How the Advent of Suicide Attacks Put Hamas on the Map and Re-branded Islam

An expert on Islam explains how suicide went from being a moral taboo in Islam, to the key element of the global jihad - from Hezbollah to ISIS.

Ayelett Shani
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 Members of Hamas' armed wing stand inside an underground tunnel in Gaza. August 18, 2014.
Members of Hamas' armed wing stand inside an underground tunnel in Gaza. August 18, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Prof. Meir Hatina, 52, head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; author of “Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power, and Politics” (Cambridge University Press); lives in Jerusalem. Where: A Tel Aviv café. When: Wednesday, 2 P.M.

Let’s begin with your basic assumption, which some people might find surprising: The issue of suicide attacks is controversial among the Muslim public.

Suicide attacks have generated a sharp controversy within the Arab and Muslim public. Many Islamic elements have condemned them outright. The controversy revolves mainly around the civilian casualties and the perpetrator’s certain death. The opponents do not see this as holy violence but as violence per se, and the perpetrator, in their view, is not a shahid [martyr], but a suicide who should be punished by eternal excommunication.

Prof. Meir Hatina head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew University of JerusalemCredit: Emil Salman

Who are the exponents of this approach?

They come from the entire Islamic gamut, including establishment figures. Liberal Islam, secular intellectuals, clerics and also community-based movements that are considered moderate, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. All the terrorist attacks in the West, and also, in particular, the attacks against Muslim states in the Middle East, are roundly condemned in Cairo, Riyadh, Casablanca and the Gulf states.

Did the Muslim Brotherhood not carry out suicide attacks?

No. Not even the Brotherhood in Syria, which was in confrontation with the Baath regime already in the 1970s. The ethics of Muslim combat, which developed in the eighth and ninth centuries, addressed – in terms of religious law and morality – the way in which a warrior’s death should occur: namely, on the field of battle and in a clash with the enemy. The warrior does not invite death; on the contrary, he is supposed to fight and emerge victorious.

Indeed, death is not such a desirable byproduct of combat.

It is a circumstantial result. There is no cult of death in these laws of combat. In fact, there are all kinds of restrictions. It is only above a certain age that one is permitted to join combat, and it is forbidden to go to war against a very strong enemy, because you are likely to pay with your life, which approaches an act of suicide.

So, suicide is forbidden in Islam, as in Judaism.

It is absolutely forbidden, and there are social sanctions. There is a very serious taboo against suicide in Islam.

An Iraqi man, whose son was killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad's busy shopping district of Karrada, reacts at the site of the attack, Baghdad, Iraq, July 6, 2016.Credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye, AFP

With one exception: martyrdom. Could you explain the meaning of the term?

Martyrdom is the ultimate test of a devout believer. It means being ready to give up your life, and the delights of this world, and to sacrifice them on the altar of faith, for the sake of God. This concept also exists, of course, in Christianity and Judaism and in many other religions as well. But in Islam, the balance of the sanctity of life versus martyrdom has been upset in recent decades.

Since the suicide attacks began.

Yes. Until the last quarter of the 20th century, even the most radical elements in Islam continued to adhere to the conventional approach that a soldier should die only due to the force of circumstances, and that it was absolutely forbidden to harm civilians. Take the assassination of [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for example, or the revolt against Assad in Syria – those acts were aimed against the establishment and the regime, not against civilians. Martyrdom entered people’s consciousness from a different direction: from revolutionary Shia Islam, whose fomenter is [Ayatollah] Khomeini. The Iran-Iraq war placed self-initiated death on the stage: the search for death, the thrust to engage the enemy in the knowledge that one would not emerge alive from the encounter.

Khomeini used militias of “volunteer” children who were sent to the front as cannon fodder.

A woman walks past a poster showing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, right, and the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Credit: AFP

Yes, the so-called “youths of the keys.” They were sent to mine fields with “keys to paradise” around their necks in order to clear the way for the troops. Khomeini became the imam who took these martyrs under his wing. That is the Shi’ite contribution that came out of Iran and entered Sunni thought – after all, the more moderate Sunnis account for 85 percent of the believers – thus cementing the ideological foundation for suicide attacks.

The first such attacks were carried out by Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, and were very effective.

They were in part the cause of the evacuation of that sector [by Israel]. Hezbollah stopped the practice of suicide attacks in 1985-86, but by then, it had already infiltrated the entire Arab-Muslim region: Chechnya, Iraq and of course Palestine. In 1988, Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-funded Sunni organization, published a document titled “Readings in the Laws of Martyrdom.” It set forth for the first time the rationale of self-sacrifice and suicide attacks as an ideological manifesto. It was Hamas that picked up the gauntlet, following the Oslo Accords and the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein.

The signing of the Oslo Accords.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

Were the Oslo Accords really the trigger? There was only one suicide attack in 1993. The wave of attacks that are attributed to the accords began the following year – in fact, the day after Goldstein’s massacre of worshippers in Hebron.

The rhetoric of Hamas, from its founding and during the first intifada, was based on the “revolution of stones” – the use of so-called cold weapons and shooting at soldiers, settlers and civilians. They started to use suicide attacks in a dual context: at the political level, in order to undermine the Oslo Accords; at the operational level, Hamas personnel who were deported to southern Lebanon [by Israel] received training in suicide attacks from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The massacre carried out by Goldstein provided cause and incentive to start using suicide attacks, under the aegis of the principle of mutuality – an eye for an eye – that is found in the Koran. In the end, it was the martyrdom weapon that put Hamas on the map.

Branded it.

Yes, and upgraded its status. Above and beyond the operational effectiveness and the demoralization of the enemy, martyrdom also has community and educational functions: “We are the proud generation, we do not submit, we possess moral resilience and faith.” The idea of self-sacrifice becomes a theology of liberation. The very fact that in the Al-Aqsa intifada, suicide attacks were carried out by secular national groups such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, operated by Fatah, and by left-wing organizations such as Nayif Hawatmeh’s Liberation Front, shows that they had become the bon ton.

After starting as a controversial marginal phenomenon, suicide attacks entered the mainstream. The Palestinian organizations weren’t eager to support the idea, but you can’t argue with success.

This is less well remembered, but when the suicide attacks of the 1990s began, and the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas were at odds, the PLO condemned the attacks and some clerics maintained that these were acts of suicide by the perpetrators. It was also argued that they did not serve the cause of the homeland – that, on the contrary, the attackers had harmed the national interest and done a disservice to the Palestinian public by inviting Israeli aggression. But when the detractors saw the impact the attacks had, they jumped on the bandwagon.

What happened to the splendid ethics of Muslim combat, the unwillingness to harm noncombatants?

The moment the situation is defined as a “defensive jihad,” all the principles of combat ethics become flexible.

What is a defensive jihad?

The term actually dates from the Middle Ages. It refers to a situation in which the believers, or Islam itself, are perceived to be in distress due to an external threat or the moral corruption of the infidels. Because of the acuteness of the situation, the entire population is enjoined to enlist in the battle.

So, in a state of emergency, everyone is a soldier of God and laws are breached.

Prof. Meir Hatina head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

Yes. Israel, according to this perception, is a militaristic occupier, and therefore it is unnecessary to distinguish between soldiers and civilians in the struggle for the liberation of the homeland. And those who kill themselves in order to kill others are shahids and not suicides. By the way, the term “suicide attacks” does not exist on the other side. The terminology is istishhad – attacks of sacrifice.

So there is no form of violence that cannot be justified within the framework of defensive jihad.

In fact, if you look at the entire modern Islamic discourse in the 20th century, everyone who adopted violence defined jihad as “defensive jihad.” If everything becomes defensive jihad, and global jihad also uses the term – martyrdom is legitimized.

And the taboo on suicide simply melts away.

Totally. The attacker, or “living dead” as he is known, is not only a statistical datum in this drama, but also a fomenter. He is the unknown soldier who becomes a public icon, a role model for future shahids.

‘Heavenly rewards’

Perhaps you can explain what the perpetrator gains from this.

There are the heavenly rewards – which, by the way, do not just include the well-known sexual incentive.

How much of that myth is correct?

It’s correct, the martyr is promised 72 virgins. But the real issue is achieving a status of honor, proximity to the great figures of Islam – the prophet and his companions – and the possibility of bringing one’s family to Paradise as well. There are also social incentives that relate more to the family, which is honored for having sacrificed what is precious to it for the sake of a collective goal. The family is rewarded both in terms of social status and materially, too, in the form of financial support. In Lebanon, we even find a whole institution that spends money on martyrs’ children. Families of shahids in Palestine also receive support.

Prof. Meir Hatina head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

There is also a hierarchy among shahids. There’s a difference between those who use an explosive belt, say, and those who plant a bomb and have a chance to emerge alive.

Indeed. In the past, even someone who died of coronary thrombosis because of the occupation was considered a shahid. When the suicide attacks began, a distinct category was created: A shahid is someone who is killed while striving to engage the enemy. The icing on this cake is of course a suicide operation: that is the ultimate death for the sake of the liberation of the homeland, the ultimate test of faith in God. Nationalism and religion are intertwined.

How is the act of suicide removed from this equation?

Many Hamas and Islamic Jihad ideologues will argue that these attackers wanted to live. But there is an occupation, there is aggression, and they sacrifice themselves for the collectivity, for the homeland, for God.

You write in your book that Hamas makes calculated use of suicide attacks.

Very calculated indeed, and not at the expense of community, civil or political activity. Hamas is a movement with a rationale, a political agenda and a salient national dimension. Its venue is Palestine alone – Hamas does not call for the establishment of a caliphate or for the subversion of other Muslim regimes. The armed confrontation is part of a general strategy of resistance, and it’s important for Hamas not to be perceived as a purely militaristic movement. For example, when use was made of youths as attackers, and a dialogue opposing this sprang up in the Palestinian public, Hamas expressed reservations and exercised restraint. The use of suicide attacks, then, is well calculated. But the idea of martyrdom is constantly cultivated.

There is indoctrination and also a project to commemorate the shahids.

There is an intensive memorial project, which aims to burn the idea into the people’s consciousness. It takes the form of naming streets for shahids, erecting monuments, writing poems and plays about them – you find the idea in almost every field that shapes consciousness.

We all saw Hamas’ children’s programs, which preach this idea.

Yes, and they even have a children’s magazine, in which 99 percent of the material is about the struggle against the Zionist enemy and the sanctification of martyrdom. The idea is made accessible through the use of the language of children. For example, an article about a shahid who was killed when a tunnel collapsed opens, “Peace be unto you my dearly beloved, Our shahid today is a daring young man who knew for certain that jihad is the highest peak of Islam and who set the best example for sacrifice.”

A file photo released on May 4, 2015 on a militant website of ISIS militants passing by a convoy in northeast Syria.Credit: AP

Do the attacks in the latest wave of terrorism meet the criteria of suicide attacks? How is someone who charges ahead with a knife defined?

They are not suicide attacks par excellence. A suicide attack is an organized act and is backed by an organization that supplies the logistics and funding. Death in these knifing attacks, if it occurs, is circumstantial and not initiated, and is certainly not known about in advance, as it is in suicide attacks. Some of the assailants also backed off or fled from the scene. Those who were killed became shahids and were glorified in the memorial projects. The commemoration is intended to sustain the ethos of self-sacrifice in a period in which the guns have fallen silent. That is, there is no real armed activity coming out of the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, and it is important to preserve the ethos of the resistance and burn it into the consciousness of the Palestinians consistently and systematically as part of the nation-building process and the creation of the state-in-the-making.

You maintain that the success of the major suicide attacks perpetrated by Hamas also influenced global jihad, including Al-Qaida and its offshoots.

When global jihad cultivates martyrdom, its source of inspiration is explicitly the Palestinian context. Seeing the fruits of the second intifada, global jihad is impelled to act. Its actions accord the martyrdom phenomenon a very systematic character with serious substance. The difference is that it is not local and territorial in the way Hamas is, but is rather promoting a utopian idea of reconstructing the golden age of Islam.

In what way is the difference seen? What does the Hamas model of sacrifice look like as compared to that of global terrorism?

First, the scale of the use of suicide attacks, and second, a more sweeping definition of the enemy. Global jihad maintains that the entire Muslim world is effectively enslaved and that action must be taken to liberate it. The West is of course the primary enemy, but so are the West’s allies.

And parts of Islam itself.

Everyone who belongs to the Muslim world but supports the West is marked for death. Still, Al-Qaida does not mark Muslim civilian populations as targets, or at least tries not to harm them. ISIS has gone a step further in the direction of extremism and declared that not only collaborators with the enemy are enemies – so are those who remain indifferent.

Those who do not fight alongside us are against us.

Yes. Those who do not identify with us are marked for death.

How is this dilemma – of harming Muslims – resolved?

Al-Qaida and ISIS coped in two ways with the attempt to remove them from the consensus and to accuse those operating in their service of adopting violence punishable by excommunication in hell. First, they declared that what’s important in terms of the “entry level” for martyrdom is the test of the intention to become a shahid in the service of God and the nation. And second, they invoked virtues of holiness and miracles that God heaps on those who adhere to his path and promote his message on the field of battle. Who will doubt the motives of a holy person like this? By the way, global jihad does not consider self-sacrifice a weapon that is aimed at vanquishing the enemy. The weapon’s importance is more in terms of morale: to instill fear, to project power.

It certainly worked for them on 9/11 – the world came to a standstill.

And since then, the West has undergone a sea change. The occupation with Islam, which had been intellectual, became security-oriented. Every day. Police and army troops are deployed almost everywhere. It’s a historical reversal. Western civilization, which until not long ago was dominant, dictating developments, has become the defensive side.

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