The draw of martyrdom

Describing the period in the 1980s when Osama bin Laden was emerging as a major private fundraiser for the mujahideen resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:

The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum has failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtracted the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than the 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true when the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment—movies, theater, music—is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in its rewards. A glorious death beckoned to the sinner, who would be forgiven, it is said, with the first spurt of blood, and he would behold his place in Paradise even before his death. Seventy members of his household might be spared the fires of hell because of his sacrifice. The martyr who is poor will be crowned in heaven with a jewel more valuable than the earth itself. And for those young men who came from cultures where women are shuttered away and rendered unattainable for someone without prospects, martyrdom offered the conjugal pleasures of seventy-two virgins—”the dark-eyed houris,” as the Quran describes them, “chaste as hidden pearls.” They awaited the martyr with feasts of meat and cups of the purest wine.

The pageant of martyrdom that [Abdullah] Azzam limned before his worldwide audience created the death cult that would one day form the core of al-Qaeda. For the journalists covering the war, the Arab Afghans were a curious sideshow to the real fighting, set apart by their obsession with dying. When a fighter fell, his comrades would congratulate him and weep because they were not also slain in battle. These scenes struck other Muslims as bizarre. The Afghans were fighting for their country, not Paradise or an idealized Islamic community. For them, martyrdom was not such a high priority.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief for the News, a Pakistani daily, observed a camp of Arab Afghans that was under attack in Jalalabad. The Arabs had pitched white tents on the front lines, where they were easy marks for Soviet bombers. “Why?” the reporter asked incredulously. “We want them to bomb us!” the men told him. “We want to die!” They believed that they were answering God’s call. If they were truly blessed, God would reward them with a martyr’s death. “I wish I could raid and be slain, and then raid and be slain, and then raid and be slain,” bin Laden later declared, quoting the Prophet.

Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Vintage Books, 2007. p. 123-4

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