What makes a woman become a suicide bomber? Anat Berko, a retired IDF lieutenant-colonel, explores the recruitment of Palestinian women and the codes that allow them to blow themselves up and kill civilians. In her latest book, The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers, she unearths the world of female Palestinian suicide bombers and the men who dispatch them on their missions.
What sets apart this book are the author's "data" interviews with the women prisoners who "failed" to carry out their suicide bombings or were arrested for organizing terrorist operations. This has enabled her to shed light on this world that lives by two sets of laws.
Berko's method is to see if womanly heart-to-heart conversations can explain the mutation of maternal instinct and the urge to give up family, love, career and life for political and religious aims. She expresses surprise learning that the recruits' moral judgment toward Israelis softened once they were able to see Berko as a mother with children, which reminded them of their own families. This in turn enabled the Palestinian women to start seeing the victims as real human beings.
In Berko's view, the concept of martyrdom is deeply rooted in Islam and glorified as an unequaled act of true and total commitment. Reinforcing this is a self-congratulatory process among the recruits and those who call the shots before a suicide bombing actually takes place that further induces women to abandon this world for the next.
Fathi Shikaki, the founder of Islamic Jihad, wrote the guidelines to when suicide bombings are appropriate. Nonetheless, he saw operations that called for "martyrdom" as "extraordinary." Despite these "strict guidelines," by the mid-1990s Hamas elevated suicide bombings to a policy to be used to derail the Oslo peace process. The extraordinary has become the commonplace, as the ideology of self-sacrifice has been spread and the thresholds for outrage lowered.
Generally, suicide bombings are initiated by securely run groups that recruit, indoctrinate, train and reward the bombers and their families in this world and promise rewards in the next. These groups do not seek unstable people who may waver or break. Palestinian women can be as strong-willed as the men, even more so, and their commitment is repeatedly demonstrated. For example, one such mother wished for her daughter, "I'd be very happy if my daughter killed [Ariel] Sharon… Even if she killed two or three Israelis, I would be happy."
But when they do not succeed, thanks to being stopped by the security forces or simply a technical malfunction? These "failed soldiers" are shocked to find themselves in prison and not paradise.
The notion of heaven and hell in Islam is real and immediate. It goes much deeper than the metaphorical sense of the words: Hell connotes literal fire and heaven is a true garden which embodies all worldly pleasures and desires one wishes upon him or herself. The conviction that death by suicidal attack upon enemies is a guaranteed route to the afterlife is the reason why blood is not cleaned off the bomber's body. It is a sign of honor and proof that the deceased gave blood for the cause.
It is accepted that a martyr is not dead in the conventional sense, but has moved on to a better life in Paradise. This life after death is regarded as a very attainable goal. Everything that is forbidden on earth is allowed in paradise. As is well known, men fantasize about the 72 "eternal virgins" with transparent skin and black eyes.
But Berko shows that women fantasize about being able to choose their husband in paradise, an obvious escape from the realities encountered in this life. In particular, the escape into the afterlife is a route should there be a stain on a family. In general, acts of suicide redeem the honor of one's family, which translates into admiration for the martyrs and their families after their death, and encouragement of the cycle throughout society.
Berko's book allows readers to enter the world of female suicide bombers and learn some of the complexities faced by Palestinian women associated with terrorist groups. In the end, her interviews should be highlighted as an illustration of how women have evolved within Arab society, finding equality not in life but in death as "martyrs." Moreover, her writing should act as an eye-opener to the Muslim world whereby Muslim families will recognize that they are sacrificing their children, while the children of the dispatchers are sent to the US and Europe to get degrees in Middle East studies.