Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we read a great deal about how this kind of suicide bombing attack was “unprecedented.” This shows, above all, the general lack of a historical memory in the US. Everyone seemed to have forgotten already the Japanese kamikaze tactics of only fifty-five years ago. Or, for that matter, the death of Rajiv Gandhi in India only ten years earlier.

Was this, at least, something new in America's experience of Islam?

Actually, no. Americans have seen this before. From 1899 to 1913, Americans fought a pitched war, against Filipinos, to annex their islands. They remained in possession until 1946. During this time they tangled in particular with the Moros, the Muslim ethnic group that inhabits areas in the south and west of Mindanao, and that continues to be in a state of more or less permanent insurrection today. And they became familiar with the Muslim Moro practice locally called “juramentado.” A description from Wikipedia:

"a juramentado was a dedicated, premeditated, and often highly-skilled killer who prepared himself through a ritual of binding, shaving, and prayer in order to accomplish audacious public religious murder armed only with edged weapons....

"Undertaken as an unorthodox form of personal jihad, mag-sabil, 'who endure the pangs of death,' were selected from fanatical Muslim youth inspired to martyrdom by the teaching of Imams.

"At the moment of attack, the mag-sabil would approach a large group of Christians, shout "La ilaha il-la'l-lahu" ("There is no god but Allah"), draw kris or barong and then rush into the group swinging his sword.”

Zsolt Aradi, writing for, reports from local Christian sources that the juramentado often “mixes in a crowd celebrating a Christian holy day” in order to “kill as many persons as he can.”

Here are some choice passages from a Time magazine article on the continuing problem. Dateline December 1, 1941:

“Through the Isle of Jolo spread a familiar, deadly-chilling fear. On that speck in the Sulu Archipelago, southwesternmost part of the Philippines, the Moros were going juramentado again.

When a Moro goes juramentado, he takes a fanatic oath to kill as many Christians as he can before he is killed himself.

... For the past two months, juramentado murders in Sulu have averaged one every other day. In Jolo, the biggest city (pop. 6,000), Moro Aharaji went juramentado after being conscripted, chopped off the head of a Chinese baker, killed one Filipino soldier and slashed another before he was stopped by a policeman's shotgun blast. He fell dead on exactly the spot where the same policeman had killed another juramentado ten days earlier. Townspeople shivered, waited for the next attack.”

Sound familiar?

The same Time article, speaking in a somehow much simpler time, offers a solution to the problem that, it says, has worked before:

“The story goes that General John J. Pershing, when he commanded in Sulu, developed a workable formula. Once when the Moros went wild, Pershing asked their Sultan to stop them. The Sultan said it was impossible. Pershing had warships shell the coastal villages. When the Sultan demanded that the shelling be stopped, he was told that the Navy had gone juramentado too. After that, Pershing and the Moros got along much better.”

Juramentado has been going on in the Southern Philippines for centuries.
Accordingly, contrary to much that has been written recently, this type of attack is nothing new in Islam. It is not something that appeared with Wahhabism in the nineteenth century, and Wahhabism accordingly, does not deserve the blame for it. The Crusaders encountered it in the Assassins (Hashshashin) during the Crusades. It has been a longstanding and traditional, if always very much a minority, interpretation of the Muslim doctrine of jihad.

It also seems silly to ponder what the motive of Major Hasan might have been at Fort Hood, as the newspapers have been doing. He was following a recognizable Muslim tradition.

Most top Muslim authorities would probably have condemned it at any point in the history of Islam. It would be wrong, therefore, to blame all Muslims for it, any more than we should blame all Hindus for the Thuggee practice of ritual human sacrifice. To my judgement, it is a corruption of Islam, and cannot really be justified by it. It is more of a folk-Muslim belief, like the witch hunts within Christianity, which were usually condemned by the proper religious authorities.

It is time, however, that we did a better job of studying history, and of studying Islam. Our lives might depend on it.

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