In terms of political discourse, Islam has become known for many things over the last few decades. Depending upon one’s perspective and agenda, it may be possible to discuss Islam in terms of its political impact and the practical actions of its adherents. These discussions invariably center on things like suicide bombings, which have become tied to Islam in ways that are unique and inexorable. Suicide bombing martyrdom are things that have developed significantly in Muslim thought over the last few decades, and in fact, there remains some disagreement among Muslims over whether these things are appropriate. Politically speaking, these tools are at once supported and condemned depending upon the person making the assessment, with certain terroristic organizations standing behind the legitimate use of these means as a tool, while governments have distanced themselves from these actions. The development of suicide bombing has in no way been linear, as its development has taken many turns in different parts of the Middle East and the world at large.
As a concept, suicide is outlawed in Islam. The codes make very clear that if a person chooses to take his own life in what most would consider a suicide, then that person is against Allah and is due some measure of punishment for those actions. This directive has largely gone unchanged over time. However, there have been competing interpretations of just what constitutes suicide. Martyrdom and suicide are two very distinct concepts. The first use of the term “suicide bombing” did not come from the Middle East, but rather, was a descriptive term used to describe martyrdom by individuals in various parts of the West. In fact, American media began to coin this term, which, according to many of the Muslim faith, is a derogatory term aimed at minimizing the sacrifice made by individuals who martyr themselves.
While suicide has long been against the directives of Islam for all different sects of the religion, martyrdom is not, and in fact, was encouraged by Muhammad. Politically speaking, there have been efforts to parse these two terms, separating them for effect. Government actors and non-governmental organizations have done their part to keep these two separate, as martyrdom includes an element of bravery in the fight against what these folks consider to be infidels. Martyrdom, it seems, is a high calling for Muslims in the course of a jihad, as they are asked to give themselves selflessly in the service of some goal or directive against people who might oppose Allah. These bombings are not viewed as an act of suicide, even though they may end in the death of the person wearing the bomb. Rather, they are viewed as acts of homicide and aggression, war-faring acts against the enemy in a way.
It is of course true that there remains some disagreement among Muslims about the meaning of jihad and whether they are supposed to fight an actual war against non-Muslim people. Many within the Muslim world take this scripture to mean that Muslims are to resist the outside world, especially in the age of globalization. Muslims, it seems, are to resist the effects of Westernization and the potential dilution of their culture and religion. This means keeping to the doctrines of the Quran in the face of pressure from the outside to abandon these things. It may also mean things like advocacy. To others, of course, this takes on a more military, radicalized tone. There is a split in the Muslim world, with the vast majority of people falling on the peaceful side, while a very vocal minority falls on the side of active war and violence. Among those who view this as a call to violence, suicide bombing is seen as martyrdom, or a person giving up his life in the service of an attack on the enemy. This is lauded among those factions of Muslims who believe that jihad is a call to create physical attacks.
Perhaps the most forceful political justifications for suicide bombing have come from Iran, where Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei in 2002 provided support and justification for martyrdom. In a speech there, the Ayatollah claimed that martyrdom was a tool that could be used to combat “arrogance” in the form of countries from the West, which were thought to stand in the way of Islam. This, of course, was a major step forward in the rhetoric on suicide bombings. Prior to that point, it had been speculated that the only sources that supported suicide bombings were people who existed in the underworld of Islamic politics. For instance, in the mid-1990s, Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa in which he outlined the case against the United States. In calling for all members of the Islamic world to come together against America and her influence, Bin Laden stated that one of the tools that could be used was martyrdom, as Muslims would need to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to stand up to Western tyranny. Even though Bin Laden and his cohorts had significant power in the Muslim world, they were seen as occupying the darker territory, outside of the mainstream. The supreme leader of Iran quite obviously does not stand for all Muslim people, and in fact, there is significant disagreement with his directives, but his taking a stand for martyrdom did bring it more into the mainstream than it had been in the past.
Of late, more moderate Islamic countries have been put under significant geopolitical pressure to disavow suicide bombings. For instance, countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which have been somewhat friendly to the US over time, have taken a cold stance on the role of martyrdom in Islamic participation. These attacks still persist, though, especially around Israel, where Muslim actors target a number of different areas in order to get across their message. Given the War on Terror and the West’s willingness to try and stamp out what it believes to be terrorism and those hosting terrorists, there has been much less willingness on the part of countries to even passively support this practice. This has served to marginalize martyrdom as an official directive of Islam, and has taken the practice out of favor for the vast majority of mainstream followers of the religion. It mostly exists today on the political margins, used as a tool by groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and even Hamas in order to bring about political change or attempt to get across a point to some Western-leaning country.
Martyrdom has always been seen as a positive thing in Islam, and there are serious distinctions between this and suicide. While suicide is a sin in Islam, and a very serious one indeed, giving up one’s life for the cause is seen as noble. However, the split within political Islam on whether Muslim people are just supposed to resist the erosion of their religion and culture, or whether they are supposed to actively fight a physical war against the West, is something that remains in debate. More radicalized factions still support suicide bombing, though they do not refer to it in this way, while mainstream Muslims of all stripes do not believe in this sort of violence, nor in the potentially positive effects that it might have.