Book Review: Suicide Bombings (Yamin Zakaria)
by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli
‘War is hell’. Thus spake General Sherman. He would say that, wouldn’t he? The ruthless author of a cruel scorched earth policy against the South in the American Civil War, he much aggravated the viciousness of conflict. I worry that Yamin Zakaria, author of Suicide Bombings – Jihad or Terrorism, may (unwittingly?) run the same risk.
Suicide bombers are not the exclusive prerogative of Muslims. Yamin is right to point that out. Tamils and others have engaged in it, too. Also, terrorism is perpetrated by states, not just by non state movements and individuals. I agree. Then self-defence is justified. Resistance to oppression, invasion, persecution and the like are morally righteous ends. But what about the means to those ends? Their status must be scrutinised, also. And that is where Yamin’s arguments fall grievously short.
Suicide, Yamin allows, is forbidden in Islam but there are other types of self-killing which are not. The type which is suicide bombing is legitimate ‘...as a weapon of conflict for the defence of the community.’ Such fighters are martyrs, he says. Problem is, suicide bombers often target other members of the Muslim Umma, like Shias in Pakistan and Iraq. Can one really become a martyr by killing fellow Muslims?
Yamin makes much of the notion of asymmetrical conflict. One in which states fight non state actors. In these conflicts suicide bombing ‘is the weapon of the weaker party’. To many a Brit, it may sound prima facie fair. Got to be on the side of the underdog, no? He gives plenty of instances, e.g. against US military ships and bases. Those suicide attackers could be construed as ‘weaker’, by military criteria. But a less plausible case is that of Richard Reid, the bungling shoe bomber. The convert who sought to blow himself up in a civilian aircraft. In what way, precisely, were his harmless fellow passengers ‘the stronger party’? Just because they were more numerous? Or consider Nigerian Abdulmutallab, another failed bomber. His Christmas day present was to try and destroy himself and the other passengers over Detroit. Was he ‘weaker’ because he did not dispose of anti-aircraft missiles? Don’t get this, Yamin, sorry.
Furthermore, if suicide is not really at issue here but jihad, I would like to ask about the chaps who wanted to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London in 2007. Hundreds of young people were dancing there. Surely innocent? Not according to one of the bombers. ‘Slags…are not innocent’ he is reported as saying. Now, the priest cares not a jot for promiscuous persons but he cares even less, far less, for mass murder. No. Not at all.
What is at stake here is of course the most crucial, basic principle in the ethics of conflict. That of non combatant immunity. In International Law, Geneva and Hague Conventions and in common morality, civilians are treated as innocent, i.e. are entitled to immunity from direct attack. Civilian passengers in commercial airplanes, office workers in the City and Manhattan, Tube and Subway travellers are innocent. And to kill the innocent is murder, with or without suicide. The laws of Christianity concur.
‘Are Civilians Innocent?’ Yamin asks. He argues that the term innocent ‘is misleading, as it implies civilians do not have a role in waging wars’. He seems unaware of relevant, seminal discussions in ethical literature. Like philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay, War and Massacre. The innocence at issue here is not moral innocence. In a democracy, war is a ‘people’s choice’, Yamin claims, and that entails their responsibility, making them somewhat liable to attack. But that is irrelevant. It is not a question of civilians being immune from moral guilt. Where that so, it would be right to kill a wicked but non combatant school teacher or hot-dog seller amongst the enemy, whereas, say, a conscript soldier who pointed a gun at you sorrowfully, ‘with a heavy heart’, would have to be spared. The notion of innocence relevant to the notion of non combatant immunity is not that. Innocent means ‘currently harmless’. It is contrasted not with morally guilty but with doing harm. So, babes at arms, children are innocent non combatants even though one day they may wear a uniform and fight you. Women are innocent non combatants even if they bear children who one day will be soldiers. Sick and old people – the same. They are all harmless, because they pose no immediate threat. Therefore they are entitled to immunity from direct attack. ‘Innocent civilian’ is not just a term of propaganda, dear Yamin. It lays down a fundamental limit, one that distinguishes humanity from barbarism. Hope you’ll get that one day, insh’allah.
What about reciprocity? What if the enemy transgresses against you? Appealing to Islamic texts, Yamin contends that is all right to punish the enemy in a similar way. This must be for Muslims to argue. But I remember this Turkish Cypriot guy in Ankara, Mustafa. He told me, ‘My town’s Greeks waylaid us many a time when I was a boy. One day my father wanted to pay them back. I refuse to join the expedition. “My son, they have done to us so many times. We only this once.” Yet I felt it was wrong. Whatever the excuse, what is wrong is always wrong.’ Good Mustafa! God be praised for Muslims like him!
Still, Yamin’s book is interesting. His arguments are clearly organised and set out. (Pity there is no index, though.) The sections on Islamic legal verdicts on suicide bombing, replete with Qur’anic quotes and Prophetic hadiths, is well worth studying. Still, I am bemused by discussion of retribution for rape and sodomy – by stick and hammer? Wallahi! A bit gross.
Yamin and I have never met but we have exchanged polemical e-mails, on and off, for years. His views are often so radical – he quotes distinguished authorities like Usama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri - and that I have occasionally wondered whether he is a hoax. Or perhaps a British Intelligence proxy? An anonymous female way back warned me about this problematical person: ‘Beware Yamin! He hates Christians and delights in deceiving you’, she wrote. So what? If true, that would make sense. Christians have been hated by the world since the beginning, so…what’s new?