This afternoon, in a meeting at the Ministry of Higher Education, Ammar Saatti asked our group to imagine this scenario: In open fire, Israeli soldiers kill the wife and two young children of a Syrian man. The incident occurs in the ongoing struggle between Syria and its southwestern neighbor over the contentious Golan Heights territory.
The next morning, that guy wakes up and straps a bomb to himself. He boards a bus carrying Israeli soldiers. Then he explodes. The soldiers blow up, too, along with a civilian.
“There isn’t a single household [here] in which a family member hasn’t become a martyr to the cause,” explained Saatti, head of the National Union of Syrian Students. (It’s worth noting this group has a serious political axe to grind. As Saatti said, here, it’s inevitable that even a group devoted to higher education would adopt a position of staunch anti-Zionism.)
In the past month, we’ve occasionally had to address the reality of suicide or martyr bombings. Not personally, of course. I mean, in conversations: with students, with speakers. Not because they’re dangerously wild religious zealots with a blithe disregard for the value of human life, but because here, those things happen. There is an element of everyday conflict and combat that’s foreign to us.
A couple of AUC students leveled our stereotypes of a radical Muslim obliterating innocents in the name of Allaah. To describe the psychology of suicide attacks, and the impetus, they used words like “desperation” and “hopelessness.” They talked about a young Palestinian woman whose last weapon was her body.
“Can you imagine how far you have to be pushed to take your own life?” one of the girls asked.
Before I continue, this post needs a belated disclaimer.
Please try to be objective. I am trying to be objective. Trying to stretch my brain, not for the sake of acceptance, but to recognize a new perspective. This topic really challenges my heart and mind, more than anything I’ve confronted in the Middle East. It’s just hard. Hard to talk about, uncomfortable, sensitive. Hard to articulate anything meaningful, for fear of sounding either too narrow-minded or too conciliatory toward something that ties thick knots in my stomach. By the same token, these attacks fit into the culturally crucial conversation about defining terrorism. In many ways, that definition is completely different here than it would in the West – not necessarily because of disparate value systems, but because of disparate realities. Think of Hezbollah. Think of Hamas.
Something else worth noting: Did you know that some police controls in Egypt stem, in part, from an acute awareness of how little this region can afford to corroborate its reputation in the world as violently radical? In Egypt, religious proselytism is actually illegal. One Muslim cannot even technically suggest a less devout Muslim wear a veil or pray more often. The Muslim Brotherhood strives to distinguish itself from extremist groups like Al-Qaeda as a moderate alternative. In other words, no one here is oblivious.
Having said that, suicide attacks or martyr bombings (even the wording is controversial) are not inherently religious. Yes, the ongoing conflict between Syrians and Israelis, or Palestinians and Israelis, hinges on the holy sanctity of certain parcels of land. But in the moment – the moment when a man or woman detonates a bomb that he or she is wearing – religious fundamentalism probably isn’t the driving force. It’s probably a moment pregnant with fear and rage and anguish, an act that someone’s mother or father or spouse or kids wouldn’t encourage, but an act that seems to someone, at some point, the only possible outlet. The only possible anything, period. The only way to make a sound.
I don’t know what that means. I just know it’s an idea no one ever shared with me until now.