By Asim Qureshi

The news and images emerging from Syria of an attack against the Aleppo prison by British national Abu Suleiman al-Britani, legally known as Abdul Waheed Majeed has been met with fear about the role Muslims are playing in the Syrian conflict.

In what appears to be a joint operation between a number of the rebel forces fighting in Syria, the Assad controlled Aleppo prison which housed 4,000 detainees was targeted as a specific military objective. From the circumstantial evidence that has emerged so far, in the course of planning the operation, it was decided that Majeed would be involved in driving a truck to blow the front gate off the prison compound, allowing rebel forces to free those detained. For almost a year the mujahideen groups had been attempting an assault on the facility, and it was Majeed who suggested the idea that in order to stop further loss of life, he be involved in what the groups would refer to as a martyrdom operation.

While the media has been presenting this situation as being a form of suicide terrorism, there has been little in the way of discussion about the value of claiming it to be such. From what we currently know, there was no targeting of civilians or non-combatants, and the attack achieved its objective. The presentation of this act has been spoken about as if it is anomalous, rather than fitting within wider conceptions of how we understand sacrifice in the centre of struggles.

Popular culture has ingrained in it the concept of sacrifice. In the 1996 movie Independence Day or ID4, the character Russell Casse wins the war against an invading alien nation by intentionally crashing his plane into the alien mothership. The reaction to the loss of the compatriot’s life is immediately met with applause. Such sacrificial acts have formed part of popular culture folklore as the fallen is praised for the sacrifice he/she makes for the sake of assisting others, very much in the vein that kamikaze pilots were praised and lauded by the Japanese. The list of the sacrifices made for the achievement of a target or protection of others within fiction are too innumerable to count, but examples such as Jean Grey in X-Men 2, Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino and Harry Stamper in Armageddon stand out within the last 15 years.

The sacrifice is not limited to popular culture, but rather occurs in a number of other cultures and societies. Islam has a number of stories from the ‘Boy and the King’ to the magicians of Pharoah. Hinduism speaks of Aravan who sacrifices himself to Kali in order to gain victory for the Pandavas. The Old Testament relates the story of Samson, whose sacrifice to kill the Phalestines led to the liberation of the Israelites,

27 Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. 28 Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:27-31)

Conceptions around an individual sacrificing themselves for the sake of a cause that is larger than themselves is well recorded within the external conceptions of the way in which human beings value life and the sacrifice of it for the sake of others.

Let us understand the attack purely on the basis of this being a civil armed conflict, subject to the regulations under Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions – in which a military objective is defined in Article 2(4) as,

“Military objective” means, so far as objects are concerned, any object which by its nature, location, purpose or use makes an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

From such a perspective, sacrificing oneself for the emancipation of prisoners who were facing arbitrary detention, torture, malnourishment and execution, could only ever be seen as an honourable act which should be praised. The sacrifice made by Abdul Waheed Majeed resulted in the liberty of over 300 people, a price many would say, was worth paying.

Since the start of the War on Terror, popular culture has attempted to take on the concept of sacrifice beyond the examples given above. The hit Sci-Fi series, Battlestar Galactica trod closest to the line of dealing with the issue of suicide terrorism in an episode based on an occupied planet, New Caprica. A species of aliens, the Cylons, have colonised the planet and subjugated its human inhabitants. What results is a collaborationist government and security force being formed, as well as the emergence of a renegade rebel group.

The significance of the rebel group in the wider real-world political landscape emerges when a trainee security officer detonates an explosive in the middle of a graduation ceremony as part of a suicide attack. The attack is placed within the context of repression by the Cylons including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture. According to David Eick, one of the makers of the show,

“The opening episodes to this season are as much a story rooted in political tales like the Vichy France or Vietnam…There are a lot of different sort of reference points for us that aren’t necessarily current that inform our culture in profound ways.”

Ultimately, every single act of violence needs to be placed within its specific context, rather than being dealt with as a homogenous set of acts. As the academic Robert Pape assists us to understand in his work Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, the acts of political violence undertaken by groups around the world are very rarely based on ideological goals such as the establishment of an Islamic state, but rather have far more altruistic reasons such as self-determination through fighting against occupations and colonialism.

Abdul Waheed Majeed’s selfless and sacrificial act must be placed within the specific context that he is in, a bloody war where gross violations by the Assad regime have resulted in the deaths and suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians. A report produced by the legal firm, Carter Ruck, produced evidence that from March 2011 until January 2014, 11,000 detainees had been killed while in custody. Rather than assumptions being made about the moral probity of his actions, he should be lauded for the role he has played in alleviating the suffering of those who managed to escape the gulags of Assad’s regime.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)