Aug 2002 Journal

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Godfathers and their wards (editorial)

Murder as an instrument of politics goes back at least to the assassination of Julius Caesar. Even so, politically motivated murders were infrequent occurrences until the 1880s when extremist ideologies like anarchism took root in Russia and elsewhere. Dostoevsky viewed the revolutionaries who killed Alexander II and other Tsarist notables as the veritable 'spawn of Satan'. His novel The Possessed was intended as a mene tekel to a society imbued with waning religious faith and menaced by bloodcurdling nihilism. In Dostoevsky's perception, characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov were ready to commit heinous crimes because in cutting themselves off from God they had divested themselves of humanity.

The century since the writer's death has seen an absolute sea-change. Today serial acts of viciousness beyond the scope of Dostoevsky's fevered imagination are carried out at the behest of 'men of God'. Islamic clerics are godfathers of terror worldwide - from Chicago via Karachi to Jerusalem. They have helped create a culture of macabre death-worship, in which the parents of 'martyred' suicide bombers routinely receive congratulations rather than condolences at their children's funerals. If we look at the other billion-strong world religion, we find that the Catholic Church crucially supported nationalism in some countries - Poland, Croatia, Slovakia - while failing to do so in others. (In Italy the Pope opposed unification, and Irish bishops excoriated the nationalist leader Parnell because he figured in a divorce case.)

The Palestinian struggle against the State of Israel was initiated by secular groups, with organisations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine taking the lead. The PFLP's methods - aircraft hijackings, the murder of Olympic athletes, the drowning of Leon Klinghoffer - were repulsive in all conscience, but they pale beside the stomach-churning atrocities of the clergy-led Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Islamist suicide bombers are by definition religiously motivated. What drives the perpetrators is the certainty vouchsafed in the Koran that martyrdom leads straight to paradise.

There has been much ill-informed comment about the provenance of individuals who elect to be Koran-inspired kamikazes. According to the Cherie Blair school of thought, they are deprived youngsters who, having grown up in refugee camps, see no hope for the future. This is a sentiment-befuddled misreading of the situation. Most suicide bombers are students, or even graduates - as demonstrated by the academic qualifications of the men involved in the attack on the World Trade Center - and not slum-bred no-hopers. Given the perpetrators' personal histories, the driving force behind their heinous deeds is far more likely to have been all-consuming hate than bleak despair.

Nor is it inevitable that someone driven by the crushing pressure of circumstances should feel a need to end many other lives at the same time. When, after the aborted Prague Spring of 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and crushed all hope for the advent of 'socialism with a human face', Jan Palach was seized by deep despair. In a transcendental gesture of defiance of the Soviet colossus, he set himself alight in one of Prague's public squares. (Buddhist monks in Vietnam have been known to act in like manner.)

Palach's method of throwing down the gauntlet clearly drew inspiration from Gandhi's passive resistance campaign in India and Martin Luther King's similar endeavours in the United States. Palach proved that Stalin's oft-quoted quip 'How many divisions has the Pope?' was too cynical by half. He also proved posthumously that spiritual force can play a decisive part in contemporary affairs when, 21 years after his self-immolation, the central square in Prague was renamed in his honour.

Meanwhile, Islamic clerics, whose medieval predecessors converted half the world by force of arms, have not changed their mindset. While the ends remain essentially the same, the means employed are mutable. They have adapted to the modern world by commissioning new arms, which never fail to home in on their - invariably civilian - targets. These miracle arms are human beings, primed to go off like bombs.

next article:Antisemitism in a Jew-less land