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Religious Extremism And International Legal Norms Perfidy, Irrationality And Preemption (First of Three Parts)


Beres-Louis-Rene

Based upon the author’s March 30, 2007 lecture “Sacred Violence, Religion And Terrorism” at a conference held at: Case Western Reserve University, School of Law, Cleveland, Ohio

First of Three Parts

The French dramatist and diplomat, Jean Giraudoux, inquires in one of his plays (Sodome et Gomorrhe): “C’est beau, n’est-ce pas, la fin dumonde?” (“It is beautiful, isn’t it, the end of the world?”)

Like the ironic playwright who explodes the myth of an ordered cosmos, the contemporary Islamic terrorist often sees great beauty in the ultimate form of disorder – in chaotic visions of an apocalyptic end to “heresy,” “blasphemy,” “apostasy” and all other forms of “unbelief.” For this terrorist, who remains defined in many different ways by the diverse worlds of law and politics, violence is not only a sacred path to universal cleansing and redemption – it is the only path. What is more, this “path” – to continue the metaphor – is more than just a means to an end. It is, in essence, the end, an end unto itself.

For the individual terrorist − and today we really mean the Jihadist terrorist – violent destruction of “blasphemers,” “infidels” and “apostates” is incontestably a distinct form of Islamic religious sacrifice. And, as is the case with all such forms of worship, sacrifice is meant to alleviate the death fears of the perpetrator by bringing death to “others.”

It is generally believed that the suicide bomber is fearless (cruel, but nonetheless fearless) − that he/she is willing and even eager to die for the greater glory of Allah. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. The suicide bomber kills him/herself precisely in order to avoid death.

Here one must understand that the “death” the suicide bomber expects to suffer is little more than a momentary inconvenience on the way to eternal life – to immortality. Paradoxically, it is his or her exceptionally acute fear of death that occasions “suicide.”

This [important conference] is exploring links between sacred violence, religion and terrorism. On its face, the dreadful connection between violence and terrorism seems to be a function of certain forms of religion.

Religion − more specifically today, certain elements of Islam − is allegedly the root cause of the problem. This is certainly not incorrect. But I would argue further that certain religion here is epiphenomenal, that it is not the actual underlying cause, but rather the visible part of something much deeper − a very deep and enduring pathology in the human spirit − now especially pervasive in portions of Islam.

I refer to human death fear, a fear about which much has been written from the time of Epicurus, Lucretius, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius to Nietzsche and Freud, to the American philosopher Santayana and the American psychologist Ernest Becker.

There is also a great deal for us to learn about death and prospects for eternal life from the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, whose Tragic Sense of Life has a marvelous chapter on “The Rationalist Dissolution” and another on “The Hunger of Immortality.”

The Hunger Of Immortality

How underestimated and ignored is this primal hunger in our still-limited understanding of terrorism, religion and “sacred violence.” Oddly enough, we Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Europeans are especially fond of projecting our own sense of rationality upon our adversaries.

Acknowledging that Western philosophy has always oscillated between Plato and Nietzsche, between rationalism and irrationalism, we have unthinkingly cast our lot with the Greeks and their inheritors. But we are now up against an entirely different ordering of the universe, and we would actually do far better as opponents of terrorism to read Dostoyevsky or Kafka than to dwell on Grotius, Pufendorf (“fathers” of international law) or even Jefferson.

I am fond of understanding virtually everything (including international law and counter-terrorism) through drama, art and literature. I began [these remarks] with a reference to the French playwright Jean Giradoux.

Let me now proceed to some equally apt words offered by the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. In his Henry IV, we are confronted with the “logic” of madness – a logic before which all of the rules of rational behavior crumble:

“Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman − with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions? Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather with a logic that flies like a feather.”

I’m not at all sure that our present Islamic terrorist enemies should, technically, be characterized as “mad,” but – in a practical sense – they are certainly energized by a wholly different hierarchy of preferences and values.

From the standpoint of international law, we absolutely must begin immediately to understand the limits of imposing our own notions of compliance and justice upon an altogether different kind of civilization.

For the Judeo-Christian world, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) put a legal end to the idea that an enemy in war was a criminal or heretic upon whom one necessarily waged a war of annihilation. Here, following the Thirty-Years War, the idea was crystallized and codified that an opponent was essentially a “just enemy,” an enemy upon whom one waged limited war.

Although there have surely been instances of absolutely profound disregard for this transforming idea, it has at least been acknowledged in principle as authoritative and normatively binding. Significantly, however, the present and seemingly immutable cry of Jihad represents a pre-Westphalian notion of total war that is premised upon the enemy’s (us) irremediable lack of sacredness.

So, to understand the vital linkages between sacred violence, religion and terrorism, we first need to understand that our present Islamic terrorist enemies wholly reject our post-Westphalian system of international law – the whole system.

This is a stunning rejection, one with unimaginably grave implications for the so-called war on terror as well as the counter-proliferation effort. It means, inter alia, that all prevailing jurisprudential ideas of treaty-based agreement and the other sources of international law listed at Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice are effectively binding only upon us.

We are therefore now contending with adversaries who don’t accept even the most minimal jurisprudential assumptions regarding compromise, negotiation, peaceful settlement or even humanitarian international law. For them, for the most part, international life is a zero-sum game, and the only acceptable outcome is a transformation of the dar- al- harb into the dar al -Islam (the world of war into the world of Islam).

Copyright, The Jewish Press, April 27, 2007. All rights reserved.

(To be continued)

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of ten books and several hundred articles dealing with military strategy, counter-terrorism, international relations and international law. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945, and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for THE JEWISH PRESS.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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