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September 23, 2014 / 28 Elul, 5774
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Arab Terrorism and Religious Sacrifice


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Sometimes, pragmatism handily trumps belief. Back in the earliest days of Arab terrorism against Israel – going back to May 1948 and even earlier – many disparate groups were able to cooperate in a presumptively common war against the Jewish state.

In those times of a distinctly nuanced terror, virtually every Arab enemy of Israel was more or less welcome under a conspicuously broad tent of brotherly collaboration.

To be sure, this alleged fraternity of terror may have been inauthentic and contrived. It did succeed, however, in bringing together, both ideologically and operationally, an utterly diverse assembly of formidably violent bedfellows. For example, within the Palestinian “resistance,” atheistic and Marxist elements were generally permitted to make tactically common cause with Islamic fundamentalists.

This apparent largesse was evident even inside Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella terror group first formed in 1964, three years before the Six-Day War. Significantly, this was three years before there was any Israeli “occupation.”

What was the PLO attempting to “liberate” during those three years? The answer, of course, was (and remains) all of Israel, a micro-state that is still identified on all Palestinian Authority and Hamas maps as “Occupied Palestine.”

But today, there are new Palestinian requirements for joining the fight. Today, all Arab “liberators” must first meet a strict litmus test of determinable Islamic purity.

More precisely, only jihadists, only those engaged in ribat (religion-based fighting for allegedly Islamic land), can participate in the current armed struggle. The struggle has therefore changed from a preeminently secular and tactical conflict to one in which the Palestinians often ignore normal strategic imperatives in pursuit of much larger ideological imperatives. In the final analysis, this alleged struggle is based upon overriding and underlying commitments to Islamic religious sacrifice.

Looking back over the millennia, such transformations are not unknown in world politics. Critical foundational links between religious sacrifice and insurgency have already had a long and potentially pertinent history. To gain useful insight from this enduring chronology, we may look with special interest to ancient Greece. Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Mothers identified the exemplary female parent as one who had reared her sons for civic sacrifice. Such a mother was always relieved to learn that a son had died “in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors.” Indeed, those unworthy Spartan sons who failed to live up to this unusually bold standard of sacrifice were consciously and routinely reviled.

One woman killed her son, who had been the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement, with a tile. Culturally, it was the unambiguously correct punishment for his apparent cowardice. Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing 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.”

There are meaningful lessons here for Israel. The true roots of Jihadist terror originate, in part, from cultures that embrace similar views of sacrifice. In these adversarial and mostly Arab cultures, the key purpose of sacrifice goes far beyond any presumed expectations of civic necessity. It goes, in essence, to the very heart of individual human fear, to the incomparably mesmerizing locus of existential dread.

Here, sacrificial practice becomes a sacred expression of religion. In these cultures, sacrifice derives, in part, from a desperately hoped for conquest of personal death. Above all, by adopting such a grotesque practice, the jihadist terrorist expects to realize the promise of immortality.

What could be more compelling? There can be no greater power in world politics than the power over death. But though the jihadist terrorist insistently claims to “love death,” this is an evident and thoroughly incontestable lie.

The jihadist murderer kills himself or herself, together with assorted innocent others, in order to ensure a personal life that never ends. The so-called death he or she actually expects to suffer in consequence of this suicide, therefore, is really no more than a momentary inconvenience. The martyr can calculate that the suicide is cost-effective – part of a divinely guided trajectory on a gloriously fiery path to life everlasting. In Islam, martyrdom has always been associated with jihad. Unequivocal and celebratory invocations for such sacrificial killing can be found in the Koran (9:111) and, even more explicitly, in the canonical hadith. “Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead,” instructs the Koran, “for they are living by their Lord.”

For Hamas in particular, there are certain obligatory aspects of sacrificial terror that must never be overlooked. This two-sided nature of terror/sacrifice – the sacrifice of “The Jew” and the sacrifice of “The Martyr” – is even codified in the charter of Hamas: “The Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise.… ‘I swear by that [sic] who holds in His Hands, the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.’ ”

It is by killing Jews and, subsequently, being killed by Jews that true freedom from death can be expected. Arafat’s appointed clergy, preaching on the Temple Mount on August 11, 2000, reaffirmed the following absolutely core religious orthodoxy: “Palestinians spearhead Allah’s war against the Jews. The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews….”

The survival implications of this doctrinal fusion of religion and violence should warrant careful study in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Convinced that shahada (“death for Allah”) violence against Israel will lead directly to martyrdom, the Islamist terrorist can never be effectively deterred by the more ordinary threats of reprisal and retaliation. Such threats, in fact, could become an incentive to the commission of further anti-Israel terrorism. When falling outside the usual boundaries of “rationality,” jihadist terrorism would compel Israeli planners to seek very different and more purposeful measures of dissuasion. To keep Israel safe, the country’s leaders would now have to look beyond mainstream military and political solutions to terrorism. At a minimum, Israel would need to strongly oppose any U.S.- or UN-supported plan to carve a fully legitimized Palestinian state from the still-living body of Israel. Such an insidious plan, of course, was already begun recently in the General Assembly, when the Palestinian Authority’s formal status before the world body was upgraded to nonmember observer state.

It is the jihadists’ unique and overwhelming terror of death that leads them to a uniquely murderous form of “suicide.” Because dying in the act of killing “infidels” and “apostates” is understood to buy freedom from the penalty of death, these terrorists aim to conquer mortality by killing themselves.

In the fashion of its Islamist enemies, Israel, for many reasons still imagines for itself life everlasting. But unlike its sacrifice-centered Arab and Iranian enemies, Israel does not see itself as achieving immortality, either individually or collectively, by the willful mass killing of others.

Israel and its terrorist enemies have decidedly different orientations to “peace.” This stark asymmetry puts the Jewish state at a foreseeable disadvantage. While Israel’s Islamist enemies manifest their “positive” expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the intended and doctrinal slaughter of “heathen,” Israel’s leaders have flatly rejected their foes’ faith-based decisional calculus.

Israel faces a very real and still-expanding mega-threat of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with opponents who are not only willing to die but who might ecstatically seek their own earthly deaths, Jerusalem must quickly understand the critical limits of ordinary warfare, national homeland defense, and strategic deterrence.

The key danger to Israel now lies at two discrete but interrelated levels. First, it exists at the level of the individual jihadist enemy who chooses martyrdom through a deliberate path of terrorism. Second, it exists at the level of states, which may represent individual human self-sacrificers in macrocosm.

Someday these states may choose collective self-sacrifice through a frenzied initiation of chemical, biological or nuclear war. Such a war might not be fought for traditional military purposes but instead for the liquidation of “infidels.” Any such choice would represent the unholiest of marriages between aggressive war and genocide, two clearly codified mega-crimes under international law.

The root problem explained here is jihadist death fear, and the consequent compulsion to sacrifice certain despised “others.”

This compulsion, in turn, stems from a widespread and doctrinal belief that killing unbelievers, and also being killed by unbelievers, is the very best path to immortality. Terrorist unwillingness to accept personal death leads to the killing of others in order to escape this death. For many of Israel’s terrorist enemies, both individuals and states, killing Jews, not just Israelis, offers an optimal immunization against personal death. Here, in psychological terms, the death fear of the enemy “ego” is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the infidel. This generic idea has been best captured by Ernest Becker’s vivid paraphrase of Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

The jihadist enemies of Israel do not, in their own eyes, intend to do evil. Rather, they commit to the killing of Jews and other “infidels” with undisguised conviction and with a limitless purity of heart. Perversely sanctified killers, to be sure, these relentless enemies will gleefully generate an incessant search for “profane” victims. Though mired in blood, this terrorizing search will probably be tranquil and self-assured, born of the presumption that its determined perpetrators are neither infamous nor shameful but sacrificial.

For good reason, the military wing of Fatah, the allegedly more secular and moderate exponent of Palestinian terror, is called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. In the precise fashion of more explicitly sacrificial elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Fatah’s “Brigade” is oriented toward more than armed struggle. It is dedicated to religious sacrifice, an all-consuming commitment that ultimately promises its followers not just military victory over “Zionist occupiers” but also immunity from death.

Oddly, perhaps, Palestinian terrorism is far more dangerous today than it was during Israel’s early years. Yes, there were fedayeen (“self-sacrificers”) even then, but their dominant motives were more conspicuously nationalistic, and also less Islamic.

For Israel, there is increasingly little point to deterring these would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from undertaking terrorist attacks with threats of lethal reprisal. Instead, to effectively deter this sort of suicide bomber, Israel must somehow learn to confront the prospective murderers with a compelling and palpable sense of authentic suicide. Here, the Arab terrorist would calculate that his fervently sought-after explosion of Jewish bodies will bring not an ecstatic entry into paradise but an irreversible slide into oblivion.

There are some corollary notions for Israel to better understand and exploit. These have to do with the more carnal or lascivious side of Palestinian terrorism. Notwithstanding his smugly open identification with allegedly higher ideals and motivations, and also with more usual political objectives, the young Palestinian male who seeks the celebrated martyrdom of a shahid fighter is generally at a loss for identifying alternative sources of maleness. This means his death as a martyr is expected to bring not only freedom from personal death, but also the only remaining opportunity for sexual satisfaction.

What is Israel to do? For the Palestinian terrorist today, violence and the sacred are thoroughly intertwined and inseparable. Israel, therefore, must now think in terms of desacrilizing this grotesque adversary, and convincing him that his ritual murders of Jews will lead not to paradise but to the oft-dreaded terrors of the grave.

Can such a desacrilization ever be accomplished through ordinary politics and the delusionary “peace process”? Of course not. To be persuasive, it would have to originate among the influential Islamic clerics themselves. But how could these venerable mentors of the Islamic Holy Warriors be motivated in such a plainly alien direction? Should Israel continue to target Palestinian terrorist leaders, a strategy of selective assassination that recently led directly to Operation Pillar of Defense? Though the operational benefits of getting rid of terrorist masterminds without mounting full-scale war are both meaningful and self-evident, it is also true that the Palestinian terror threat now confronting Israel resembles the mythic Hydra. This was, we recall, a monster of many heads, one that was impossible to kill because each time one head was successfully struck by Hercules, two new ones arose in its place.

In essence, for Israel there are today simply too many terrorists to kill. This is not a complex problem of law or ethics but rather one of tactical efficacy.

What is the correct strategy for Israel?

To begin, Israel’s strategic and intelligence communities will need to identify new and promising ways of deterring non-rational (jihadist) adversaries. Simultaneously, especially as Palestinian statehood is being illegally validated by steadily-calculated increments of recognition in the UN General Assembly, these planners will need to formally terminate the “peace process.”

In effect, this “Road Map” (earlier, the Oslo Agreement) has already been abrogated by incessantly egregious Palestinian violations. Persisting with the inexcusable charade of “land for peace” will only further truncate Israel’s indispensable strategic depth and will inevitably produce more war and more terror.

Israel’s last best hope to halt Palestinian terror lies in maintaining its residual territorial integrity and opposing all recognizable Palestinian efforts to merge a singular Jewish state into a many-sided Islamic one.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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2 Responses to “Arab Terrorism and Religious Sacrifice”

  1. Thank you Professor Beres that was a great article to read.G-d bless you!

  2. You can not reason or negotiate with men that are already dead. Islam is the root cause of the problem. As long as you believe that you can coexist with such evil you will be doomed. To survive such cancerous tumor (Islam) you must extirpate it.

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