By Reuel Marc Gerecht, April 8, 2002
Martyrdom -istishhad – is an old and esteemed idea in Islam. Its most powerful
and historically significant expression came in the year 680 when Husayn, the
son of the Caliph Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, died at
Karbala in southern Iraq. Shiite Muslims, who see rightful rule in Islam
descending through Ali’s blood line, permanently imbedded the death of
Husayn, “the prince of all martyrs,” into the broader Muslim consciousness as a
never-ending passion play.
Shiite Iran’s revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War between 1980-88
electrified and made modern the concepts of martyrdom and holy war
throughout the Islamic world. Imbued with the conviction that their deaths
could bring honor and paradise to themselves, their families, and Muslims
everywhere, thousands of Iranian men eagerly slaughtered themselves.
Even among hardcore Sunni Muslims, who usually look askance at, if not
detest, their Shiite brethren, the imagery of martyrdom and jihad that Iran’s
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini unleashed became irresistibly magnetic.
We in the West would do well to reflect on the death-wish believers of Iran’s
revolution while we debate what the Israelis ought to do to protect themselves
from young Palestinian kamikazes. Devoid of a serious understanding of the
religious component in Palestinian politics, American policy in the region will
inevitably run aground on secular illusions.
The Palestinian suicide bombers’ motivations are rooted in a nihilist, amoral
understanding of the Muslim’s duty to wage jihad.
We have not yet seen Christian Palestinians’ suicidally attacking the
Israelis even though many Christian Palestinians have embraced the most
militant forms of Palestinian nationalism. The Christian hereafter, whatever it
may be, does not appear to beckon its terror-prone faithful with the same
intensity as does the Muslim afterlife for its militant believers.
As recent meetings of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic
Conference clearly reveal, Muslim rulers have a difficult time denying a religious
seal of approval to those Palestinians who’ve given their lives to destroy Israeli
cafes, discotheques, and Passover services.
The idea of jihad against Israel has extraordinary appeal even to
secularized Muslims, who can feel the shame of Islam’s long slide from glory
and superiority over the West as acutely as any practicing Muslim. Since 1947,
Hindus in India have killed thousands of Muslims; Israel in its wars against the
Arabs has killed relatively few. Yet it is Israel, a Western nation, that more
easily makes Muslim blood boil.
The Palestinian radicalization may possibly be even more advanced than the
Iranian because Palestinian society, in a cheek-to-jowl confrontation with
Zionism for more than 100 years, has been more open to Western thought.
The Palestinian use of female terrorists underscores the point. After the
Iranian revolution, the clerical regime developed informal cadres of young
women, and has never hesitated to execute “counter-revolutionary” female
dissidents. Yet the Islamic Republic in its earliest, darkest days could never
bring itself to glorify the idea of a female martyr. Iranian culture just couldn’t
promote an idea that ran so clearly counter to the age-old understanding that
women are, above all else, mothers, and therefore by definition
The Palestinian use of female suicide bombers and the failure of the Islamic
world to loudly condemn this practice shows how brutally modern ethics have
become in the Middle East. It also shows how surreal and schizophrenic the
Bush administration is becoming in the region.
In 1979, Washington painfully learned that there was no way it could
negotiate with the clerical regime. Yet Washington now believes that it and the
Israelis can somehow negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that encourages
policies that would probably unsettle Ayatollah Khomeini.
Does the administration really believe that if all the Israeli settlements in the
West Bank and Gaza were removed – they occupy less than 1.5% of these
territories – and East Jerusalem became Palestinian that the kamikazes would
stop? Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak essentially offered this deal.
Which provokes the question: What in the Palestinian kamikazes’ psychological
make-up makes the Bush administration believe that they are going to be more
pragmatic than was Arafat in 2000? Or is Arafat supposed to be more willing to
die for “peace” now than he was then?
Arafat has consistently encouraged and endorsed suicide-bombings as blessed
work. At what future point in negotiations is Arafat supposed to turn to
want-to-be martyrs and tell them that their holy war against the Jewish state is
The Bush administration seems to believe that there is some rational
switch inside the Palestinian national movement that if flipped would make it a
committed convert to the sober Western gradualism inherit in the Tenet,
Mitchell, and Oslo peace plans.
The administration’s approach follows the appeasement logic of the Clinton and
first Bush administration. The administration appears to believe – the State
Department certainly does – that Israel’s military response to terrorism actually
provokes further terrorism (the “cycle of violence”). Following this reasoning,
the Bush administration’s policy can ultimately lead only one way: Israel must
unilaterally withdraw from all the land that it gained in the 1967 war, including
all of East Jerusalem. It is probable that the White House has not even thought
through the implications of its new policy of “engagement.”
And with such a success, again, why would the Palestinian suicide bombers
stop? If they blew their way into East Jerusalem, why not West? What is it that
the Bush administration sees in the pro-martyr Palestinians that makes them
more reasonable than Hezbollah, which has eagerly continued its war against
the Jewish state after Israel’s withdraw from Lebanon in May 2000? Can the
Middle East hands in Foggy Bottom name one nation in the Middle East born of
such radical, revolutionary violence that has become pro-American,
peace-loving, and opposed to terrorism?
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is
bound to fail embarrassingly, as did his first sojourn into the peace process in
2001, because the mission makes no sense. His “engagement” is premised on a
political culture among the Palestinians which simply does not exist.
So what will work? Again an Iranian parallel is illuminating. By late 1987, the
carnage of the Iran-Iraq war had burned out the martyrdom syndrome among
young Iranian men. Boys who’d once believed with seemingly invincible
conviction jang jang ta piruzi (War! War until Victory!) were left lost and
shell-shocked. Within a short time, they loathed the leaders who’d once so
Unfortunately, it is only war – not the well-intended but meaningless
Tenet and Mitchell plans – that can now burn out istishhad among the
Palestinians. The sooner the Bush administration realizes this, the sooner the
suicide bombers will cease.
If the administration tries to “negotiate” with this syndrome, it will only
fuel the fire and make America, not just Israel, look weak. As Osama bin Ladin
should have taught us, weakness in the Middle East never goes unpunished.