Politics & Policy

Dealing in Death

The West is weak because it respects life? Too bad.

In the war on terrorism, major battles from early Islamic history serve as inspiration for those fighting against the West. As al Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheaded American Nicholas Berg in Iraq last week, he asked, “Is it not time for you [Muslims] to take the path of jihad and carry the sword of the Prophet of prophets?… The Prophet, the most merciful, ordered [his army] to strike the necks of some prisoners in [the battle of] Badr and to kill them… And he set a good example for us. As for you, Bush, dog of the Christians, anticipate what will harm you… And you will only get shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin slaughtered in this manner.”

Another chapter from early Islamic history–serving as a lesson for today’s Muslims at war against the West–is the concept of the love of death. This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: “You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don’t, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life.” This account is recited in today’s Muslim sermons, newspapers, and textbooks.

In his speech of March 19, 2004, President Bush referred to this concept: “On a tape claiming responsibility for the atrocities in Madrid, a man is heard to say, ‘We choose death, while you choose life.’… It is a mindset that rejoices in suicide, incites murder, and celebrates every death we mourn. And we who stand on the other side of the line must be equally clear and certain of our convictions. We do love life…. We believe in the values that uphold the dignity of life, tolerance, and freedom, and the right of conscience. And we know that this way of life is worth defending. There is no neutral ground–no neutral ground–in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death.”

Leading Muslim clerics often refer to the love of death. Chief Palestinian Authority cleric Mufti Sheikh Ikrimeh Sabri stated, “We tell them, in as much as you love life, the Muslim loves death and martyrdom. There is a great difference between he who loves the hereafter and he who loves this world. The Muslim loves death and [strives for] martyrdom.” Saudi Sheikh Abd Al-Muhsin Al-Qassem in Al-Madina added: “The Jews preached permissiveness and corruption, as they hid behind false slogans like freedom and equality, humanism and brotherhood… They are cowards in battle… they flee from death and fear fighting… They love life.”

Former head of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee Sheikh Atiyyah Saqr was asked the following question in an online chat room on March 22, 2004: “What, according to the Koran, are the Jews’ main characteristics and qualities?” He explained one of their worst traits: “Cowardice and love for this worldly life are undisputable traits [of the Jews].” Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah revealed in an interview after the recent prisoner swap between Israel and his group: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”

Abdallah Al-Naggar, a religious columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhuriya, has written about the differences between a “Muslim believer’s” approach to death and that of his non-Muslim enemies: “The believers in Allah rightly do not dread their enemies and do not fear [waging a] jihad, because they see jihad as a profitable bargain, selling their lives to Allah [to get paradise in return]. Their enemies protect their [own] lives, as criminals do. [Allah] has already said about them: ‘You will find that they are the people who protect their [own] life more than anyone else.’… The believers do not fear the enemy [during] the struggle and do not protect their lives. Allah has promised them one of two good things: [either] victory or martyrdom…. Yet their enemies protect [their] lives like a miser protects his money. They do not give [their lives] easily; they do not enter into battles seeking martyrdom; they do not act in order [to attain] martyrdom. This is the secret of the believers’ victory over their enemies–though the believers are few and the polytheists many, with advanced weaponry and equipment.”

Liberal Egyptian playwright Ali Salem mocked articles such as those by Al-Naggar in the Arab media. In a satiric column published in the London daily Al-Hayat, Salem sarcastically suggested opening a kindergarten to teach terrorist values: “You will easily notice that they love life, and that is the weak point that we will exploit. We, in contrast, love death and protect it. Do not believe that Allah created life for us to live, build, and enjoy. [No,] Allah created us to test our ability to rebel against life, to despise it, and to get rid of it at the earliest opportunity. Each and every one of you must seek out your first chance to die–but you must not die for free…You must know, dear children, that our martyrs gain entry to Paradise, while their dead are [sentenced] to the fires of Hell. These idiots do not believe in Paradise, in the fires of Hell, or in the Day of Judgment.” Tunisian intellectual Al-Afif Al-Akhdar asked in an article for the liberal Arabic-language website www.elaph.com: “Why do expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, compromise, and negotiation horrify us [Muslims], but [when we hear] fervent cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance?… Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and [even] call it heroism and martyrdom?”

As the war on terror continues, the voices coming from the Arab and Muslim world celebrating death over life have been heard more often than those criticizing this philosophy. An editorial in the Lebanese Daily Star on May 13, 2004, warned of what might happen if this issue is not addressed: “The region’s kings, princes, and presidents need to learn a valuable lesson from this abhorrent incident: that fractured societies produce real-life theaters of shame like the Berg murder in a systemic manner, and that similar fractures are infecting their own societies. If the Berg beheading does not catapult the region’s leaders from the world of lethargy to the world of vigorous action to establish law and order in their own societies–and beginning with themselves–then they will be considerably weakened…. What more is needed to galvanize Arab leaders into action? Today, a man named Berg was put to the sword; tomorrow, it could be the Arab nation torn asunder by the same savagery.”

Steven Stalinsky is executive director of The Middle East Media Research Institute.


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