The Shahids: Islam and Suicide Attacks
by Shaul Shay
New Brunswick, N.J. and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004. 246 pp. $39.95.
Reviewed by Salim Mansur
University of Western Ontario
Middle East Quarterly
Since the early 1980s, the world has witnessed many instances of the grotesque instrument of suicide bombings, spreading death, destruction, and fear. It is, therefore, essential to understand the terrorist organizations that adopt this method of waging war. Shay's study on shahids (Islamic martyrs) is a timely investigation into this subject that should be widely read.
As Shay notes, suicide terror is not a new phenomenon, nor is it entirely located within the extremist culture of political Islam. Two of the most prominent individual victims of suicide bombings were Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister of India, killed in 1991 by a Tamil female bomber during a political rally in the midst of an election campaign, and similarly, Sri Lankan president Primadasa, assassinated in 1993.
Shay's book includes a useful historical survey of Islamic suicide bombings taking the readers all the way back to the eleventh century Hassan as-Sabah in his famous fortress, "Alamut," on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Sabah organized the secret order of the Hashshashin (Assassins), and his followers, for a while, terrorized centers of political authority across the Middle East in the midst of the Crusades. The Shahids also includes a compilation of recent suicide bombings for anyone wanting to review the record since 9-11. Although Israel has been the most often hit target of suicide bombers, most victims of suicide bombings these days are Iraqi Shi‘ites.
The Tamil Tigers, waging war against Sri Lankan authorities to establish an independent Tamil entity on the island, were primarily responsible for being the first to employ suicide bombings as their weapon of terror. Other terrorist organizations such as the Workers' Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in Turkey, the Chechen rebels in Chechnya and Russia, and jihadi groups based in Pakistan responsible for terrorist strikes inside Jammu and Kashmir within India, adopted the Tamil innovation of suicide bombings to sow fear in the mistaken belief that their respective causes can succeed as a result.
Shay has filled an essential gap in our understanding of suicide bombings as a modern political phenomenon and, moreover, armed with religious justifications when it comes to Muslim terrorism. His book begs the question, however, in what manner will Muslims repudiate both the politics of jihadi terrorism and the use of Islam to justify a crime that no religion worth its name can legitimate or defend. But that is a book only to be written when Muslims will have recovered their faith tradition from the perversions it has been subjected to by men in religious garbs such as Ayatollah Khomeini or the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.
Related Topics: Islam, Suicide terrorism, Terrorism | Salim Mansur | Spring 2006 MEQ
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