By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin
The 11 September attacks have again shown how difficult it is to stop extremists when they are willing to take their own lives to destroy their targets. The U.S. attacks have also raised the question of why some Islamic extremists have repeatedly shown themselves ready to commit suicide to wage war with the West. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel talks with authorities on Islam about how the religion views suicide and those who kill themselves in order to kill others.
Prague, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 11 September attacks against the United States there has been considerable worldwide debate about how to view the suicide bombers who carried them out.
One view accepts the description the groups behind such attacks use themselves -- that is, that their members are committed Muslims willing to sacrifice themselves as martyrs for Islam in a religious-based war against the West.
But many that know Islam best reject such associations.
Instead, they say extremists who kill themselves while killing others are acting outside some of the religion's strongest injunctions. These injunctions forbid suicide, define martyrdom as dying in combat against other soldiers, and prohibit the killing of women, children, and other non-combatants in wartime.
In an effort to clarify the issues, RFE/RL recently asked several experts on Islam to explain the basic tenets of the religion and how they relate to the practices of suicide bombers.
Abdul Malik Eagle is a historian of Islam and a consultant to the Al-Khoei Foundation, an Islamic educational and cultural organization based in London. He says one of the great strengths of Islam is the clarity of its principles. Among these clear principles are strong statements identifying suicide as a sin punishable by eternal suffering.
Abdul Malik Eagle: "The teaching of Islam concerning suicide is quite clear. One of the great authorities in early Islam, Mohammed al-Bakr, relates a saying by the Prophet Mohammed that the believer may be tried to the utmost and die after great tribulations, but he must not kill himself."
He continues: "There is another saying from the son of Al-Bakr, whom I have just quoted, that the Holy Prophet said that he who kills himself on purpose will be in the fire of hell abiding therein forever. Now this is very, very strong language. It is not just that suicide is condemned, it is a grave crime and sin from the Islamic point of view."
Authorities on Islam say the religion is equally unmistakable on how wars should be conducted. Abdul Malik Eagle:
"The Koran itself, of course, which is the foundation, and the Prophet Mohammed himself made it quite clear how we should behave in times of war, in a war situation, how we should treat the enemy, how we should treat women and children. And there is no dispute among Muslim scholars concerning these points. The Prophet said that no women or children must be killed, [as well as] do not kill prisoners, [even] do not kill the animals of the enemy."
Similarly, Islam offers a clear definition of martyrdom, which is revered as the ultimate defense of the faith, but only after meeting certain conditions.
Abdul Malik Eagle: "Martyrdom is a wonderful act in Islamic opinion. It is an act which is commended and greatly praised and admired. There is no doubt about that. That, however, is in a war situation, in a battle situation, when you are actually fighting a foe."
The historian says that all these injunctions make killing oneself to kill people who are non-combatants very difficult to accept in religious terms for the vast majority of Muslims.
The sight of young men blowing themselves up in attacks on civilian targets has prompted strong debate in the Middle East about the practice. This debate has grown as suicide bombings have become a more frequent tool of militant groups since 1983, when Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim guerillas blew up 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French paratroopers in a simultaneous operation in Beirut.
In April of this year, two of the region's highest religious authorities issued statements that condemned the practice of suicide bombings that injure civilians.
The supreme religious leader of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, said that "as for [this] method by which a person kills himself among his enemy, I do not know it to have justification in Sharia [Islamic law]. I fear it is considered suicide."
One of the most influential doctrinal authorities in the Sunni Muslim world, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, said a few weeks later that "if a person blows himself up [against] those he is fighting, then he is a martyr. But if he explodes himself among babies or women or old people who are not fighting the war, then he is not considered a martyr."
Still, there are voices defending the practice. An Egyptian Islamic scholar and cleric based in Qatar, Sheik Yousef al-Qaradawi, said earlier this year that "these are not suicide operations. [These] are heroic martyrdom operations and the heroes who carry them out don't embark on this action out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of their oppressors."
However, many Islamic scholars say that such a defense of suicide bombings rests upon a fundamental fallacy -- that is, the notion that one can commit what Islam clearly considers injustices simply because one feels one has suffered injustices.
Abdulaziz Sachedina, of the faculty of religious studies at the University of Virginia, puts it this way:
"It is [a] very wrong perception that 'The injustices around me justify my own injustices.' But quite to the contrary, there is no such justification in Islamic law or Islamic tradition in general. One cannot engage in an unjust act just by the claim that there is an unjust act that we all are confronted with."
That may mean that the motivations of suicide bombers are better discussed in personal and strategic terms rather than theological ones. And, if so, any response to suicide attacks also should be placed within the framework of politics, not religion.
Western leaders have sought to make it clear ever since the 11 September bombings that they do not accept any portrayal of the attacks as Islamic acts. The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York is believed to have taken the lives of hundreds of Muslims among the more than 5,000 people of many faiths and nationalities who died in the tragedy.
(RFE/RL's South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)