Political assassination of rulers is neither justifiable nor desirable. Islam is against assassination of any individual, even an autocratic ruler. And yet, the Muslim history was not spared of this curse. The Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (R) was assassinated while leading the Morning Prayer (Fajr) in Madinah by a Zoroastrian. Uthman ibn Affan (R), the third Caliph, was killed in his home by rioters who were dissatisfied with his government. Ali ibn Abi Talib (R), the fourth Caliph and the son-in-law of the Prophet (S), was mortally wounded by a member of an extremist group, al-Khawarij, when he stood up for Fajr prayer in the mosque of Kufa (in Iraq). Citing the verse, “No rule but God’s,” the Khawarij believed that Ali (R) had committed a grave sin (kabirah) whence he agreed on the arbitration to settle dispute in the Battle of Siffin and, thus, rejected Ali’s claim as a legitimate caliph. They believed: obedience to the caliph is obligatory as long as he is managing the affairs with justice and consultation, but if he deviates, then it becomes obligatory to confront him, demote him and even murder him.
It goes without saying that many of the Muslim extremists that consider political assassination as a necessary means towards overthrowing an autocratic and/or corrupt regime draw their cues from the kharijite doctrines, which, I may add, have overwhelmingly been rejected by vast majority of Muslims – Sunnis and Shi’as alike. The terrorism of the Hashishyyin sect of the Isma’ili branch of Shi’ism that paralyzed the Muslim world for nearly 166 years (1090-1256 C.E.) with assassination attempts on its leaders is now only a matter of distant memory.
When it comes to political assassination, the record of other religions has not been any better. In modern times, we have plenty of such examples from Abraham Lincoln to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike to Yitzhak Rabin. Nine American Presidents - Andrew Jackson in 1835, Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901 Harry S. Truman in 1950, John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford twice in 1975, and Ronald Reagan in 1981 - have been the targets of assassination. In addition, eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, nine U.S. Congressmen, eleven mayors, 17 state legislators, and eleven judges have been violently attacked. No other country with a population of over 50 million has had as high a number of political assassinations or attempted assassinations.
Lincoln has consistently been ranked by scholars as one of the greatest of all U.S. Presidents. However, to the assassin John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and a Confederate spy from Maryland, Lincoln was a tyrant. After shooting the President, he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis (Latin for: Thus always to tyrants).” While much of the nation mourned the assassination of Lincoln whom they considered as the savior of the United States, Copperheads – the vocal group of Democrats in the Northern United States who opposed the American Civil War, wanting an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates -- celebrated the death of a man they considered a tyrant.
In his self-prepared defense in the court, Nathuram Godse, a devotional Hindu Brahmin belonging to the extremist Hindu Mahasabha and editor of a Marathi newspaper Hindu Rashtra, who killed M.K. Gandhi said, “I do say that my shots were fired at the person whose policy and action had brought rack and ruin and destruction to millions of Hindus. There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book and for this reason I fired those fatal shots.” Godse was unapologetic for his crime.
Talduwe Somarama who shot and killed Bandarnaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), in 1959 was a Sri Lankan Sinhalese Buddhist monk. He was drafted in to the conspiracy by the Venerable Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, the Chief Incumbent of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, to assassinate the Prime Minister “for the greater good of his country, race and religion”.
Yigal Amir, a right-wing religious Zionist and an ex-IDF member born to an Orthodox Jewish family, upon hearing that the Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was dead from his semi-automatic pistol shots, told the police that he was “satisfied.” According to CNN, Amir told police that he had “no regrets” and was acting on the “orders of God.” To him and the hard line Likudniks, who provided the necessary backdrop for the assassination plot, Rabin was a traitor who had betrayed Israeli interest by signing the Oslo Peace Accord. Before leaving the stage on the night of the assassination, Rabin had been singing Shir LaShalom (literally Song for Peace), along with Israeli singer Miri Aloni. After he died, a sheet of paper with the lyrics was found in his pocket, stained with blood.
The cold-blooded murderers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman killed 32 individuals, almost everyone that was close to his family living inside Bangladesh on that fateful day of August 15, 1975. They did not spare the lives of his two pregnant daughters-in-law Sultana and Parveen, and the youngest son, a nine-year old Russell, who had begged not to be killed. The perpetrators of this heinous crime were some disgruntled army officers within the Bangladesh Army, including those who had joined the liberation war towards the last days of the struggle, who were still wedded to the idea of a united Pakistan. They thought that the country was heading in the wrong direction. The killers alleged that Mujib was trying to bring about a dictatorship, subordinate Army to the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini - the government militia force, and that he was making Bangladesh an Indian colony. As later evidences have sufficiently demonstrated none of these allegations was true. It took another 17 years for Bangladesh to get rid of the curse of the military rule that followed soon after the Mujib-killing when corruption got institutionalized surpassing several fold the records of the Mujib-era, and yet another 18 years to hang five of the convicted killers.
It is, however, true that Bangabandhu’s popularity had suffered somewhat since the (US-engineered) famine of 1974, when the US government punished the Mujib government by diverting food-carrying ships from reaching the ports in Bangladesh, which was a clear case of using food as a weapon of war. He had also tarnished his democratic credential by imposing a one-party system. (Still, on a popularity contest he was by far the most popular politician in Bangladesh.) It is widely believed that some foreign spy agencies were deeply involved in the conspiracy to kill him. As noted by journalist Lawrence Lifschultz in a JSTOR article “Bangladesh: Anatomy of a Coup”, for the United States, “the civil war in East Pakistan was an annoying distraction (an even more minor ‘sideshow’ than Cambodia) when it was engaged, via Pakistan’s good offices, in establishing the first links with China; and the US never forgave Mujibur Rahman for prevailing, with Indian and Soviet help, over US annoyance.” According to him, “Mujib too invited the coup” by failing to “fulfill the expectations he had demagogically raised.”
Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh and daughter of Bangabandhu, is a survivor who has miraculously survived multiple attempts of assassination on her life. She was in Germany when Bangabandhu was assassinated in 1975. A recently available report from Sri Lanka showed how some of the absconding murderers of Bangabandhu (including Lt Col (dismissed) Khandaker Abdur Rashid) had tried to recruit a French contract killer, Alain Deloin, who demanded $5 million for the job to assassinate Sk. Hasina. When the French deal fell apart, a second plan to kill her was put in place in 1999 which included payment of $10 million to LTTE terrorists. The report says that LTTE backed off from the operation when the “money”, thanks to RAW, did not reach them. As a backup plan, the conspirators were, however, able to engage the Harkat-ul-Jehad (believed to be funded by the Mossad), which planted 76 kg of RDX only 100 yards from a dais from which Sk. Hasina was supposed to address a public meeting at Kotalipara in Gopalgunj district in August of 2000. But the bomb was discovered by the public an hour and a half before the meeting. The rest is history! Sk. Hasina miraculously survived the 2004 attempt also that killed many of her party leaders and workers.
What motivates political assassins? The answer will depend on the culture of the people where they reside. For example, in a country like the USA where firearms are readily available, most assassins were disgruntled or mentally deranged individuals who suffered from a paranoid or schizophrenic style of thinking, and only a small number of assassination attempts have been motivated by ideology; only in two cases the assassination plot was part of an organized conspiracy. Even in these instances, there was no plan to seize control of the government or alter government policies - the traditional goals of a political conspiracy.
However, in countries where firearms are not readily available, bulk of the political assassinations has ideological reasons behind why they happen, and even succeed. Some elements within the society, often a small minority, don’t like the direction in which the state is heading when the organized few within such disgruntled groups conspire to assassinate the very symbol of leadership. Their justification for the crime remains the same, echoed some six decades ago by Nathuram Godse, “There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book…”
Have assassinations altered the course of history? When political assassinations are part of a military coup, powerful foreign sponsorship or being carried out by a highly organized armed group within a disgruntled group, they can alter the course of history, at least, for a short term. Bangladesh with her share of political assassinations is a good example here. In the last 39 years of its existence, two presidents were killed, and the current Prime Minister Sk. Hasina had survived multiple attempts on her life, dating back to the 1990s. But Bangladesh is more of an exception than the norm. Rarely has the assassin’s political goal been realized. Sirhan Sirhan – a Palestinian-American Christian - murdered Robert Kennedy to protest the Democrat’s support for Israel, but Richard Nixon who was elected to office was himself a loyal supporter of the Jewish state and provided indispensable aid to Israel to win the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. failed to derail the civil rights movement.
Political assassination has almost never solved the problems which often were cited to justify such heinous crimes. It is wrong and must be shun and condemned by all conscientious human beings.
See this author’s book: Islamic Wisdom – for hadith citations.
See this author’s article: Understanding Osama bin Laden through the lenses of the past – for a discussion on this subject; http://world.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/29681
See also: http://www.ahavat-israel.com/protest/rabin.php which mentions about political assassination in 1933 of Chaim Arlosoroff who was murdered under interestingly similar circumstances as those of Rabin. Arlosoroff was a top Mapai (Labor) leader, probably the only person that could compete with Ben-Gurion for the leadership of the Labor Zionist movement. At the time of his murder, he was negotiating giving away parts of Eretz Israel to the Arabs.
A reporter who managed to see Nathuram Godse briefly in a cell at the police station asked him whether he had anything to say. “For the present I only want to say that I am not at all sorry for what I have done”, he replied. “The rest I will explain in court.” http://library.thinkquest.org/26523/mainfiles/nathuram.htm
The latter events soon after the murder of Sk. Mujib proved this assertion. Like many mis-informed Pakistanis they blamed Sk. Mujib for bringing about the dismemberment of Pakistan. However, as the report in the July 7, 2005 issue of the Dawn suggests Sk. Mujib’s actual intention was not separation from Pakistan but a confederation that allowed provinces certain rights. http://www.dawn.com/2005/07/07/nat3.htm
See the interview of the killers of Sk. Mujib: http://www.thedailystar.net/suppliments/2009/righting_the_grievous_wrong/hatched.html
See, e.g., http://www.larouchepub.com/other/1995/2249_kissinger_food.html ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh_famine_of_1974#endnote_Sharma; see also this author’s article: http://drhabibsiddiqui.blogspot.com/2009/11/further-comments-about-mujib-era-1972.html