Terror’s Afterlife Do suicide bombers think their victims are headed to paradise as well?

“Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know….” Koran 8:60

It has happened again. This time in Manchester, England. Twenty-two people murdered and many more hospitalized, most of them young adults and children. Reportedly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) proudly claimed responsibility for corrupting the suicide bomber, himself barely out of his teens, who detonated what’s been called a sophisticated bomb at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22, 2017. It seems that to Islamist terrorists, precious children celebrating life, reveling in freedom, and pursuing happiness are merely soft targets: the offspring of the infidels. And once again we are left wondering how they justify the unjustifiable.

The debate rages on regarding the underlying causes (the actions of Western countries in the Middle East, the disenfranchisement of Muslim youth, radicalization/recruitment of the vulnerable by patriarchal thugs craving power, etc.) and the trickiest plot point of all—the role of Islam. No, as some have argued, Muslims in general are not to blame for the attack anymore than Catholics in general are to blame for child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests. But challenging a religious tenet is not the same thing as blaming a religion or a people. And when people of any faith subscribe to ancient, ill-founded beliefs, we all suffer. For at the heart of the terrorist ideology lies an idea that I argue allows otherwise rational human beings to celebrate the slaughter of children: the afterlife.

In his book, The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, Ali Rizvi asserts that Islamist terrorists who kill children may truly believe that they’re sending them to paradise. He engaged a Taliban supporter online after the Taliban’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014 that killed 145 people, 132 of them children. The man told him, “Paradise is for those of pure hearts. All children have pure hearts. They have not sinned yet… They have not yet been corrupted [by their apostate parents]. We did not end their lives. We gave them new ones, in Paradise, where they will be loved more than you can imagine.”

The Taliban supporter then referenced Surah Al-Imran 3:169-170:

And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision, rejoicing in what Allah has bestowed upon them of His bounty, and they receive good tidings about those [to be martyred] after them who have not yet joined them—that there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve.

When Rizvi insisted that the children would have chosen this life had the terrorists not stripped them of that choice, the man responded, “You will never understand this. If your faith is pure, you will not mourn them, but celebrate their birth into Paradise. But most of the people who call themselves Muslims do not believe this. They believe death is an end. This is because their faith is not pure.” In other words, pure faith, a literal interpretation of a paradisiacal afterlife proffered by the Koran, justifies slaying children.

This is why author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to call for a reformation of Islam. In Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now she describes three groups of believers. The first, the Medina Muslims, are fundamentalists who adhere to Islamic religious law (Sharia) and wish to impose it on others. The second are Mecca Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims who are devout but nonviolent and fairly tolerant of nonbelievers. Finally, she refers to the third group as modifying Muslims, who strive to keep religion out of politics and to modify extreme aspects of Islam.

Having suffered at the hands of the Medina Muslims (she’s a victim of female genital mutilation who was forced to flee Africa to avoid an arranged marriage and is under constant threat for criticizing Islam), atheist Hirsi Ali encourages modifying Muslims to move the ancient religion away from the patriarchal bondage imposed by Sharia toward a more civilized and peaceful version of Islam.

In a 2015 Foreign Policy piece titled “Islam is a Religion of Violence,” Hirsi Ali concludes,

We will not win against the Medina ideology by stopping the suicide bomber just before he detonates himself, wherever he may be; another will soon take his (or her) place. We will not win by stamping out the Islamic State or al Qaeda or Boko Haram or al-Shabab; a new radical group will just pop up somewhere else. We will win only if we engage with the ideology of Islamist extremism, and counter the message of death, intolerance, and the pursuit of the afterlife with our own far preferable message of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Moderate Muslims aren’t responsible for attacks like the one in Manchester. But they can model an evolution beyond the prioritization and promotion of an afterlife that is used to justify violence, both against the faithful who will not submit and against the so-called enemies of Islam (nonbelievers).