In an editorial in Wednesday’s New York Times (“Silence and Suicide.” October 12, 2005, p. A23), op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman vents about “Sunni Muslim insurgents” who are said to have “no respect for the sanctity of Muslim lives, Muslim houses of worship or Muslim holy days…” He continues, “… and no one from their own wider Sunni community really moves to restrain or censure them.” What does this mean for Sunni Muslims? “If the Sunni Muslim world does not act to halt this genocidal ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Shiites of Iraq… the Sunni world will eventually be consumed by this very violence. A civilization that tolerates suicide bombing is itself committing suicide,” he concludes.

The rhetorical traps in this piece are a good example of how not to report the obviously problematic issue of suicide bombings in the name of a major world religion. Just in the parts quoted there is a terminological set-up. The insurgents in Iraq are first and foremost politically motivated, regardless of their sect or doctrinal stance. Thanks to the ill-planned Coalition military invasion and continuing occupation, Iraq has become a magnet for extremists of all shapes and sizes to cross the indefensible border and fight what they perceived as the anti-Muslim “West” where they can do the most damage. It is a lot easier for neighboring terrorists to pass as innocent locals on a street in Baghdad than breeze through post-9/11 customs at JFK.

Every day the New York Times reports about bombs and attacks made on American troops and Iraqi military and police recruits. If most of the bombers happen to be card-carrying Sunnis (something we do not know for sure), it has less to do with internal divisions within Islam than the current Machiavellian scenario in which the Iraqi Shi’a leaders appear to be favoring an American presence that will bring them political legitimacy. Those “Sunni Muslim insurgents” who set off bombs in Kurdish areas are, if Mr. Freidman has not figured this out yet, killing fellow Sunni Muslims. Besides, secular Ba’athists (whatever they have become now) would have much to gain by furthering the antagonism between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. When a bomb goes off in a crowded Shi’a mosque, it is simple-minded to assume that this is a religious act of implacable sectarian rage. Were the Sunni in the majority, would there be no theoretically Shi’a Muslim insurgents doing the same kinds of things?

The second rhetorical trope in Friedman’s prose is escalating from “Sunni Muslim insurgents” to the “Sunni Muslim world” and beyond to a “civilization.” There are very few insurgents to begin with and all of them have political motives resulting from the invasion. Yes there is a long-standing animosity between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraqi history, just as there are deep-seated historical roots to the Catholic-Protestant split in Europe. This cultural fault line does not plague the Islamic community as a whole, nor is it necessarily an obstacle to cooperation between Muslims with differing doctrinal stances. To speak of the “Sunni Muslim world” as a meaningful entity is to ignore the overriding ethnic and sectarian identities. Baptists and Anglicans may both be Protestant, but how silly to speak of a worldwide “Protestant Christian world.” Did Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics kill each other in Northern Ireland for religious reasons or is the issue their English colonial heritage? Finally, a “civilization” is not definable by religious faith (Samuel Huntington’s clash talk notwithstanding). Friedman implies that all those identifying as Muslim constitutes a culpable civilization that needs to reform itself or face internal destruction.

The worst rhetorical gimmick is Friedman’s implicit linking of Islam and terrorism. “Western leaders keep saying after every terrorist attack, ‘This is not about Islam.’ Sorry, but this is all [emphasis in original] about Islam. It is about a war within Islam between a jihadist-fascist minority engaged in crimes against humanity in the name of Islam, and a passive Sunni silent majority.” First, I do not believe the columnist’s “sorry” caveat is sincere. Friedman is not reticent to make his claim, which effectively condemns all Muslims as unconcerned or unwilling to recognize and stop crimes against humanity. Western leaders have the public sense to distinguish a politically motivated terrorist act in the name of religion from characterization of an entire religious faith (especially one with over a billion adherants) as the main problem. If we follow Friedman’s logic, the problem “we” civilized folk face today is an internal war within Islam, as though we had nothing to do with this. On one side is the passive Sunni majority and on the other is the jihadist-fascist minority. In Friedman’s war talk it seems the Shi’a minority are not involved or at least not seen as passive. His use of “jihadist” fails to note the range of targets in this war and what political events triggered extremist calls for jihad, even if invalid in the eyes of the majority. The application of “fascist” betrays more than Friedman might care to admit. Here is a term for a form of European totalitarianism more often used for secular Saddam than a young suicide bomber seduced into thinking he or she is dying for a noble cause. Are these jihadists borrowing from our own sordid political history for their involuted war game?

Sorry, but all this has little to do with Islam as a religion and is mainly about Western colonial history creating Iraq in the first place, then playing with Middle Eastern countries during a vicious Cold War era when newly created nations had to choose between the West and the communists. Israel was on our side. Secular Turkey was on our side. Iran was on our side, after we put the Shah in place. Iraq was on the other side until Saddam did us a favor by attacking Iran after they dumped the Shah. We thanked the ruthless dictator of Iraq by only giving him a sanctioned slap of the hand after the Kuwait invasion, soothing our moral conscience by allowing an independent Kurdistan to take shape. We deposed Saddam the second time around and rushed into a virtual no-win scenario. Take away this recent history and there is no necessary reason Sunnis would be suicide bombing Shi’a believers or the other way around. Imagine saying that the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France (August 24, 1572), in which over 100,000 Protestants were slaughtered by Papist loyalists, was all about Christianity!

The current wave of suicide bombings is not all about any one thing. Such practice of terrorism is not new nor confined to a particular religious faith, although advanced technology and greedy arms dealers have made it far easier for extremists to do damage. Suicide bombing is not a threat to the survival of Muslim communities for the simple reason that the main targets are not fellow Muslims. But the level of indiscriminate killing and contiuing political seduction of young men and women is certainly a thermometer of the extraordinary anger and frustration that many Muslims, not just those seting off the bombs, feel about Western policies and attitudes.

Suicide is always painful; reporting about it should take pains not to foster the very stereotypes that fuel the problem on all sides.

Daniel Martin Varisco