Globalist: From wounded pride, a deadly rage explodes

Posted in Terrorism , Broader Middle East | 11-Jan-06 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Jordanian policeman stands guard in front of Radisson SAS hotel in Amman, November 12, 2005.

AMMAN When suicide bombers attacked three downtown hotels here two months ago, killing 57 people, King Abdullah of Jordan made his views clear. "These people are insane," he told CNN. By that measure, insanity in this bad neighborhood is on the rise.

The bombers of the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels were dispatched by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist America most wants to capture in Iraq, a country where suicide bombings have become an almost daily occurrence.

Such bombings have a history in the Middle East, and that history suggests insanity is an inadequate explanation of the rise of suicide attacks.

Some people say any attempt to understand the phenomenon amounts to humanizing murderers capable of the 9/11 attack on the United States and countless other killings. But it's important to try; blindness or blind rage is no answer.

A little over 22 years have now elapsed since a driver dispatched by Hezbollah, the militant Islamic organization with ties to Iran, crashed an explosives-laden truck into a U.S. barracks in Beirut, killing 241 marines. The suicide-bomber driver, by all accounts, was smiling; the United States soon withdrew from Lebanon.

That smile and that American retreat have become part of the expanding mythology of suicide bombings, now the preferred weapon of radical Islam against the West.

In the beatific expression was captured the peace and invulnerable faith of the suicide bomber who has been led to the conviction that martyrdom for Allah will usher him to paradise.

In America's withdrawal, from Lebanon and later Somalia, Islamic radicals saw the weakness of the country Ayatollah Khomeini called "the Great Satan." Both Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden believe such weakness is an essential characteristic of the superpower they revile as dissolute and debauched.

The faith of the Muslim believer against the corrupted might of America: the struggle between Islam and the West has long been outlined in such terms. But conditions in the Middle East have changed radically since that 1983 attack.

Arab states and the Palestinians then had an important ally: the Soviet Union. The Palestine Liberation Organization was still vigorous, not yet outflanked by the rise of Islamic groups like Hamas. Arab nationalism, even in the ugly garb of the Syrian or Iraqi Baath parties, retained some fire. The Iranian theocratic revolution was still young. Arab armies, it was believed, might actually fight.

In short, Middle Eastern states had not yet arrived at the state of humiliation, resentment, military weakness, intellectual exhaustion, economic stagnation and moral uncertainty that provides the backdrop for the rise of an Islamic fanaticism of which young men and women blowing themselves up are the most perturbing expression. The 1983 suicide bombing was an exception; today it is the rule.

"The political system in the Arab world is broken," said Ali Shakri, a retired Jordanian general. "Nasserism, Baathism - all bankrupt. And religion has stepped in to fill the gap. What we have today is a culture of the humiliated."

A certain sleight of hand on the part of some Islamic clerics has been required to channel that humiliation, particularly among Palestinian and Arab youths, toward a cult of suicide bombings. The trick has been to laud martyrdom - in posters and videos and mosques - while glossing over the suicidal act involved in it.

For scarcely anybody is more deserving of veneration in Islam than the martyr, or "shahid," who has given his life in "jihad" against the infidel or the apostate and whose reward is a boundless bliss.

Suicide, however, is viewed in Islamic law books as a sin to be punished by eternal damnation. "Whoever kills himself in any way will be tormented in that way in Hell," says a passage from the traditions of the Prophet.

The appeal of martyrdom, even through suicide, appears to bear a direct relation to the degree of anger and the extent of alienation experienced in a weak Arab world. To strap a suicide-bomb belt to your waist is a great leveler: you are in control of your life once more and have the ability to administer death even to the strong.

The sources of the anger that lead to this self-annihilating decision are easy enough to trace: American support for Israel and, in the space of a dozen years, America's presence in Saudi Arabia as a base to repulse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and America's invasion of Iraq itself to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Arabia is the Muslim Holy Land; Baghdad was the seat of the caliphate for centuries. Bin Laden has used American intrusions on such sacred soil effectively to boost his ruthless attempt to destroy the West.

The pervasive Arab sense of humiliation is more complex in origin, tied to corrupt regimes, economic hopelessness and, at a deeper level, the past century's bitter experience of colonialism and forms of postcolonial autocracy often supported by the United States.

Seen in this light, the spreading phenomenon of suicide bombings is not "insane"; it has its grim rationale, one evocatively examined in the recently released movie "Paradise Now," by the Israeli-born Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad.

The brew of contempt from Israelis, political and religious pressure from hardened Palestinian operatives, personal trauma, despair and faith that drive two young West Bank Palestinians, Said and Khaled, to undertake a suicide mission in Tel Aviv is as disturbing as it is convincing.

Here is what the two young men say: death is better than inferiority; a life without dignity is worthless; in this life we're dead anyway; this is God's will.

Such a culture of death is barbarous, leading nowhere. It is also deep-rooted. The huge American presence in Iraq is designed to transform that culture by introducing into the region an open society, but it has also reinforced the suicide bombers by providing a ready target.

The question now is who will prevail - the serene fanatics who put their faith in another world or the awkward giant, wounded in Beirut, but still determined to change this one?