Suffer the little children: the burden of God

By Lorenzo

Just when I thought I had a full grasp of the moral depravity that is suicide bombing, another level of horror is revealed. Al Qaeda’s preferred target group for recruiting suicide bomber is—orphans.

As one Pakistani political activist writes:

We have observed that most of the suicides bombers are orphans who are less than 17 years old. These vulnerable children are being used as the main tool for terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Interior Ministry has announced that:

Al-Qaeda has over the past two years used 24 children to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq, the director of military operations for the Interior Ministry, Abdelaziz Mohammed Jasim, told pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat.

In Somalia, a 13 year old orphan reports on how he was recruited to be a suicide bomber.

Adoption vacuum
Sharia increases the opportunity for jihadis to recruit orphans because it has usually been interpreted to bar adoptions (though a form of guardianship, or khalat, is permitted). Without adoption as an alternative in most Muslim countries, there is a larger pool of vulnerable recruitment targets in orphanages for al Qaeda and its ilk to recruit as self-activating bombs.

It is not surprising that Sharia should be resistant to adoption. Sharia arose in a society where lineage was crucial: the role of daughters was to breed sons for the lineage (hence the propensity for cousin marriage, so they “breed in”). If there is no living parent, a child’s status as “asset” for the lineage is much weakened. And permitting adoption would open up the risk that they become “assets” to another lineage. (As ever, Philip Carl Salzman’s analysis is a necessary starting point for understanding the social dynamics of Islam’s home region.)

There is a push to re-interpret Sharia to permit adoption, part of the general tension between Islam and modernity which has done so much to shape the contemporary jihadi outlook. (Which is not to say that jihadis are merely some modern phenomenon; it has been a recurring feature of Islam that it produces violent “purification” movements—after all, what was the Prophet himself after he took over Medina if not the leader of a violent religious purification movement?)

Use of orphans as a potential political asset is not unique to al-Qaeda. It was widely rumoured that the Romanian Ceau?escu tyranny sought to recruit orphans as loyal secret police operatives. Though not strictly orphans, the Kim dynasty that owns North Korea uses its illegitimate progeny in a similar fashion.

To use orphans as suicidal military assets is, however, rather more distinctively a jihadi activity. Iran used children en masse during its war with Iraq (which makes the regime’s current public angst about plummeting fertility grimly ironic). Child fighters have been a feature in Africa’s horrors and the Tamil Tigers used both child fighters and suicide bombers. But to specifically target orphans for recruitment—indeed, as your preferred source of suicide-bombers—seems a new, vile twist.

But we come back to the point about lineage. Orphans are cut off from family: this makes them both more vulnerable to recruitment and means they come with fewer entanglements. Being no lineage’s “asset”, their loss has fewer social resonances.

Loving death
Of course, part of the horror of using orphans is precisely their vulnerability. The Somali lad telling of how his jihadi recruiter/mentor offered him purpose and love missing from his life is repellent reading. The horror from so using children comes from the violation of innocence and the sense of life thrown away so early. But that assumes one loves and reveres life. This is not a feature of the jihadis.

That the jihadis are death-obsessed is a recurring observation. But it is one that the jihadis themselves celebrate. In the words of the leader of Hezbollah, the Party of God, that so poisons Lebanese politics:

“The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death.”

In a similar vein, a Lebanese Shia reacts to a 2009 speech by Hezbollah’s leader:

He was talking about death. He was asking, ‘Have you ever heard of the last moments before death? You have no idea how terrible these moments are.’ He was describing the very precise nature of this pain. His point was that the only way to die is as a martyr. He said, ‘As you know, everyone dies. So why not choose to die as a martyr, and save yourself the pain of these awful moments between life and death?’

… I am driving my 2009 car, and this guy is telling me how to die better.

The glory of a death in the service of Allah, that brings one to Allah’s paradise, is a commonplace of jihadi rhetoric. Certainly, it offers a transcendent sense of purpose and rejecting refuge from the unsettling confusions of modernity. Or from a solitary and uncertain life cut off from kin-connections in societies so profoundly based on them.

To glory in death is to reject this world. Such discounting of the world is the contemptus mundi tradition that is such a recurring feature of monotheism. Somehow, conceiving of the world as His creation is not enough. True devotion to God is shown by rejecting what He has created in favour of an existence imaged to be closer to Him; indeed, to partake of His direct Presence.

Aspects of this world-rejecting hunger for God keep peeking out from under monotheism. The recurring notion that sex—apart from procreation—separates us from the divine is a particularly powerful, and persistent, manifestation of it.

Wide morality
There is a recurring claim that morality is dependant on religion. This is arrant nonsense, up there with monotheism having created, or being in some special possession of, marriage. Morality is a pervasive feature of human society; indeed, it is clear that human nature has a significant (if varied) predisposition to being moral. Hence the lack of such predisposition is an aberration, a pathology (currently labelled as various forms of anti-social personality disorder). We can see the importance of this predisposition to be moral by looking at the disproportionately destructive impact of those who lack it.

We can also see its importance by comparing homo sapiens to other animals. It is not that what we might call a moral sense is entirely absent from other animals, it is just that it is clearly much less developed than in humans. Chimpanzees, for example, do not seem to develop in nature any sense of property, of rightful control. (Which hugely reduces their social possibilities: the notion of rightful control pervades human society—socialism is as much built on notions of rightful control as capitalism, just different structures and processes of such control. Philosopher John Locke’s notion that we move things into an economy by “mixing our labour with it” is completely wrong-headed, any animal does that; exchange starts with a notion of rightful control, for that is what is being exchanged, rightful control over particular things.)

So, can morality exist without any particular religion? Of course it can. Can it exist without any religion? Yes, though religion can clearly give morality extra emotional power. A more interesting question is how much a civilisation can move away from its origins and maintain its coherence. How much can it shift what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt would call its moral matrix without a debilitating loss of social capital?

Either way, attempts to rest morality on divine command fail. Commands have to be communicated, so the divine command theory only makes sense within the context of a particular tradition of revelation and human morality obviously operates much more widely than any particular such tradition. Moreover, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, no set of revelations is sufficiently complete as to leave moral principles fully defined: indeed, Sharia itself is the fruit of centuries-long attempts to “fill in the gaps”. Morality is broader than revelation, in every sense. As for the notion that God speaks to us through our moral sense, our inner moral voice, that falls into the category “I have no need for that hypothesis”.

Hi-jacking morality
It is true that monotheism, through its notion of a single ultimate authority, who is also the creator of all—so we are all children of God—spreads moral universalism (which is not a universal characteristic of human societies). But it is also true that monotheism, precisely by having God as ultimate authority who trumps anything else, also has a ready-made device for overriding and subverting morality. Deuteronomy 13 provides the ur-text for this, commanding an obedient follower of Yahweh to kill their own sibling if they turn to the worship of another God. God matters so much that the most basic moral precepts are to be overridden.

The attenuation of moral universalism is particularly strong in Islam, with its layered concept of status depending on how complete one’s submission to God is and therefore how close to Allah one is. Male believers outrank female believers; those who engage in the full submission to Allah outrank the People of the Book, those who accept the One God but not His Prophet; they outrank those who do not even accept the One God. Within the People of the Book, those who have accepted Muslim rule outrank those who do not. Islam systematically subordinates morality and moral standing to submission to God.

This attenuation of moral universalism shows up in all sorts of ways beyond the concept of jihad, its most blatant manifestation. Simple misrepresentation, as engaged in by a recent Muslim Brotherhood delegation to Washington, is often a winning strategy to Westerners who want to believe nice things and lack the background information to examine critically congenial claims. If it promotes Islam, promotes extending the ambit of submission to God, deception is fine. The combination of the doctrine of deception, and that one is not supposed to bring Islam into disrepute, make having an honest public debate across the boundaries of Islam difficult.

I can remember asking an expatriate Iranian academic, who had given an excellent presentation on why jihadism was an orders-of-magnitude bigger problem among migrant communities in Europe than in the US, a question about jihad and having him tell me and the audience that, apart from the early years of Islam, jihad had fallen into abeyance until revived in opposition to Western imperialism. A claim that is just flatly false. From Muhammad’s flight to Medina in 622 to the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, it would have been hard to find a single year in which there was not a frontier of Islam where activity sanctified by Sharia as jihad was being carried on. The relentless advance of Ottoman rule into the centre of Europe from c.1350 to 1683 was profoundly and systematically based on it. The often remarkably savage Muslim incursions into Buddhist and Hindu India were constantly justified by it. It was a pervasive feature of North African Islam except after Western rule was consolidated (and returned after the European rulers departed). Far from provoking an upsurge in jihad activity, the heyday of Western imperialism was the longest period of respite from it.

The aforementioned undermining of public debate is just one example of the profound problem with any principle that seeks to trump, and thus subvert, morality. It poisons and narrows social possibilities when morality—precisely by mutually constraining actions towards each other—greatly extends them. (That the constraints of morality do so broaden social possibilities is presumably why the cognitive foundations for morality were selected for.) The recurring difficulties between Muslim and non-Muslim owe a great deal to the internal logic and dynamics of Islam itself.

But, then, monotheism has a long history of difficulty in playing nicely with others.

Deciding that orphans make good recruitment targets for self-activating bombs is the extreme version of a type of moral depravity that any outlook that decides some principle or principles trump morality engages in. And God is the ultimate trumping principle. Christ’s preaching that one is not to use God to strip people of moral protections retains its moral power.

We can tell this, because so few Christian churches actually follow it and so much Christian theology is about subverting the second principle of Christianity, of defining people as not one’s moral neighbours, so folk can use God to strip people of moral protections and moral standing. But the simplest path to priestly or clerical power is to offer and withhold God.

Offering and withholding God being a path to religious power that the Prophet used avidly and systematically. He would, almost certainly, have drawn the line at recruiting orphans to kill indiscriminately: al-Qaeda’s attempt to ground suicide bombing in a solitary parable of a single hadith is tenuous in the extreme. (Enslaving women and children and murdering poets who were rude about him was, however, just fine as far as the Prophet was concerned.) But much of his preaching, once he became ruler of Medina, was all about the primacy of submission to God in setting one’s moral standing. And he established the Islamic concept of martyrdom; that the direct path to God is dying while fighting to extend submission to Allah. Recruiting orphans as self-activating bombs extends the continuum of his preaching, it does not go in a contrary direction.

But no one is compelled to extend that continuum in such a way. Those I linked to denouncing al-Qaeda’s moral depravity in so recruiting and using orphans are Muslims themselves. The cognitive foundations of moral behaviour remain part of human nature; hence the efforts so many put into hijacking and subverting them. So vilely using the vulnerable in a profound assault on moral restraints in the name of God is a horrid example of a much wider phenomenon.


  1. Patrick
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    If I recall correctly from reading about child soldiers in Afghanistan (Allah is not obliged in particular, very scholarly that I am!) there is no necessary link between monotheism and barbaric manipulation of children, sadly.

    OTOH, monotheism is quite good at propagation, whereas no-one (in a statistically significant sense) ever listened to Kant . So maybe there is something to be said for a better (specifically, more tolerant and more into self-criticism) monotheism, as opposed to atheism/secularism?

  2. kvd
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    This is from Riaz Hassan, of Flinders Uni, 2009. Don’t know if the article itself has been reviewed (or his book), so maybe just FYI – with caution?

  3. Patrick
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I don’t want anyone to misinterpret my earlier comment, so I’ll that I’m all for making Islam’s nastier elements into the victims that their apologists think they are.

    I would even support a policy requiring ,eg, Tariq Ali’s op-eds to be accompanied by a short note along the lines of the following:

    Readers should be aware that, notwithstanding Mr Ali’s emollient prose, many of Mr Ali’s fellow muslims actually do want to kill you and rape your daughters.

    And I’m generally sympathetic to this blog’s more principled anti-monotheism stance, regrettably, monotheism leads to hierarchies and human power which history suggests are mixed blessings at their best (and are more often at their worst!). But many other anti-Catholics, or inane anti-Christians like eg, Leunig, are really just Islam’s useful idiots.

  4. Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    [email protected] My point is that God is an excellent device for trumping morality, not that God is remotely the only one.

    [email protected] Nice article, which fits in with other work on suicide bombing. Targeting orphans for recruitment seems to be a more recent trend.

  5. Mel
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    “Readers should be aware that, notwithstanding Mr Ali’s emollient prose, many of Mr Ali’s fellow muslims actually do want to kill you and rape your daughters.”

    20 years ago your brother Catholic Paddies in Northern Ireland really did want to kill Anglos through acts of terrorism and at that time it was rather fashionable for the Irish Catholic diaspora to host fundraisers for the IRA.

    I would like to see this footnote appended to all future Paddy posts 🙂

  6. Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    It’s the same thing all over again. The orphanages. The twisted approaches to loyalty and sex. The abuse of children.

    It’s easy to get trapped in one’s own cultural world view: hear the word orphanage, think Magdalene Asylums and Industrial Schools. But it is the same with all of them, allowing for local variations. It never even occurred to me to think of Islamic orphanages, but then I read this and found myself going, ‘of course’. And then I wonder at my own surprise.

  7. Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] On Buddhism, sadly no. Buddhist monks were active in promoting the Sinhalese anti-Tamil bigotry (Tamils are largely Hindus) in Sri Lanka. Then there is the whole aspect of Zen militarism.

    One of the things to understand about the Holocaust is that the Nazis thought they were engaging in a profoundly moral activity. They do not seem to have thought that “all the way down”, however, since there were also attempts to obfusticate what was going on.

  8. kvd
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    [Holocaust]…the Nazis thought they were engaging in a profoundly moral activity

    You’d have to back that up Lorenzo. Leaving aside all that resulted, just concentrating on the impetus or reasoning, I’d be interested in how you can arrive at that statement?

  9. kvd
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I’ve just been reading this book review, so I guess you can scratch my question. Although it does lead to wondering further about the use of children as suicide bombers, vis-a-vis your use of the term ‘morally depravity’.

  10. Posted April 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    [email protected],11 Claudia Koonz’s book is excellent, I reviewed it starting here. A depraved morality is still a conception of morality, however horrid.

  11. Patrick
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Fair point Mel, to a degree. First, that was 20 years ago. Secondly, I’m not an apologist for them as, eg, Tariq Ali is for Muslim extremists. Thirdly, I’m not even really ‘one of them’ since I’m fourth- and fifth- generation Australian and not in any meaningful sense Catholic.

    So fair point, to a very limited degree 😉

  12. Mel
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Paddy @13:

    ” Thirdly, I’m not even really ‘one of them’ since I’m fourth- and fifth- generation Australian and not in any meaningful sense Catholic.”

    Untrue. You are a “cultural Catholic” and that is why you defend the Church against anti-Catholics. You also describe yourself as a conservative, IIRC, and until recently opposed even the modest and obvious reform that is gay marriage. Seriously, Paddy, you need some self awareness training :).

  13. kvd
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    you need some self awareness training

    Says the mirror, to itself. Unheeded, as neither was listening.

  14. Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes, a little less sectarianism, please. That would be good.

    Also, this post is really depressing. SOTBO, I know, but there you go.

  15. Patrick
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Just curious mel, because when I put myself to it I’m actually as much a wanker as you, what do you take ‘not in any meaningfully sense Catholic’ to mean?

    Don’t worry, kvd, neither of us are listening to each other at this point! You’d do better to save yourself the time and do the same 😉

  16. Mel
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Back OT, yes I agree, the mistreatment of children including orphans is not nice. And much of Islam is also not at all nice so its mistreatment of orphans is not surprising. However our own religious loonies (Christians) would also still not be very nice if we didn’t have capitalism, democracy, the Enlightenment etc.. Remember, for instance, the Catholic Church carried on the institution of castrasti right through to the early 20th century even though the institution of ball-lopping was banned by the Italian State in 1861. Without external influences, I imagine Pope Benedict would still be wielding the ecclesiastical secauteurs to this very day and many a poor boy, orphans included, would be sans testes.

    In the same way that external influences mean that a young lad in a Catholic country today needn’t fear for his stones, external influences will some day mean that Islamic lads will have no need to fear the enticements of the Jihadis. Sadly, I doubt this happen until a generation or two after the ME oil wells run dry.

    ps. kvd, you’ll make a great Mother Superior. Best of luck 😉

  17. Posted April 17, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    [email protected] The Holocaust was an act of self-defence too, according to those carrying it out.

  18. Patrick
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    LE, the holocaust was more direct than that I believe, my understanding was that the Jews were actively conspiring to subjugate the Aryan nation and that if they weren’t suppressed immediately the children of Germany would be either Jew overlords or their slaves.

    Pretty much that. Somewhat like the current muslim terrorist justification, actually.

  19. Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Patrick, yes I think Hitler was quite affected by the Bavarian Socialist Republic putsch – which seemed to confirm to him that Jews and the communists were on the way to taking over the volk.

  20. John H.
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the SS troops thought they were the good guys.

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