This following is the full transcript of an interview with Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl by the producer of the CBS Evening News for the CBS Weekend Edition on October 19, 2003. The topic is the psychology of suicide bombers and the Islamic law basis for suicide bombing.
Pre-Interview Comments of Note
CBS NEWS: [As background for this interview], I want to know from an Islamic law point of view where [suicide bombing] fits in. How does it fit in, or does it fit in to traditional Islamic law? What is it in the text of the Qur’an that the leaders of these organizations are hanging their hat on to convince young people that this is something that they should do and that they will be rewarded for in the afterlife? It’s hard for the media to grasp it, and this is to help us understand why. Most people say it’s because they’re crazy over there, but that’s not it. That’s an oversimplification, and it’s extremely complicated.
KAEF: All texts have the ability to, if approached from a certain framework, have the ability to support all types of evil. Think of the way that Deuteronomy was used, for instance, during the Crusades.
CBS NEWS: You’re written that the idea of suicide bombing runs contrary to the Islamic notion of chivalry. What to you mean by that?
KAEF: The Islamic Civilization—I’m speaking here about the formative period of Islam, in the first few centuries—was truly remarkable. At the time that Islamic jurisprudence developed, Muslim jurists were developing ethical standards for warfare. These ethical standards had at their foundation, or seemed to be derived from the perceptions of Arab chivalry—the idea of which used to prevail very strongly 1400 years ago. The idea of the true warrior is the warrior that stands up, declares his presence, looks his enemy right in the eye and fights his enemy like a man—man to man. [He] doesn’t stab someone in the back, doesn’t attack defenseless people, doesn’t go after those who cannot fight back. This conception was quite powerful. In fact, in early Arab culture, it was considered shameful if a warrior killed someone in a way that would be considered an easy kill. Remarkably, there are actually individuals [in Islamic history] who had the dishonor of being known as an individual who killed a defenseless person. These would be fighters who through some circumstance, ended up killing someone who was defenseless. People would write poetry and say such and such person is known to have murdered a defenseless person—that this person is worth nothing, and was dropped from the popular conceptions of honor and respect and so on. Islamic law in its early development was influenced by that. And it was also influenced by Qur’anic injunctions that specifically and directly addressed issues of ethics of combat and the conduct of warfare.
CBS NEWS: What did those proscriptions say?
KAEF: Well, both the teachings of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammed, and the Qur’anic injunctions were quite specific. In fact, as a text, they are remarkably specific. They say that you cannot kill a woman, you cannot kill a child, you cannot kill a senior individual, you cannot kill a hermit, you cannot kill a member of the clergy, you cannot even kill peasants who are not fighters, in other words, peasants whose main job is tilling the land, but who don’t engage in warfare. You cannot destroy trees, you cannot demolish nature, you cannot kill livestock; there were even restrictions on use of what we today call weapons of mass destruction. So for instance, some of the injunctions clearly address the use of poison in waterholes or in wells. Very clear injunctions say that water belongs to God, so you cannot poison the water stream or water source as a means of fighting the war. [There are] injunctions against the use of fire because it cannot be managed, it cannot be controlled. There are several prophetic injunctions by the Prophet Muhammad saying that fire and the agony that death by fire produces is so severe that the only being to be trusted with it, the only being that can yield such a power is God. A human being should not dare to think of handling such an enormous power as fire—it belongs to God and leave it in God’s Hand.
CBS NEWS: It seems that from what you’re explaining, that there is a very clear set of rules. How does a suicide bomber fit into that?
KAEF: Well, there is a history but to say it in the most direct fashion, the crux of the issue is that in Islamic jurisprudence, there is a distinction between what are known as ahl al-kitan versus those who are not. Ahl al-kitan is a term that means “people who fight you” versus “people who don’t fight you.” And, in fact, in Islamic jurisprudence and in the Qur’an itself, there are very specific injunctions saying that you will not kill a prisoner of war or someone who drops his weapon. You will not kill someone simply because they are not a Muslim. There is even a very well known incident in which a Muslim soldier is about to strike an opponent in war. [His opponent] dropped his weapon and said, “I have become a Muslim.” The [Muslim] soldier went ahead and killed him. When the Prophet found out, he was livid. He was extremely upset and said, “The minute he said, ‘I have become a Muslim,’ how dare you kill him?” And the soldier said, “Well he only said this to save himself!” And the Prophet responded, “You don’t know what’s in his heart. And even if he didn’t say, ‘I have become a Muslim,’ the minute he dropped his sword, he had became immune.” Now, so what happens to this juristic culture that is clear and rather unequivocal?
In a nutshell, the excuse of necessity. Practical, functional necessity. The argument goes something like this: The Qur’an on the one hand says, here are the bounds of God—these rules I have just explained—here are the boundaries of God, do not transgress the boundaries of God. The Qur’an even goes further and says, “Do not let enmity towards others—your anger towards others—lead you into injustice.” The Qur’an also says, “Fight those who fight you, and fight those who fight you in the same way that they fight you.” Now, that is a general injunction. You could take it to mean that when someone attacks you, respond in kind.
CBS NEWS: An eye for an eye.
KAEF: And even if we don’t take it to the logic of eye for an eye, you could say that when it comes to self-defense, if someone is going after you with a sword, then you don’t respond with a stick, or by throwing stones at them. That’s the idea. But the suicide bombers utilize the notion that this is all fine and nice, but that the Qur’an and the prophetic teachings and all of that were talking about a situation where Muslims have an equal amount of power to non-Muslims. According to these suicide bombers, these Qur’anic injunctions and prophetic teachings were not talking about a situation where Muslims have become so weak that they are unable to fight or resist in kind. And so the argument goes, what is the top priority? Is it following the rules of war or achieving victory? And suicide bombers respond that achieving victory is the real priority.
CBS NEWS: You mention that these suicide bombers say, okay, the text never understood that we would be outmatched militarily, so we have to do what we can to win. But I find a hypocrisy there because the same suicide bombers are being mentored by people who say that we should stay strict to the text of the Qur’an.
KAEF: Actually, this is a brilliant point. I can’t say enough about how pertinent and probing this point is. You are absolutely right that these same schools of thought that say suicide bombing is necessary, they claim to be strict constructionists, they claim to be literalists, they claim that they follow Islamic law without interpretation. They even say, “Ah, the liberals, they interpret Islamic law. We don’t.” But you know what? You discover that they say that, they do so when it comes to women, when it comes to suppressing women, when it comes to veiling women, when it comes to shutting women up. They do so only when it serves their ego. But when it’s not consistent with their political objectives, they suddenly become the most liberal interpreters of the text. They suddenly take a whole chunk of teachings by the Prophet and say, “Oh! That’s all fine and nice,” but just cast it aside. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard on tapes where they say, “Yes, yes, yes, after we achieve victory, after Muslims become powerful, we will go back and apply these rules that the Prophet taught. But right now, we can’t afford to apply these rules. Right now, we’ve got to achieve victory invoking the principle of necessity.” Now, when you come to them and you say, “Can we use the principle of necessity for instance to say that a woman needs to do x, y, or z?” they say, “Absolutely not! Now that’s forbidden! You can’t use necessity for something like that.” There is a fundamental inconsistency that I think hypocrisy is the right word; it’s a form of functionalism that is truly opportunistic.”
CBS NEWS: You grew up in Egypt. I’ve read something where you talked about as a teenager in an underdeveloped country and a despotic system, that there are frustrations for young people. And it seems to me that you are saying that you can kind of understand how a kid growing up on the West Bank in a refugee camp could turn out. To be dropped into this [suicide bombing situation], with an opportunity to be somebody…can you explain how this is?
KAEF: The conditions in which I grew up were not nearly as bad as someone growing up in a refugee camp, but the thing that facilitates this type of attitude where people think, I’ll sacrifice myself and so on, is a general atmosphere where everything seems to be at an oppressive, suffocating stalemate. You’re going nowhere. Even if you say okay I’ll do well in school, well, what does that mean? Are you guaranteed jobs that give you an opportunity for upward mobility? Absolutely not. The chances are that the person who has a connection to someone who is well placed in the government is the one who is going to be able to get the job. Your grades and your hard work will be for nothing. Do you have an opportunity to express yourself in a meaningful way within a political context or a social context? Absolutely not, because frankly, everyone is so busy staying alive and earning a living that no one has patience for someone with creative ideas, or someone with theories and conceptions and dreams and aspirations and things like that. On top of this, there is a constant sense, in fact, of a little bit of self flagellation; self-punishment, where everyone around you is constantly speaking about how the Arabs and even Muslims, generally, are defeated and disgraced and humiliated. One of the things that you grow up with is people who keep telling you the cheapest blood in this world is the blood of a Muslim. People keep telling you all the time that killing a Muslim in this world we live in means nothing. That’s the way most people feel. You’re constantly reminded in everything—in the media, in school, on the radio, wherever you go—that we are a defeated culture, that we have lost our military battles, our economies have gone nowhere, our political institutions have gone nowhere and so on. And this amazing sense of frustration makes you feel like, I’ve got to do something—do something. Well, here’s where the easy way out comes in. And that is, suddenly, you go from an enigma, a non-entity, someone who doesn’t know what my place in this world is going to be [to the opposite]. Someone comes in and says, no you’re a hero; you can be a hero. You will be the talk of everyone. Everyone will remember you. People will put your pictures on walls, they’ll put your face on walls and name factions after you—i.e. the martyrs of such and such. In addition, your religious education is very poor—because generally, your education is poor. It’s not like your religious education is poor but your other fields of education are good. The general level of education is abysmal. So someone comes and poses as a scholar of Islamic law and says, “I can tell you that if you do this and do this, you have an immediate ticket to Heaven.” But even more than that. They often tell you that martyrs don’t actually die. They actually only think they die, but they remain alive from now until the Hereafter and even after the Hereafter comes. So, in other words, you’re told, you’re not going to actually experience death—you’re going to stay alive. The only difference is you don’t have to worry about your future anymore, you don’t have to worry about money anymore, and you don’t have to worry about anything anymore. You’re going to be in a state of bliss—you’re going to be alive, you’re going to see everyone and feel everything, but you’re going to be very happy and in a complete state of bliss—in a state in which you need nothing. There is no need that conquers you. Obviously, for very young kids, this starts sounding like, hey, it seems like all my problems are going to end in just one act, and if I can just marshall the bravery to do this one thing—take the anxiety, the fear, the pain that’s going to go with this one act—all of my problems are solved forever.
CBS NEWS: And, the irony is that there is nothing in the Quran that says something half like that. Am I correct in that?
KAEF: The Qur’an talks about those who are martyred in God’s name. This brings the whole issue of martyrdom. The Qur’an itself basically says that those that sacrifice their lives for a good cause will be rewarded by God. Now that is not a unique theme to Islam; every religion has that. The idea though, is that, as the Prophet taught, it is much better to live for Islam than to die for Islam. The Prophet consistently taught that the true jihad is to pursue knowledge; to purify yourself; to cleanse yourself. And he even called death in conflict the minor jihad, while he called self awareness and self knowledge the major jihad. And, the whole approach of Islamic teachings is geared towards the sustenance of life, not death—not the creation of death, but the preservation of life. Now the problem, though, is that life is much harder than death. For these kids, living for Islam, although it is much more worthy, is much harder. My experience has been that these so-called scholars that come and teach them the ethics of death, don’t tell them at all about the traditions of the Prophet about living for Islam being superior. Now you have to understand that for these kids, it’s not like they have an independent means to knowledge. It’s not like they have the money or the resources to go join classes or buy books and start reading them. One of the things that struck me growing up in and traveling to the Middle East, is how the very act of buying Islamic law books is beyond their price range. It’s just astronomical and unthinkable to them. And so that’s all they know. They go to their deaths, I feel, as a Muslim, cheated—savagely and brutally cheated by their handlers as to the very message that they think they are sacrificing their lives for. They are literally sold a line, they’re just sold an illusion, a lie. And by the time anyone realizes it’s a lie, their life has ended. In my experience, what has made a difference in many cases has been education, because in my experience, when you come to these kids and you actually show them the material that has been left out by their handlers, the sense of absolute betrayal is overwhelming. They feel like, as one fellow once told me, “I feel like I was raped, and I did not realize I was raped.”
CBS NEWS: In combating terrorism, it seems that we are working against the tide of history here. That we’re seeing many times more suicide bombers. 9/11 was basically suicide bombers in jumbo jets. Knowing what we’re up against, I suspect there is no simple solution, but from a Western point of view, is there anything that can be done, or is this something that the Muslims are just going to have to work out on their own?
KAEF: The Muslim world has to do its part, there is no question, and it’s a major part. But I think we can help. I think we can help by funding education. It’s a simple point that when you say it, people say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”. But people don’t realize how little we actually spend on education around the world—on giving people real opportunities if they are intelligent. For instance, we used to spend in the 70’s much more money on exchange programs where we fund gifted individuals, have them come to the West for a serious education, and then require them to go back and live in their countries. A lot of these programs we stopped funding, or we reduced funding enormously. If I was a policy maker, I would invest in education. Furthermore, there is no question that improving economic conditions make a difference. But much more important than improving economic conditions is to bear whatever pressure we can upon these despotic, authoritarian governments, to ease off their people a bit, or actually, in my opinion, considerably because a lot of these suicide bombers—when they tell you their narratives, they often tell you a story of either trauma where they were at one point or another arrested by the government and tortured and lost all sense of values or belief in human beings after that incident; or they have an uncle, or a cousin or a brother who suffered something like that. We can play a huge role in getting these governments to stop torturing their citizens at will and with impunity—just simply arresting and torturing without regard to the implications. And you know why—because the implications bear directly upon us. It’s not just them or their society that have to bear the implications of THEM arresting people and torturing them. We do as well. The world has to as well. And finally, for these suicide bombers, what often draws them in is that conviction that the world hates Islam, hates them, and hates their religion. We have to help in defeating that paradigm by doing whatever we can to communicate; to make that message get there—not just in terms of rhetoric, but in terms of actual contributions. So for instance when recently, an American official working in the army made some comments about how when he walks around he feels that his God is much better than the God of Muslims—this is someone in the Pentagon or something—and Rumsfeld stands around and refuses to punish him or investigate him and so on, the extent to which an event like this can be utilized to charge up these kids—people would be shocked if they realized. And that’s where we have to come in a take a stand. The hate-filled books that have been published about Islam since 9/11 are one of the most effective propaganda tools that the handlers of extremism utilize, because they create lists of these books—t hey even bring copies of these books—and they go to these kids and they say, “Look, look at what they say about your religion, look at what they say about your Prophet—they say he was a pedophile and things like that. Now what do you think? Are you going to accept that? Are you going to take it? Are you going to let them get away with it?” Of course, these kids become riled up. And we can do a lot. By being ethical and demonstrating an ethical example to the world.