Magazine article The Christian Century

Visions of Sacrifice

Magazine article The Christian Century

Visions of Sacrifice

Article excerpt

IT'S REMARKABLE that the media and government found the five-page letter from Mohamed Atta to his fellow hijackers remarkable. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the document's prayers and exhortations to martyrdom "a disturbing and shocking view into the mind-set of these terrorists." "Chilling," "eerie" and "haunting," said Bob Woodward. Like other major news organizations, ABC led its September 28 news show with the story, portraying the letter as a minor revelation, a confirmation that the U.S. faces an unconventional war against an irrational enemy. Muslim extremists seem actually to believe in God, pray to him, and even invoke his assistance.

Has anyone been paying attention? One glance in the direction of world events beyond our borders since, say, the Shi'ite revolution in Iran 23 years ago would have prepared the arbiters of public opinion to anticipate the possibility that Muslim youth would be willing, even eager, to sacrifice their lives in support of a cause they judge to be sacred. Did we somehow overlook the televised images of Iranian women sending their young sons across land-mined fields to certain death in the protracted war against Iraq? Have we forgotten the 241 U.S. Marines killed in October 1983 at the hands of faceless Shi'ite "self-martyrs" who drove explosive-laden trucks into their barracks?, Did we assume that the suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad of Palestine were an aberration--or, worse, a problem for the Israelis and the Middle East alone?

Perhaps we became innured to the Ayatollah Khomeini's frequent condemnations of "the Great Satan-America, the cause of all our catastrophes and the source of all malice"? Did we miss the significance of the reports that Iranian Shi'ites and Sudanese Sunnis had put aside longstanding grievances to collaborate in preparing for "global jihad"?

Muslim extremists have made no secret of their intentions, nor have they shrunk from placing on full view their terror-legitimating interpretations of Islamic law. Decades ago, Islamist clerics such as Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian mullah convicted of conspiracy in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the spiritual guide of Lebanon's Hizbullah, were already validating suicide and self-martyrdom, strictly forbidden by Islamic law, by reinterpreting such deeds as sacred acts of jihad (holy war). If the "self-martyr" intended to have "a political impact on an enemy whom it is impossible to fight by conventional means, then his sacrifice can be part of a jihad," Fadlallah told an interviewer in 1985. …

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