Op-Ed: Convenient Masquerade: "Martyrdom" in the Middle East
Prof. Louis René BeresLouis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books, monographs, and articles dealing with Israeli security matters, nuclear strategy and nuclear war.
For just a fleeting moment, Palestinian terrorism may have been quieted by the Palestinian Authority's recent UN-approved end-run around normal legal rules.
Newly upgraded in status by the General Assembly to "Non-member Observer State," the PA, together with its reluctant Hamas partners in Gaza, will no longer have to fulfill ordinary requirements of the Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (the Montevideo Convention, 1934), or the binding Oslo Agreements with Israel. Paradoxically, and via the "good offices" of the United Nations, Palestinian statehood is now being brought about not by authoritative international law, but by flagrantly contrived diplomatic fiat.
Still, in time, Palestinian inclinations to Jihad and "martyrdom" will inevitably resurface, and so, too, will similar sentiments in certain neighboring Arab countries. Notwithstanding earlier and possibly latent movements toward democracy in the region, originally, the so-called "Arab Spring," current expressions of revolutionary fervor are apt to deteriorate rapidly into new forms of Islamic dictatorship and Islamist rule. This is already most obvious in Mohammed Morsi's Egypt, and it is plainly foreseeable in post-Assad Syria.
As for Israel, it must finally be apparent that the Jewish State, since its very beginnings in May 1948, has been a readily convenient scapegoat for several successive and retrograde Arab tyrannies. Always, to be sure, the truest enemy of the Arab peoples has been their own deeply-corrupted and incompetent leaderships. Indeed, if only the Arabs had immediately embraced rather than assaulted Israel - a perfectly rational embrace that would have been welcomed by all Israelis - the Arabs would have benefited enormously. Moreover, these considerable benefits would have been experienced on several levels; politically, intellectually, medically, scientifically, and materially.
In world politics, what is real, is not always rational. Because of endless manipulation by the Arab governments, demonization of Israel, not a gainfully symbiotic embrace, became de rigueur from the start. Now, following multiple and often inter-dependent revolutionary eruptions across the Arab world, Israel will likely remain in the self-destructive cross-hairs of still-irrational regional foes. More specifically, Islamist forces, some long suppressed, will continue to surface and seek power across the area. Willing "martyrs" in an ongoing Jihad, these more-or-less disciplined and capable forces will expand with a vigorously renewed dedication to cruelty. Prudently, this re-dedication will be pleasingly masked in sanctimony.
Significantly, the results of this energetic re-dedication will be felt not only in the Arab world and Israel, but also in Europe, and in the United States. Some evident consequences of the Jihadist resurgence may quickly become visible not only in Cairo, Tripoli, and Damascus, but also in Tel-Aviv, London, and New York.
In Gaza, al-Qaeda, not to be outdone by newly-emergent Muslim Brotherhood elements that are presently coalescing throughout the Hamas-controlled strip, will accelerate its own commitment to "sacred" violence. For all Jihadist terrorists, here and elsewhere, violence and the sacred will remain mutually-reinforcing and conspicuously inseparable. In fact, among the Palestinian leadership these days, the commitment to sacred violence and martyrdom has taken an altogether bizarre and non-Islamic turn.
Openly attaching himself to Jesus, and to corollary ideas of Christian martyrdom, senior PA leader Jibril Rajoub said in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (November 30, 2012): "Jesus is a Palestinian; the self-sacrificing Yasser Arafat is a Palestinian; Mahmoud Abbas, the messenger of peace on earth is a Palestinian. How great is this nation of the Holy Trinity!"
So, for the PA leadership, Jesus was a "Palestinian." We ought not be too surprised, therefore, that today's headlines from the "revolutionary" or "democratizing" Middle East are often misleading and incomplete. At its core, Jihadist terrorism, now being grotesquely linked to Christian sacrifice, has very little to do with war, politics, or revolutionary resistance to oppression. The deeper meanings of these recurrent excursions into barbarism can be found less in rationally-calculated judgments of expedient tactics or strategy, than in personally passionate feelings of fear, dissatisfaction, cowardice, and ritualistic loathing.
Examined closely, these feelings include:
(1) a consuming, though unrecognized, horror of death (relieved for “martyrs” by a compelling promise of immortality);
(2) an unfulfilled wish for ecstasy, or an intense, time-limited pleasure;
(3) a satisfying and self-righteous joy, drawn from the presumptively mandatory targeting of all those who would “lack sacredness;” and, perhaps even more acutely after the fall of Mubarak and Kaddafi,
(4) an utterly abiding hatred of “apostates” and “infidels.”
In searching for authentic meanings of regional revolutionary fervor in the Middle East, the implications for Jihadist terrorism will never be fully discoverable in official declarations, charters, resolutions, or covenants. Nor will they be made more understandable in less formal Islamist diatribes. Obliquely, but profoundly, these genuine meanings will remain securely hidden in the incalculable sufferings that are inflicted by Jihadists upon both their past and future victims.
In Iraq, the indiscriminate car bomb is back in fashion. In Yemen, all sides to the endless internecine conflicts disregard the growing problems of hunger and utter starvation. In Syria, and elsewhere in this volatile region, especially "Palestine," Jihadist terror will re-emerge with a "sacred" vengeance.
Seeking to express Shahada, or Death For Allah, the seemingly secular goals of revolutionary terror will create a convenient smokescreen for what are unalterably religious objectives. Incrementally, whenever feigned "democracy" appears to replace dictatorship, the tyranny of Islamism - even when it is linked perversely to Christian martyrdom - will become the eventual beneficiary.
At its heart, the civilizational problems of the Middle East are problems of human pain. Significantly, human language can never accurately describe agony. In this connection, the defiling horror of Jihadist terror-violence can never really be understood or felt by others. Expert commentaries notwithstanding, this particular horror can never be reduced to any tangible or measurable inventory of casualties.
All agony is incommunicable. In matters of Jihadist terror, therefore, quantification must always miss the point.
Even in the "new Middle East," the anguish of new terror victims will not only defile language, it will also be language defiling. However, the sheer inexpressibility of pain, although never determinable by politics, revolution, or society, will still have expressible political, revolutionary, and societal outcomes. In the case of still-advancing Jihadist terrorism, it may even stand in the way of recognizing new Islamist violence as evil or unacceptable. Ironically, we may encounter, in this context, comfortingly romantic celebrations of Jihadist terrorism as a necessary expression of "democracy," "revolution," and "martyrdom."
We must plainly understand that Jihadist terrorists are spurred on by the distinctly voluptuous and allegedly purifying satisfactions of planned sacred violence. Islamist suicide-bombers prepare carefully for their cathartic missions of pain and extinction largely because of the anticipated ecstasy. Drawn from a presumed religious obligation, this ecstasy, which rewards doubly because it is also "cleansing," represents an almost exact reciprocal of the unendurable suffering to be borne by the intended victims.
For Jihadist suicide terrorists, both past and future, the death that is dutifully meted out to certain "profane" others is an abstraction. These victims, after all, lack sacredness. And in the unchanging Quranic concept of war, terrorizing the profane unbeliever who refuses to be dhimmi ( to accept Shari’a domination) is necessarily a desired end unto itself.
Physical pain within the human body can not only destroy ordinary language, it can also bring about a visceral reversion to pre-language human sounds, to those primal moans, cries and whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the soon-to-be expanding number of victims of Jihadist terror will writhe agonizingly from the burns and the nails and the screws, neither the “civilized” world publics who bear silent witness, nor the "martyrs" themselves, will ever experience what is actually being suffered.
Physical pain, it must be realized, even in the "new Middle East," can have no consequential "voice." When, at last, it may discover some potentially decipherable sound, the listener will no longer want to listen. This audience, mortal and fragile, will wish most strenuously to deny its own existential vulnerabilities. Such denial, as Freud himself had recognized, lies at the very core of what it means to be human.
Violent upheavals spreading across the Middle East will always contain important hidden meanings. Their principal legacy will have little to do with any sustained popular revolution, democracy, or the overthrow of earthly despotisms. Instead, it will bear upon long-latent and much more primal human hopes of achieving the indisputably greatest power of all, power over death.
Drawing upon these important hidden meanings of current revolutionary fervor in the "new" Middle East and North Africa, the essence of any capable counter-terrorist policy must soon begin to lie in the following critical awareness: Jihadist violence is never actually rooted in any ostensible political or revolutionary ideology, but rather in remorselessly vengeful images of religious obligation. In the end, unmistakably, Jihadist terror is always an irresistibly sacred form of religious sacrifice.
Once this starkly elusive concept can be understood, we will finally be able to deal intelligently and purposefully with emerging expressions of "democracy," "revolution," and "martyrdom" in the region.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international law and international relations. He is the author of some of the earliest scholarly books and articles on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); and Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (1986). Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.