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Survey On Afghan Suicide Attacks Hits Raw Nerve

The site of a suicide attack in Jalalabad that killed five police officers in March.
Most Afghans say suicide attacks can never be justified. But a new public opinion poll reports more support in Afghanistan for suicide bombers than ever before.

Conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, the survey says four out of 10 Afghans believe suicide bombing is justified "in order to defend Islam against its enemies." Out of 39 countries in the study, only Palestinians showed the same level of support for the idea that suicide attacks are sometimes justified.

The findings have touched a raw nerve in a country where suicide bombings were once rare but are now commonplace.

With Afghan civilians increasingly caught up as victims of suicide attacks, activists and religious scholars in Kabul question whether the Pew survey reflects a real trend.

Suicide attacks were unheard of in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when mujahedin fighters were battling Soviet forces.

Even up until 2005, suicide bombings were unusual in the country. So when suicide attacks began to proliferate in 2005, most Afghans blamed the practice on foreigners.

In Denial

Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University who conducted a 2007 UN study on suicide bombers in Afghanistan, says Afghans were in denial for years about suicide bombers in their midst.

"In 2007, Afghans really were in denial that the suicide bombers were Afghans," Fair says. "There was this idea that these suicide bombers are Pakistani. They are Al-Qaeda. They are foreign. I don't think that [denial] is the case anymore."

An Afghan man receives treatment in a Herat hospital after he was wounded in a suicide bombing in Farah Province in April.
An Afghan man receives treatment in a Herat hospital after he was wounded in a suicide bombing in Farah Province in April.
One UN-funded survey in 2005 suggested 25 percent of Afghans believed suicide attacks could be justified by Islam.

The large minority of Afghans now agreeing with that viewpoint -- about 39 percent in the Pew survey -- suggests a fundamental shift in attitude during the past decade.

But Fair says she would be careful about making comparisons between earlier studies and the latest research.

Fair told RFE/RL that Afghans are more likely to say a suicide attack is justified if it is "to defend Islam."

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Rather than a changing moral compass, she says the latest research could simply reflect growing resentment of international forces in Afghanistan.

"We should consider the possibility that in the [last] six years, Afghan opinion toward NATO-ISAF has become more negative," she says. "That they went from being in a state of denial [about suicide bombers] to, perhaps, some number of Afghans actually seeing suicide bombing as a justified and effective means to drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan."

'Hatred Of Foreigners Still Exists'

Mawlawi Enyatullah Baligh, the head of Islamic clerics on Afghanistan's Ulema Council, says he thinks the Pew survey reflects growing anger toward foreign troops.

"The people of Afghanistan, as I see it, are increasingly interested in religion, in praying, and in Islam. Their hatred of foreigners still exists and their opposition to infidelity and atheism -- thank God -- is still in place," Baligh says.

"I believe a lot of people are interested in religion. I think [many people who participated in the Pew survey] have mistaken [the question about justified suicide attacks.] Originally, the objective of their response was to express their anger about the conspiracies that have taken place in Afghanistan. Perhaps this is what the survey really is telling us."

Naim Nazari, a member of Afghanistan's nongovernmental Civil Society and Human Rights Network, questions whether respondents in the Pew study form a true representative sample of Afghan society.

"I think that the people of Afghanistan generally do not agree with violence. In particular, they do not support violence against civilians," Nazari says. "There may be a small group of people who believe [suicide attacks can be justified by Islam]. But they are a very small number and they are not really part of Afghan society if they support such violence and prepare for it."

Although Afghan clerics insist suicide is forbidden by Islam and can never be justified, Taliban militants and their supporters describe suicide attacks as an "act of martyrdom" carried out in the name of God.

A Taliban statement issued in September 2011 said suicide attacks are "an effective military tactic" that is justified under certain conditions. It said attackers in "martyrdom-seeking operations" must be motivated by a belief in God and able to "inflict heavy losses on the enemy."

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Qadir Habib