“Look to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise…”
“We send our young men to war… ants send their old ladies”
—E. O. Wilson
On November 23, Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najar, a 57-year old Palestinian mother of nine and grandmother of 41, like so many older folks, finally found time to get involved in politics. No, she didn’t volunteer to check voter registration at the local polling place or pass out fliers bemoaning Social Security insolvency as many a grandmother from Pittsburgh to Pomona has.
Instead, she strapped on an explosive girdle, told her family that grandma was off to commit suicide that morning, and then attempted (but failed) to take out a few Jews from the Israeli Army in what is believed to be the first-ever G-bomb (granny bomb) in the growing “blow yourself up for Allah” craze that seems to be sweeping much of the Muslim world. And you thought the AARP was a bunch of radicals!
Strangely, my first thoughts upon hearing the news that jihad is now for blue hair set (assuming there was blue hair under her hijab) were the two quotes at the start of this article. Entomologist E.O. Wilson was referring in the second quote to the economy-minded strategy of weaver ants, which dispatch first their oldest, most beat-up worker ants (all of whom are female) to any conflict, apparently on the evolutionary wisdom that they’re about dead anyway, so why not use ’em to slow down and wear out the approaching enemy? Plus it saves on ant Medicare, big time. I mean, there is a certain logic to it all, in a man-years lost sort of way (or ant-weeks lost, anyway).
However, I’m pretty sure that Fatima didn’t really connect those same two dots since 1) she probably doesn’t have a big geeky copy of Hölldobler and Wilson’s “The Ants” like I do, and 2) the Book of Proverbs didn’t make it into the Koran—at least not my copy, which admittedly I bought on sale, although it seems complete to me. (Three hundred eighty-six insults to Christianity is a complete volume, right?)
Anyway, if there was a point to all that, I missed it. But you’ve read this far, so it’s probably worth mentioning that the second thoughts I had were about how frighteningly different Fatima’s society is from mine. Well, at least as far as the little things go—you know, like how we generally consider death to be a bad thing and all. Also, we tend to discourage suicide, which is a natural outgrowth of our curious belief that death is bad … and all.
Whereas in Fatima-land, they don’t waste a whole lot of effort trying to talk the suicidal out of killing themselves. They just try to target them towards something they dislike. “I’m going to jump!” said the desperate Palestinian out on the ledge. “Try to land on a Jew!” said the suicide hotline counselor. It’s not the way Americans would handle it, but still it’s a sort of win-win, really.
What? I’ve misread the situation? Suicide in Western countries is an entirely different phenomenon than martyrdom in Islam, you say? Well yes, surely it is in many ways. But then it’s not entirely different either. One of the things that has struck me about the suicide bombers who manage to be profiled in any detail in the press is how many of them are insignificant losers for whom the suicide half of the suicide/bomber combination is a terrific escape from the mundane or painful.
In Fatima’s case, the details are a little thin. Although, I have to imagine that the opportunities for a veiled old grandma to become a celebrity in a quaint impoverished village in the Gaza strip are pretty few. I’m thinking that the paths to fame for such women would be either suicide bombing … or raising a suicide bomber. And not everyone can count on their children to have that sort of get up and blow.
But in other suicide (bomber) stories, the details paint an interesting picture. Consider 15-year old Hussam Abdo, a failed suicide bomber captured at a checkpoint by Israeli forces in 2004. In a memorable BBC interview, Hussam was asked why he decided, at just 15, to check out at the checkpoint. His answer: “The first reason I became a suicide bomber was because my friend was killed. The second reason I did it is because I didn’t want to go to school.” And also he mentioned, “I wanted to be relieved of school.” Additionally cited were the facts that Hussam didn’t like school, was forced to go to school, didn’t do well in school, and didn’t like his teacher. Clearly, the suicide bombing recruiters were not robbing the honors class of a potential pupil here.
Or consider Wafa’ Idris of the West Bank. Wafa’ was justifiably unhappy. Her older brother had forced her into an arranged marriage with her first cousin, who impregnated her against her will. Wafa’ secretly aborted the child, and her marriage ended in divorce—a disgrace in her culture. Wafa’ was doomed to the life of an unclean outcast in a repressive and poor society—right up until she killed herself (and one Jew) in a “martyrdom operation” for the al Aqsa “martyrs” brigades. Now her brother calls her “a hero.” Death made it all OK.
Another unclean disgraced woman was Gaza’s Reem Riyashi, who had an affair with a member of Hamas. Since Gaza is not among the target markets for “Desperate Housewives,” this still carries a substantial stigma in her culture. But when her transgression was exposed, Reem was given a way out of the shame—as was her cuckolded husband, who agreed to drive his wife to a checkpoint for Hamas. Once at that checkpoint, a bomb-clad Reem pretended to be crippled, to draw in several Israeli soldiers, and then committed suicide, taking four of the soldiers (and her unclean status) with her.
Wafa al Biri, a young woman from the Gaza strip, did nothing wrong. She was merely burned over most of her body when a gas cooker exploded while she was preparing dinner one evening. She received substandard care at a Palestinian hospital, so an Israeli hospital agreed to treat her infected wounds, saving her life. Her parents were moved enough to write the Jewish staff of the burn ward thanking them for their “great efforts and wonderful, warm attitude." But Wafa fell into a depression after her fiancé, unwilling to marry a terribly scarred woman, left her.
“I can’t live like this, I am so ugly, I want to commit suicide,” she told a friend. Adding, “Nobody will want me, I am too ugly, my body is scarred everywhere." When it came time to leave the burn ward, Wafa did not want to go, but she had to return home to Gaza—right into the waiting embrace of the suicide bomber recruiters. When Wafa cried out in pain one day, “I want to commit suicide. If there is anyone who will give me a bomb to blow myself up I will do it,” the al Aqsa suicide hotline and dispatch unit heard her cries. And they hatched a plan: Wafa would use her humanitarian pass to carry a bomb across the border into Israel and blow up the very hospital that saved her life. She would kill her own doctor and his staff. Unfortunately for Wafa, she was stopped at a checkpoint and her bomb failed to detonate when she pulled the detonator’s string. So she (and the staff of the charitable hospital) lived.
In the cases of women and children recruited to be suicide bombers, the media often delve deeper into the story to see why they would want to die. Male suicide bombers are so common that their deaths are usually accepted at face value as the macho acts of sacrifice professed in their “martyrdom” videos. But I suspect that many of these men do not fear death simply because they just don’t have that much of a life. They are the insecure, the insignificant, the unloved, and the ambitious but unsuccessful. Were they born in Poland or China or Illinois, they would be reassured and told to keep trying if they were despondent. They would dream of being a rock star if they craved fame. They would dream of riches if they craved success. They would dream of finding acceptance and even love if they were lonely and isolated.
But they were born in Fatima-land. So they are told to land on a Jew … or an American, or a Hindu, or a Shiite, or a Russian, or a whomever.