Tuesday, March 12, 2002

A belated "six months later" post: like a lot of folks, I saw it from a kind of emotional distance; a couple of friends of not-quite-friends were on the planes, and by great good luck and the fortunate travels of my New York relatives, that was as close as it got to me personally. Still, we were attacked, and it's worth picking through some of the threads of recent events to see by what.

They call themselves Islamic. Something of their character can be seen in the murder of Danny Pearl:

Nobody knows when Mr Pearl was finally murdered. But the timing of the delivery of the brief, horrific video has a ghastly resonance. The principal event of Eid in the Islamic world is the sacrifice of goats and sheep - a ritual commemorating the rescue of Isaac from the blade of Abraham who sent a sheep to take the child's place. In backyards from Casablanca to Mindanao, the legs of billy goats and rams are bound, a pit is dug in the ground to receive the blood, then the head of the house presses the animal's neck towards the pit and slits it.

And the video, too, showed a swift, ceremonial killing - the killing in captivity of Danny Pearl. According to one who has seen it, the tape shows Mr Pearl speaking directly into the video camera, and saying: "I am a Jew, my mother is a Jew." Then the hand of his killer - only his hands are shown - comes into the frame and slits his throat. Like the ram and the billy goat at Eid, he is then decapitated.

The religious overtones appear to be deliberate. As Iraqi dissidents Hassan Mneimneh and Kanan Makiya note in their chilling analysis of the highjackers' manual for the Sept. 11th raids, killing passengers was explicitly described as a religious, ritual slaughter, exactly like the slaughter of the goats at Eid:

The killings that the hijackers are about to undertake are no longer real but part of a sacred drama. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the following chilling instructions about what to do should the hijackers encounter unexpected resistance, as we know happened on United Airlines Flight 93: "If God grants any one of you a slaughter, you should perform it as an offering on behalf of your father and mother, for they are owed by you. Do not disagree amongst yourselves, but listen and obey."

Here we find an explanation of what it means to kill a passenger who is attempting to resist. The Arabic word used for "grant" is manna, as in the biblical manna; it connotes the idea of a bounty or an act of grace conferred by God upon a person who has not asked for it. The Arabic for "slaughter" is dhabaha. The author has pointedly chosen it over the more common qatala, which means, simply, to kill. The classical dictionaries tell us the primary meaning of dhabaha is to cleave, slit, or rip something open. This is the word used for slitting the two external jugular veins in the throat of an animal. It is quick, direct, and always physically intimate; one does not slaughter with a gun, or a bomb, from afar.

The intimacy associated with dhabaha explains the vulgar usages of the word in street or colloquial Arabic, which are designed to shock the listener, to impress upon him or her how strongly the speaker feels toward the object of dhabh (more often than not a personal enemy, a tyrant, or a criminal). But it seems clear that this vulgar usage is not why dhabaha was preferred over qatala by the author of the document. Dhabaha is also what Abraham was prepared to do to his son on God's instructions?until Isaac in Jewish and early Muslim tradition, or Isma'il, Ishmael, in later Muslim tradition was replaced with a sheep at the last minute.

And, in fact, going back to the Independent, we see that this style of human sacrifice has featured in "Islamist" terrorism over and over:

It was impossible, hearing how Danny Pearl died, not to recall that this, the swiftest and yet most primitive method of execution, has over and over been the method of choice for these terrorists. In 1995, Islamic militants in Kashmir - probably members of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, kidnapped six western trekkers. All but two vanished without trace. Of the others, one escaped, the other was decapitated.

On IC-914, the Indian Airlines Kathmandu-Delhi flight hijacked in December 1999, a business class passenger had his throat slit and the rest of the passengers had to watch him die. Identical executions, using box cutters, appear to have occurred on at least one of the hijacked planes crashed in the US on 11 September.

In the wake of the attacks, there was a lot of commentary on various sides as to how much Islam is really a peaceful religion. But not perhaps since the Assassins, if then, has it been explicitly transmuted into so much of a death cult.

But they aren't so religious that they can't be pragmatic in who they deal with; one of bin Laden's manifestoes defends collaboration with secular dictators from Islamic cultures:

To repel the greatest of the two dangers at the expense of the lesser one is an Islamic principle which should be observed. It was the tradition of the people of the Sunnah to join and invade and fight with the righteous and non-righteous men. Allah may support this religion by righteous and non-righteous people as told by the Prophet ... If it is not possible to fight except with the help of non-righteous military personnel and commanders, then there are two possibilities: either fighting will be ignored and the others [the infidels], who are the great danger to this life and religion, will take control; or [we will have] to fight with the help of non-righteous rulers, thereby repelling the greatest of the two dangers and implementing most, though not all, of the Islamic laws. The latter option is the right duty to be carried out in these circumstances and in many other similar situations.

Which of course, gets the terrorists mixed up with people whose morals are even more screwed up than their own. Peter Landesman recently reported a talk with a former Pakistani intelligence official --- a veteran of the same service that helped, in another branch, to create the Taliban --- saying, apropos of Pakistan's nuclear capability:

"We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities --- Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta," he said. "They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people. They should fire at us and it would all be over. They have acted so badly toward us; they have been so mean. We should teach them a lesson. It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this. Have you been to the villages of Pakistan, the interior? There is nothing but dire poverty and pain. The children have no education; there is nothing to look forward to. Go into the villages, see the poverty. There is no drinking water. Small children without shoes walk miles for a drink of water. I go to the villages and I want to cry. My children have no future. None of the children of Pakistan have a future. We are surrounded by nothing but war and suffering. Millions should die away."

"Pakistan should fire pre-emptively?" I asked.

Aman nodded.

"And you are willing to see your children die?"

"Tens of thousands of people are dying in Kashmir, and the only superpower says nothing," Aman said. "America has sided with India because it has interests there." He told me he was willing to see his children be killed. He repeated that they didn't have any future?his children or any other children.

I asked him if he thought he was alone in his thoughts, and Aman made it clear to me that he was not.

"Believe me," he went on, "If I were in charge, I would have already done it."

We don't see here devotion to God, in any form; but the constant is devotion to death.

Diane E. notes, in her superb Letter from Gotham:

The American middle class lives in a lovely world. Its characterized by material ease, high culture, tolerance, politeness, generosity, and fairness. But its fortunate inhabitants lack a crucial piece of wisdom, which is that that their world is as artificial as a moon landing.

Their world is not the rest of the world. It certainly isnt the violent, tribal, patriarchal Middle East. Nor is it the world that Middle Eastern immigrants are importing to the societies they are emigrating to, as Omar Sheikh proves.

So, that's what we're up against. There is no prospect of a rational exchange of views with the religious zealotry that speaks of human sacrifice, or any of its more secular variants: their view is, simply, that we ought to die. And so we fight. It's a crap job, but someone's got to do it.


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