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"We Love Death"

In 2007, two years before he killed thirteen people and wounded twenty-nine at Fort Hood, Texas, Nidal Malik Hasan prepared a slide show for his fellow Army doctors on the subject of Islam. One of his last points read: "We love death more than you love life!"

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Dealing in Death  Steven Stalinsky, National Review. A Muslim claim originating in the 7th century still resonates loudly with many Islamists today.

These grisly words are as foreign to Western sensibilities as they are all but sacred dogma for Muslim radicals at war with the West—and with Western sensibilities. The sentence originated with a 7th-century Muslim commander who threatened his enemies with the prospect of "an army of men that love death as you love life." As if to prove that, at least in the Middle East, there is nothing new under the sun, Hassan Nasrallah employed the phrase in a 2004 interview to explain why Hizballah, the organization he heads, is destined to prevail over Israel: "The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death."

How to understand this macabre sentiment? Martyrdom has played an important role in Islam since its inception, and a number of chapters in the Quran mention the rewards of those who fight and die for God. One especially potent passage, also popular among Muslim radicals today, denies that martyrs are dead in any ultimate sense: "And do not consider those who have been killed in the way of God as dead; they are alive with their Lord, well provided-for."

True, Muslim history is fourteen centuries old, and for long periods of time and in many Muslim societies the value of martyrdom has been relegated, culturally speaking, to the back burner. There is, however, something qualitatively different about the lust for death in the ideology of contemporary radicals, embodied in its most extreme form in the frightful image of the Muslim suicide bomber.

At a recent conference in Jerusalem, three experts offered thoughts on Islamic martyrdom from as many perspectives. One, Eli Alshech, analyzed the role played by the value of martyrdom in bolstering the credentials of the radical jihadist scholars who promote it. A more hands-on analysis was presented by Anat Berko, a criminologist by profession, on the basis of extensive interviews with a number of failed suicide bombers (the only kind you can talk to) and their dispatchers in Israeli prisons. Many suicide bombers, both male and female, come from families with weak father figures; women often enlist because they're attracted by the co-ed training environment, while boys and men are pulled in by the promise of the virgins who will be waiting for them in paradise. To Berko, it is clear that these "soldiers" are pathetic cannon fodder in the hands of the dispatchers and the ideologues: the people who make the system work.

But this brings us back to the ideology itself. Focusing on Hamas, which was responsible for scores of suicide attacks against Israel in 1994-96 and again from 2001-2007, resulting all told in the deaths of over 1,000 Israeli civilians, Meir Litvack traced the terror organization's elevation of martyrdom to the status of an ultimate value, one serving both as "an object of personal and collective aspiration" and as "a major source of national, political mobilization." From Hamas's perspective, suicide bombings are not only a weapon, they're "a force for Palestinian empowerment" and a central component in the formation of Palestinian identity. As one sympathizer put it, reverting to the slogan of his forebears, "The Israelis have guns, we have the human bomb. We love death, they love life."

For terrorists like Hassan Nasrallah, the beauty of suicide bombings lies in their ability to "hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable"—namely, in that allegedly crippling love of life. In fact, as a military tactic, and a particularly hideous one, suicide bombings had the opposite effect, creating tremendous solidarity in Israeli society and galvanizing the effort to overcome the threat by means of intensified intelligence operations and, above all, the building of a security fence. But there is no denying that martyrdom continues to be incessantly promoted and celebrated by Palestinian educators, clerics, and media personalities to this day, as indeed by jihadists everywhere.

What can life-loving Israelis do about Muslims who love death and seek out martyrdom? Aside from accommodating their wish to die, not a great deal. Already in the first half of the 20th century, a prominent religious Zionist scholar foresaw a conflict emerging between Jews and Muslims over, precisely, their highest religious values. According to Rabbi Ya'akov Moshe Harlap, Jews believe that God is to be served in this world, while Muslims believe that God is to be served "by leaping over this world and dying for His name."

Harlap's characterization was prescient, though his formulation may have been too compact. In the Jewish tradition, a "this-world" orientation has nothing to do with those hedonist and materialist forms of modern life that bedevil the modern Islamist imagination and that Muslim radicals want to extirpate. Rather, the vision of this-worldly religious life found in Jewish sources regards the full expression of human powers—intellectual, volitional, physical, and imaginative—as a positive religious duty, even while cautioning about the limitations of those same powers. If Muslim radicals cannot fathom or account for this kind of religious life, it is because, until now, they've never seen or ever allowed themselves to imagine such a thing. 

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Ellen on April 6, 2011 at 8:59 am (Reply)
A civilization or culture that loves death will be on its own deathbed soon enough. Islam in our times is a decaying, dying civilization, in spite of the demographic youthfulness of its population. Nothing could more exemplify this truth than the fact that so many of its youth want to die (and take down others with them) than live and develop a more successful Islamic world. In a recent public opinion poll, 50% of Arab youth expressed the desire to emigrate out of the Arab world altogether. That statistic is of a piece with the theme of this article.

This is the world that Israel, unfortunately, finds itself tethered to, by the coincidence of geography. So, luckily for us, Jews love life. And that, more than any other reason, explains why Israel is a rising society in the 21st century, while the Arabs are declining. Most of the revolts we are now looking at, across the Arab states, are nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. Changing political leadership of these rotten states is certainly necessary, but it won't change the reality of a failing civilization. I doubt anything, at this point, can change that reality.
abarafi on April 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
Even Japanese kamikazi pilots loved life more than death. This aspect of extremist Islamists is self-defeating. Eventually their enemies will become less reticent about possibly shooting someone who is innocent. Clearly, someone who is wearing a suicide vest is not likely to be halted by a command to "stop or I'll shoot." If the ultimate goal of Hamas and Hizbollah is to have their opponents sanction shooting, first, and asking questions, later, then they may just get what they wish for.
Julian Tepper on April 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm (Reply)
I see no evidence and know of no facts to support the assertion that Islam is on its way out.

I know of no way to put an end to murder/suicide-bombing. Unfortunately, no one does.

I won't be around to see what it is that puts an end to murder/suicide-bombing. Perhaps it might be the presence of a new, more treacherous threat to both the bombers and to Israel, a threat that will force them to join together in combat against a common enemy. Won't be the first time.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Ellen on April 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm (Reply)
Secularism is making deep inroads in every modernizing Islamic society, including those like Iran which are Islamic Republics. Iran, at the time of the Revolution in 1979, was a pious society where the rule of the clergy was supported by a majority and the mosques were full. Today the mosques are empty and few other than the parasites who live from government funding support the Islamic system. This same trend is happening everywhere, although not as rapidly as in Iran.

The rise of fundamentalism is a rear-guard action by the traditionalists to prevent the collapse of traditional society, but it won't work, as the Iranian case shows. The same collapse of religious faith occurred in Europe with Christians and Jews, with limited revivals occurring outside of Europe, mainly. Traditional religion can survive in the modern world, but not of the sort you see in Islamic countries. They are trying to survive the onslaught of global secular culture by suicide bombings and jihad, when the real battle to be fought is intellectual and spiritual. They are fighting entirely on the wrong battlefield, and hence will lose the real battle.
Julian Tepper on April 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm (Reply)

Facts matter.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Ernie Banks on April 7, 2011 at 1:50 pm (Reply)
There's a certain sense of superiority in this article; we love life, they love death, therefore we are better than them. Perhaps is is best to suspend value judgments for now and seek to understand why they think this way instead.

When I look at the Arab world, I am not sure they really believe this mantra. Like everyone else, they mourn when their loved ones die. If they truly loved death more than life, wouldn't they celebrate and not mourn at a funeral? Wouldn't ordinary suicide be commonplace? Yet this is not so.

The sense I have is that this mantra "we love death, you love life" is more of a political slogan than the truth. Some believe it, for sure - but this belief is not widespread.

Maybe Gary Mortensen has it right - the way to combat this thinking is through better education. If people have hope for the future, they will be less susceptible to this sort of Islamist thinking.
Aaron Ryoo on April 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm (Reply)
Recently, I heard Planet Money's Adam Davidson tell a story of a Jordanian youth. This young man either wanted to be a suicide bomber, or land a profitable job as a computer programmer. He really wanted to do both of these things - he found honor in both of them.

In the end, the young man found a programming job, and he is no longer thinking of suicide bombing.

Aaron Ryoo
Aryeh Tepper on April 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm (Reply)
Ernie, you wrote: "Like everyone else, they mourn when their loved ones die. If they truly loved death more than life, wouldn't they celebrate and not mourn at a funeral?"

I'm sorry to tell you this, but the families of suicide bombers don't mourn, they celebrate. This is, unfortunately, well-documented. Try reading this for starters, "An Interview with the Mother of a Suicide Bomber":
SW on April 8, 2011 at 3:26 am (Reply)
Muslims love death? Sure, and so they say. The Western world loves death too, as the grim decades of statistics from the Guttmacher Institute count, as the rise of National Socialism and Italian Fascism in Europe demonstrate, and Asia's enthusiasm for death has been shown in the rise of Soviet Socialism amd Sino Socialism, the Khmer Rouge killing fields and more. Much more.

Islamists might brag about loving death, but this is nowhere close to being unusual after a 20th century of death through a broad variety of holocausts and genocides.

For the truth of the above, that religious Jews "love life" is unusual in a world's history which can accumulate such above facts in only the last century. It makes the culture of life a very unusual phenomenon in a world of ordinary, death-devoted tribes and trends.

"Choose life" remains a very unusual option, and for this those who choose life should be and remain proud of their stance and beliefs.
Lula on August 25, 2011 at 2:50 pm (Reply)
The fact that these same mentality-Islamist (AKA Arab, Muslim anti-Jewish bigots) sympathizers from MAINSTREAM Arab-Palestine danced when Islamists massacred 3,000 on 9/11/2001.


Just as the same celebrated the massacre of children in Sbarro restaurant (2002), or the slashing of baby in Itamar (2011)... etc.
adam on February 11, 2013 at 9:31 pm (Reply)
It is ironic that this posting glosses over the fact that the studies show that the suicide bomber comes from a family of a "weak father figure" and just goes to the talking points here. If this was part of the religion that this should exist with someone with a "strong" father. Not a weak one. The biggest reason I think is that they see no purpose in this world having a father who is abused and henpecked and otherwise they would be like the evil Osama Bin Ladin and preach hate but love this world and not kill themselves. I do notice that women especially seem to celebrate. I do think feminism is at play here which of course was created by very evil men to keep women focused on other men so they don't realize corrupt the man feeding them this garbage is and doing this creates boys that can be used as suicide bombers. Without feminism and hate the father ideology throughout the world boys wouldn't be so willing to do this.

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