‘These are not suicide operations,” explained Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar
on Al-Arabiya television in 2006. “This is a despicable term used by the
Israelis in order to say that these are suicide operations, knowing that suicide
is forbidden in Islam.... These are martyrdom seeking operations, approved by all
the authorities of the Islamic nation.”
Al-Zahar’s claims were not
surprising. He was neither the first, nor the last, to make that argument. But
it is shocking that the rest of the world essentially agreed. Although most
people still employ the phrase “suicide attack” as the simplest description of
this behavior, leading scholars and security officials have spent years
insisting that perpetrators are driven by sacrifice, not suicide.
United States, Europe and elsewhere, students are taught that suicide bombers
are psychologically equivalent to a soldier who jumps on a grenade to absorb the
blast and protect his comrades. Or as American professor and former adviser for
two presidential campaigns Robert Pape asserted, suicide terrorists are “much
like ordinary soldiers with a strong sense of duty and a willingness to
sacrifice all for the common good.”
This view is not only dangerous –
because it glorifies suicide attackers and thus encourages future recruits – but
also factually wrong. I have spent more than three years studying interview
transcripts, suicide notes, “martyrdom” videos, and witness statements, and have
uncovered more than 130 examples of suicide terrorists with classic risk factors
for conventional suicide. I have yet to come across even one suicide attacker
driven purely by ideology and altruism.
THOSE WHO volunteer are generally
overwhelmed by personal crises and looking to escape their lives. Those who are
coerced are usually weak and broken souls who’d rather die than risk trying to
withdraw or disobey.
In some cases, they openly admitted their suffering
and despair. For instance, a volunteer suicide bomber known as Zuheir
acknowledged that after years of physical abuse from his parents, he agreed to
blow himself up “not because I belonged to the organization, but to realize my
wish to die.”
And after her arrest, a coerced suicide bomber named Nazima
explained, “When they told me I was going to carry out ‘an action’ I cried a
lot, I almost fainted, everything went black before my eyes... I kept telling
[the dispatcher] that I wasn’t religious, I didn’t pray, and he said ‘When you
die you will be closer to Allah.’” These were desperate and suicidal people, not
But real martyrdom was never the problem anyway. This is an
important oversight made by Israeli ambassador Ron Prossor, among others. In his
recent remarks to the United Nations Security Council, Prosor suggested that
effective counter-terrorism required combating the worship of martyrdom. But all
around the world, many cultures celebrate those willing to sacrifice their lives
for a cause.
In this sense, Islam is not so different from Judaism or
Christianity. When someone like Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi says, “in the history
of nations and their conflicts, the martyr is the ultimate source of pride,”
he’s right about that; it’s his conflation of suicide bombing with martyrdom
that is invalid.
Instead of condemning martyrdom, government leaders,
university scholars and media commentators should emphasize that suicide
attackers are suicidal – they’re not martyrs at all. Given the evidence that’s
now available, there has never been a better opportunity to change perceptions
Israel and its allies should play a major role in this
endeavor. They should help correct widespread misconceptions that have allowed
past suicide attackers to get a clean bill of health. As well-known cases like
Cleopatra, Adolf Hitler, Ernest Hemmingway and Sylvia Plath clearly demonstrate,
suicidal people can be educated and intelligent; they can appear rational, speak
clearly, write in complete sentences, and plan their actions; they can smile one
moment and want to die the next.
But no matter where they come from or
how they act, if they kill themselves because they no longer want to live, that
Suicide terrorists are no different, even when they
attempt to conceal their personal problems and masquerade as holy
Israeli leaders should also challenge Islamic scholars and
journalists to come speak with those imprisoned suicide terrorists who are
honest about their suicidal motives, so they can see the truth for themselves.
Confronted with these attackers’ own confessions of wanting to die, visitors
would have to acknowledge to their audiences that at least some suicide bombers
could never be real martyrs.
ONCE THESE examples become widely known,
other suicide attackers who claim to be shaheeds
would come under
a growing cloud of suspicion. As with the story of the emperor’s new clothes,
once the public is prompted to look beyond these attackers’ façade, they will
begin to recognize these false martyrs for what they really are.
all who oppose suicide attacks should launch a dedicated campaign to change the
language, so that the terms “sacrifice,” “martyr” and “martyrdom” are no longer
used by moderate commentators to refer to suicide terrorists. History has shown
that the words people use affect their psychology on a subconscious level, and
the resulting emotional responses can shape their future behavior.
is why euphemisms like “ethnic cleansing” and “final solution” were so
devastatingly effective – at a gut level, virtually everyone has positive
associations with cleanliness and problems being solved.
time someone uses words like “sacrifice,” “martyr” and “martyrdom” to refer to
suicide bombers, it functions as tacit approval of the behavior, even if that’s
not the commentator’s intent.
Suicide terrorists commit “suicide,” and
their motives are “suicidal.” All around the world, people need to emphasize it,
because these words matter too. And the evidence is no longer in
Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of
Alabama and the author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide
Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers
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