Reem al-Riyashi was a normal-looking 22-year-old Palestinian woman. On Jan. 14, she strapped several pounds of explosives and nails to her body and approached an Israeli security checkpoint in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis usually forbid any Palestinian who sets off the metal detector from approaching further. But al-Riyashi, limping and weeping, pleaded with Gal Shapira, the commander of the watch. She explained that she had recently undergone surgery and had a metal plate in her leg that set off the machine.
Shapira told her to wait while he called a female officer to conduct a search. That act of compassion cost him his life. When al-Riyashi was ushered into a private room, she detonated her body bomb killing herself and four Israelis (including Shapira) and wounding at least a dozen others, including several Palestinians.
Her funeral was a gala affair attended by thousands. She was hailed as a heroine and honored for a particular distinction: Reem al-Riyashi was the first Palestinian mother to commit murder-suicide for Allah. She left behind a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. In her farewell videotaped message, al-Riyashi smiled as she proclaimed that she "always wanted to be the first woman to carry out a martyr attack, where parts of my body can fly all over. That is the only wish I can ask God for." Her act was sponsored jointly by Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, and her husband, a member of Hamas, drove her to the checkpoint.
In one way, however, al-Riyashi did not get her wish. She was not the first woman to commit such an act. That "honor" goes to Wafa Idris, who detonated herself on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in January 2002, killing an elderly Israeli man and wounding many more. Her act was praised throughout the Arab world. Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic language newspaper, hailed her for killing "in the heart of the occupied city." (Note well: the attack took place in West Jerusalem.) The Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, reports Memri (www.memri.org), praised "Her dreamy eyes and the mysterious smile on her lips, that competes with the famous smile some artist drew on the lips of Mona Lisa." A Jordanian Islamist wrote in the daily Al-Dustour, "Wafa carried her suitcase (of explosives) which is ... the most beautiful prize any woman can possibly win. Her spirit was raging, her heart filled with anger, and her mind unconvinced by the calls for peace and coexistence ..."
Americans have difficulty understanding how people can be driven to such lunacy. Liberals, in particular, are inclined to blame poverty for most of the hatred and violence in the world. During the Cold War, when communist movements were gaining ground in the Third World, liberals reflexively blamed poverty. They underestimated the power of ideas.
Al-Riyashi was not poor and, before her marriage, not particularly religious. She came from a prosperous family and lived comfortably with her husband and two children. There had been some sort of quarrel among her family before the attack, and rumors have circulated that she was actually moved to murder-suicide because she had committed adultery. But these rumors must be placed alongside the undeniable trend in the region. Women are beginning to sign on for jihad in significant numbers, and radical Islamists are deciding that while women may not show their faces in public, they may explode their bodies in order to kill.
Women in other Muslim nations are also succumbing. In Pakistan, mothers of "martyrs" are popular speakers. In Chechnya, a women's group called Black Widows is responsible for more than 165 murders by suicide. In March, an Arabic newspaper in London reported that Al Qaeda is setting up training camps just for women jihadis.
News events are filtered through a press in the Islamic world that is just staggeringly false and propagandistic. Conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq and Israel are presented as evidence of a worldwide anti-Muslim conspiracy. The most vile and idiotic slanders against Jews and Americans are presented as fact. It is the ideas in men's minds -- mad or fantastic though they may be -- that move the world. And it is the battle of ideas that we must fight with every bit as much vigor as we do that on land, sea and air.