EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the April 19, 2004, issue of National Review.
The life and death of Sheikh Yassin is a cautionary tale about politics and values in the Arab and Muslim Middle East. On the surface he appeared to be a man of religion, humble and modest, fit to be described as a “spiritual leader” as though he were some Palestinian Martin Luther King. In the midst of a society of unrestrained corruption and injustice, it is true, he lived frugally with his wife and eleven children in Gaza. Suffering from several severe disabilities, he was in a wheelchair all his adult life.
At a great remove from these outward appearances, he was the founder and organizer of Hamas, a straightforward terrorist group whose avowed objective is the destruction of Israel. To that end he devised the strategy of suicide bombing, and recruited young bombers. He wanted to kill Jews so badly that he didn’t mind how many Muslims died in the process. Islam explicitly condemns suicide as sinful, but he threw over it the false cloak of religious martyrdom. Yassin and Hamas are responsible for hundreds of attacks, including 52 suicide bombings by young men and a few young women, killing at least 400 Israelis and wounding over 2,000 more. The latest Hamas attack in the port of Ashdod aimed to explode chemical storage tanks, an act of potential mass-murder. In one of his last interviews Yassin predicted that Israel would collapse in 2007. He also liked to say that the day of his death would be the happiest of his life.
Yassin’s career illustrates the frenetic emotional impetus that religion adds to an otherwise stagnant or blocked nationalist movement. Much about his background remains obscure. Some say that he attended a secular university in Cairo for a year; others that he sat in on classes in Al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old center of Sunni learning in Cairo. The title of sheikh denotes proper religious authority, but evidently in Yassin’s case it is honorific, a present he gave himself. At any rate, in the course of a haphazard education, he fell under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
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