The fallacy of Islamic “national suicide”

The Dome of the Rock at the Haram al-Sharif in occupied Jerusalem is one of Islam’s holiest sites, January 2008. (Moamar Awad/MaanImages)

A new buzzword is arising from the network of Israeli think tanks and security-oriented academic departments bent on instigating a US attack on Iran: “national suicide.” The term describes a supposed Arab Muslim tradition of politically motivated suicide at the national, not just individual, level. Arab Muslim regimes have purportedly launched ruinous wars they could not have reasonably hoped to win, condemning their nations to destruction.

The notion of an “irrational” and thus untrustworthy Iranian regime has already been widely discussed in the US. It is regularly invoked by Sen. John McCain on the stump. The term “national suicide” advances the notion and gives it a patina of academic respectability.

Israeli jurist and former Knesset member Amnon Rubinstein recently editorialized on “national suicide” in The Jerusalem Post. Citing Israeli army Lt. Col. Ari Bar Yossef, Rubinstein offered Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and the Taliban in Afghanistan as exemplars of this new construct. Hussein could have avoided overthrow by giving UN arms inspectors free rein to search his country. Arafat, after the failure of the Camp David peace talks, could have continued negotiating but resorted to violence. Finally, the Taliban could have given up Osama bin Laden to the US but instead invited self-destruction. All this because, per Rubinstein, these leaders prefer dying to “negotiating with infidels.”

“National suicide” will soon be an incantation by neoconservative and other pro-Israeli pundits and politicians on the “bomb Iran” bandwagon. Its strategic implications are clear: We can’t trust irrational regimes because they are not deterred by threat of annihilation. Therefore, extraordinary actions — such as preemptive attack — may be not only justified but necessary. It further shifts moral responsibility to the victim. In the “national suicide” formulation, it is the martyr that chooses death, while the actual killers are merely the instrument by which the suicide — or, as the case may be, the destruction of a country — is carried out.

Yet the idea of an Arab Muslim tendency toward self-destruction is wrongheaded and dangerous.

“National suicide” is easier to believe in if you’re willing to lump all Arabs and all Muslims into a single mind-set. For example, the Palestinian national movement under Arafat was staunchly secular; members of the non-Arab Taliban are Islamist extremists. The concept elides the enormous diversity within the Arab and Muslim worlds and ignores the local particularities of their multifarious — and sometimes ideologically opposed — political movements. A hint of these intra-regional tensions was displayed in Bin Laden’s recent audiotape denouncing Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

What of the supposed examples of “national suicide”? In fact, Hussein allowed UN inspectors relatively unfettered access to his country — belatedly, to be sure, and under pressure from the international community. But by then the neoconservative push for war had already reached inevitability — the facts be damned.

Arafat, for his part, continued negotiating after Camp David in Taba and never chose to ignite the second intifada. The uprising was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Aqsa mosque and was fueled by Palestinians’ sense of betrayal over a peace process that brought no peace but doubled the number of Israeli settlers on their land. The “Arafat chose violence” canard was rejected by the Mitchell report. Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, concluded: “Yasser Arafat neither prepared nor triggered the intifada.”

Finally, if members of the Taliban committed suicide, they are an uncommonly vigorous corpse. They are still hanging tough and continue to resist the US on the battlefield.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a convenient whipping boy. He has frequently predicted Israel’s eventual demise, and yet — accurately translated — he has not threatened it with offensive attack. Nor does he command the country’s armed forces.

Israel, with an estimated 100 to 200 nuclear warheads, should fear no existential threat from Iran. But Iran is a source of inspiration and material support to Hizballah and Hamas, two forces that harass Israel and impede its regional hegemony. Israel’s local challenges are insufficient to justify a US strike on Iran — thus the need to gin up “national suicide” and the specter of nuclear Armageddon.

Iran is a nation of 70 million people, many of them discontented with their government’s performance. Nothing would unite and rally them around the current regime better than a foreign attack.

We dearly need sobriety and responsible conduct in our relations with Iran and the broader Middle East. We do not need another reckless venture impelled by fanciful terms and politically motivated spin.

George Bisharat is a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East. This article originally appeared in the The Los Angeles Times and is republished with the author’s permission.