Monday, May 16, 2005

History, theology and suicide-bombers

Here's Madeline Bunting on suicide bombings.

Norm, meanwhile, thinks she's talking crap.

John B. thinks Norm has missed the point.

I'm not sure Norm's missed the point at all, although I wanted to make a couple of different points: when it comes to historical precedents, it's time for the rationalizers to face the fact that there really isn't much to go on. You can mention the kamikaze pilots of WWII (as if they were a model of rational behaviour); and everyone likes to mention the Tamil Tigers. Less plausible is Bunting's mention of Soviets carrying out suicide missions against the Nazis.

Other meagre historical sources can be scraped together but the sheer difficulty in finding any proper historical precedent is telling: the routinization and normalization of suicide-bombing/missions or whatever you choose to call them is historically unprecedented, a brute fact that is going to have to be accepted sooner or later (please don't leave comments in the boxes repeating the same examples; I stress "routinization").

The other point is over the use of martyr. It is, of course, a feature of all the monotheistic faiths to have heroes who have died for the faith, as Bunting says:
"Interestingly, it prompted exactly the same sorts of criticism among pagan Romans as today's Islamist militants do in the west: the Christian martyrs were accused of dementia and irrationality."
Indeed they were - but there the comparison ends: the primitive church was something of a puzzle to the ancient Romans. Their version of paganism was fairly elastic and it was considered good manners to be inclusive in a "I'll worship your god, if you worship mine" sort of way.

The Christian insistence that there was only one God and that it was the duty of the believer to refuse to bow down to idols was considered downright rude and uncivilised by the Romans - as well as very irreligious, so when they were being thrown to the lions, the crowd would cry, "Death to the Atheists!"

Which brings me to a bugbear: the implication is that we decadent Westeners don't understand honour and this ancient concept of martyrdom. But martyrdom is, as the above example shows, about dying for one's faith - not about killing yourself and as many Jewish pizza parlour patrons as you possibly can.

This - along with so many features of contemporary political Islam - is a distinctly modern phenomenon, and those ignorant of both history and theology should really stop wittering on about supposedly ancient traditions that have never existed.

The distinction is, for instance, one of the reasons why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not considered by some in the church to be a martyr because, they argue, he didn't die for his faith but due to his courageous involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Others disagree, arguing (correctly) that this grew directly from his Christian faith - as his letters clearly show. The point to hammer home is that on both sides of this rather arcane theological dispute is an agreement about what martyrdom actually is. It is the same in Judaism and in Islam - it always has been and Bunting's semantics are simply an obfuscation (whether deliberate or, more likely, due to ignorance) of the historical reality.

"The suicidal recklessness of a large number of early Christians, aimed precisely at bringing about their martyrdom, bewildered and horrified contemporary commentators. But martyrdom was an astonishingly effective propaganda tool designed to inspire awe - and converts."
And why were they reckless? Because they believed that martyrs had a special place in the afterlife, as the Book of Revelation teaches. It was particularly deeply felt because of the belief that this present world was passing away. Unless one understands the eschatalogical urgency of the Gospels and the earlier epistles, one cannot understand the New Testament or the behaviour of the primitive church.

Islamicist suicide-bombers are also motivated by belief. It has no theological precedent in Islam but it suits the proponents of the ideology to give it legitimacy by cloaking it in a spurious antiquity - just like another movement of the twentieth century that can always be explained by reference to economic, social and historical circumstances but no matter how plausible the explanation, one has to understand that once it takes hold, it takes on a life of its own.

We used to call it fascism.

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