Latest update: January 10th, 2013
Before the end of the year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though weakened by Hamas’s control of the recent Gilad Shalit deal with Israel, may still seek UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. Any plan for a Two-State Solution in the Middle East will quickly degrade both U.S. and Israeli security. This is because the “road map” to a Palestinian state conveniently bypasses the plainly non-territorial origins of jihadist terror.
It is a point I have made here before. In essence, jihadist terror has little to do with land or politics or strategy or tactics. Rather, it is a predictable, repetitive, and ritualistic expression of deeply serious religious sacrifice.
Even if Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah receives credit for an eventual UN declaration of Palestinian sovereignty, Hamas would likely dominate any resultant Arab state. In keeping with its utterly immutable commitment to raw terror, the Islamic Resistance Movement, now strengthened by the striking disproportionality of its recent Shalit exchange, would promptly launch expanded forms of “freedom fighting.” Significantly, because such violence would express shahada, or Death for Allah, there would be no room for any further negotiations. There would also be no diplomatic or strategic advantage to any further American or Israeli concessions.
The primal nexus between sacrifice and political violence has a long and pertinent history, including links in ancient Greece. There, Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Mothers revealed the model female parent as one who reared her sons expressly for civic sacrifice. This exemplary 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 unlucky Spartan sons who had failed to live up to this standard were conspicuously reviled.
One woman, whose son had been the sole survivor of a recent military engagement, killed him with a tile. Culturally, it was the only correct punishment for his apparent cowardice. Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss (Genevan) philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing Plutarch, described another citizen-mother’s tale: “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 thanks to the gods.”
The roots of still-impending jihadist terror from “Palestine” originate, in part, from contemporary cultures that embrace similar views of sacrifice. In these “sacred violence” cultures, the purpose of sacrifice extends far beyond civic necessity. Here, sacrificial practice becomes a genuinely expression of religious fervor. More precisely, such sacrifice derives largely from a hoped-for conquest of personal death; in other words, hope for immortality.
Although seldom acknowledged, there can be no greater power in world politics than power over death. Oddly, this point is not really difficult to understand. After all, compelling promises of immortality underlie virtually all major human religious belief. Still, this central point is not understood in either Washington or Jerusalem.
The jihadist terrorist claims to love death, but this necrophilious claim is a lie. Paradoxically, this self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” kills himself (or herself) and innocent others, to ensure that he or she will not die. The so-called “death” that he or she expects to suffer in such a suicide is anything but final. It is, instead, a momentary inconvenience on one more glorious “martyr’s” fiery trajectory toward life everlasting.
Martyrdom operations have always been associated with jihad. These operations are based on long-codified Muslim scripture. Unequivocal and celebratory, enthusiastic invocations for this particular species of warfare can be found in the Koran, and also in the canonical hadith.
For the U.S. and Israel, the security implications of any doctrinal fusion involving religion and violence now warrant very careful consideration. Convinced that shahada violence against the U.S. or Israel will lead to martyrdom, the Hamas terrorist will never be deterred by any ordinary threats of military reprisal or determined retaliation. Reciprocally, however, this criminal will be strongly encouraged by Israel’s repeatedly one-sided territorial surrenders and prisoner agreements. This was especially evident in the ecstatic Palestinian welcomes recently extended to the hundreds of Hamas killers traded for Gilad Shalit.
What does this mean for the United States? Above all, it means our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least as large-scale military expressions of counter-terrorism, are now utterly beside the point. These wars will not make the slightest dent in jihadist thinking or consequent jihadist threats.
All good strategy begins at the conceptual or “molecular” level. It is the individual jihadists’ terror of death that leads them, “logically,” to “suicide.” Precisely because any short-term dying in the act of killing infidels and apostates is presumed to buy freedom from the penalty of real death, these Islamist terrorists pointedly aim to conquer mortality by killing themselves.
In military and counter-terrorism planning, truth may emerge from paradox. Aware of this, we are currently faced with a peculiar and ironic, but nonetheless persuasive, enemy juxtaposition.
America’s and Israel’s terrorist enemies have very distinctive and deceptive orientations to peace. This stark asymmetry puts us all at a foreseeable and grievous disadvantage. While these jihadist foes manifest their “positive” expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the intentional and doctrinal slaughter of so-called heathen, our political leaders manage to remain unaware of their enemies’ systematically murderous fusion of violence and the sacred.
America and Israel now face steadily expanding mega-threats of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with adversaries who are not only willing to die, but who actively seek their own “deaths” in order to live forever, Washington and Jerusalem should finally understand the unavoidable limits of military remediation and homeland defense. These limits could become even more unmanageable if unconventional war and unconventional terror were at any time forged against us in assorted possible synergies.
For our Palestinian jihadist enemies in the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) and Gaza, killing Americans and Israelis always offers an optimal immunity against personal death. Understood in appropriate psychodynamic terminology, the death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the infidel. Generically, this idea is best captured by Ernest Becker’s paraphrase of Nobel laureate Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”
Our jihadist enemies do not intend to do evil. Rather, they commit to the killing of Americans and Israelis with an absolute purity of heart. Though mired in blood, their search for “infidels” is always tranquil and self-assured. It is, after all, born of certain knowledge that the lofty goals of Holy War can never be shameful, only heroic.
To weaken and defeat jihadist terrorists, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu must first understand that any Palestinian state would be contrary to their most basic national interests. For the sake of indispensable American and Israeli security, it is now high time to replace the self-defeating cartography of a twisted and rutted “road map” with a more thoughtful and direct route to effective counter-terrorism.
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.
Louis Rene Beres
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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