Suicide bombing is more than just a man armed with a bomb. It has become an ideology, almost a religion. And the bomber will always get through.
A recurring image in Sean Batty and Kevin Toolis’ The Cult of the Suicide Bomber consists of martyr murals. Large-scale public works that combine the illuminated manuscript’s overt piety with the iconic, idealized aesthetic of Socialist realism, they transform suicide bombers into religious folk heroes. They appear virtually everywhere narrator Robert Baer (former CIA agent stationed in the Middle East) visits, from Beirut to Palestine.
In Iran, the government-sponsored martyr murals are especially prevalent. The film opens on a shot of Tehran, homing in on a mural depicting a mother and child in full Islamic dress, both armed with rocket launchers. (Ironically, Tehran’s anti-Semitic propaganda machine runs on Israeli technology.) It’s in Iran that, according to Baer, the modern era of the suicide bomber began. It was born, in Baer’s telling, in the form of Hossein Fahmideh, a 13-year-old boy who, during the Iran-Iraq war, blew himself up under the treads of an Iraqi tank. He was immediately recognized as a martyr by the state. That was in 1980. Since then, Fahmideh has become a kind of martyr’s “brand,” his image adorning walls and lunchboxes, extolling the virtues of death in the service of a higher power.
Fahmideh may be the first suicide bomber, depending on how narrowly one defines the term, but there’s no arguing the cultish aura that surrounds him and his fellow martyrs. Fahmideh’s family speaks glowingly of him; his sister refuses to use the word “suicide,” as it signifies “desperation.” He is instead a glorious martyr. (And yet, we might wonder, wasn’t Fahmideh’s act, like those of kamikaze pilots in World War II, a last-ditch effort by an overmatched war power?) Later, Baer visits a Hamas-sponsored remembrance ceremony for Tariq Hamid, a Palestinian suicide bomber. The men of Hamid’s community sit rapt in the dark, watching his videotape: Hamid waves from driver’s seat of his truck like a man going on vacation. Then he explodes among a group of Israeli soldiers.
The videotape is an updated version of the martyr mural, and as Baer tracks the spread of suicide bombing as a tactic, he’s also tracking its development as an ideology and propaganda tool. Unfortunately, unlike most cults, which grow more insular over time, this one continues to draw new recruits as the spectrum of its efficacy increases. The Cult of the Suicide Bomber focuses on Yahya Ayyash, Hamas’ “Engineer,” who first turned suicide bombing into a tool for terror. It’s an important turn in Baer’s chronology: previous bombings had struck at opposing armies (as in the Iran-Iraq war) or occupation forces (as against Israeli troops in Palestine). Ayyash turned the suicide bomber into a weapon of chaos, unleashed against civilians. From there—from the presumption that there are no civilians—it doesn’t take much for suicide bombing’s tactical component to evaporate completely, leaving only an ideology that promotes disorder and death, that is, what Baer calls “the cult of the suicide bomber.”
The documentary constructs a history of martyrdom as an ideal and strategy, but for all Baer’s expertise, he’s at a loss when it comes to deciphering the martyr’s mindset. The most telling scene comes at the end, when Baer interviews Avi Tabib, an Israeli bar bouncer who thwarted a would-be bomber. Tabib recounts wrestling the bomber to the ground just before the explosion. Baer asks, “What did you see in this guy’s eyes?” Tabib takes a moment, repeats the question, and hesitates again before answering, “Craziness.” Baer pushes, asking, “Did you see murder?” Tabib can’t answer, and instead re-describes what happened the night of the bombing.
The scene echoes an earlier one in which Baer interviews a would-be suicide bomber. Asked why he chose martyrdom, the man answers only in platitudes. Martyrdom requires a level of self-abnegation that makes self-awareness impossible. There’s nothing to be seen behind those eyes, the film concludes. They’re as flat and dead as the eyes of a martyr’s mural.
The Cult of the Suicide Bomber