A veteran-scholar struggles with the memories of suicide bombings and attempts to understand an enemy that fought him in Iraq and haunts him in his sleep
An arm stuck out of the twisted metal at an awkward angle. It looked like it belonged to a girl, but there was no way of knowing for sure since there was not a body attached to it.
It was 2007, and I was serving as an infantryman in the US Army. I was just a grunt whose responsibility that day was to bag and mark the human remains of a suicide bombing that detonated in a traffic circle in one of the Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods. My new home stood upon a sectarian fault line where Sunni and Shiite were at each others’ throats like rabid animals.
I recall that in this particular Baghdad ghetto, where I lived and served with a company of infantry rifleman in an abandoned Christian seminary, the evil was tangible. You could feel it; it hung in the air suspended by the burning heat of summer days. This was a place of death. It left a taste in your mouth that compelled you to spit every so often. It burned the nostrils and watered my eyes, and though we were privileged to bathe infrequently from our combat outpost, there was no removing the stench of death.
It was-and still is-difficult to come to terms with such devastation today. I count myself among the thousands of veteran broken from these wars in distant Islamic lands. The suicide bombing that day, along with others I would see in my decade-long Army career, has failed to dissipate from my consciousness. Sleep for me is short and infrequent; I am terrified of being revisited by these memories, and I often sleep in a seated position so that I can quickly respond to an attack that I know will never come.
If I could understand what motivated these people to take their own lives and visit the most brutal destruction upon the innocent, I reasoned, then maybe it would fix me in the process. I needed answers for my own mental well-being, so I became obsessed with studying Islam and the Middle East.
My journey brought me to the American Military University, where I received a degree in Middle Eastern studies. I took every opportunity to acquaint myself with the topic of martyrdom. This was not just a professional pursuit for me-it was personal.
After exhaustive studies, numerous essays on the topic of suicide bombings, pouring over the Quran and conducting interviews with subject matter experts regarding Islamic terrorism, I don’t feel any better. In fact, I feel worse from the knowledge that I have attained. The answers I discovered are of no comfort to me.
I now truly understand what motivates these sick-minded Muslim men. Why would a young boy strap high explosives around his still-growing body and detonate them in a crowd of innocent women and children? What motivates these vile, thoughtless actions to occur in such endemic numbers throughout the Middle East?
The answer: Islam. More specifically, the promises of sexual rewards in the afterlife for martyrs.
A sexually-starved society
More on this later. For now, it is worth mentioning the earthly component to this discussion. Sexual rewards alone are insufficient to motivate Muslim men to voluntarily take their own lives while visiting death and destruction upon their coreligionists. Another ingredient is needed, and this second pillar of martyr attacks is sexual suppression in Muslim societies.
A perfect storm of factors associated with living in Islamic nations had to combine for the realities I witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan to exist. The first of these components is male-enforced sexual austerity measures.
Throughout my studies, I sought to find the humanity and poetic beauty that my professors insisted was present within the pages of the Quran. Instead, I found this ancient text replete with hateful speech and an obsession with attacking other religions. So, it was in the Quran that I found my first references to the suppression of femininity and sexuality within Islam.
The Quran demands that women, “lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms…(24:30).”
If nothing else, many Muslim men should be acknowledged for their piety and living the word of the Quran through the enforcement of sexual austerity measures. The Aurat Foundation reports that there were over 600 “honor killings” in 2007 Pakistan. These numbers are not atypical of Islamic states like Pakistan.
I witnessed similar brutality firsthand. American soldiers would enter Iraqi homes without invitation in order to gain the high ground against enemy forces. We often took residents by surprise and sometimes exposed female occupants in various stages of undress. We quickly averted our gazes or moved on, but not before their husbands found cause to beat them for their perceived religious impropriety.
The next stimulus for martyrdom within Islamic societies is the difficulty for men to marry. If sex is strictly forbidden outside of wedlock in most Muslim communities (Shiite men are allowed to temporarily marry and bed women in some cases), Muslim men must be anxious to marry. However, social impediments exist that make marriage competitive and costly for Muslims.
The competitive nature of Islamic marriage must be viewed through a very primal lens. Polygamy, and the competition it breeds, explains the violent nature of unmarried Muslim men. As Dr. Alan S. Miller and Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa explain in “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature,” polygamy “increases the likelihood that young men resort to violent means to gain access to mates.” This describes Iraqi and Afghan insurgents perfectly. By
The costs associated with marriage are also prohibitive for Middle Eastern men. It takes an Egyptian man five to seven years to save for marriage, and in economically devastated Afghanistan a man is expected to pay $12,000 to $20,000 for his wedding.
Here, again, my studies reflect my combat experiences. Most of the prisoners of war or high value targets we captured were, in fact, unmarried Muslim men. I have executed raids on some of the most unpleasant middle-aged terrorists that, not coincidentally, were still living with their mothers.
Even Islamist groups are aware that married men make poor soldiers of Islam. The PLO during the 1970s, in an attempt to moderate and reduce threats to their authority from the Black September group, sent particularly troublesome jihadists off to get married.
For many martyrs, sexual repression is just another humiliation in a long train of Western abuses that Muslim men feel have challenged their masculinity. Unable to start a family, and feeling emasculated and immature, these men must find another way to prove their worth. Radical Muslim clerics and their henchmen are quick to capitalize on these sexually frustrated would-be foot soldiers.
In the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak, intelligence assets attached to my unit succeeded in securing a fix on a cellular phone belonging to a manager of suicide bombers. This handler eventually succeeded in convincing a pair of young Afghan males to detonate themselves within a local government council, killing four. It is easy to imagine this handler exploiting the two martyrs selected and groomed for this attack.
A Heavenly Harem
But this is an incomplete explanation of the motivations surrounding jihadist martyrdom. The afterlife component alluded to earlier serves as the spiritual glue to bind together these other traits for a perfect storm that has been erupting across fundamentalist Islamic societies.
The Muslims I encountered overseas admitted something that apologists in America will never confess: that the “72 virgins” promised to jihadists are not a religious folk tale; sex with the most beautiful women imaginable resonates with many unmarried and sexually repressed Muslim men.
The Quran speaks of rewarding martyrs “with beautiful-eyed maidens” (52:20). The popularly cited 72 virgins originate from the Sunna, or from the direct words of the Prophet Mohamed.
If it is not enough for Muslim apologists that the Quran and Mohamed promise a sexual afterlife to martyrs, the traces left behind by martyrs should be more convincing. A letter found within the personal effects of three 9/11 hijackers gives religious guidance to these murderers.
The letter, after instructing the hijackers to strike their victims above the neck, attempt to provide them with a sick comfort: “Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty, and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’ They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing.”
Less renowned examples of would-be suicide bombers in search of the rewards of the afterlife proliferate the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. A 15-year old boy captured by American forces in Iraq admitted that he was motivated by a desire to meet the women of heaven.
Speaking with terrorism expert Raphael Israeli, a Muslim youth leader admits, “Most boys cannot stop thinking about the virgins.”
My studies, or my crusade of truth to reconcile what I saw in the Middle East with my emotions and my intellect, will never provide the closure I seek. There is no curriculum that can heal a tortured soul, no matter how illuminating. Given the truth of the matter, that so much hatred is inspired by suppressed sexual urges from a threatened male society, where the most sacred rewards of the afterlife are reserved for the most ruthless of killers, I can expect many more sleepless nights…
Benjamin Baird is a veteran infantryman of Iraq and Afghanistan with over 1000 days of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He graduated with honors from the American Military University, studying Middle Eastern affairs with a concentration on Iraq. Ben is a freelance journalist, a proven military leader, and conservative super hero, responding to liberal villainy wherever it rears its ugly head. His commentary and political analysis can be found on his website, crusadeoftruth.com
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