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Op-Ed: Part I: Terrorism, "Palestine" and Religious Sacrifice

Terrorism, "Palestine" and religious sacrifice meet at a dangerous crossroads for Israel and all of mankind. An article in two parts.
Published: Monday, September 23, 2013 12:57 AM


 Once upon a time, the Palestinian terror movement against Israel was plainly "multipolar." With substantially more constituent centers of regional power, a frankly common Palestinian ideology was unnecessary. In those "early days," going all the way back to 1948, what really mattered was a conspicuously expressed antipathy to "The Jews."

In some ways, at least for Israel's self-declared Palestinian enemies, those early days were a sort of Dickensian "best of times." Under a broadly welcoming canopy, Palestinian "diversity" was able to emerge and reign triumphant; even certain atheistic and Marxist elements were then generally permitted to make collaborative cause with "Islamic fundamentalists." Emphasizing operational collaboration, no particular ideology was encouraged or allowed to become a singularly dominant or hegemonic orthodoxy.

In short, regarding policy matters of the Palestinian terror movement, convenience and mutuality of interest defined both the guiding standard, and the unifying watchword.

Here, history is clear. An apparent largesse was evident even inside Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella terror group formed in 1964. Significantly, that was three years prior to the Six Day War, hence, three years before there were any so-called "Israel Occupied Territories."

What was the PLO actually seeking to "liberate," during those three particular years?

This is not a minor, or outdated query. It is a distinctly core question, one that should now be asked, especially of  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and U.S. President Barack Obama.

The answer, of course, was (and remains) all of Israel, all of the micro-state that is still identified on both Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas maps, as "Occupied Palestine." But, today, despite an enduringly bitter "bipolar" schism between the two principal surviving Palestinian factions, there are compellingly new requirements for permission to join in the exterminatory battle against Israel. More precisely, all prospective Arab "liberators" must now first accept and meet a qualifying litmus test of Islamic purity.

Now, only Jihadists, only those who are properly in Ribat (religious conflict, fighting for "Islamic land"), can participate meaningfully in the divinely-mandated  "armed struggle." The overall fight, it follows, has changed from being a preeminently secular and tactical conflict, to one that may wittingly ignore all of the more ordinary or usual strategic imperatives. This all-consuming "struggle," expressed as terror, is founded upon certain overriding commitments to "sacred violence."  In other words, it is, most essentially, a present-day expression of religious sacrifice


For the Palestinian terror movement against Israel, violence and the sacred remain inseparable.
Basically, the relevant "anthropology" is straightforward. For the Palestinian terror movement against Israel, violence and the sacred remain inseparable. Indeed, religious sacrifice is what Palestinian insurgency is now ultimately all about.

Looking even more deeply, Palestinian terrorism, in the fashion of all religious sacrifice, is intended to protect the Palestinian community from its own violence. By carefully choosing victims outside itself, the terror-sacrificers are thereby able to erect a suitably protective cordon sanitaire, prevent outside "contagion," and expectedly restore harmony to their otherwise explosive community.

In the Islamic Middle East, religion instructs Palestinians as to what must be done to stave off any insufferable intra-communal harms. The main lesson is focused on the surrogate victim, here, the "Israeli," the "Zionist," or the "Jew." Sacrificed by a thoroughly primal religious dogma that merely masquerades as politics, it is inevitably this proxy victim of terrorism, and this scapegoat alone, who can presumably rescue the terrorists from themselves.

Vital foundational links between religious sacrifice and violent insurgency have had a long and potentially instructive history. To acknowledge and gain useful insight from this pertinent chronology, we may look back to ancient Greece, specifically, to Plutarch.

The first century biographer's Sayings of Spartan Mothers, names the proper female parent as one who had deliberately reared her sons for civic sacrifice. Such a venerated Greek mother was always relieved to learn that a son had died "in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors." On the other hand, those "unworthy" Spartan sons who had failed to live up to this enviably bold standard of sacrifice, were carefully singled out for both unqualified reprimand, and community-wide humiliation.

One woman, we may learn, whose son had been the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement,  killed him brutally, with a tile. Culturally, it seems, this was then the only fitting punishment for his incontestable cowardice. Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss (Genevan) philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing to Plutarch, described another citizen-mother’s tale as follows: "A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle.  A Helot (slave) arrives trembling; she asks him for the news. `Your five sons were killed.'  `Base slave, did I ask you that?' The slave responds: `We won the victory.'  The mother runs to the temple, and gives enthusiastic thanks to the gods."

But why relate these seemingly irrelevant tales from ancient Greece? The answer is simple. There are serious lessons here for Israel, especially as U.S. President Barack Obama continues unhesitatingly to reinvigorate the "Road Map."  Even now, it is impossible to deny that the deepest roots of Jihadist terror originate from cultures that display similar views of sacrifice.

In these largely adversarial and mostly Arab cultures, the key purpose of sacrifice always extends beyond any presumed expectations of civic necessity. This rationale goes directly to the very heart of individual human fear; that is, to the palpable and mesmerizing locus of existential dread.

Here, today, in the Arab Middle East, terrorism, as sacrificial practice, has become a sacred expression of religious obligation.

In these largely faith-based cultures, sacrifice derives, in part, from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death. Above all, by adopting such practice, the Jihadist terrorist expects, often desperately, to overcome or conquer his own terrifying mortality.

Even Palestinian-American terrorist, U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, actively sought the death sentence for his murder spree at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. As he explained in open court, "If I die by lethal injection, I would still be a martyr."

What could be more clear? What earthly promise could possibly be more gratifying than a pledged conferral of immortality? What promise could possibly be easier to understand?

Although still widely unrecognized, especially in the United States, there can never be any greater power in world politics, than the power to overcome death.

Louis René Beres, educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), publishes widely on world politics, terrorism, and international law. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including The Management of World Power (1972); Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1974); Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986); and Israeli Security and Nuclear Weapons (Geneva, Switzerland, 1990). His recent articles have appeared in such publications as The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Jerusalem Post; US News & World Report; and The Atlantic.