February 12, 2005

Whence Suicide Bombing

Commuting around town earlier this evening, I finally got around to cracking open Gilles Kepel's The War For Muslim Minds and happened upon an interesting (and new-to-me) tidbit on the genesis of suicide bombings in the early 1980s. Here 'tis—and it's the second paragraph, not the first, that made me go "huh!":
[During the Iran-Iraq war] Iran relied on unconventional arms, including the mass suicide of young sans-culotte Shia, the bassidji, who marched off to blow themselves up in Iraqi minefields, their heads swathed in martyrs' bands proclaiming "Allahu akbar." The Islamic Republic opened a second front in the region by taking Western hostages in Lebanon through the manipulation of local Shiite radical organizations. These actions went hand and hand with suicide bombings [including Beirut and Tyre in 1983].

Such "martyrdom operations" had been exceptional, if not entirely unknown, in the political culture of even the most extremist Sunni movements, where the deliberate cultivation of death was commendable only as a last resort. Sunnis considered suicide an abomination against the Creator, who alone gives life and alone may decide when to take it from his creaturs. But revolutionary Shiites—who considered the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, "the prince of martyrs," as exemplary—had fewer scruples in this regard. The tactics inaugurated by revolutionary Iran were exported by to the Arab world via extremist Lebanese Shiite organizations, inspired by the imam Khomeini. These human "weapons" conveniently made up the deficit in conventional arms in the Arab camp.
As a side note, last night I watched a 1988 Almodovar film—Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios—in which a band of "Shiite terrorists" play a rather prominent role. But it seemed awfully odd that everyone—from the local news channels to the TV repairman—knew enough to refer to them specifically as "Shiites", especially since most Americans circa 2002 just called bin Laden and co. "Arabs" or "Islamists" rather than "Qutbists" or "Salafists" or even "Sunnis." Obviously now we're all aware of the sectarian differences because of Iraq, but the movie took place back in 1988! I don't know, maybe Europeans have just always known more about this.

Oh, Kepel's book also nicely describes just how politically shrewd bin Laden's mentor/right-hand-man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, really is, which makes me wonder whether Joseph Braude's right when he says that the guy's latest al-Qaeda video was a political disaster. But I'll have to look at it more closely—the Congressional Research Service just put out an analysis (PDF) of al-Q's "statements and evolving ideology", which should be fun bathroom material.
-- Brad Plumer 2:18 AM || ||