Killing children: Who would do such a thing?

Most Americans are bewildered by the Muslim suicide mission that killed about 350 schoolchildren, parents, and teachers in an Orthodox Christian province of Russia– and by the Islamic suicide bomber who killed 20 at an Iraqi police academy a couple of days later– and by Muslim suicide volunteers who allegedly downed two Russian airliners a week earlier– and by human bombs who shattered two Israeli buses August 31– and by another human bomb who killed seven U.S. Marines September 6 at Fallujah– and by hundreds of similar attacks since 9/11.

Why do fanatics willingly throw away their lives to murder strangers– especially defenseless children? It seems insane to the average Westerner. That's because most Americans and Europeans can't comprehend the notion of religious zealotry mixed with nationalism, politics, power-grabbing, ethnic rivalry and armed insurrection. They're baffled when faith– supposedly a source of kindness and brotherhood– becomes a factor in mutinous slaughter.

The 21st century has so far been an era of endless Muslim horrors, and most of us don't understand why it's happening. We simply can't believe that humans can be so heinous.

Actually, Christianity went through a similar period in medieval times. From the 11th through 17th centuries, Europe was wracked by Crusades, Inquisitions, pogroms against Jews, witch-hunts, massacres of "heretics," and dozens of Catholic-Protestant wars. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation brought horrifying bloodbaths. Off-brand groups such as Anabaptists, Waldensians, Albigensis, and others were virtually exterminated. But Europe outgrew the lethal mixture of religion and armed force. Faith-based killing faded away. The Islamic world, however, hasn't yet experienced a similar transition. For some young Muslims, belief and fighting remain entwined.

The entire history of Islam is tinged with blood. Muhammad launched the religion by combat. His Koran contains many commands to kill infidels. Successor caliphs unleashed holy wars that spread the faith eastward to India and westward across North Africa, Spain, and briefly into France. Later Islamic conquests roared north through the Balkans to the gates of Vienna.

Shiite Muslims split from Sunnis in a gory conflict, memories of which still linger. Splinter groups like the Assassins, Kharijis, and Azariqis fought savagely. The Assassins were the original suicide volunteers sent on one-way murder missions in the name of religion.

Islam has been ravaged by many "cleansings." In the 1700s, a holy man named Mohammed al-Wahhab preached that the faith had been corrupted and had to be purified by force. His Wahhabi followers battled sporadically in the Arabian Peninsula until they created the nation of Saudi Arabia. Puritanical Wahhabis remain a dangerous strain of Islam. Another cleansing was waged in the southern Nile Valley in the late 1800s by followers of the Madhi (the divinely guided one).

Once a mighty culture, Islam declined. European powers seized most Muslim nations during the heyday of colonialism, and when the colonial rulers finally left, corrupt kings and dictators took over. Many Muslims felt humiliated, frustrated, ignored, powerless. Mutiny simmered below the surface. The discontent surged after Jews were given a homeland in what had been deemed Muslim territory.

The pressure cooker began exploding in the late 1970s when young militant followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the CIA-backed Shah of Iran– and when brutal Muslim tribes rebelled against a Russian puppet regime in Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan secretly armed the Afghan "freedom fighters"– unwittingly abetting the Muslim holy war movement that grew into al-Qaeda.

Since then, Islamic strife has snowballed to become the world's foremost cause of bloodshed. It spans the planet: Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Spain, Indonesia, Bali, the Philippines, Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Manhattan. Suicide volunteers are a major tool in this new epoch of gore. Nothing except fundamentalism– with its promise of heavenly rewards for martyrs– could induce so many to kill themselves along with alleged enemies.

But blind faith is just one element in the witch's brew of ethnic and nationalistic ferment. What's so deadly is the combination of supernatural belief and political passion. And the political causes vary widely from country to country, group to group.

Fundamentalism alone couldn't produce the worldwide fighting. Alone, ethnic politics couldn't produce the needed supply of volunteer suicides. But the combination of martyr-oriented faith and political mutiny makes the monstrous phenomenon possible.

That's the best explanation I can see: It isn't just rigid religion; it isn't just ethnic rebellions– it's the deadly mix of the two.

One of the Chechnyan militant leaders calls himself "the Islamic Che Guevara." That neatly sums up the two elements.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Zealots don't suddenly massacre schoolchildren, or crash airliners, or blow themselves up on buses, without a long background of hostility leading up to the horror.

Someday, presumably, Islam will outgrow its lethal phase, as European Christianity did. Let's all pray that the phase-change begins soon.


James A. Haught, editor of The Charleston (WVA) Gazette, is the author of "2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt" (Prometheus Books).


Officials begin to identify the remains of 322 people, including 155 children, killed September 3 at Beslan School #1 by terrorists linked to al Qaeda.



Christians have also been known to get into the act.<