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President George W. Bush misquoted al-Qaeda in his March 19 speech: “There is a dividing line in our world, not between nations and not between religions or cultures, but a dividing line separating two visions of justice and the value of life. On a tape claiming responsibility for the atrocities in Madrid, a man is heard to say, ‘We choose death while you choose life.’ We don’t know if this is the voice of the actual killers, but we do know it expresses the creed of the enemy. It is a mindset that rejoices in suicide, incites murder and celebrates every death we mourn.”
In fact, the purported al-Qaeda tape released on March 14 stated: “You love life and we love death.” The terrorists detonated their bombs remotely, recalling General George S. Patton Jr’s encomium: “Your job is not to die for your country. Your job is to make the other poor bastard die for his country.”
Washington continues to underestimate its enemies. Who precisely loves life and who loves death? Al-Qaeda’s taunt comes from a people with one of the highest birth rates in the world, namely the Arabs. It is directed at a people with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, namely the Spanish. One does not love “life” if one does not bother to have children. One loves rather one’s own life, with its vacations, jamon serrano (cured ham), wines and siestas. Al-Qaeda is saying that the Spaniards are too soft to fight for their own future. Two generations ago, it was the arch-Catholic Spanish legionnaire General Millan Astray who raised the cry “Viva la muerte!” at the outset of the Civil War, by which he meant that death was preferable to defeat.
Al-Qaeda is saying the same thing, with one important distinction that I will address below. Islamist radicals will fight to the death to prevent the Dar al-Islam’s (Muslim majority’s) absorption into liberal Western society, such as it is. Just after September 11, I wrote: “Except for a few ‘fundamentalist’ recalcitrants, Washington believes everyone in those parts of the world wants what the US wants: suburban tract housing developments, video on demand, fast food, egalitarianism and economic opportunity … America’s unwarranted contempt for its Islamist adversary already has had terrible consequences, and well might have catastrophic ones.” (Washington’s racism and the Islamist trap, Sept 22, 2001)
We have heard similar words before from the Islamists. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya told an American interviewer last year that his fighters were willing to die, whereas “the Jews love life more than any other people, and they prefer not to die.” Below I shall explain why Haniya’s observation is narrowly correct. The Jewish state, however, is the only government in the world to honor a mass suicide, that of nearly 1,000 Jewish insurgents against Roman rule at Masada in AD 72. Does that imply that the Jews love death?
Life is not worth living without a sense that there is something beyond animal existence. Religion exists to enable mankind to accept death. Jesus’ death on the cross, for example, grants eternal life to his followers, for which reason they consider his death a good thing. Do they love death? What of the Pentecostal snake-handlers in the southeast of the United States, who wish to show that their faith is stronger than venom? Do they love death?
Mel Gibson’s sanguineous account of the death of Jesus in the film The Passion of the Christ might become the biggest box-office earner of all time. Does that imply that Gibson and his fans love death? Jesus, in Christian doctrine, willfully sought his own crucifixion. Did Jesus love death? For that matter, did Socrates, who hailed death as the highest good before drinking the hemlock? There are strains of Islam which speak enthusiastically about death, for example, the Sufi injunction to “kill the self” or to “die before one’s death.” By that Sufism instructs the adept to look beyond the grave to a higher form of life, in order to free the self from dependence on materialism. Al-Qaeda’s Wahhabi-tinged version of Islam, however, has little to do with them. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, in any case, celebrate ascetic traditions just as rigorous.
Sacrifice is the universal means by which religions enable the faithful to come to grips with death. Christians take part vicariously in the self-sacrifice of their God; Muslims sacrifice themselves. Jewish sacrifice in pre-Christian times contained both a material side, that is, the elaborate animal and other food sacrifices performed at the temple, as well as a purely spiritual side (“a broken and contrite heart,” Psalm 51:10). In post-temple times that peculiarly Jewish institution, the Sabbath, became a sacrifice of sorts; by doing no work of any kind on the Sabbath, “a foretaste of the world to come,” the Jew sacrifices his ego, namely his impulse to act on and control the world. Only in a very specific sense was Ismail Hayina correct to say that the Jews love life more than anyone else. The Jewish concept of election, the notion that Israel is a divinely chosen and thus an eternal people, gives the Jews a special surety of eternal life. That is why, alone among the major religions, the Jews have no ascetic tradition.
All religion submerges the ego, in anticipation of the day when death will destroy the ego for all time. Sacrifice, namely giving up something of one’s self, is the universal vehicle for reducing the ego. Sacrifice becomes terribly dangerous when the ego cannot re-emerge under the sun and sky of the real world. There is a distinction between a spiritual identification with Jesus’ suffering, and nailing a live volunteer to a cross, as do some Catholics in the Philippines.
Astray’s cry of “Viva la Muerte!” embodied the same sort of repugnant morbidity. Spain’s civil war, with more than half a million casualties and more than 100,000 executions, was the father of the perceived jellyfish-textured Spain of today. The longstanding Judeo-Christian objection to Islam lies in the notion that Allah’s absolute power is not constrained by love. “The God of Mohammed is a creator who well might not have bothered to create. He displays his power like an Oriental potentate who rules by violence, not by acting according to necessity, not by authorizing the enactment of the law, but rather in his freedom to act arbitrarily,” wrote the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. (See Asia Times Online, Oil on the flames of civilizational war, Dec 2, 2003). Whether the human ego can stand up to this absolute power is a different question; whether Islam has a propensity to produce a necrophiliac brand of radicalism is a question that the West will continue to ask. That issue is only tangential to the matter of al-Qaeda’s challenge, which simply means, “Unlike us, you are unwilling to give your lives for your cause. “Evidently that is true of the Spanish; if it becomes true of the West in general, radical Islam will win.