Some days ago a journalist contacted me for comments on the Glasgow terrorist attack. He asked me, at the end of the interview and off the record, ‘Gabriel, why do you think they hate us so much that they want to kill us, even not knowing who we are, what we think or how we live?’ This is not the first time that I came across this question; of course ‘they’ are the ‘evil terrorists’, the cruel, heartless, and hateful people who take their own lives in order to take yours and mine. Scholars, politicians, and journalists have discussed this point in different ways.
Politicians and journalists prefer to focus on how inhuman and evil these people are, and they often speak of ‘acts of evil’, one of the catch phrases of Blair and others since 9/11 . Yet are these people just ‘evil’ and inhuman, with a sadistic pleasure for killing themselves and their victims? How could we try to understand what goes though their minds? Are they fanatic Islamists dying for their ideologies? Are they heartless monsters who do not care about either themselves or others?
What can bring a person, say a father, with a happy life and family, a middle class job, a ‘British way of life’, to try to sacrifice his life and those of innocent civilians, to ‘the cause’? I have met some people during my research who support suicide attacks for the cause of Palestinians as well as in the ‘defence of Islam’. I interviewed some for both my book, Jihad Beyond Islam , and more recently for my last book Understanding Muslim Identities, Rethinking Fundamentalism , I also met some during my research in prison who were accused, and then jailed, for ‘inciting terrorism’. Rather than focusing on the reasons for which they are ready to sacrifice their lives, in this post I shall concentrate on another question: Do they feel guilty to kill innocent, unknown people? Do they really, as many journalists and politicians suggest, kill us because they hate our ‘way of life’, or because they think that we are devils?
Before discussing further the topic, let me show some pictures of the alleged mastermind of Glasgow and London recent attacks. Observe them carefully , though we cannot be sure that he and his wife organised the attacks, they well represent the anti-stereotype of what a terrorist might look like. These are ordinary people, sometimes with families, very kind and decent. The reaction of their neighbours, is often the same, ‘He (or she) was a nice person’, ‘I cannot explain how this could have happened’, ‘I am sure it’s a mistake’ . Indeed, they often are. They are caring people, very sensible and with a high level of empathy. Yes you are reading right: empathy.
This is the main issue, they easily identify with the suffering of others, with the feelings of those whom suffer injustice, and they want to bring justice. So, how can this kind of person not feel guilty for killing and maiming other innocent individuals that, like in an Iraqi or Afghani village, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? What happened to the empathy that brought them to cry at the images of mutilated and disfigured children killed by cluster bombs, or to their sense of justice, that brought them to wish to sacrifice their lives? You may be surprised, but I can tell you that both empathy, a sense of justice and philanthropy are all still there in their heart when they might connect the electrodes of their bombs which would incinerate whoever may be near them.
Let me present here part of an interview I conducted last year which can help to explain how somebody can commit such actions and still believe to be ‘on the side of God’. This interview can also highlight how the issue is not the religion in itself, but a way of believing and having faith. I will call the interviewee Mr A.
Me: …Ok, I see your point about what you call istishhad [self-sacrifice], but what do you think about the victims of istish hadiyun [the self-sacrificers]?
Mr A: First of all, I can tell you that I knew some of them in Palestine and I think that all istish hadiyun are the same. I mean, they commit themselves to the supreme sacrifice with their full mental capacity and they know what they do. So, I think I can explain the things in the correct way. Now, they do not perform istishhad because they hate innocent people that they even do not know. See, look at the case in London, they did istishhad and they did not know the people, their lives and even if they could have been Muslims. Think, you could have been there, and you would have been killed in any case, even if you would have been one of their friends or a member of their families.
Me:…Look, the majority of the people of this country would think that these people are insane, or cynical beyond belief…even monsters.
Mr A: Because they miss an important point. People in the West, even the ones who believe in God, fear death. But if you know that there is Paradise and God’s love in the hereafter, you do not fear. Nobody has to fear death other than when knowing that he is evil and has done things against God’s will.
Me: Fine, I can follow you in your reasoning, but these Muslims take the lives of people who have done nothing wrong and they may have preferred to stay here in this life until God, in case, called them.
Mr A: No, no look, you are wrong. If they did not have to die, well their attack would have failed. And also the istish hadiyun are actually inviting them to jannah [Paradise]. You would be lucky, my brother, if your body was killed for the cause of Islam, or even killed by an accident or by a crazy person, because your soul would go directly to paradise. Any innocent person, Muslim or not Muslim, despite their sins, will go to Paradise, because whoever dies as an innocent victim of calamities or wars, Muslim or non-Muslim will be automatically a shaheed [Martyr].
Me:…but if somebody is not killed and only mutilated and so on?
Mr A: Allah will take care of them and reward them in any case for what they have lost. Also do you know that if you loose your arms, legs or whatever in attacks, the lost limbs will not testify against you during the youm el-deen [Day of Judgment]. To tell the truth, the only ones who take any risk are those who sacrifice their lives, because if you are right then it should be considered not only suicide but murder; well, it is only they who risk Allah’s punishment. But I believe that they do not if they act with a pure and disinterested heart. Yet Allah knows best.
I think that this excerpt of the interview presents us with a very different picture from what stereotypes could suggest. What we are now used to call terrorists and suicide bombers are people who believe to be good and kind to whoever is caught in what in reality are murderous actions. These Muslims, who have empathised with the suffering of other Muslims in the world, to such a level that their autobiographical self, and consequently identity, ends in escalating emotional processes, are caught in a sort of false consciousness through which they alienate their sense of guilt for their actions and also fear for their own life.
They empower themselves as saviours through sacrifice, one of the oldest ritual-thinking processes existing in the history of humanity. They know that they will take the lives of innocent people, of any age, status, religion and background, but it is like they say to them ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. They offer a fair deal, a bargain: they take your empty body and give you back a saved soul; a good bargain, in particular when they think you are in the wrong religion (or non-religion).
Of course, they think that everybody wins in their blessed horror; themselves, since they believe to be granted paradise for defending the ummah, as well as the world that through this battle can achieve real justice. These people are not evil and cynical people, these people are not criminals in the real meaning of the term, these people are not terrorists as IRA members have been. It would have been much better for us, if these people were all or one of the above. They would have been easier to control, easier to discuss with, and easier to engage. Surely time would have reduced their threats as it has reduced other terrorist group’s threats. But unfortunately for us, these do not want to take something (other than accidentally our lives and their own) but rather they wish to gift us with something.
They are people ‘who have a dream’ (that happens to be your nightmare), people who strongly believe to be loved by God because they are saviours on a mission. You can stop a criminal and convert him to good, you can deal with groups which use violence to achieve their aims; you cannot deal or stop those who feel to be your saviour, as the Grandma waiting at the crossing knows when meeting the ever-ready-to-help Boy Scout. You have to cross, even when this means to cross the gates of paradise.