Soon after EgyptAir's flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic shortly after takeoff from New York in October 1999, killing 217, the plane's relief first officer, Gameel al-Batouty, came under suspicion of intentionally bringing down the aircraft. To which

Soon after EgyptAir's flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic shortly after takeoff from New York in October 1999, killing 217, the plane's relief first officer, Gameel al-Batouty, came under suspicion of intentionally bringing down the aircraft.

Gameel al-Batouty: Suicide or martyr, hell or heaven?

To which the Egyptian reaction was adamant: no way - Egyptians don't engage in suicide. "Committing suicide is not a trait that Egyptians and Muslims are known for," commented the head of the pilots association.

Islamist (or fundamentalist Muslim) leaders in the United States emphasized that, being a religiously observant Muslim, the relief first officer would never commit suicide. "Suicide is a major sin in Islam," Maher Hathout, imam of the Islamic Center in Los Angeles, explained. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations pronounced that suicide "would not be in accord with Islamic beliefs and practices."

Well, sort of. The Qur'an does tell Muslims, "Do not kill yourselves" and warns that those who disobey will be "cast into the fire." The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that a suicide cannot go to paradise. Islamic laws oppose the practice.

This religious prohibition has had the intended effect. According to Franz Rosenthal, a scholar of the subject, "suicide was of comparatively rare occurrence" in traditional Muslim society. In contemporary Egypt, statistics bear out that suicide is exceedingly rare.

But those spokesmen are not telling the whole story, for Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (sacred war). Going into war knowing with certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the houris in paradise.

A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations but "heroic martyrdom operations" in which the kamikazes act not "out of hopelessness and despair but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors."

In other words, Islamists find suicide for personal reasons abominable, suicide for jihad admirable. If the EgyptAir officer brought the plane down because he was depressed about his daughter's illness, he will burn forever in hell. If he did it to kill Americans in suburban Long Island, they might endorse his act.

Jihad suicide has been around for a millennium. The Assassins, a fanatical religious sect that flourished in the twelfth century developed jihad suicide into a powerful tool of war that succeeded in killing dozens of leaders and cast a long shadow over the region's politics for decades. The Assassins' suicide soldiers' mission, as explained by the historian Bernard Lewis, had a distinctly familiar flavor: "by striking down oppressors and usurpers, they gave the ultimate proof of their faith and loyalty, and earned immediate and eternal bliss."

In recent times, the revival of jihad suicide began as an Iranian project, starting with the 1981 blow up of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, killing 27, and followed by a long sequence of attacks on U.S. installations around the Middle East, killing as many as 19, 63, and 241 Americans. During its eight-year war with Iraq, Tehran dispatched young soldiers to detonate land mines, then commemorated their deaths as martyrs.

The Iranians also sponsored a suicide campaign against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon during 1983-85 that did much to push those troops nearly out of Lebanon. Tehran persisted afterward too. Islamic Jihad, its main Palestinian anti-Israel ally, already complained in 1995 that it had just one problem: "We have too many candidates for martyrdom and not enough resources to prepare them all."

The Palestinian Authority (PA) eventually noticed the effectiveness of this Iranian war instrument and recently adopted it, urging everyone from school boys to hardened criminals to hurl their lives against Israel, with many takers. Their actions have appalled Israelis while spurring impassioned support across the Middle East for the Palestinians.

The danger here is considerable: Yasir Arafat's PA has successfully adopted what had been the unique tool of Khomeini's Islamist regime, suggesting that suicide jihad is a flexible tool potentially available to a wide array of non-Islamist rogue Muslim states (such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya) and maybe even to some terrorist organizations.

It's yet another danger from the Middle East for everyone to worry about.

July 27, 2001 addendum: The above article explains why, from an Islamic viewpoint, martyrs are not suicides. Yet their attacks are known in English as suicide terrorism and, to be understood, I shall use that term, even though it is technically inaccurate.

July 14, 2005 update: As a young British Muslim recounts attempts to recruit him for jihad, he reports that his recruiters made the distinction between suicide and martyrdom that I explain above:

They asked me if I'd ever contemplated suicide and if I wanted to end the pain and turmoil in my life. I was a teenager, with all the fears and insecurities of my age, with the added anguish of having just lost my dad. I was vulnerable and easily manipulated. They said: "If you commit suicide for your own reasons you'll bring shame on your family and go straight to hell, jahannam. But if you end your life fighting for the cause of Islam, you'll be rewarded for all eternity. And you'll see your dad again really soon."

Oct. 29, 2012 update: Writing for Israel's Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israel Oron asks the important question, "Do 'suicide bombers' really commit suicide?" and comes to the sensible conclusion that they do not. Unfortunately, Oron neglects the Islamic impulse and less sensibly argues that "a living alternative (including a political one) could prevent them from carrying out their deeds." I.e., threat them nicer and they won't blow you up.

Sep. 4, 2012 update: For a colorful example demonstrating the illegality of suicide, here's a report from Dubai, about a maid, called AM, 24, from Ethiopia:

She said she decided to kill herself after her sponsor refused to pay her for three months' work. The maid claimed she did not know the address of the villa at which she worked, but was thrown out on September 10 after her sponsor complained about her work the previous day. … After being kicked out, she had nowhere to go and did not know how to reach the agency that brought her to the UAE.

"I found myself thrown away and I thought of my poor family back home. I felt desperate and decided I should die," she said. She stood in the middle of the two-way street and waited. A 25-year-old policeman was driving near Al Jahith School when he spotted her. "I started talking to her to understand why she was standing there. When she told me I informed her it was wrong to do so," he said. "I finally managed to have her step aside."

The court found her guilty of attempting suicide and fined her Dh1,000.