Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

They're not Martyrs, They're Murderers

Keith Pavlischek


April 8, 2002

While reiterating U.S. support for a Palestinian state and emphasizing that the Israeli Army must withdraw from occupied territory, President Bush also clearly recognizes that the Israeli military offensive, however tragic, has been a necessary reaction to the increasing wave of suicide bombings. Despite his call for an Israeli withdrawal, he has recognized that there is no moral equivalence between the terrorist suicide bombings and the Israeli response. While the U.S. commitment to Israel's security has been premised on the conviction that conventional war or weapons of mass destruction are the primary threat to Israel's security, it has recently become clear that terrorism, especially in the form of suicide bombings, now must be considered a major threat as well.

Why is that threat so ominous? Last June a respected poll found that 78% of Gaza's population approved of suicide attacks against Israel, far more than those who approved of peace negotiations. But because suicide is judged as contrary to Mohammed's teachings, suicide bombers are called shaheed, or "martyrs." These "martyrs" are told that they will receive divine favor and escape the tortures of the grave and judgment, and that relatives and friends of their choosing will surround them forevermore. The Palestinian press routinely announces the death of a martyr, not as an obituary but as a wedding ("All Suicide Bombers are not Alike" by Joseph Lelyveld, The New York Times Magazine, 10/28/01).

According to Lelyveld, Israeli anti-terrorism experts think it highly significant that the promises of paradise—wedding and all—are taken literally, not figuratively, by those who surrender their lives to jihad. If you miss that point, they argue, then you will miss the overarching fact that it really is, in their mind, a holy war, a clash of cultures that cannot be resolved by a negotiated agreement, in Israel or elsewhere.

Add to this observation the following: (1) no Arab leadership with stature has issued a jihad against suicide bombings; (2) organizations such as Hamas, Al-Aqsa, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad seek not merely a Palestinian state, but Israel's annihilation; (3) these terrorist groups have a pathological hatred of Jews equal to that of the Nazis; (4) well over 60% of the Arab-Muslim population in the Middle East believes the September 11 attacks were carried out not by Muslims but by a Jewish conspiracy; and (5) Saddam Hussein and other Arab states financially "reward" the parents of suicide bombers, thereby encouraging others to do likewise.

For all these reasons, any suggestion of moral equivalence between the terrorist attacks and the Israeli military response must be rejected tout court. Nevertheless, Yasser Arafat has predictably attempted to persuade the world that Israel's intrusions into Palestinian territory represent "state-sponsored terrorism." The President responded to that contention on April 4: "The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists. At Oslo and elsewhere, Chairman Arafat renounced terror as an instrument of his cause, and he agreed to control it. He's not done so. The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making. He's missed his opportunities, and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he's supposed to lead."

Equally important, regarding suicide bombers, the President resoundingly declared: "They're not martyrs. They're murderers." He added, "Governments, like Iraq, that reward parents for the sacrifice of their children are guilty of soliciting murder of the worst kind." For that piece of moral clarity and the rejection of moral equivalence we should all give thanks. I suspect that peace will not come to the Middle East until Arab-Islamic leaders develop the courage to act on that premise. We'll leave it to Islamic authorities to tell us if President Bush has articulated a more accurate understanding of Islamic moral theology on suicide than have the Palestinian Muslims or Saddam Hussein.

—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”