The Topography of Martyrdom: Peace, Chaos, and the Cycle of Seeking

With the frenetic speed at which suicide jihadist attacks are taking place, it’s understandable that the media’s narrative remains the same. Only a superficial level of understanding can be derived as attacks increase in frequency and the public’s window of interest narrows. In fact, the common citizen now find themselves with  “another machete attack” mindset as the media splashes some basic facts and moves on to something of greater interest.

Nevertheless, understanding what caused the attack is critical to thwarting future attacks. In fact, understanding the cycle of martyrdom in particular is essential to the future of western nations.  There is a predictable pattern to a Muslim’s path to martyrdom that must be understood and countered.

Stepping into the Mirage: Sunni Islam includes about 85 percent of all Muslims and attracts the most converts. The new believer can be drawn to the religion through association with a moderate or radical follower of Islam, yet either starting point can lead to the convert’s choice to commit jihad. More specifically, the believer can find himself disillusioned with Islam either way.  What he originally believed would be a welcoming community and a simple theology proves to be something different.  Instead, if one has a propensity towards the militant realm he will not be accepted by the mainstream community and as well will find a deep ocean of micro theology awaiting him.  This can also be the case with an individual that grew up Muslim. Orlando terrorist Omar Mateen had a long history of fighting and creating disturbances which most likely were rooted in his enduring attempt to gain attention. He may have been drawn deeper into Islam based on its promise of rules and lifestyle boundaries. Whether an existing believer or a new convert, Islam appears to offer a pure choice as a life system with guidance regarding all aspects of life. The reality is that Islam offers this guidance under thousands of rules of the Hadith volumes as a complement to the teachings of the Qur’an.  The deeper reality is that as one follows the verbatim teachings of these books they find themselves channelized to the call to Jihad through the violent verses replete throughout. However, this lifestyle, whether moderate or radical is anything but peaceful and those initial expectations were only a mirage. If piously following the practical teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith, the believer finds himself in a conundrum, either take Jihadist related action or attempt to live in denial of hard truths.  Verse 9:5 of the Qur’an (the Verse of the Sword) timelessly commands followers to “slay” the infidels (those that don’t follow Islam).  Such a requirement disenables Muslims from inaction unless one seeks to live a quiet life away from the eyes of the rest of the community or the world.

Additionally, many Muslims further find chaos in dealing with their own sin and hypocrisy. Revered al-Qaida spiritual leader Anwar Al Awlaki found himself habitually involved with prostitutes and Osama bin Laden reportedly had a pornography stash. Radical Muslims that specifically follow the Sunni sect, also known as Salafi Jihadists, never know peace as Jihad is waiting to find them. Outside of the Sunni sect, radical Shiites also find themselves facing the same challenges. The Salafi Jihadist ideology is that followed by Al Qa’ida, ISIS, Al Shabab, Hamas, Boko Haram, and by those carrying out the majority of attacks around the world as ISIS loses its swath of land in the Middle East.  Moderates as well never find peace as the worldwide attacks continue to increase in frequency. In fact, they find themselves seeking to conceptually extrapolate peace from the barbaric violence and destruction that is headlined each day for all the world to see.  Overlay this with a belief that they will forego having to answer for their sins and travel directly to paradise, these believers begin to believe that martyrdom is the most logical answer out of their hardships.  As well, as mentioned earlier, inaction is a choice but comes with persecution from those who follow the Salafi verbatim ideology.  A life of inaction also denies the elemental teachings of Islam that requires violent action.  Each individual Muslim knows that they will have to reconcile this with Allah in the afterlife.

Vulnerabilities and Confusion:  A new convert is generally introduced to a denomination (Fiqh) of Islam.  Basically, Fiqh is the jurisprudence that one will follow as a new believer.  Most likely, a friend or mentor puts his arm around the new convert and guides him through the initial process of becoming a Muslim. Given there are four mainstream schools of Fiqh (Hanafi, Hanbali, Malaki, Shafi’i), the individual generally starts attending a mosque that falls in line with one of these schools of jurisprudence. The new convert is fresh in his belief system, vulnerable as he makes his way through the initial learning curve, yet ostensibly prepared for the road ahead.  He then enters into the cycle of seeking wherein he is exposed to the numerous layers of beliefs before him. For instance, he may find himself contemplating the concept of the Antichrist (Dajjal) which is critical to understanding the eschatology of Islam. There are similar beliefs on who the Dajjal is and what his actions will be in end times.  For instance, the general Sunni belief is that he is of Jewish decent and will be followed by Jewish followers. The Dajjal will be killed upon the arrival of Isa (Jesus) and all Jews and Christians will convert to Islam.  For the individual Muslim, the believer will find there are basic teachings in the Qur’an and the Hadith on the Dajjal only to then learn that the school of Fiqh he follows adds some nuances to his initial understanding. Another example is ways of prayer.  The different schools of Fiqh have particular ways in which the hands are held, prostration is conducted, and what clothing can or cannot be worn.  These are all micro differences that are critical teachings amongst the different denominations within the Sunni sect.  The new believer then attends some theological classes taught by an in house scholar at the mosque to learn this sheikh has beliefs about the Dajjal that don’t exactly line up with what he has already learned. Then as he grows deeper in his research, the convert reads additional context in the book of Tafsir which provides context to Mohammad’s initial teachings. Add to this numerous fatwas (declarations), opinions of modern scholars, and his own developing opinion, the new convert finds himself in complete confusion on the topic. To further complicate what was to be a simple lifestyle now has become a new era of chaos via trying to understand even the basics of theology in Islam.

Rage against the Ummah: With an overwhelming theological confusion setting in, set against the rules set forth in the Hadith, the new convert finds himself becoming skeptical. The smiles of the Ummah (Muslim community) in the beginning have waned, and the proverbial PhD. in Islamic history and context remains as a seemingly insurmountable mountain before him. As such, his skepticism leads to anger as he realizes this may not have been what he signed up for when he recited the Shahada. In fact, a new convert may find himself facing the daunting task ahead of trying to simply understand the micro nuances of his general school of jurisprudence. 

Thus sets up the radical mentor to step up and assist. The new believer is frustrated and is seeking some reprieve. Radical Islam in the name of Salafi jihadism tends to be the perfect answer for individuals that are overwhelmed and exhausted by the compulsory academics of general Islam. The Salafi belief system does not follow the mainstream denominations yet leads with a simple call for the confused believer. The Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon followed this same Salafi belief system which led them to carry out the attacks justified by their theology. Salafism says follow the first three generations of Islam, read and follow the Qur’an and Hadith verbatim. How much easier can it get?  This makes sense to the short sold convert. This is what he wanted originally. The subliminal objective, however, flows directly from the Salafi system. Following the Qur’an and Hadith disenables an individual from questioning what he reads. This includes all things jihad such as compulsion to find and slay the Jews and Christians, smite their necks, and all other justified violence as presented in the books.

Yet, the new convert finds himself on a one way road, especially if he can’t return to the moderate world. ISIS won’t allow him to return, nor will the small cell set up in small town America. He’s now found what he was originally looking for, but he didn’t realize initially what it entailed or what the consequences were. Nevertheless, he’s been accepted into a savvy group that he looks up to and he now seeks to find approval from as he carries out his martyrdom. Thus ends the cycle of martyrdom and another headline gaining little interest in the media.

This never ending cycle continues until we gain a deeper understanding of the theology inherent with Islam and its draw from the long line of would-be jihadists.

Brig Barker is an ACT for America Fellow and a retired FBI agent that worked counterterrorism for the majority of his career.  He spent the last 18 years of his career interviewing and investigating radical Jihadists.  The above article is drawn from his experiences during his assignments both in the U.S. and while overseas.