The History of Martyrdom Explains the Evolution of Suicide Bombers
Hugh Barlow says that suicide terrorism is the evolution of martyrdom. This theory has surprising explanatory power. The idea that anyone would willingly give up their life, especially the vexed circumstances we hear of today in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka (home of the Tamil Tigers, puzzles most of us. It makes much more sense when Barlow, Director of Criminal Justice Studies at Southern Illinois University, explains it as the outgrowth of ancient martyrdom. Martyrdom has always been a way of showing one's adherence to God, even when it meant defying more worldly powers.
When most people discuss suicide bombers today, they are referring to the contemporary phenomenon of attacks by jihadists (such as Al Qaeda). For Barlow, these are more accurately the latest expressions of a phenomenon that began with Jewish martyrdom (recorded in the Torah, also called the Hebrew Bible). Martyrdom made its way through various incarnations, religions and conflicts before becoming the aggressive version we know today.
Barlow begins his history in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE. At that time, Jerusalem was ruled by the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. A group of Jews known as Maccabees resisted the rule of Antiochus IV, a cruel leader known for his excruciating tortures. The Jews resisted this rule. Among them was a mother named Hannah and her seven sons. All were given the choice to relinquish their beliefs or face gruesome death. Hannah chose death for her and her sons, and for her choice her family had their tongues cut out and were scalped and burned. Despite this, Hannah begged her sons to welcome death on behalf of God. According to Barlow, Hannah and her sons offer the first innovation in martyrdom: the idea that the death of a martyr is in fact a form of choosing life.
These ancient Jewish martyrs were models for the Christians who followed. Roman rulers savagely persecuted the first Christians for their beliefs. Barlow's accounts of Christians at the hands of Romans are hair raising: "Nero dressed some condemned Christians in shirts stiffened with wax, then had them tied to chariot wheels and set them on fire to illuminate his gardens at night." In this period, a cult of martyrdom developed and Christians actively sought it in some circumstances.
From Active Martyrdom to Holy Warriors
Islam would take the idea of the active martyr one step further, by linking self-sacrifice to jihad. Barlow points out that, "the martyrdom of a holy warrior was not the result of a peaceful act of submission but an aggressive act of war; a ghazi (holy warrior) fought to victory or fought to death." The idea of holy war originated among the first Muslims in the 6th century, who protected and expanded their community through war with the existing tribal powers. In these early expansionist wars, men fought both for the rewards promised in the hereinafter but, truth be told, for the worldly "adventure and the plunder," as well.
"…It was the destiny of Islam to create holy war and the warrior martyr. Ironically, five hundred years later, their creation would be turned against the Muslims in a series of holy wars known as the Crusades." The Crusades began with the conquering of Jerusalem by Seljuq Turks in the 11th century. The defeated Byzantine Empire looked to Western Christendom for help. Rome responded with a holy war to safeguard Christianity against Muslims and Jews (who, like Muslims, were described as vile infidels by Roman bishops). In search of an afterlife in paradise and war plunder in the here-and-now, thousands of recruits set off for the holy lands to fight in some of history's bloodiest battles.
Martyrdom Gets Militant
Eighteenth century Khalsa Sikhs took martyrdom one step further. The Sikhs' movement arose to resist the oppressive of the Mughal dynasties. It drew on Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism to develop a militant vision of warrior-martyrs. The history of their persecution is complicated and ebbs and flows with 18th century British imperialism, the Indian independence movement, and the 1948 partition of Muslim and Hindu India. Caught in more than one crossfire, orthodox Sikhs grew increasingly vocal, then militant, about potential secession. Sikhs may have been the first warrior martyrs labeled terrorists, as they were by the Hindu establishment.
Chapters on Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, and the Palestinian Hamas bring readers to the present moment. Five years after the most spectacular "predatory" act of martyrdom to date, the 9/11 attacks, Iraq is the home of most suicide bombings.