Roots of terror: suicide, martyrdom, self-redemption and Islam

Navid Kermani
21 February 2002

The battle of Karbala

The first story I wish to tell begins on the morning of 3 October, 680 CE on the plain of Karbala in what is now Iraq. Hussein ibn Ali, the prophet’s grandson and third Imam of the Shi’ites, stood facing the several thousand strong army of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. At that time, the formal split of the Muslims into Sunnis and Shi’ites had not yet taken place, but the conflict between Hussein and Yazid, between the Imam and the Caliph, was to set the seal on this schism.

Iraq map

The conflict had been sparked a generation previously. The Shi’a, the ‘party’ of Ali, declared him, the respected cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, to be the divinely appointed leader of the community, while the ancestors of the Sunnis accepted the Umayyad caliphate which Muawiyah had proclaimed – without religious consecration and far away from Mecca – in Damascus. Ali had been stabbed to death, his son Hassan probably poisoned, and now Yazid, son of Muawiyah, was in charge.

The inhabitants of Kufa, however, refused to pay homage to the Caliph they despised as a tyrant who had betrayed the Prophet’s message. They called Hussein to their aid, Ali’s second son, who until then had been leading a retired life in Mecca. The sources describe him as a gentle man of refined spirit – not a warrior – yet he could not ignore the distressed population of Kufa and their cry for help.

Thus, on 9 September 680 CE, the Prophet’s grandson set forth with his family, forty cavalrymen and a hundred infantry, ignorant of the fact that the Governor of Kufa was terrorising the population and – amongst other things – had executed Hussein’s cousin Muslim ibn Aqil. On the second of October, the second day of Muharram of the year 61 according to the Islamic calendar, Hussein’s caravan was encamped at Karbala, a small patch of land on the Euphrates, seventy kilometres south of Kufa.

There, on the following day, the Umayyad army tracked them down and barred their access to the river. With their water supplies soon exhausted and no shade from the heat, both children and adults suffered terribly. In vain Hussein waited for the promised support from Kufa, but the population – persecuted by the Umayyad Governor – could not or dared not come to the Imam’s aid. Finding himself left in the lurch, Hussein was forced into days of negotiation with the Umayyad General Umar ibn Saad, during which he was pressured to acknowledge Yazid – without success.

Now that conflict had become inevitable, Hussein – considerably weakened by thirst and in certain knowledge of the outcome of the impending battle – released his companions from their oath of loyalty and urged them to flee the impending massacre.

This detail is very important in the context of our discussion: Hussein tried to persuade his seventy-two remaining companions not to die a martyr’s death. His companions, however, refused to abandon Hussein to the enemy army. And thus, on the morning of the tenth day of Muharram, they went forth together into a battle in which all would perish.

Defeat and death of Hussein

The fatalism of Hussein has been much discussed, with Iranian scholars of the modern era questioning the tragic status of the events of Karbala. While some emphasise that Hussein had been warned along the way, that he went knowingly to Karbala and therefore voluntarily to his destruction, there are others who see him as a courageous but not a reckless hero who – on leaving Mecca – had realistic grounds for placing his hope in the rebellious people of Kufa.

On the plain of Karbala, his character and sense of honour prevented him from acknowledging Yazid – which would have been a betrayal not only of his family but also of the oppressed population of Kufa. For these reasons, Hussein’s ‘passion’ is seen as inevitable and therefore ‘tragic’ in the best sense.

Muslim historiography has captured the battle in all its various stages and dramatic images. Muhammed ibn Sharir al-Tabari, for example, a historian and theologian of the tenth century (who was, it should be noted, a Sunni Muslim), describes how Hussein’s one-year-old son was hit by an arrow:

Ummayad mosque
Ummayad mosque

“We are of God and to him we shall return,” cried Hussein: “Lord, give me the strength to bear this misery.”

Tormented by thirst, he then fought his way through to the Euphrates in order to drink.

“Don’t let him drink!” roared Shimr, the most dangerous of all the Umayyad commanders, just as Hussein was kneeling down: “If he drinks, he will revive!”

And just as Hussein began to drink, the roof of his mouth was pierced by an arrow. He spat out the water which was also spurting from his throat, pulled the arrow from his mouth and hurried back to the tents. There General Umar ibn Saad was waiting to give him the final death blow, but as Hussein gazed at him, he recoiled.

Shimr had suddenly appeared with six other men. One of them severed Hussein’s arm from his shoulder with a single blow and stabbed him in the back. Shimr himself cut off Hussein’s head. On the orders of the Umayyad General, the Imam’s body was then trampled by horses’ hooves and later buried by local Bedouins. Women and children were dragged away. Hussein’s head was taken as a trophy to Damascus where the Caliph Yazid had it displayed on the eastern gate of the Umayyad mosque.

Modern echoes of the battle at Karbala

No historical event has ever moved the Shi’ites as deeply as the Battle of Karbala. Even today, you can sometimes see Iranians – grown men and women, including members of the worldly middle and upper classes – breaking into violent weeping when someone mentions the death of Hussein.

According to Shi’a tradition, all of the Shi’a Imams, the religious leaders who were direct successors of the Prophet, were murdered except for the last or ‘Hidden Imam’. It is only Hussein whose fate has become an allegory of the way of the world as such. While he himself symbolises all that is good, just and innocent, his resistance is seen to represent all forms of protest against oppression and tyranny.

In Hussein’s agony, the suffering of the entire human race is expressed. His death became a synonym for the betrayal of humanity’s hope of a better future. No episode in Shi’ite history can be understood without reference to the Battle of Karbala – certainly not the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that saw itself as a revolt against the Yazid of its own time.

Even now, everyday life is shot through with the symbols of those events. Those who visit Iranian cities in summer will everywhere find huge, ice-cold vessels, as well as local people offering them water. This almost religious reverence for water can be traced back to the thirst suffered by Hussein at Karbala. And the symbol of the Shi’ites, worn either as an amulet or held aloft as a banner, is the hand of Hussein’s half-brother Abulfazi, which was cut off as he tried to offer his companion some water. Countless embellishments of the legend, miracles, dreams and prophecies have accrued around the historical event.

If you took only the legends surrounding Hussein’s severed head, they would fill entire volumes.

The Shi’ite tales and elegies recited each year during Ashura, the first ten days of the month of Muharram, tell how the Old Testament patriarchs mourned alongside Mohammad for the martyrs of Karbala. They also recount the dream of Sakineh, according to which two thousand years before the creation of the earth, God honoured the “alien martyr who had died of thirst” by erecting a white-domed palace on a meadow which stretched from heaven to earth.

There is also the way in which those who write letters in Persian to friends or relatives don’t sign off with “best wishes” or “with love”. Instead they write: “self sacrificingly yours”.

Hussein’s ‘passion’ became the founding myth in the cultural memory of the Shi’ites, and traditional accounts repeatedly reveal the extraordinary extent to which the myth functions as a critique of the actual course of Islamic history. Yazid, so it is said, was about to make a show of kicking aside Hussein’s head when an old man stepped out of the crowd: “I have seen the Prophet kiss this mouth,” he scolded the much feared Caliph.

In order to understand the Shi’ites’ grief and the Messianic nature of their hope, one must conjure up this image: the misery of Hussein, touching anecdotes of whose childhood can be found in the earliest sources, stories of how he romped about with the Prophet or rode through Mecca, bubbling with laughter, on the shoulders of Ali, his father – then the image of his severed head amid the dirt and of the Caliph preparing to take a kick.

For the Shi’ites, this betrayal of the Prophet’s egalitarian message, of his direct heirs, indeed of everything he stood for, is the seminal event on which the interpretation of their entire subsequent history is based – a history which went wrong and was usurped by the Sunnis. It is their version of the ‘Fall of Man’, but seen as historical fact.The mourning month of Muharram

As early as four years following the bloodbath of 680 CE, penitents made the battlefield a place of pilgrimage, spending the night there with blackened faces, commemorating the death of Hussein and repenting their guilt in failing to support him. Thereafter they continued in the direction of Syria where they had planned an uprising against the Umayyad caliphate but were swiftly and fatally crushed.

Nonetheless, this band of men surrounding Sulayman ibn Surad, a distinguished Arab and former ‘Partisan’, who had fought with Ali against Mu-Awiyah, has entered the annals of history. They are regarded not only as the founding fathers of the Shi’a, but the night which they spent on the battlefield is also the first recorded manifestation of mourning for the murdered Imam.

Over the course of centuries, the Shi’ites developed ritual ceremonies of mourning which are performed each year during Muharram. After 1502 when the Safavids became the first Shi’ite dynasty to take power in Iran, suffering and mourning which, under Sunni rule, had belonged to a private, sometimes even hidden sphere of belief, took on a theatrical and public character.

Now for the first time, the rituals were expanded into spectacular processions, combined with self-flagellation and mourning recitations by semi-professional singers, and later also with elaborately staged passion plays. Different episodes from the passion story form the focal point of each of the ten days of the festival.

The French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier who visited Isfahan in 1667 observed: “For eight or ten days before the festival, the most zealous observers of the Law blacken their entire bodies and faces and proceed quite naked through the streets, clad only in a loin cloth. In each hand they have pebbles which they throw at one another, contorting their bodies and faces into many strange shapes and incessantly crying Hussein Hocen, Hocen, Hussein – indeed with such force that they foam at the mouth. At eventide they are received in the homes of pious folk and nourished well.”

Although the Pahlavi dynasty attempted to restrict or ban the Muharram rituals, they have nonetheless survived to the present day. “I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theatre,” wrote the great British theatre director Peter Brook a good three hundred years after Tavernier.

“A group of four hundred villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under a tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing – although they knew perfectly well the end of the story – as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred the theatre form became a truth – there was no difference between past and present. An event that was told as a remembered happening in history, six hundred years ago, actually became a reality at that moment.

Nobody could draw the line between the different orders of reality. It was an incarnation: at that particular moment he was being martyred again in front of those villagers.”Ancient roots of the tale of Hussein’s martyrdom

The Safavids expanded the rituals of mourning for Hussein – not least for reasons of power politics. As the majority of the Iranian population at that time were Sunnis, the Safavids aimed to bind them more closely to the Shi’a and to shore up hatred against the Sunnis. In order to ensure the legitimacy of the Iranian-Shi’ite dynasty, it was important that Sunni Islam should be identified with the Arabs. The cult of suffering surrounding Hussein offered the best means of accomplishing this – as the passion and martyrdom of heroes is the outstanding theme of Iranian national tradition.

According to ancient Iranian legend, Gayomart, the first human being, died a redemptive death and his martyred body is said to have given birth to the whole of humanity. In Shi’ite folk religion, Hussein’s martyrdom too has a redemptive function. Ancient Iranian legends, as well as Zoroastrian ceremonies and hymns of mourning, became associated with the cult of the Third Imam.


A death cult featuring processions and magicians’ chants had already existed around the pre-Islamic hero Siyawusch (indeed in the Iranian province of Fars ‘The Revenge of Siyawusch’ is still performed today as a folk ritual). And various motifs which recur in the passion plays can also be found in the Shahnameh, the Persian national epic of the twelfth century – for example the motif of the bloodstained river or the corpse trampled by horses.

The motif of ritual murder was a feature not only of authentic Iranian culture but also of the Babylonian culture that exerted an influence on Persia. Certain key motifs from the passion story can already be found in the Babylonian cults surrounding Adonis and Tammuz, such as the flag, the hand, the water, the blood, and the ‘animalisation’ of Hussein’s murderer Shimr who, according to a Shi’ite legend, had a “muzzle like a dog and bristles like a pig”.

Although one cannot speak of a direct influence, it is important to note that by promoting the cult of mourning around Hussein, the Safavids were making use of a ritual form that was already rooted in the culture. The speed with which the Shi’a established itself as the dominant faith in Iran may be accounted for by the Ashura’s combination of Shi’ite religious themes with Persian national themes.

As the Safavids repeatedly stressed, Hussein was not only the grandson of the Arabian Prophet, but was also said to have been the husband of a Persian princess. According to Safavid ideology, his fate was identical with the fate of Iran.

The Shi’ite folk piety which is now widespread in Iran and Southern Lebanon, with its passion plays, processions of flagellants, icons and music, is a development of the modern era, beginning only in the late sixteenth century. Muslim intellectuals such as Ali Shariati have sharply criticised the transition from a ‘red’ to a ‘black’ Shi’a, from a religion of active protest to a religion of passive lamentation.

But this cannot alter the fact that the Shi’ite religion is now dominated by black flags and veils, the ubiquity of mourning, penitence and death, a conspicuous enthusiasm for self-sacrifice, the celebration of suffering, the reverence for martyrdom and the veneration of individual martyrs.

Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian: points of contact and distance

Unlike the Shi’ites, the Sunnis do not ascribe a central significance to suffering which is far more a feature of Christianity, the similarities of which to Shi’ite Islam have often been noted. In the Festival of Ashura, the motifs of pre-natal guilt, penitence and possible redemption have a firm place – although they are more familiar to Christianity than to the Koran.

While expressing grief for the death of Hussein, these rituals are equally a sign of penitence for the original failure of the community to stand by the Imam in Karbala. This introduces a post-Koranic notion of inherited guilt to Islam which has no concept of original sin as such. According to the Koran, man is born good; God has conferred on him the responsibility of doing good, while allowing him the freedom to perform evil. It is thus impossible to derive a theology of redemption from the Koran itself.

Mohammad’s revelation discloses an almost mathematical relationship to sin which is frequently communicated metaphorically in images deriving from the language of commerce: not that God reckons like a shopkeeper – as the All Merciful he is prepared to balance many sins against one good deed, but nonetheless there is a clear ratio: only through good deeds can evil deeds be forgiven.

Faith alone cannot be a key to Paradise, nor can repentance. On the Day of Judgement, man’s actions will be weighed in the scales, especially his acts of charity, justice and kindness.

In Shi’ite folk religion, by contrast, is rooted the concept that while each Shi’ite shares in guilt for the death of the martyrs, one can nevertheless find redemption through a properly repentant attitude – above all through the intercession of an Imam, that is to say: a martyr. And naturally also by following Hussein into martyrdom itself.

La flagellazione di Cristo by Caravaggio

In the Christian world self-flagellation has survived to the present day in southern Europe and Central America, but also in the Opus Dei. If one compares pictures of the Holy Week processions in Guatemala or Sezze Romano with the Shi’ite Muharram rituals, the resemblance is startling. Indeed, similarities in the sequence of events of the processions and passion plays, as well as in symbols such as the accompanying chair and banner, have led some researchers to conclude that the sixteenth century cult of suffering was imported directly from Europe.

They point to the similar natural phenomena surrounding the deaths of Christ and Hussein and the way in which both stories feature a murderer who recoils, as well as the dividing of the garments of the murdered Saviour. Finally, too, there are the words of Christ: “Father, I thirst.” Notwithstanding, there is little to indicate that Catholicism had a direct effect on the Shi’a, let alone any concrete historical evidence. Precisely because it has not been adequately explained, the similarity between the two horizons of belief, in each of which martyrdom plays a prominent role, remains puzzling.

Although this fact is sometimes forgotten, it was Christianity, along with the Shi’a, that developed the most distinctive theology of martyrdom. “(We are) always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body,” says Paul. “For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’s sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” (Corinthians II, chapter 4, verses 10-12).

The early Christians took these words literally: there are countless legends which tell of confrontations between representatives of the Roman Empire and fearless believers who laughingly bore repeated agonies of torture. During the Middle Ages, the penitents’ rituals in southern and western Europe became mass phenomena, and until the modern period flagellation was a widespread practice of Catholic piety, generally accompanied by the recitation of Psalms.

“I bring myself before the Court, I pronounce my own punishment, I myself requite my crimes.” Thus, in the eleventh century, St Peter Damian formulated the creed of the active penitents.

By contrast with Christianity, the Shi’ites’ notion of inherited guilt has its roots on Earth – not in the heavenly origins of humanity. Guilt is not an essential part of humanity’s earthly existence, but belongs rather to the history of Islam. It comes not at the beginning of the Revelation, but appears long after its end.

But just as Christian flagellation promotes the experience of suffering, the imitation of Christ, while also serving as penance for one’s own sinfulness, so Shi’ite ritual is not only the re-enactment of the initial suffering but also the collective penance of a community whose origins were marked by a failure in duty. And even if mainstream Shi’ite theology has not derived any model for worldly action from the concept of original sin, Shi’a ritual has repeatedly inspired its followers to compensate for their failure not only symbolically, but also through concrete political activity.

Since the Shi’ites see the Fall as a historical rather than a heavenly occurrence, redemption too is conceived of – by a minority – in revolutionary terms as a possible transformation of social conditions for which one should aim. Wherever – in the Shi’ite world of the twentieth century – people have risen up against oppression, the rituals and symbols of the Ashura Festival have had a powerful political significance.

For those who see martyrdom as their release from an earthly vale of sorrows, death holds no terror – and that is something with which political rulers simply could not and cannot deal – death and torture being the ultimate means by which they assert their power. That was the experience of the Romans, and we experience it again today in Israel and the United States.

Although the death of Hussein and the Shi’ite mourning rituals do not lead on a direct path to the suicide attackers, they did prepare the ground for the emergence of a sect like the Assassins. A special, esoteric cult of Shi’ites founded during the eleventh century, it was the Assassins who introduced the Islamic world to the phenomenon of the terrorist who propels both himself and his victim to their deaths.

Based in Alamut, in the mountains of north-west Iran, Hassan ibn Sabaa sent forth his disciples to murder the political and religious dignitaries of various countries, thereby securing themselves a place in Paradise. Following 11 September, many broadsheet columnists were moved to identify the Assassins as the ancestors of the present day suicide attackers.

Martyrdom in contemporary Iran: from the imposed war to President Khatami

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Shi’ite cult of martyrdom prompted many Iranian soldiers, including children and teenagers, to rush headlong into the Iraqi minefields, with the cry “Ya Hussein” upon their lips. It also led in 1983 to a member of the Lebanese Hizbollah being willing, for the first time, to carry out a suicide bombing.

His attack on the American Marine Corps led to the withdrawal of the United States from Beirut. And even now, the idea of martyrdom plays a role in the current Iranian power struggle that should not be underestimated. It influences the thinking not only of the protagonists but also of the wider public, determining their code of rhetoric as well as their symbolic actions and gestures.

The overwhelming victory of Mohammad Khatami in the presidential elections of May 1997 would scarcely have been possible without his skilful appeal to emotions peculiar to Shi’ite society. With impressive professionalism, he styled himself a man of the people who was combating the establishment with nothing but a pure heart. The establishment, made nervous by this, reinforced his position by making disparaging statements, boycotting him in the state-run media and employing gangs of thugs – thereby fostering the popularity of a candidate who at the outset had been practically unknown.

Khatami displayed enormous skill in responding to his opponents’ strategies with blameless restraint, thereby gaining additional plus points. When, for instance, state television continued to ignore him weeks after his election victory, this didn’t incite him to complain about the inequality of power relations; instead, he used his first address to the people to apologise for having previously been unable to speak to them directly.

As taking the side of the defenceless victim is a central characteristic of Shi’ite tradition, this remark alone probably won him more support from the Iranians than any announcement of a political programme could have done.

In the collective consciousness of the simple and rural sectors of the population in particular, Khatami – who was moreover marked out by his black turban as a descendant of the Prophet – had entered the ranks of the Shi’ite Imams and their secular successors, the freedom fighters of modern Iran. As representatives of the community of the faithful, they maintain a hopeless struggle against the overwhelming power of the usurpers or, more simply, the local bigwigs. There is probably no cultural context in which Quixotic behaviour has so great an effect as in the Shi’ite world.Mossadeq the martyr?

In Iran, the mentality of the religious martyr also takes hold of secular, indeed a-religious protagonists, as is illustrated by the political end of the liberal-nationalistic prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq. When the military, backed by the United States, staged a coup against him in 1953 in order to install Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah, Mossadeq could have used the radio, as he had often done before, to call the people out onto the streets, and tens of thousands would have come to his defence. Instead of which, he hid in a cellar together with two of his ministers.

At the end of the second day, one of the ministers said: “It has all gone so badly, so badly.” And Mossadeq replied: “And yet it has gone so well, really well.” Shortly thereafter he was arrested.

It is clear from the example of Mossadeq how wrong and unjust it would be to regard the suicide attackers as a necessary consequence of the Shi’ite cult of martyrdom. What does arise from it – the religious disposition towards self-sacrifice – drives many theologians in present day Iran, as well as intellectuals and students, to stand up in the face of all opposition for democracy, freedom of opinion, even for a secular state – despite all the threats, arrests and murders. In everyday life, this self-sacrificing attitude frequently finds expression in the striking altruism that especially impresses European visitors. From the murder of Hussein to suicide bombers: the missing link

So, to what extent does the murder of Hussein and the cult surrounding his martyrdom lead us to 11 September? The conclusion seems inevitable. In recent weeks there have been articles about the Assassins in the features sections of almost all the German broadsheets; parallels between them and the attackers of New York and Washington, between Hassan ibn Saaba and bin Laden have been uncovered, tracing a direct line from the medieval suicide attacks to the most recent ones.

The chain of argument has led back from the hijackers to the key behavioural models and concepts of the Islamic religion. But a decisive link is missing from the chain: the cult of martyrdom is clearly a Shi’ite phenomenon which, in the first instance, only developed in opposition to the Muslim majority; many of its spiritual and ritual elements are alien to the nature of Sunni Islam, such as the idea of redemption, the need for repentance, the practice of flagellation and the idea of an imitation of suffering.

By contrast, the ideology of the terrorists, as far as we know anything about it, is definitely Sunni. From a Western perspective this may seem to be a minor difference, but within Islam it could scarcely be greater. The Sunni extremists regard the Shi’ites as heretics, and it is no coincidence that three years ago the Taliban, with whom the leaders of al-Qa’ida had allied themselves, carried out a massacre of thousands of Hazara Shi’ites in northern Afghanistan. At any rate, it is not possible to trace a direct line from Hussein – via the Assassins – to the flights targeting the World Trade Centre.The advent of suicide attacks within, and outside of, Islam

The Taliban – and the Afghan Mujahedin before them – have always sought to avoid losses to their own side in battle. The idea of martyrdom as a goal to aim for was imported into the Afghan war against the Soviet Union by Arab guerrillas – although, at the time, not even they saw it as the conscious bringing about of death by self-sacrifice. It is known that, back in the 1980s, Mujahedin representatives asked the Tamil Tigers if they could supply suicide attackers in exchange for money. The Afghans themselves fought courageously, but never in defiance of death.

An indication of how remote they are from the Shi’ite cult of martyrdom is apparent from a recent interview with an intimate of the murdered Ahmed Shah Massoud, published in a German newspaper. When asked why they had been unable to prevent this attack on the Taliban’s fiercest adversary, he replied that they had reckoned with all eventualities – except that of a suicide attack. The reason, amazingly enough, was that suicide and suicide attacks are against the Afghan code of honour and could not have been expected even of the hated Taliban.

In the modern period, suicide attacks – sacrificing one’s own life in order to kill unarmed or unprepared opponents or civilians – have long been a familiar component of cultures other than the Islamic; particularly of Japanese culture, which has given the phenomenon a name. A markedly greater number of suicide attacks were perpetrated by the Tamils in their fight for liberation in Sri Lanka.

Only in Colombia has the phenomenon occurred more frequently – mostly on account of drug barons putting out contracts. In these cases, there is little in the way of ideological motivation: by agreeing to his own death, the contract killer secures many years of maintenance for his wretchedly poor family.

Two or three decades ago, hardly anyone in a Muslim country would have had any understanding of the concept of the suicide attacker. Leaving aside the Sunni world to which the cult of martyrdom is in any case foreign, not even Shi’ite resistance fighters ever thought of strapping a bomb to themselves and setting it off in a department store. The suicide attack played scarcely any role in the Iranian Revolution (in contrast to the idea of martyrdom as such: the readiness to confront the Shah’s soldiers without weapons).

The victims of the revolution were regarded as Shahid – martyrs who were accorded a place of honour in the cemetery and were supposed to enter Paradise by a direct route. Yet the martyr’s death remained confined to circumstances of battle or of non-violent resistance.

At no stage in Islamic history – except in the case of the Assassins who justified their attacks with less reference to the example of Hussein, but to esoteric-apocalyptic notions of the Last Judgement – did the Shi’ite cult of martyrdom envisage any attack on defenceless or unarmed people. It did lead to a drastic increase in the number of people prepared to sacrifice themselves, but this mainly applied, theologically and historically speaking, to situations of militant confrontation – that being the example of Hussein.

Driven by religious blindness or political extremism, the cult did lead to the minefield walkers of the Iran-Iraq War, but it did not lead to suicide attacks. At least, not until the 1980s – and even then, martyrdom was never, in the first instance, the preferred method of the Shi’ite fighters.

In the Lebanese conflict, the Shi’ite Amal faction and Hizbollah have carried out fewer suicide attacks than, for example, the secular communist groups. The first Arab suicide attack in the conflict with Israel did not take place until the early eighties, by which time the conflict had already been under way for several decades, and it was carried out by the Syrian Nationalist Party which included a particularly high number of Arab Christians.

When, some time later, the first instance occurred of a Shi’ite member of Hizbollah blowing up some American soldiers, the attacker was criticised by almost all the Shi’ite authorities in the land, not least because suicide is forbidden by the Koran.

In the Sunni world there had already been a spectacular suicide attack which, however, was not carried out by Sunnis: in 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army (whose leader Fusako Shigenobu – not involved in the attack – was arrested in Osaka on 8 November 2000) opened fire on the waiting crowd, mostly Puerto Rican pilgrims, at Lod airport in Tel Aviv. They killed twenty people and injured eighty others; two were shot dead and the survivor, Kozo Okamoto, faced trial and imprisonment. The Libyan Head of State, Muammar Gaddafi, was to note scornfully that foreigners were fighting for the Arab cause while Arabs themselves remained idle.Religious martyrdom in al-Qa’ida

Historically, therefore, it was precisely not Islamic culture with its strict ban on suicide that gave rise to the phenomenon of the suicide attack. Today, however, it tends to be associated with Islam – and not from any malice. In Israel, in Kashmir, possibly in Chechnya, more recently also in Afghanistan, and finally in New York and Washington on 11 September – in all these countries Muslims have sacrificed their lives simply in order to kill as many of their opponents as possible.

And although in Israel at least, as in Colombia, it is often the hopeless economic situation and the princely reward for one’s surviving dependants that motivates poor Palestinians to blow themselves up, the religious aspect is no mere show, certainly not in the case of the leaders and fighters of al-Qa’ida, almost all of whom come from wealthy backgrounds. The idea of religious martyrdom has determined their thinking and actions for many years.

For example, the writings of Abdullah Azzam, the mentor of Osama bin Laden, glorify martyrdom in a repugnant manner, giving the impression that the real goal in life is to get oneself torn to pieces by infidels in order to lay hold of the seventy-two virgins of Paradise. Azzam holds forth endlessly on the wondrous condition of the martyr whose corpse never rots but exudes delightful scents. Azzam’s right-hand man was, for a long while, an individual by the name of Tamim al-Adnani, another friend of bin Laden.

As the Islamic Studies expert Khalid Duran relates, in the 1980s al-Adnani travelled around the United States, giving lectures in English in an attempt to recruit volunteers for the Afghan war. Al-Adnani himself didn’t seem much like a warrior, being short and extremely fat, and when he donned the garb of an Afghan guerrilla, he must have looked rather comical.

The heavenly reward which he promised pointed to male inhibitions seeking an outlet in pornographic fantasies; thus he raved to his audience about the young girls who, following each sexual act, are transformed back into virgins – and other such stuff. As it happens, Adnani himself failed to find his way to the garden of martyrs. In 1990 he died of a heart attack in Orlando while visiting Disney World – of all places.

The scene could not be more telling: the very man who was chiefly responsible for spreading the religious cult of martyrdom among Sunni Muslims, died in Disney World. Let us also recall the biographies of the leaders of al-Qa’ida, an organisation, the structure of which clearly bears the traits of a religious sect: these are no backwoodsmen, no uneducated villagers like the Taliban who gave them refuge. Coming from the secular middle and upper classes who tend towards a Western lifestyle, theirs are thoroughly modern biographies which have been marked by the experience of religious conversion.

A prototypical example is the current leader of the radical Islamists in England who, until a few years ago, was working as a bouncer in a London brothel. Another good example is the life of bin Laden himself: having attended the same school as Omar Sharif before him, he first did the rounds of Beirut and Cairo nightlife, then at the end of the seventies experienced a religious conversion and wandered off to join the Afghan resistance.

Comparable, too, is the career of his closest associate Ayman al-Zawahiri, a doctor from a top Egyptian family, whose grandfather was the first Secretary General of the Arab League. We should also remember that the presumed attackers of 11 September were all products of the Westernised middle and upper classes, including students who seemed to be completely integrated into German society or that of other Western countries. Many of the attackers went to the disco at weekends, had girlfriends, drank alcohol.

In all these cases we are talking about people from modern, urban backgrounds, products of the more affluent Arab classes – a small segment, therefore, of Arab society. Their everyday lives, professions, knowledge and tastes had far more in common with bourgeois life in Athens, Buenos Aires or Kuala Lumpur than with life in the Palestinian refugee camps, Egyptian slums or Yemeni tribes – or indeed with the life of a street vendor or manual worker who maybe lives just around the corner from his parental home.

The way of thinking which a radical experience or personal encounter has caused them to adopt, seems backward-looking, even archaic, and, if one thinks of the Shi’ite cult of martyrdom, it does relate back to certain forms of Islamic religious tradition – except that these forms belong not to their own Sunni tradition but to the Shi’ite beliefs which they regard as heretic and which in turn reflect Zoroastrian and possibly also Catholic origins.

If one thinks of the language and imagery of al-Adnani, it cannot be denied that this Shi’ite religious tradition has filtered into the terrorists’ intellectual universe, but as merely one feature of a deeply syncretistic world view. They have constructed a tradition using quotations from the textual sources, but removed from their linguistic context as well as that of their historical reception, combined with borrowings from a past which isn’t even their own, plus elements which are completely and utterly contemporary.

The question of why people are prepared to transform themselves into living missiles cannot therefore be explained by telling the story of Hussein. But 11 September probably also cannot be explained without reference to this story. It does partly reveal the source of certain images associated with the phenomenon. But in order to understand what happened, one must tell another story – a modern story, or to put it rather grandly, a story of modernity.The nihilism of Nietzsche

Although I cannot tell this story here and now, I can try to indicate where the idea of achieving redemption through destruction and collective salvation through self-sacrifice has its origins in modernity. I don’t mean by this the tales of science fiction, probably familiar to the attackers – in which the attacks, including the aspect of self-annihilation, seem to be foreshadowed. I should like to go somewhat further back.

In the Frankfurter Rundschau, Friedrich Brake has written that the best aid to understanding 11 September is Nietzsche, and in a public discussion I heard someone contradict him with the argument that there is no evidence that the attackers ever read Nietzsche. That is of course nonsense. One doesn’t have to have read Nietzsche in order to be influenced by the perceptions to which he gave expression. Brake was thinking of the theory of resentment from the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals.

So, too, in a more profound sense, was the Tunisian scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb in an interview with Lettre International – and indeed this theory may well have influenced the psychology behind the attacks. I believe, however, that Nietzsche stands more fundamentally for modes of thought which, on 11 September, found expression in action – and I am thinking here of a key concept of his which was also taken up by Fascism – that of active nihilism.Unclaimed responsibility

One of the most remarkable features of 11 September, and one which has received insufficient attention is that it was not accompanied by any kind of declaration of responsibility. No political concepts were formulated; no demands were issued. Even bin Laden himself has conspicuously avoided accepting responsibility for the attacks – at least in those videos which were made to be broadcast. Equally, he has not denied responsibility, but has sought rather to give the impression that aeroplanes that fly into American skyscrapers simply rain from the heavens – as if they were a natural phenomenon and outcome of American foreign policy.

In a key sentence of his famous first speech, bin Laden prophesied that the Americans would never again be able to live in peace. The remarkable vagueness of motivation, which has not been clarified either by this or by subsequent videos, stands in contradiction to the unparalleled precision of the attacks. In a yet more treacherous way, there is a discrepancy between the lack of clear motivation and the technical and strategic intelligence underlying the execution of the anthrax attacks – the apparent aim of which is merely to spread a general sense of fear.

Nothing symbolises this new dimension of terrorism more accurately than the absence, in each case, of declarations of responsibility. When, in the past, attacks were carried out by the Red Army Faction, PKK, Tamil Tigers, Egyptian Jihad, radical Palestinians or Jewish settlers, they not only took pride in claiming responsibility, they were also employing violence in the pursuit of concrete and identifiable political goals.

These goals were almost always connected with the desired achievement, defence or reform of statehood. But here? People lost no time in talking of a ‘declaration of war’, and still no-one knows who exactly declared war on 11 September – and on whom. On the United States as a sovereign state? On the West or on Christianity? On capitalism?

Even if we still lack evidence, there is much to suggest that it was indeed a cell within al-Qa’ida that perpetrated the attacks on New York and Washington. And one can hardly imagine by now that the motivation of these materially well-off attackers was not a religious one. And yet, what I would claim to discern in this extreme radicalisation of belief, is a variation of nihilism. “We have no answer to the Why,” says Nietzsche, but the answer is not merely missing, it is – in all consciousness – being withheld.

Nietzsche’s proclaimed nihilism progresses from no-saying to no-doing. It is the “will to nothingness”, more than just an insight. Its “personal end” is despair; its “theoretical end” a “philosophy of destruction”. Nietzsche’s nihilism is not merely contemplation, not merely the belief that everything is worthy of destruction. Rather one should intervene personally, causing one’s own destruction and that of other less enlightened people.

This ‘destruction’ or ‘annihilation’ can be turned against oneself, but can also be turned against others, perhaps against a whole world. That, for Nietzsche, is the necessary consequence of regarding non-being as superior, everything else as just a weary evasion.

Alluding to the then prevailing concept of nihilism as a form of terrorist anarchism, Nietzsche wrote that active nihilism would only cease to be sicklied over by the pale cast of thought if a “dynamite of the spirit, perhaps a newly discovered nihiline” became available – even going as far as a “gruesome ethic of genocide”.

According to the logic of reverence for the creation that is expressed in the Old Testament or Koran, the utter destruction of oneself or of others is the most terrible thing of all, but in Nietzsche’s thinking it becomes salvation. Redemption can be earned through works. It is a privilege of human beings that they ‘can cross themselves out like a badly constructed sentence’.

During the First World War, it was thoughts such as these, torn out of the context of Nietzsche’s philosophy, which inspired students and intellectuals with enthusiasm for the Front, and in the Third Reich they bore yet more poisonous fruit. However, their relevance goes beyond their immediate readership, as they don’t represent teachings that one follows or rejects.

One doesn’t need to have read Nietzsche in order to think within a Nietzschean framework. His philosophy is the prophetic and still most precise expression of the simultaneous self-exaltation and self-denial which seems to be part and parcel of modernity. In other societies and political situations it adopts different terminology, patterns of justification, formulas and modes of action. It is a specifically modern mental framework, even when the images through which it communicates itself derive from tradition, or at any rate from an alleged tradition.

The terrorists’ appropriation of a religious tradition is fundamentally no different from the way in which the Fascists made use of the obvious construct of an Aryan-German primeval history. It has scarcely more to do with the real history of the Sunni Arab world than the Valhalla mythology of the Nazis with real remembered German history. The images may be old, traditional or archaic, but the use of them is decidedly modern. This process is not exclusive to ideologies, it is also familiar from science fiction in which mythical images and configurations are projected onto futuristic scenarios.On the trail of the Assassins

I have already mentioned the Assassins. Following 11 September, they were constantly referred to as the ancestors or predecessors of the suicide attackers of New York and Washington. That is historically untenable, as the Assassins were Persian Shi’ites, even more followers of an esoteric sect, septimanian Neo-Ismaeilites, to be precise. Their motives were eschatological in nature: they wanted to bring about the end of the world – a completely different goal from that of the political terrorists who aim to save the world by purging it.

There is also no evidence for a line of descent leading from them to any other phenomenon of Islamic history, certainly not to the Sunni Arab extremism of the present. The columnists and commentators who suddenly poured forth expert opinions on the Assassins ignored this fact with remarkable nonchalance – just as they happily confused Hassan ibn Sabaa with the Old Man of the Mountains in order to compare him with bin Laden in the Afghan mountains.

Nonetheless, their contributions were illuminating, especially a particular full-page essay in the Süddeutsche Zeitung which went to considerable lengths to prove how the Old Man of the Mountains had returned in the person of bin Laden. As evidence, the author began by quoting from a little book by the respected Orientalist Bernard Lewis (from which all the papers are currently quoting as it is in Germany the only easy-to-get-hold-of study of the Assassins which, in return for reading a mere one hundred and fifty pages, allows lazy thinkers to expound general cultural theories about Islam).

However, she didn’t leave it at that. After a few paragraphs she was no longer backing up her analogies with references to Lewis, but using quotations from modern Western novels about the Assassins. At that point, her essay suddenly and unwittingly acquired an element of truth. The Assassins were a real historical phenomenon, yet they play no part in cultural memory, not even in Shi’ite Iran. The execution of their murders and the motives behind them are not a recurring topos of Islamic history.

Assassins castle
Assassins castle

As a real location, the mountain that the well-known German writer Raoul Schrott himself visited in order to find out something about 11 September is now completely forgotten: an absolutely ordinary little town which has nothing and nobody to remind one of the Assassins. Today’s Alamut is not a place of pilgrimage and there are no traces of tradition, as Schrott, somewhat at a loss, noted in his report.

At the moment, the only pilgrims are likely to be Western intellectuals and journalists seeking an explanation for 11 September – but unable to find one, however hard they try. The trail of the Assassins as a historical phenomenon has vanished.

The Assassins with which comparisons can be made are the Assassins of novels and of Hollywood. As a myth of the global culture industry, they are also part of the stock of urban, middle-class consciousness in the Arab world, particularly of the second or third generation Arabs in Europe and America. The difference is that these really do relate the myth to themselves and imagine themselves as following in its wake: the myth, after all, presents itself as a characteristic feature of their own Muslim history and tradition.

I have, of course, no idea if any of the attackers saw himself as a successor to the Assassins, but if so, he certainly didn’t derive the idea from sources in Arabic tradition. Irrespective of that, the example also shows how isolated features from one’s own tradition – which in this situation are without antecedents – have combined with foreign, specifically Shi’ite, possibly even Christian motifs, as well as with modern elements, images and structures of thought. We see too how they have merged into a mixture incorporating anti-capitalism, the cult of martyrdom, Third World rhetoric, totalitarian ideology and science fiction.

A modern rebellion

The argument that 11 September reveals characteristic features of a Western or Westernised present, not of an alien past, is borne out by many aspects of the attack. To start with, there are the attackers and the people presumed to be behind the attacks who, just like almost all Western terrorists of the last thirty years, come from the urban middle and upper classes.

Given other circumstances or another environment, they would perhaps have become militant opponents of globalisation, left-wing extremists, right-wing radicals, members of a religious-scientistic sect or Zapatistas. In the Islamic world, the impetus against the United States as the sole remaining superpower and symbol of present-day existence is expressed in an Islamic vocabulary.

But even in the way it is directed against an American-dominated modernity, the psychological profile of the attacks is a modern, Western one. Comparisons come to mind such as the Unabomber, the Aum Shinrikyo sect and, above all, Timothy McVeigh, all of whom also dispensed with any declarations of responsibility.

The latter, in particular, seemed positively obsessed with destroying himself in the framework of a huge media event. Instead of trying to prevent or at least postpone his execution, he expended all his effort in making it possible for his death to be publicly broadcast. All these acts of terror bear witness to a generalised, pathological hatred which – unlike the hatred fuelling the attacks of the Red Army Faction, ETA, or the Palestinian Hamas – is no longer accompanied by a concrete, identifiable motive.

Terror, the aims of which are undeclared, is directed against an enemy which has become an abstraction, against a superior power which could be termed metaphysical.

This is more or less consistent with the way in which the attacks were staged as a media event for an audience of billions, including the ten minute pause during which the cameras could be set up. That wasn’t thought up by Afghan tribal warriors, but by people who are themselves part of the contemporary world which they are fighting.

Further evidence of this is the prophetic setting and antiquated rhetoric which Osama bin Laden subsequently used in staging his appearance. Although he conjured up the linguistic impression of a tradition, the real heirs of the theological tradition speak quite differently. The same is true of his ideology, so far as remnants of it can be deciphered.

The unity of state and religion that he probably has in mind is alleged to be a sine qua non of Islam, although the idea only took shape with the development of the nation-state. It is not mentioned in any Arabic text before the nineteenth century. Nor is the urge for self-destruction, defined and legitimised by the notion of individual or collective redemption, known to us from the Middle Ages.

The crazed killer is a modern being – and not only when he belongs to a religious organisation. When, a few days after 11 September, a Swiss citizen killed some members of the regional parliament of Zug and then himself, one was relieved that the one attack seemed to have nothing to do with the other. Yet the two events are not so entirely unrelated.

By means of a single act, the crazed killer acquires a surrogate for that which is lacking, almost by definition, in modern society: a comprehensive framework of meaning in which the individual has his allocated place. The act is preceded by a phase of withdrawal, separation, subjectively perceived rejection or conscious isolation – even when the outward forms of bourgeois existence are being maintained.

Stuck in a vacuum, the individual feels himself to be passive, anonymous, in every way forced to fend for himself. By shooting or bombing he endows himself with significance, becoming for a few seconds the total man of action, the avenger of an injustice which is overwhelmingly felt, but which neither his personality nor external circumstances have given him any chance of putting right.

From being a nobody, he raises himself to a god. However senseless his action might appear when viewed from the outside, it is from destruction itself that he wrests an ultimate meaning. His abstract antagonist – the state, humanity, the environment, evil itself – becomes briefly tangible in the form of those at whom his weapon is aimed.

One scarcely dares to imagine how much greater the injection of meaning, public attention and empowering action must be for those who, in their temporary seclusion, have been reinforced in their beliefs by political sects and have yielded to seductively coherent religious convictions. The thrill must be so much greater when the injustice which – by means of a symbolic single act – they are trying to put right, punish or at least point out, is not just individually suffered but can be portrayed as the oppression of millions whom they thereby release from passivity and from whose anonymity they emerge through self-destruction.

Those who seek the origins of 11 September in the Koran or in the Middle Ages are making the situation appear less dangerous than it is – indeed are being misleading. In many respects, the Taliban are an archaic phenomenon that can be combated militarily and cut off from its financial sources. 11 September, however, represents a kind of terrorism that can spring up anywhere in a modern society. It does require there to be a wretched people as whose agents it sees itself and claims to act, but these wretched peoples are interchangeable.The context of Realpolitik

Searching for causes in the context of a critique of globalisation is therefore only of limited help. The kind of violence which, on 11 September, impressed itself on international public consciousness, will happen again in the future, and it will learn from 11 September.

Nonetheless one must also look at the political and economic background to the attacks. They don’t explain the violence itself, but they do help to explain the support it receives from people and governments. Even if the Islamic global terror network is very much a hybrid phenomenon, it still needs a social and political base in order to become so dangerous. It needs movements in society which support it and countries that protect it. The fact that it has all this is what distinguishes the al-Qa’ida network from all other known variants on nihilistic terror.

The feeling of being oppressed and exploited may not have its roots in the social backgrounds of its leaders, but it is nonetheless real and widespread. Osama bin Laden is not appealing to some imaginary working class, but to broad strands of society which feel genuinely oppressed and exploited – even if it is only a small minority that would turn to violence on that account. Nonetheless, their identification with the motives underlying such acts, conceals a terrifying potential for the support of terror.

Al-Qa’ida had one thing in particular that radical opponents of globalisation, American right-wing extremists or the Aum sect lack: one or more states that offered it refuge, enabled financial transactions and possibly even equipped it with technical know-how. It is only with such help that bin Laden and his friends were able to attain that international political dimension of which other terrorists can only dream.

And here begins the third story which needs to be told, a story of Realpolitik. It tells of the Afghan refugee children in Pakistan from whose ranks the Pakistani ISI and American CIA created the Taliban with financial help from Saudi Arabia. The plan was to send them into battle against the Mujahedin who had previously received the support of these same political powers, but who – following their victory – could no longer be controlled.

Commentators tend repeatedly to confuse two completely different phenomena: the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, the students of the Koran from the Pashtun provinces, and the affluent terrorists from the metropolitan centres of the Arab world. The former offered protection, while the latter express their gratitude with abundant cash, so that it’s hard to say who is more dependent on whom. However sympathetic they may be to each other’s goals, however similar they may have become in terms of lifestyle and dress, they do come from totally different worlds and inhabit different versions of the present.

The explosive synchronicity of non-synchronous elements which characterises this religious terrorism is perfectly exemplified by this alliance of uneducated Pashtun villagers and rich Arab city dwellers.

I have told or, at any rate, sketched the outline of three stories – a story of the Shi’ite cult of martyrs, a story of modern fantasies of salvation through self-destruction, plus a chapter from the story of American Realpolitik in the Middle East. None of them explains 11 September, but together they help to delineate the background against which aeroplanes go flying into skyscrapers.

This fourth story is still unfolding and there remains every reason to fear that it will end yet more badly than it began.

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