Religion, Politics and Assassination in the Middle East

By Alianak, Sonia L. | World Affairs, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Religion, Politics and Assassination in the Middle East


Alianak, Sonia L., World Affairs


What I have done, I have done for the sake of God, the Merciful, the Powerful," wrote Khaled Ahmed el Islambouli, one of the assassins of Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat (Heikal 1983, 253). "I did what I did for God and the Israeli people," stated Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Jerusalem Post, henceforth J.P., 6 April 1996, 1). Two pillars of peace were dead. Both were Nobel laureates, and yet they were victimized by similar peace policies.

Neither the patrimonial model of Arab politics (Bill and Springborg 1990, 161-74) nor the democratic model of Israeli politics ("a democracy that accepts by democratic means the limitation of itself' [Yaniv 1993, 2301) can account for the assassinations of Anwar el Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, incited by militant nationalist religious minorities in Egypt and in Israel, respectively. In the patrimonial model, mainstream religious groups in society are depicted as revering the leader as a father figure who must be obeyed and whose successful suppression of any fringe religious groups that may arise is accepted; in the democratic model, all religious groups are seen as having freedom of speech, voting in democratic elections, acting through political parties, and believing in majority rule--all of which make the leader want to compromise with them.

Both leaders acted according to these models. Sadat relied on the Islamic religious elite to legitimize his foreign policy of peace with Israel and suppressed the militant religious leaders, and yet he was assassinated. Rabin attempted to compromise with his militant religious groups by leaving the settlements intact, building special roads to connect them to Israel proper, and deploying the Israeli defense forces to protect them, and yet he was assassinated. In both cases, the selling of peace by the two leaders was not accepted by these groups. In both cases, there were rumors, actual threats, and even religious condoning of assassinations preceding the acts themselves.

To better explain the assassinations, I propose what I shall call "the messianic model." The messianic explanation of religious revolutions is very old. Its modem version is used mainly to explain anticolonial uprisings, as seen in the writings of Vittorio Lantemari (The Religions of the Oppressed) in 1963, Bryan Wilson (Magic and the Millennium) in 1973, and others. They look mainly at the external dimension--religious violence against foreign enemies. The internal dimension-religious violence against rulers--was explored by David Rapoport in 1988.

To explain religious violence, Rapoport presents a model of "holy terror" that he links to messianism. It comprises two "necessary conditions," "imminence" and "human agency," and "six substantive details of a messianic vision" (Rapoport 1988, 195, 197-98). According to him, the terrorists must believe that the day of deliverance is near--imminent. They must also think that their human action would lead to the messianic era. After this, the actual recourse to terror depends on six factors: (1) "the nature of the desired action," (2) "the cause or character of the messianic aspiration," (3) "the proof that believers think may be necessary to demonstrate sufficient faith," (4) "the 'signs' or 'portents' of a messianic intervention," (5) "the moral qualities ascribed to participants in the messianic struggle," and (6) "the character of the deity's involvement" (Rapoport 1988, 197-98).

Rapoport's model of "holy terror" is a useful device to analyze what I call "holy assassination" in the Middle East. All of his six factors are applicable to the assassinations of Sadat and Rabin. I cover these factors critically and deal with his "necessary conditions" of "human agency" and "imminence" in sections 1 and 2 of this article, respectively.

A comparative analysis of the messianic Islamic and Jewish fundamentalist beliefs and actions of the assassins is pertinent here. …

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