Our 9/11 War Dead Are Not ‘Shaheeds’

by Andrew C. McCarthy

Out of respect for our men and women in harm’s way, I have tried, since an exchange late last year with Pete Hegseth, to pipe down about our increasingly dubious overseas contingency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have often enough repeated my reservations about them, and my purpose is not to belabor that here. Nevertheless, I am constrained to react to a post by Max Boot at Contentions.

Mr. Boot wrote to dispute Fouad Ajami’s Wall Street Journal essay, which expresses deep misgivings about about the Afghanistan mission. I find Mr. Ajami persuasive (not that I needed convincing), but that is neither here nor there. In countering Ajami, and arguing the proposition that the mission is worth seeing through, Boot bracingly argues that there is nobility in “honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.”

I frequently find myself disagreeing with Max, but, besides being a thoughtful historian and analyst, I know he is as repulsed by terrorists as I am. I thus appreciate that he means no offense. But this formulation is offensive. The term “shaheed” does not refer to just any “martyr.” It refers to a Muslim who has been killed waging violent jihad. It is drawn from, among other places, verse 111 of the Koran’s most bellicose chapter, Sura 9: “Allah hath purchased of the Believers their persons and their goods; for theirs in return is the Garden (of Paradise); they fight in His Cause, and slay and are slain[.]…” That is the reason why so many Muslims refer to Hamas suicide bombers and al Qaeda’s 9/11 hijackers as shaheeds. They are talking about the murderers, not the murdered.

For those who promote the democracy project, it is an article of faith that there are no real differences between Western and Islamic civilizations. Regardless of how many polls, terrorist atrocities, and other demonstrative conduct indicate that Muslims in Islamic countries reject Western principles and would prefer to live under sharia, enthusiasts of Islamic nation-building insist that these Muslims share our values and really just want the same things we do. That is why they vainly reinterpret Islamic concepts as if those concepts reflected universal values. So jihad, the mission to spread sharia by force or otherwise, is airbrushed into an “internal struggle for personal betterment”; zakat, the obligation to fortify the ummah (including by financially supporting violent jihad), is misrepresented as “charitable giving”; and so on. 

This counterproductive practice has no impact whatsoever on the Muslims we are hoping to moderate, and it obfuscates salient differences between Islamic civilization and Western civilization that we should be trying to make Americans understand. We persist in it, though, because it bucks up Western intellectuals in their wishful thinking that there is no cultural divide we cannot bridge — or, at least, paper over. That is fatuous and unwise, but it’s not hurtful.

By contrast, calling the victims of terrorists “shaheeds” is hurtful, even if done with the best of intentions. Shaheeds are militants, and today they are guilty of the most barbaric acts imaginable. Applying the term shaheeds to those killed and wounded by shaheeds does not raise the cachet of the term, but it is certain to offend those who have been maimed or terrorized, as well as the families of those who have been murdered.