Murder and Martyrdom | Freedom House

Murder and Martyrdom

The Wall Street Journal By Adrian Karatnycky
Targeting innocent civilians is becoming a common feature of 21st-century warfare, to judge by the Sept. 11 attacks and the suicide bombings in Israel. It is especially jarring to those of us who think of religion as a voice for peace and reconciliation to see civilian murder, and the suicide that brings it about, given religious sanction. Many of the world's eminent Muslim clerics have expressed approval of the Palestinian suicide bombings. And God, or Allah, is invoked to justify attacks on civilians

Only this week, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers was shown on videotape declaring that he and his brethren had given "their souls to Allah almighty," who had "granted them victory." And the Saudi ambassador to Britain published a poem saying that "the doors of heaven" are now "open" to a Palestinian woman who blew herself up in Israel last month, killing two and wounding 25.

It is a political creed that has appropriated religious language and sentiment in the service of a global revolution. Its watchword is "jihad," a militant struggle to be waged against the world of "apostasy, unbelief, and heresy." Two new books neatly track today's jihadist movements, describing their operations across several countries, their support by various regimes and their baleful intentions toward the West.

The suicide bombers are called shahid (martyr), a word derived from shahada -- Arabic for "witness," in this case referring to someone "witnessing" for God. Martyrdom has a long pedigree in Islam (as in Christianity). In the Koran, God says: "Those who are slain in the cause of God, He will not allow their works to perish. He will vouchsafe them guidance and ennoble their state. He will admit them to the Paradise."

Yet the current Islamic idea of martyrdom is applied to acts of suicide that target civilians, not heroic self-sacrifice in traditional warfare. For such acts there appears to be no Koranic justification. On the contrary, God explicitly instructs: "Do not kill yourselves. God is merciful to you, but he that does that through wickedness and injustice shall be burned in fire."

For moderate Muslim clerics like U.S.-based Sheikh Hisham Kabbani, it is immoral to kill women, children, the elderly and noncombatants in general. He cites several instances in the hadith, Islam's record of Muhammad's words and deeds, where the prophet explicitly admonishes a fighter who killed a female noncombatant. Other Islamic clerics have agreed. For example, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, stated in April 2001 that "any act of self-killing or suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam" and condemned those who kill themselves "in the midst of enemies."

In recent months, however, clerics have begun giving their sanction. Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, the leading authority of the Sunni religious establishment, now endorses "martyrdom operations" as the "highest form of Jihad." Meanwhile, Egypt's official clerical leader, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, says that "the solution to the Israeli terror lies in a proliferation of martyrdom attacks that strike horror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah."

The moderate Islamist religious scholar Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, who condemned the World Trade Center bombing as contrary to Islam, now suggests that such a judgment doesn't apply in occupied Palestine. His influential Web site,, offers religious opinions that justify the targeting of Israeli civilians since, it is claimed, Israelis attack Palestinian civilians. Such an interpretation appears to trump Sheikh Qaradawi's earlier admonition that "even in times of war, Muslims are not allowed to kill anybody save the one who is [engaged] in face-to-face confrontation with them. They are not allowed to kill women, old persons, children or even a monk in his religious seclusion."

What accounts for this change? The best answer is that Islamic clerics face intense pressure from their financial and governmental supporters and from inflamed public opinion. Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University says that the Arab world's clerics have so long bent to authoritarian governments that they have "lost the confidence of the faithful." Many try to reclaim their credibility by offering religious opinions that endorse public support for the Palestinian cause.

Islam is not alone in this crime against theological truth. We need only remember the support some Catholic priests gave to the bloody tactics of the IRA, the early support (later withdrawn) by many Orthodox clergy for Slobodan Milosevic and the common cause that Orthodox Christian prelates made with Soviet strongmen. Religious leaders from all faiths are apparently susceptible to the passions of revolution and the pressures of politics. More is the pity.

Adrian Karatnycky is the president of Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhouse). Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter.