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Hans Maier {*}


Religious Motives of Suicide Bombers under Review


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy Bavaria
'zur debatte', 2/2008, P. 16-19
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    On some days they dominate the media: the cruel attacks by suicide bombers in many Islamic countries. Almost always the bombers lay claim to religious motives and call themselves martyrs. Christianity too knows martyrs. But those people suffered and died for their faith. They killed no one. This is a fundamental difference to which Professor Dr. Hans Maier insistently points. On 28 February 2008 at an evening forum of the Catholic Academy the former Bavarian minister for education and cultural affairs and professor of Christian world view, religion and cultural theory looked therefore very critically at the motives of the suicide bombers. Are they really God-ordered? Maier asked. "zur debatte" publishes Professor Hans Maier's lecture in a slightly abridged version.


Since 11 September 2001 we have been confronted with bombers who refer to religious directives, to "commands of God". Almost every day we hear on the news of new "suicide missions". Those bombers, who are active throughout the world, think they act on the instruction of God; they see themselves involved in a struggle against the contemporary disbelief, and they are ready to sacrifice their lives in this fight, in anticipation of an imminent paradisical life.

While the West is somewhat bewildered in view of this phenomenon of "pious murderers", the bombers bear the halo of the "martyr" in the Muslim world. Nowhere, not even in the secular Turkey, the media of the Muslim world took over the Western concept of "suicide bombers". They talk of martyrs. What does it mean that one part of today's world in martyrs sees bombers, another part in bombers martyrs?



There are now numerous sources for the motives of the bombers - from Mohammed Atta's will that was found in Boston and was already written in 1996 up to the file of foreign fighters found in 2007 in Sindschar in North Iraq. I'll start with Mohammed Atta.

Here not only the images of the evil Western world, which must be fought and brought down on God's instruction, are found - the own mission is also understood as penance for the fact that a devout Muslim can today not avoid to take part at least temporarily in the life style of the disbelieving enemy. So death is an opportunity at last to do the right thing, and to sacrifice one's life for God. "Those who keep vigil by the body should remember God and pray that I am with the angels."

Conspicuous for Western minds are the orders regarding the ritual purity: "Neither pregnant women nor impure people are to say goodbye to me ... women are not to offer an apology for my death ... The one who washes my body and my genitals should wear gloves, so that I am not touched there." Here not only the fear of ritual pollution is important but also the hope of a pure, imputrescible body of a martyr. Just the modern Djihadism takes up traditional purity instructions, which belong to the primary matter of archaic religiosity. Also the legend of the 72 virgins, who in paradise welcome the religious fighters after their death, has its place here.

The bombers, including Mohammed Atta, were of course no isolated individual fighters. They were part of a network spread over many countries.



Its organizers acted worldwide, they had recruitment offices, training camps, command centres, directed streams of money, procured weapons, planned and executed attacks. They used for their followers the possibilities of studies and technical training in highly developed countries as well as conversely the anarchic room for manoeuvre in countries with destroyed or half destroyed instruments of state. Germany, France and the USA were therefore just as important for them as Afghanistan, Kashmir and Somalia. As far as we see religious motives were by no means foreign to the leaders at the head of the terror network. It would be wrong to dismiss the bombers as helpless-faithful puppets, as victims of cynical Machiavellian powers in the background. For all the differences in detail, there is evidently a uniform spirit in the Djihad movement connecting the command heights with the base.

What does the leadership of the movement look like? Most of the bombers of 11 September came from Saudi Arabia. This confirms a phenomenon that we know from the French Revolution but also from other revolutions: the leaders of revolts do usually not come from the slums and remote areas but from the middle-class, often even from the upper middle-class in the centre , in the capitals. In the highly developed rich Saudi Arabia the holy places of Mecca and Medina are situated (to which non-Muslims, as we know, until now have no access). For Islam's conception of itself this country is of fundamental importance. Any fundamental change that is going on there affects the Muslims around the world - already because of the obligation to the pilgrimage to the Holy Shrines, which counts to the "Five Pillars".

Now such a radical change had - at least in the perspective of strict Muslims - really taken place. For in the course of the Second Gulf War hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia. This was done at the explicit request of King Fahd, who feared an attack of Saddam Hussein on the eastern rich in oil province of Saudi Arabian. But it immediately caused a massive opposition of Islamic preachers against the occupation of the country by the "infidels".

Especially young Muslims protested against the corruption in the country, the rulers' love of show, the disastrous consequences of westernization for religion. A reform program was drafted; it was aimed at a comprehensive Islamization of the country under the supervision of Wahhabi scholars. That was the mental world from which the son of a multi-millionaire and building contractor Usama bin Ladin came, a young man in whom the Second Gulf War and the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia triggered a shock and gave the impulse to a fundamental reorientation. After his escape from Saudi Arabia in 1991 he built up in the following years in Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan an international organization, al-Qaida, which since 1998 began to keep close tabs not only on the non-Islamic world in general, but especially on the USA. Despite his wealth and his international connections bin Ladin's strongest weapon, "which also the superpower has not at its disposal and to which there is no reliable defensive weapon, was the willingness of people to kill themselves in order to kill also the enemy" (Erhard Eppler).

Initially Usama bin Ladin was simply a man of the anti-Saudi opposition. In some respects he has continued to be that until today. But why then the turn against the United States (which had even supported bin Laden in Afghanistan in the fight against the Russian occupation)? There seems to be a double reason for it. On the one hand the United States was according to bin Ladin's view an aggressor. I quote from an interview in 1998: "For the countries of Islam, above all the Holy Shrines (Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem) have been attacked. Their list begins with the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, in the direction of which the Prophet Muhammad prayed at the beginning of his mission. Afterwards the hostile attack of the crusaders' and Jews' coalition continued, which is led by America and Israel, until they captured the country of the Holy Shrines (Mecca and Medina)."

That in Djihadism religious motives prevail does, by the way, not mean that the movement does not take advantage also of other movements in the present world. Here above all the Third World emotions come into play: the universal feeling of humiliation of the poor and underdeveloped nations compared with the rich and leading nations, the awareness of a deficit that can hardly be made up, economic, social, cultural misery, the insight to belong to the losers of globalization - and connected with it the hatred against the life-style of the rich, the western political and cultural supremacy, and a pronounced aversion to the last remaining superpower: America.

But you may not be mistaken: There are not only feelings of inferiority forming the undercurrent of Djihadism - there are also feelings of superiority, indeed, of being chosen. Radical Islam is not only a model for the socially declassified - it is also attractive to a growing number of highly qualified young men in the Islamic countries. It gives them an opportunity in a globalized world with unlimited rooms for manœuvre to gain new, undreamt-of experiences of power, experiences which "a failed modernity or a blocked democracy" cannot offer them.

They can, as in ancient times, use violence, defend their honour, give full expression to their masculinity - and all that in the role of the avenger of injured innocence and of the fighter for justice. The son of a multi-millionaire from a wealthy oil state can rise to the new Robin Hood just as a nameless child of the lower classes from one of the most miserable countries. Privatised violence is a new currency in a world in which the state monopoly of power is retreating - and if that violence on the one hand is combined with self-sacrifice and mysticism and on the other hand with virility and fighting spirit a new quality of the religious fight arises. The willingness to devote oneself sacrificingly to a cause "gives self-confidence, even something like moral superiority ... For our, for my cause many are ready to die, some are keen on doing it. What ultimately counts is not technology but people" (Erhard Eppler). That attitude can be connected with traditions of Islam: on the one hand with its universality - the Umma as a world community -, on the other hand with its aggressive, even warlike determination to lead the world to the one God alone.



I now turn to the second part of the concept of martyrdom and its changes in recent times. The Greek word "martyrion" means testimony in court. Who bears it is called "martys," the witness. In the Christian understanding it is of course not simply about any witness in any case. On the contrary, the martys (martyr) is a witness who is ready to do the utmost, up to the sacrifice of his life - without risking this sacrifice carelessly or even eagerly striving for it. He becomes a victim because he testifies to a truth. He dies for his faith. From a witness (Zeuge) he becomes - as the German word vividly says - a Blutzeuge.

Two things are decisive here: first the situation of persecution set from the outside, not created or even provoked by oneself - and then the connection of the martyr with Christ and the church, which creates the legitimacy of martyrdom. It is about "martyrdom according to the Gospel," as it is said in an early Christian source, the "Martyrdom of Polycarp". What death the martyr dies, how the circumstances of his martyrdom are in detail, what torments are inflicted on him, all of that is only secondarily important: Decisive is the readiness to the martyrdom in the discipleship of Christ, the "faithful witness" (Rev. 1, 5), resulting from faith. As St. Augustine expresses it, "Christi martyrem non facit poena sed causa." Not "the torment" inflicted on him makes the martyrs but "the matter" he stands for and bears witness - a matter which at the same time is reason (causa) of his persecution by the "enemies of Christ".

This thought is taken up in the teachings about martyrdom of the Christian churches. Most detailed in the Catholic Church, in which since Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) three criteria are relevant for the recognition as martyr: the fact of violent death (martyrium materialiter), the persecutors' hatred for faith and church (martyrium formaliter ex parte tyranni), and the testimony of faith on the part of the victims (martyrium formaliter ex parte victimae). Also the canonizations of the martyrs in Orthodoxy - interrupted in Russia during the Soviet era but resumed in the 90ies of the 20th century with many "New Martyrs" - follow well-tried traditions: According to Vladimir Ivanov's explanations priority is given to the "awareness of the theophanic and thaumaturgic nature of holiness", the "subordination of the generally private sector in the human person in favour of the person glorified" (Georgi Fedotov). The Protestant understanding of martyrdom takes up the Holy Scripture and the Confessional Writings; decisive is the fundamental "relationship to the crucified Jesus, the Christ." According to it martyrs "are the 'word witnesses' in giving testimony to Christ by proclaiming him resp. God's truth, on the other hand 'deed witnesses' of divine justice resp. God's commandments" (Wolf-Dieter Hauschild).

Those criteria are admittedly not identical, but they touch, overlap and complement each other. This has led to the fact that the Christian churches discovered in their martyrs a common ecumenical heritage. This applies above all to the martyrs of the 20th century, by far the largest group since the persecutions of the early church, but it also applies to the "witnesses for Christ" who precede and follow them in all parts of the world.



So the manifold commemoration of the martyrs in the millennium year 2000 did not only strengthen the theological "effort to define the concept" ("Anstrengung des Begriffs") - it has undoubtedly also contributed to today's universal spread of the term 'martyr' in the public. The fact that martyrdom is not something historic but something present, namely the case of emergency of Christianity and that it therefore occurs always in new forms - this feeling is widespread today.

Even though the Christian experience is the core of identity of what we call martyrdom, it is nevertheless to be noted that during the 20th and 21st century the concept filled up with new content. Contrary to former times martyrdom, the testimonies let learn that, is today less seen as passive devotion and suffering sacrifice - it is for many an exemplary deed, a spurring on example, a testimony for truth and justice. Today martyrdom has often an individual, even an individualistic appearance. It articulates the personal protest against anonymous powers. Even though the martyr can little do against despotic violence, he nevertheless tries to express something that can be heard and understood at the appropriate time. His deed is a sign and not just a powerless protest. For often losers subsequently are quite unexpectedly justified right.

But can the "active", the "political" martyr escape the dilemma: that he in the end is just a party in a fight in which right stands against right (and "martyrs" appear on all sides)? Well, under the present circumstances he can best when he does not fight for "one side" but wins - contrary to the individual interests of those taking part in the struggle - recognition for a universal principle: human rights and human dignity, the Humanum as such. In that respect in the era of human rights universalism the situation differs in fact from that before the First (and even before the Second) World War.

Why did the self-burnings of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War find a global echo? Why did Jan Pallach and Oskar Brüsewitz through their suicide reveal the intolerability of the political conditions? Why do we bow to the priest Jerzy Popieluszko drowned by the Polish secret police in Warsaw and to the Chinese students overrun by tanks on the Tianmen Square in Beijing? - Because they revealed injustice, and because they succeeded in breaking the silence of despotism and in directing, at least for a moment, the attention of the world upon themselves. That was still different in the Third Reich and under communism: Communists as well as Nazis did not only try to break the resistance - they tried above all to push it into anonymity and isolation, into ineffectiveness and lack of response. The early Christian Martyria was still orientated toward the testimony in public court proceedings: The Neronian Circus and the Coliseum were public places. In contrast, the martyrs of the 20th century might mostly have died in anonymity and solitude.

Let us make a mental note that the traditional concept of martyr in the 20th and 21st century has greatly widened - as strong as never before in its long history. At the same time the direction of motion is different: whereas in the Christian world trends to politicization but also to universalization become apparent, in the Islamic world the - always already existing - militant features of martyrdom increase, most significantly in recent times. Iraq for instance has during the Third Gulf War in March/April 2003 repeatedly announced "martyr operations". "The martyrs are the noblest men" says Hamsa Mansour, secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front IAF. One of the elite soldiers of Saddam Hussein confessed, "I will fight for Iraq till I fall as martyr."

But also in the German media this use of language is often adopted, sometimes with distance, but sometimes also uncritically. Only rarely it was made a theme that it is not simply about the concept of martyr introduced in Europe but about a name claimed for themselves by Islamist groups that sharpens the concept; and the hint that for example the suicide bombers of Hezbollah kill not only themselves but also others stands almost alone in a documentation. They suffer and they die - but at the same time they also murder.



I come to the third part. What does the extension of the term martyr in our time mean for religion and the Church? What are the consequences for the inter-denominational, ecumenical, but also the interreligious discourse? It is first of all to be noted that within the Christian churches the multitude of the martyrs of the 20th century has led to an increased reflection upon martyrs and martyrdom, testimony and sacrificing one's life in and with Christ. The complex of themes extends into central questions of the understanding of church. Why are there martyrs at all? What do martyrs mean for the church? Is martyrdom a charismatic exceptional state for a few individuals - or is the willingness to suffer martyrdom in Christianity a "case of emergency" for many, if not for all? And what does that case of emergency mean for the congregations? How do they rightly and validly remember the martyrs "in actu" (intercessions) and "in memory" (prayers, celebrations)? What effects has the memory of the martyrs on the organization of the Church's life and its "regular" structures, in liturgy, prayer, sermon, feast calendar, Church year?

Those issues first relate to the Christian churches - that is Orthodoxy, Catholic Church, the Churches of the Reformation. They are now trying to cultivate, resume, revitalize their own martyr traditions - and at the same time they seek the exchange of experiences with others. The different profiles which become visible then need not disturb the process of mutual learning - provided that the general appearance of the "large crowd from all peoples" remains in view. Current and future persecutions will certainly give further relevance to martyrdom as test and sample of Christian life, so that the ecumenical perspective of a "Martyr Church", which anew unites the denominationally separated faithful in memory, may also in the 21st century not come to an end.

But the existence of Islamic "martyrs" in today's world shows that the problem reaches long since beyond the Christian churches. It also concerns the relationship of Christianity to the non-Christian world - in particular to Islam. Are the - undoubtedly existing - common features of the "Abrahamic religions" sound enough to defuse potential conflicts? Or are you to establish that the differences are not solvable - even with the utmost effort in the interreligious dialogue?

At this place I refer again to the beginning of my explanation. The death pilots of 11 September gave up their lives for their cause - and they made many other victims die with them. According to their own self-understanding they appeared as avengers - as avengers for the cause of Islam, insulted and hurt by the West, by America, by Israel, by Jews and "crusaders ". The world-wide impact of the pictures from New York and Washington was carefully considered. The attack was the first globalized action of feud in history. The 19 suicide bombers did not act - as the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbour - in the name of a political community. America was not attacked as State, but - when you follow the statements of bin Ladin and others - because it embodied a way of life. War was not declared on it. It was rather "punished" in the name of God.

In recent decades the category 'sacrifice' has been revitalized - everybody is talking about the theses of René Girard and Walter Burkert. So it is no surprise that the category 'sacrifice' was also used for the interpretation of the events of 11 September. Of interest was here above all the archaic religious sacrifice as the place of breaking-in of man's "killing violence" - violence against sacrificial animals but also against human beings; think of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham demanded and at the same time prevented by God.

The category 'sacrifice' is a link between the archaic rites of violence and modern experiences of violence. From this perspective you can interpret the attack of 11 September (in the perspective of the perpetrators, of course!) as "killing on God's instruction" and thus as religiously motivated violence. There are, indeed, many characteristics of what we connect with the word "sacrifice": the use of violence, killing, bloodshed, the idea of punishment and deputizing atonement - but also, when we think of the now common use of 'victim' in secular connections (traffic victims, flood victims), the idea of innocent, defenceless, entirely uninvolved people who are killed on that occasion.

Though admittedly the analogy cannot be further extended. For victims in the religious sense - at least in the Jewish and Christian understanding - are not simply objects of passively suffered violence and destruction.



They can also actively take upon themselves the sacrifice through voluntary self-devotion. Above all martyrs do not just resign themselves to their fate - they rather die gladly for their faith.

Where does in the interpretation of the events of 11 September 2001 the category 'martyr' come to the fore. Admittedly, here too on closer inspection the differences become clearly evident. Only in a very formal sense "martyrdom" can be defined so that the definition applies just as much to the Muslim kamikaze pilots of 11 September as to the martyrs of Christianity. Loyalty to one's convictions without regard for the consequences - this may be a psychologically accurate description of the foundations of martyrdom.

For the Judeo-Christian-Islamic understanding of sacrificing one's life that definition alone is not yet enough. The martyr shows not only steadfastness and loyalty, correspondence to what he had held in "normal life", steadfast deliberation - as Socrates already did. As a witness of truth "(Erik Peterson) he stands also for something that exceeds himself, his personal fate. His action is an example for the congregation. He goes ahead of it - as it follows him. So the Jewish martyr brings - according to the tradition of the Maccabees Books - "the end of the day closer"; for his sufferings the pursuers will suffer punishment; his death is atonement for their sins - and he also leads the Jewish community back to the right path.

In the Christian tradition it is similar: Here the connection with Christ's Passion comes to the fore. The martyrs confess the faith under extreme conditions, with the help of God, against the own weakness. Thus they become a model for and the foundation of the congregation. But you cannot simply seek martyrdom. What matters is the connection with the church; it gives the legitimacy of martyrdom. Once again I remind of St. Augustine: Christi martyrum non facit poena sed causa - not the pain, the suffering makes the martyr, but the cause for which he stands and gives testimony.

Islam too knows both, those who confess their faith by proclaiming it (Wortzeugen) and those who sacrifice their life for it (Blutzeugen). Here too the concept 'martyr' has - under Christian-Jewish influence? - developed from that of the witness in court. But apart from the legal also the military terminology is important. In the Hadith literature the martyr is the one who has in the Djihad, the holy battle sacrificed his life and has so died for Allah - and that is first and foremost the Muslim soldier. God rewards such a confession. He frees the martyr of his guilt, cancels his purgatory, and spares him the Day of Judgement. The martyr is allowed to take his place on the highest level in paradise, beside God's throne. From time immemorial in Islamic thinking is, as we have seen, a close connection between martyrdom and paradise. The conviction that the death pilots of 11 September had immediately after their death come into paradise, is well-founded in the tradition. In Afghan training books for terrorists the God warriors who were absolutely determined to die were poetically called "lovers of the paradise virgins."

Are you allowed to seek martyrdom? Are you allowed to call out with the Islamic mystic Al Hallag, "Kill me, so that you will be rewarded and I find peace"? Longing for death - or shall we say better: seeking death - is for every faithful Muslim taboo. For it is close to suicide, which is forbidden in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity. Such an ecstatic self-sacrifice is not dying for the sake of faith. It does not stand for the larger context of a faith, a congregation. But nobody can overlook that in the present time the connection of martyrdom and faith community has everywhere become loose - and that already for decades. A broad trace of sacrificed lives leads from the self-burnings of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War to the students overran by tanks on the Tianmen Square in Beijing. Many are still at home in religious traditions. But many are also expressly personally and politically motivated (the struggle for human rights, witness for peace, commitment to the poor, etc.).

In the Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition the martyr is one who is prepared to die for his faith. But he is not a high-handed perpetrator on his own behalf, he does not seek the sacrifice of his life - and does certainly not kill others when he kills himself. These limits have been carefully drawn in long experiences of the Abrahamic religions with the martyrdom of their members. Are they no longer valid today? Is here too, in the interreligious dialogue nothing as it was up to now? It is a warning sign that in Djihadism the borderline between suicide and martyrdom, sacrifice of one's life and murderous fight has become blurred, and that until now no significant spiritual authority is ready to fix it anew and to strengthen it.

That is true even for representatives of Islam who are regarded as liberal and ready to talk. So the Grand Sheikh Mohammed Said Tantawi in Cairo as the supreme spiritual authority of Sunni Islam has in 2002 in a famous fatwa dissociated himself from the Jihadists' terrorism; but he explicitly excluded from this rejecting judgment those Muslims who fight "against territorial occupation" and "settlement colonialism", who only defend their homeland. He too justifies the struggle against the "Israeli war machine" and the defence against the "violent and unfounded attack on the poor and defenceless Afghan people". Only in choosing his words he is more cautious; there is no longer talk about the "small and big Satan" (Israel and United States) as in other Islamic manifestos - and, at least implicitly, Tantawi draws a line between the defence in a just war and the mere destructive frenzy of a lost generation.

So our balance remains ambiguous in the end. Nobody in the Islamic countries - I repeat it - has until now taken over in his reporting the term "suicide bombers" - as it is customary in the West. Even in states with a moderate secular Islam - think of Turkey - the Kamikaze pilots in America and the Palestinian suicide bombers are rather called "fighters", "religious fighters," "fighters of God" - and also martyrs. Yes, in this new understanding the term 'martyr' seems gradually to replace the other terms. It dominates quite one-sidedly the awareness in the Islamic world - very unlike to Jewish and Christian circles, which here rather stand by the traditional distinctions.


    {*} Hans Maier (born in 1931), from 1962 to 1987 Professor for political science in Munich; from 1970 to 1986 Bavarian Secretary of cultural affairs; 1988 to 1999 holder of the Munich "Guardini chair" of Christian Weltanschauung, religion- and culture theory.


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