"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!"
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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