Monday, January 05, 2009

 

"We love death": Projecting the American Culture of Death onto Islam

Do a Google search on the phrase "we love death" and you will get more than 37,000 hits, many of them describing a purportedly essential feature of Islam. But consider that it is primarily Christian nations that have the world's largest nuclear and conventional arsenals. Further, the predominantly Christian United States has likely been responsible for the violent and other premature deaths of more people than any other country in the last sixty years--including half-a-million children under the age of five in Iraq during the 1990s.

In the last seven years, the predominantly Christian US has invaded and occupied two predominantly Muslim countries: Afghanistan and Iraq at the cost of more than a million dead Afghanis and Iraqis. Over the last sixty years, the predominantly Christian US has been the most important backer of Israel which displaced the predominantly Muslim Palestinian people and continues to visit murder and mayhem upon them. The Christian President-elect Barack Obama has spoken openly about attacking another predominantly Muslim country, Pakistan.

In "The Spirit of Disobedience," Curtis White eloquently ties these threads together:
In the end, evangelical Christianity conspires with technical and economic rationalism. In the end, they both require a commitment to "duty" that masks unspeakable violence and injustice. In the end, the Muslim whose legs are being reduced to pulp by his American tormentor doesn't care if he's being murdered because he is despised by Christians or because he is an impediment to economic rationality. He understands far better than we do how the two become one at the end of the torturer's rod. The Predator missile, product of American scientific ingenuity, that homes in on his head is both self-righteously and arrogantly evangelical and meanly pragmatic. It is the empire that the rest of the world reads in George Bush's smirk. As John Ruskin understood 150 years ago, "The only question (determined mostly by fraud in peace, and force in war) is, Who is to die, and how?"

If we live in a "culture of death," as Pope John Paul II put it, it is a culture that is made possible by the advocates of both Reason and Revelation. In the opposition of Reason to Revelation, death cannot lose. Ours is a culture in which death has taken refuge in a legality that is supported by both reasonable liberals and Christian conservatives. Our exploitation of humans as "workers" is legal and somehow, weird and perverse though it may seem, generally acknowledged as part of our heritage of freedom, and virtually the entire political spectrum falls over itself to praise it. When Wal-Mart pays its employees impoverishing wages without adequate health or retirement benefits, we justify it out of respect for Wal-Mart's "freedom," its "reasonable" need to make itself "competitive," and because what it does is legal. As George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants, put it, "They don't have a responsibility to society to pay a higher wage than the law says you have to pay." Similarly, our use of the most fantastically destructive military power is also legal and also somehow a part of our heritage of "protecting freedom," no matter how obscene and destructive its excesses. The grotesque violence of video games and Hollywood movies, doing God knows what to the "individual morality" of teenagers, is legal and somehow now a protected part of our freedom of expression. Even, as the more thoughtful anti-abortionists complain with some justice, the legality of abortion at times covers over an attitude toward human life that subjects life to the low logic of efficiency and convenience. The idea of abortion as a minor "medical procedure" becomes Orwellian in its intense determination not to "know what we do." Or, perhaps most destructively, the legality of property rights condemns nature itself to annihilation even as we call it the freedom to pursue personal happiness and prosperity through the ownership of private property. This legality formalizes and empowers our famous "unalienable right" to property (especially that most peculiar form of private property known as the corporation), the exercise of which will profoundly alienate those on whom this right is inflicted: workers, children, foreign enemies, and animals. In its most extreme and universal form, our constitutional rights are reducible to the right not to have to love our neighbor. The irony is that the more energetically we pursue our individual, socially isolated right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the deader the social and natural worlds become.
So, just who is it that demonstrably loves death, even if it is not articulated clearly? An American and/or Christian culture of death is abundantly evident. But what got me thinking about this subject was part of a post on the ZionistsOut blog about the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor. It says:
The new JFGAA Executive Director is David Shtulman, a dual US-Israeli citizen, Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) veteran, and, in all likelihood, a current IOF reservist. ... in his weekly shabbat message--wittily entitled "The New Year Enters with a Bang!"--Herr Shtulman refers to the Israeli attacks as an "Israeli counter-attack on Hamas."

Shtulman next pulls a predictable role reversal of the Judaic culture of death with the unsourced claim: "Hamas has often responded with the mantra, 'We will win because we love death and Israel loves life.' " If Hamas uses this "mantra" frequently then it is pretty strange that it is not attributed to Hamas in the New York Times even once. In fact, in searches using two different databases, the phrase "we love death" turns up in the NYT archives only three times between 1851 and the present. The "mantra" never made it onto the news pages of the NYT.

In two instances, it appears in editorials by Jewish neoconservative pundit David Brooks. In March 2004, Brooks attributed it to Al Qaeda and by September of that year he had expanded it to the "fringes of the Muslim world." The third instance, was just five days before Brooks' second invocation of the "mantra." At the invitation of the NYT "Op-Ed page," in his proposed "conclusion to President Bush's [2004 RNC] address," former Bush I speech writer Daniel McGroarty attributed the phrase "to the statement the terrorists released to claim responsibility for the carnage ... in Madrid."

Terrorism: A Documentary and Reference Guide by Burns and Peterson (Greenwood, 2005), which includes Hamas, has only one documented reference to terrorists loving death and that is a statement attributed to "al-Qaeda in Europe" in connection with the Madrid bombings. It says: "You love life and we love death." There are two problems, though.

First, this is one of at least two statements claiming responsibility for the 2004 Madrid bombings. The apparently first alleged claim of responsibility by al-Qaeda does not say anything about loving death. It was discredited by the pro-Israel group, MEMRI. More importantly, a "two-year investigation into the attacks has found no evidence that al-Qa'ida helped plan, finance or carry out the bombings, or even knew about them in advance," which would indicate that both of the claims of responsibility are fabrications.

It is plausible that Shtulman's claim began as an Israeli false flag operation to smear Islam (see also the "Gil Affair" and "Israeli Psyops Against EU and US"). If that is the case, then it is awfully helpful to have someone to discredit the competing claim of responsibility. In this case the guy doing the discrediting, author of the MEMRI analysis, was Yigal Carmon, an IOF Colonel who served at least twenty years (1968-88) in the Israeli intelligence service. In sum, there is nothing credible linking Shtulman's "mantra" to Hamas. But since when have supporters of Israel ever cared about the truth?
One other example of a Muslim claiming a love of death is, perhaps, more credible than the claims attributed to al-Qaeda in 2004. A 2001 story by the Telegraph (UK) quotes a veteran Afghan fighter:
Maulana Inyadullah, who began fighting the Soviet invasion in 1982 at the age of 16, declared that his fellow Afghans relish the prospect of an American attack.

"War is our best hobby. The sound of guns firing is like music for us. We cannot live without war. We have no other way except jihad," he said. ...

Mr Inyadullah, 35, said: "The Americans would be easier to defeat than the Russians. The Americans lead lavish lives and they are afraid of death. We are not afraid of death. The Americans love Pepsi Cola, we love death."
But only an idiot or a liar would read this as a broad cultural embrace of death or a statement of theological principle. Rather, it is not a desire to die but an express willingness to do so, if need be, in the service of home and hearth with a good dose of braggadocio mixed in for good measure.

A willingness to die is similarly expected of American combat troops. And if Americans put greater stress on killing the enemy then, perhaps, it is simply because they ruthlessly put a premium on killing others and because the commanders know overcoming the normal human aversion to kill is the more difficult task unless, perhaps, you live in America where we are programmed to kill.

The willingness to sacrifice oneself, even in battle, is more humane and noble than the willingness to kill. As Jesus Christ said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." But this is an ethos that Christianity turned against centuries ago when it joined with the Roman Empire--the very empire that carried out the death sentence of Jesus. The "Constantinian moment" marks the key point in the transformation of the cross from a symbol of love, self-sacrifice, and hope into a symbol of death, empire, and greed. In the wake of this transformation came forced conversions, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the like. Whatever lip service they may pay to the older, nobler meanings, it is clear that for most Americans (and their victims) the deeper, lived reality is that the cross is a symbol of death and devout American Christians are largely "guilty bystanders," if not active participants, in the crimes of empire.

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