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Radical Islamism and Jihad ( 2 May 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Suicide Terrorists: Who are They? (Part II)

By Ann Wilkins

Islamization of the state structures took root during the rule of another military coup-maker, General Zia ul-Haq, in 1978–88. It coincided with the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when Pakistan served as a channel of military support to the Afghan mujahedin, primarily from the United States and Saudi Arabia

Developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan

The creation of the state of Pakistan was based on the idea of establishing, in connection with the partition of the British Indian Empire, a safe haven for the Muslims of the subcontinent where they could run their own affairs and develop freely without being discriminated against by the Hindu majority. Islam was adopted as the state religion for the geographically divided country[1] but not necessarily viewed as the sole guideline for the development of the nation, at least not in its more rigid forms. Its founding father, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, was a Westernized intellectual who told the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed ... that has nothing to do with the business of the state. You are free, free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.”[2]According to this historic address, the new state of Pakistan would be built on three solid foundations: it would be a secular country, a welfare state and a united nation.

However, by the end of 1948 Jinnah was already dead, only one year into the existence of the new state, and the two trends which have characterized its further development are militarization and growing religious fundamentalism. The first military coup took place in 1958, when General Ayub Khan seized power, to be followed by a number of subsequent military takeovers, the latest to date being the one by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Democratic government has been restored in between periods of military rule, and was restored again after elections in February 2008, but is still tainted by feudal structures, bad governance and lack of rule of law, as well as by a continued dominant role for the armed forces, not only in the military but also in the political and economic sectors.

Islamization of the state structures took root during the rule of another military coup-maker, General Zia ul-Haq, in 1978–88. It coincided with the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when Pakistan served as a channel of military support to the Afghan mujahedin, primarily from the United States and Saudi Arabia. This was the last eruption of the cold war rivalry. A few years after the USSR had left Afghanistan in 1989, the USA emerged as the world’s sole superpower, while Afghanistan and Pakistan, in particular its Western parts, were left with the bitter harvest of continuing warfare between Afghan leaders, massive flows of refugees, an excess of weapons (“the Kalashnikov culture”) and growing strains on traditional cultural patterns. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s took place in response to the havoc and suffering brought by feuding warlords, and as such was initially welcomed by large parts of the population.

After the al-Qaeda attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001, the tables were turned and Afghanistan was again invaded, this time as the first target in the “global war on terror”. The prevailing balance of forces, in short realpolitik, forced Pakistan, whose army and security services had nurtured and backed the Taliban regime, to switch loyalties more or less overnight. Now, its armed forces were expected to turn their weapons towards their ex-allies, a volte-face which failed to sink in with all of its cadres. After almost a decade of military effort, the initial goals of the Bonn process[3] to stabilize, as well as democratize, Afghanistan are being scaled down and different exit strategies are being discussed, possibly leading to a re-emergence of Taliban elements in power, at least in the southern and eastern parts of the country, while warlords would enhance their leading roles, never quite relinquished, in the north and west.

Such a solution would be in line with the enduring idea among the Pakistani military of the necessity to have “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, which also serves as one of the staging areas of the unresolved conflict between Pakistan and India, centred around the disputed territory of Kashmir, the major part of which has been integrated into India. Like its western border with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s eastern border with India is partly provisional: the Line of Control is the result of an armistice in 1949 intended to be followed by a referendum in Kashmir which has not hitherto been held. As long as this conflict remains unresolved and enmity prevails between India and Pakistan, the generals calling the shots in Islamabad will remain anxious to keep a firm grip on whoever is in power on the other side of Pakistan’s western border.

Thus, since its birth in 1947, not only has Pakistan been unable to settle into the role originally envisaged as a safe national home for the Muslims of the subcontinent, but it has become increasingly unsafe during recent years. Its different parts, notably the FATA[4] and the province of Balochistan but also parts of the north and east, have not been amalgamated into a functioning unity, its borders have not been finally decided, its minorities have not been protected and its people are suffering under persisting feudal structures, marked inequalities in welfare and economic standards, and recurrent terrorist attacks and sprees of target killings, as well as the problems of bad governance and corruption. While both the earthquake in October 2005 and the flood disaster in August 2010 have caused huge human suffering, these two natural disasters[5] are also symbolic: the national home is cracking up, its roof is leaking, its walls are crumbling and its foundations are giving way.

The situation in Afghanistan is no less precarious after more than three decades of almost uninterrupted warfare. Hopes for a turning point were high after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and then to some extent also after the Taliban takeover some years later and, again, after the Bonn conference in 2001 – but, by and large, these hopes have been frustrated as insecurity has grown over recent years. Large parts of the civilian population are squeezed between warring parties and factions, seeking the safest way out, disillusioned with the West and with the federal government, trusting nobody but their next of kin.

In spite of the remarkable resilience of both the Afghan and the Pakistani populations, the fibre of both societies is overstretched and the nation state is riddled with fault lines. When the state fails, other forces come into play, among them tribalism, religious fundamentalism and sectarianism. Modernization is very much present on the global arena, to be envied or hated, but these societies under pressure are going in the reverse direction. Fundamentalism literally means going back to the roots, but the dynamics of development turns that into an impossible dream. The traditional society no longer exists. What is on offer is a distorted, retrogressive version of it, a fertile ground for what I will call “inversions”, the act of turning basic values upside down.

I. Inversions

As described in section IV, the concept of martyrdom has undergone a radical inversion since the early days of Christian martyrs. With regard to post-revolutionary Iran, Farhad Khosrokhavar describes this transformation: “[Whereas death] was once a risk to be taken, [it] now became a ‘burning desire’, an ‘unquenchable thirst’ (as some Iranian martyrs put it in their testimonies), or a need to water, through death, the tree of Islam, which requires blood if it is to go on living. We have here a complex anthropological configuration in which incompatible elements come to play. This makes martyrs unstable. They need an institution /.../ to accomplish their task and to make the transition from life to death. /.../ Such young men are constantly torn between a hatred that eventually takes over the whole of their lives and a despair that no longer allows them to project their hopes into the future, and they find it difficult to gain their balance. This affect can be transcribed onto another register[6] where the desire for life is transformed into a wish for death.”[7]

The hatred described above “is very similar to the ressentiment described by Nietzsche [which] involves two elements. On the one hand, things are inverted into their opposite: what looks like love is in reality hatred, and what looks like magnanimity is in fact cowardice. On the other hand, reflexivity takes the place of spontaneity. It is ‘natural’ to live one’s life and to position oneself in relation to others. If one is determined from the outset by the gaze of the other, one can no longer live spontaneously.[8] /.../ There is a second dimension to ressentiment, and it might be described as irrational. The hatred for the opposed group (the radical Islamist’s hatred of the West, the anti-Semite’s hatred of the Jew[9], or the radical Jew or Hindu’s hatred of the Muslim, for example) is so great that it literally becomes an obsession and makes the believer unable to adopt anything other than a deadly strategy: killing the other at all costs, being killed, or both at once.”[10]

In other ways, as well, martyrdom produces “an inversion of effects. Death normally provokes fear and sadness. Yet the texts speak of the radiant joy of martyrs, of their satisfied smiles and even of their laughter at the moment of their execution. On the whole, the literature of martyrology speaks of the equanimity of martyrs and their yearning for death, and of affects characterized by inner happiness, and sometimes even exultation. This type of attitude can also be found in the Iranian, Lebanese or Palestinian martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”[11] The same serenity or apparent happiness in the suicide attacker have been noted in media reports of suicide bombings in the Pakistan/Afghanistan area.

Another type of inversion which occurs in the process of jihad is that of family values: “Like many terrorist organizations, al Qaeda does not have a formal recruitment strategy, rather it relies on familial ties and relationships /…/ Al Qaeda members recruit from their own family and national/social groups /…/ the concept of ‘brotherhood’ draws on the concept that familial ties in the Islamic world are binding. Al Qaeda members refer to each other as ‘brother’ and tend to view the organization as their extended family.”[12] In some cases, this extended family replaces the biological family, as recruits are told to keep away from contacting their relatives for security reasons and concentrate on developing loyalty to the group.[13] At the same time, biological family ties are present all the way to the suicide act and beyond, as the suicide bomber is understood to be able to prepare the ground for some 70 family members to enter Paradise on a straight ticket. Through his/her sacrifice, the extended family is immunized against punishment for their sins and will be able to reunite in the hereafter.[14] Should that scheme not work out, there will at least be monetary compensation[15] – the suicide bomber serves both the ideological “brotherhood” and the biological family in an act which is ultimately binding.

In this process, also in order to disengage the suicide attacker from the suffering of his victims, the creation of “in groups and out groups” is central: “Salafi-Jihadist ideology helps to create this dichotomy of good-versus-evil by dividing the world between true Muslims and kuffar, or infidels. /.../ From the perspective of the Salafi Jihad, the West, Christians, Jews, and the Shia are regarded as defiled, degenerate, bereft of any sense of decency, unjust and cruel.”[16]

The suicide bombing act could also be seen as reconciliatory: “Martyrdom provides believers with an opportunity to make their peace with their families. Palestinian families experience great tensions as a result of their failed modernization. All these problems come to focus on the family, which becomes a source of friction between young and old, between fathers and sons, and between various members of what can often be an extended family. Martyrdom provides an opportunity to put an end to these tensions. /…/ The sacrifice ensures that family members will sit at the side of Allah. They will be treated with all the respect due to those whose sons die for the holy cause. In this world, they lead insignificant lives without dignity, but the situation will be reversed in the next world.”[17]

At the same time, the suicide mission is an act of self-purification: the suicide attackers “believe that [God] rewards the martyr by washing away all of the martyr’s sins. /.../ The belief that martyrdom erases all one’s sins in one fell swoop may explain why a number of suicide bombers had criminal backgrounds.”[18]

On a more political level, it is interesting to note how the Taliban manage to invert the concept of stability. This process can be observed most clearly in parts of Afghanistan. By creating instability, through suicide attacks and otherwise, the Taliban manage to project the image that only they can provide stability in the longer run. Although most civilian casualties are in fact caused by the Taliban,[19] they manage to blame the international forces for them – with considerable success. The underlying assumption seems to be that without the intervention of foreign troops the warfare would cease, and there would be no more attacks from any side. Therefore if, for instance, the Taliban lock civilians into their houses when they know that an aerial attack is imminent, the foreign forces have to carry the blame for the losses.

The act of suicide martyrdom is often compared with a wedding. Speaking about the Iranian martyrs, Reuter writes: “Many of the deaths were celebrated with a tradition that would find favor many years later with Sunni Palestinian suicide assassins in their encampments in Gaza: the macabre-seeming designation of death as a wedding celebration. Strictly speaking, it takes its inspiration from events in the Shi’ite tradition: Qasim, Hussein’s nephew, fell at Karbala shortly before his wedding, and his wedding tent then became the repository of his dead body. It thus became the custom with unmarried men killed in the war to put a miniature version of the traditional Iranian wedding table with mirrors and candles in the display cabinets above their graves.”[20]

For men, the wedding imagery could also be understood in somewhat more concrete terms – as a reflection of the belief that 72 virgins (houris) are waiting for their arrival in Paradise. For women suicide martyrs, it is less clear what the recompense may be;[21] nevertheless the wedding theme is used by them as well. One of them was Sana Mhaydli, a 17 year-old Lebanese girl who “left a video of herself saying good-bye to her family. It expresses all martyrs’ favourite themes. The first is the transformation of sadness into joy. She then explains the reasons for her actions: the struggle against the oppressor. The third theme is the identification of the martyr’s death with marriage, which calls for festivities, a rejection of sadness and the need for collective joy. Sana, for instance, declared: ‘May your joy burst out on the day I die, as though it was my wedding day’.”[22]

Here it should be kept in mind that weddings are a central pillar in the lives of Middle Eastern families, and this applies to Pakistan and Afghanistan as well – possibly to an even higher degree. Families are liable to run up huge debts in order to be able to celebrate their weddings in style, weddings provide a rare occasion for young boys and girls to meet and size each other up, and dancing is allowed at weddings, sometimes even boys and girls dancing together (albeit under the gaze of the older generation). In short – despite the fact that the couple marrying may be quite disturbed, as most marriages are arranged, the couple has received no sexual education and family expectations may be high regarding the “delivery” of the wedding night (a blood-stained sheet) – weddings provide the high points of existence in traditional families, a release in an otherwise very strict society. To add to the confusion, the bride, who is assumed (as just observed, in many cases falsely so) to be happy, is required by tradition to look sad. So does she look sad because she is sad or because she wants to be a good daughter/wife?

Thus, even when the wedding is not an inverted interpretation of death, there might be several layers of pretence involved in the relatively straightforward event of a regular wedding.