “They should not make any difference between civilians and military. It is a fact that Israel is one big military camp. There is no real civilian there. It is the Palestinians’ rights to hit all the inhabitants of Israel as they can.” Al-Mit’ani continued by claiming that the Prophet’s words prohibiting the killing of children, elderly, or women did not apply in the case of Palestinian suicide bombers, stating, “He was talking about an ordinary war, between two armies. The situation in occupied Arab Palestine is different. We are faced with an enemy that attacks indiscriminately. The Palestinians have every right to return the treatment.”

The killing of innocent women and children is often quickly dismissed by advocates of suicide operations as “collateral damage” and an inevitable by-product of the struggle against Israel. Addressing this issue in an interview, Sheikh Qaradawi denied that such casualties contradict Islamic doctrine. “Some children, old people, and women may get hurt in such operations. This is not deliberate. However, we must all realize that the Israeli society is a military society, men and women…we cannot say that the casualties were innocent civilians.”

‘Abd as-Sabur Shahin, a lecturer at the Islamic Dar al-‘Ulum College in Cairo, concurred and argued that, “We are at war, as we have never been before throughout history. If civilians are killed in the course of Palestinian operations, this is not a crime.”

Islamic scholars who endorse and even promote suicide or “martyrdom” attacks justify their positions by reference to the shari’a. But these rulings are driven more by emotions and television images of Palestinian suffering than by deep immersion in the records of ancient Islamic precedent. These clerics, like many secular enthusiasts of the bombings, seek to champion the Palestinians in their resistance against Israel. And for the Muslim believer, the young men who sacrifice their lives in the name of resistance are not only defending the Palestinian nation, they are also defending the wounded honor of the Arab nation, in a struggle that was lost decades ago by the secular Arab regimes.

Enter the Rulers

Once the clerics had staked out their positions, it was the turn of the rulers to “operationalize” them. Yet it did not take long for the debate to become muddled, as both the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian governments hedged their own condemnations of the operations.

The judgments of Tantawi and Sabil condemning violence against civilians prepped the call by the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria to “reject all forms of violence,” at a May 2002 tripartite summit meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh. But their final statement did not specifically condemn “martyrdom operations.”

Syria soon exploited the loophole. True, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had attended the meeting and agreed to the text of the final communiqué—this, despite the fact that Syria continues to support suicide attacks carried out by Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. But after the summit, Syrian foreign minister Faruq ash-Shar’ explained why Syria put its name to the summit communiqué, by claiming that the term “violence” referred to “Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.” Syrian sources then confirmed that there would be no change in Syria’s political support for “resistance” and for leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to curb support for violence against Israel was discussed between President George W. Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah at their meeting in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, with Abdullah promising to use his influence over both Hamas and Syria.

Widely circulating reports later claimed that Saudi Arabia was attempting to use its influence on Hamas to end suicide attacks through high-level meetings.

But Hamas spokesman Mahmud az-Zahar denied that any meetings occurred, while affirming the movement’s willingness to discuss the issue of “martyrdom operations” with any Arab party. Such attempts were renewed later in the year under the auspices of the Egyptian government, yet broke down over the refusal of Hamas to end the attacks.

Moreover, it soon turned out that Saudi Arabia itself had been paying allowances to the families of “martyrs” and funneling money directly for Hamas, which was responsible for a majority of suicide attacks. The Saudi Committee for the Support of Al-Quds Intifada, headed by Saudi interior minister Prince Nayif bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, had been channeling money to Hamas and affiliated organizations. In the words of the Saudi government, the committee “has been extending assistance to the families of Palestinian martyrs, as well as injured and handicapped Palestinians.” According to its own figures, published on an official Saudi government website, the family of each suicide bomber is paid 20,000 Saudi riyals (about $5,300).

In addition, money from the Saudi Committee for the Support of Al-Aqsa Intifada was paid to the Tulkarm Charity Committee, an organization cited by the United States as connected to Hamas. While it is clear that the charity committee does administer social work and aid, it is also known to have ties with the military apparatus of Hamas.

Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that Saudi cash was funding Hamas during a hearing of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In response to a question about the destination for funds raised through a series of Saudi telethons which raised millions of dollars, Secretary Powell claimed, “We have seen some indications, and I’ve even seen in an Arab newspaper—handed to me by Chairman Arafat, I might add—where some of the money, at least according to this Arab newspaper advertisement, would be going to elements of Hamas.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington attempted to deflect criticism that it was funding the families of suicide bombers by claiming that the term “martyr” used in relation to official Saudi efforts to raise funds for Palestinians referred not to suicide bombers but to “Palestinians who are victimized by Israeli terror and violence.”

Yet the executive manager of the Saudi committee stated otherwise: “We support the families of Palestinian martyrs, without differentiating between whether the Palestinian was a bomber or was killed by Israeli troops.”

In the Egyptian case, the weak link in the debate proved to be Sheikh Tantawi. The Sheikh al-Azhar, subjected to withering criticism, began to issue confusing and contradictory statements, effectively abrogating his earlier fatwa. In an interview with the Egyptian state-owned magazine Ruz al-Yusuf, Tantawi claimed that his earlier rulings had been distorted, stating,

My words were clear…a man who blows himself in the middle of enemy militants is a martyr, repeat, a martyr. What we do not condone is for someone to blow himself up in the middle of children or women. If he blows himself up in the middle of Israeli women enlisted in the army, then he is a martyr, since these women are fighters.

In later statements he reiterated this formula, declaring, “I repeat that those who defend their rights by blowing themselves up in the midst of their enemies who murder his people, occupy their land or humiliate their people, are martyrs, martyrs, martyrs.”

Since shifting his position on attacks, Tantawi has continuously sought to clarify the issue by distinguishing between terrorism and jihad, which is the impetus for “martyrdom.” “Jihad in Islam was ordained in order to support the oppressed and defend sacred places, human lives, personal funds, occupied land, and so on. Terrorism, on the other hand, is an aggression and an insistence on killing innocent people, civilians, and peaceful people.” The distinction rests on the notion of self-defense, which distinguishes martyrdom operations from terrorism. Tantawi intended to cover both angles of the debate, conferring the status of martyr on Palestinian suicide bombers engaged in a struggle of self-defense, while condemning the killing of innocent civilians.

Within Palestinian society there have been calls to halt the campaign of suicide attacks. Unfortunately, the majority of these appeals are based on strategic considerations and not on religious or moral arguments. The usual arguments against suicide attacks are that they harm the image of the Palestinian struggle or engender harsh Israeli reprisals—not that the attacks are themselves reprehensible. Some Palestinians support attacks only within the West Bank and Gaza and not in the pre-1967 borders of Israel. But Palestinian critics of the attacks clearly have not persuaded their planners and perpetrators since the attacks continue.

Next Phase?

If suicide attacks are permissible against Israeli targets, might they be deemed legitimate against repressive Arab leaders accused of being “apostates”? Religious decrees were used to justify the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Various edicts issued against leading intellectuals such as the Egyptian author and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (who was stabbed by a would-be assassin), and Egyptian secular thinker Farag Foda (who was murdered), have put secularists on notice. All of this raises the prospect that, even if the “suicide fever” subsides among the Palestinians, it could surface elsewhere—not just in the West, where it has already taken a devastating toll, but in Arab capitals ruled by regimes friendly to the West and at peace with Israel.

This would be the point of entry for theological freelancers. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of fatwas issued by various religious scholars of dubious authority. These fatwas may lack legal soundness, yet they are often accepted and adhered to by many Muslims who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Some of these fatwas conform to Islamic law, and some do not. But the crucial point is that the lack of qualifications of those issuing such rulings has become nearly irrelevant.

Usama bin Ladin’s so-called fatwa of 1998, for example, urged Muslims to “kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military.” Though such a ruling by a person lacking legal training has no authority in Islam, the fact remains that a small group of people who believed these words perpetrated an unprecedented act of terror against the United States on September 11. Thus, is it inconceivable that a disgruntled extremist group, desperate in its confrontation with an authoritarian state in the Middle East, could use such tactics against an Arab regime? Bin Ladin’s 1998 call for murder was directed at “Americans and their allies,” easily interpreted as the Western-allied states of the Arab world.

Arab governments have struggled against the proliferation of fatwas and have taken various measures to limit those issuing religious rulings. The government of Saudi Arabia issued a public statement that only authorized clerics could issue fatwas. This was in part a response to a fatwa issued by a dissident cleric, calling for jihad against the United States.

The Saudi minister of Islamic affairs also attempted to curb public calls for jihad, which he declared could only be ordered by the government.

In Kuwait, which faces a growing Islamic opposition, the Ministry of Justice, Religious Endowments, and Islamic Affairs issued rules to mosque preachers in an attempt to control religious discourse. The ministry also established a fatwa committee to coordinate and approve religious rulings. Similar restrictions and regulations have been enacted throughout the Arab world in an attempt to limit the influence of independent clerics.

Until now, most Islamic groups have refrained from directly confronting the state for ideological or tactical reasons. Generally speaking, those groups that have chosen violence have been crushed. But the widespread legitimacy of the “martyrdom operations” could set extremists to considering the tactic, if and when they revive armed struggle against the state. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak raised such concerns in an interview with The New York Times: “I am afraid of what’s happening in the Middle East for the future…the seriousness of the situation may generate new kinds of terrorism against all of us, against the U.S., against Egypt, against Jordan.” Arab rulers could find themselves the next target of a new wave of “martyrs.”

This suggests that the debate over “martyrdom operations” may continue for a long time to come. And at this moment in time, those in favor of such attacks seem to be scoring points. Cairo and Riyadh remain reluctant to oppose such attacks fully in clear and definitive language, and such attacks continue. Perhaps their hesitation has to do with the answer to this question: Even if they were to call unambiguously for an end to the suicide attacks, would anyone heed them?