The hidden meanings of jihadist terrorism

The violent upheavals now spreading across the Middle East may turn out to be the result of the long-latent hope of achieving power over death.

Terror Attack 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Terror Attack 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the Arab Spring continues to play out in the Middle East and North Africa, the next likely “domino” to fall will be the tyrannical regime in Damascus, Syria.
Although largely unanticipated, one plausible consequence of the growing democracy in this area is an increase in terrorism.
Ironically, it is the Islamist forces that will slowly rise to the surface and multiply with a renewed dedication to theocratic power and religious purity. The literally explosive results of this will be felt not only in the immediately affected countries, but also in Israel, Europe and the United States.
In Gaza, for example, Hamas, strengthened by newly-emergent, post-Mubarak elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – not to mention the repatriation of more than 1,000 terrorists from the latest lopsided prisoner exchange with Netanyahu – will likely advance its plans for “war” against Israel.
At its conceptual center, jihadist terrorism has little to do with national concerns such as war, politics or resistance to oppression.
Rather, the essential motivation for these recurrent excursions into barbarism are the utterly personal feelings of fear, dissatisfaction, cowardice and loathing.
These include a consuming, though unacknowledged, horror of death (always relieved for dutiful “martyrs” by a compelling promise of life-everlasting); an unfulfilled wish for ecstasy, or intense pleasure; the palpable joy drawn from the targeting of those who “lack sacredness”; and, perhaps even more acutely after Mubarak and Gadaffi, an abiding hatred of “apostates” and “infidels.”
In Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in this volatile region, jihadist terror and “sacred” vengeance is already re-emerging, incrementally. Seeking to express Shahada, or “Death For Allah,” this Islamist violence will systematically challenge secular military forces, perhaps doing even more to undermine democracy than the original and now-overthrown authoritarian regimes.
To understand the changing area, we need to look beyond the passionate but ultimately futile regional cries for “democracy.”
We must first understand the true motivation for jihadist terrorism. Islamist suicide-bombers prepare carefully for their cathartic missions of pain and extinction because of the anticipated ecstasy. Drawn from a presumed religious obligation, this ecstasy, which rewards doubly because it is “cleansing,” represents an almost exact reciprocal of the suffering to be borne by the unfortunate victims.
For jihadist suicide terrorists, both past and future, the death that is meted out to enemies is only an abstraction. These victims, by definition, lack sacredness. In the unchanging Koranic concept of war, terrorizing the profane unbeliever who refuses to be a dhimmi (to accept sharia domination) is unquestionably a source of deep satisfaction.
The violent upheavals now spreading across the Middle East and North Africa contain hidden meanings. Their principal legacy may have little to do with any sustained popular revolution, democracy, or overthrow of earthly despotisms. Instead, they may turn out to be the result of the long-latent and much more primal human hope of achieving the indisputably greatest power of all, power over death.
The essence of any capable counter-terrorist policy must be an awareness that jihadist violence is never truly rooted in political or revolutionary ideology. Such violence stems instead from remorselessly vengeful images of religious obligation, which in turn are the earthly expressions of a more-or-less desperately longed-for immortality.
Jihadist terror is always a grotesque form of religious sacrifice. Nothing in the Arab Spring has in any way changed this axiomatic meaning.
The writer is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and lectures and publishes widely on international relations.