Incubation of a death cult

In the five years since 9/11, the literature on religious extremism and unconventional warfare has increased enormously. It’s hard to keep up. Fortunately there’s a shortcut. It’s a documentary, now available on DVD, by Robert Baer, a former U.S. intelligence agent who spent 20 years in the Middle East.

Mr. Baer wasn’t a cubicle-bound analyst but a CIA case officer — a ground soldier — who speaks Arabic. His remarkable film, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, is a terrific introduction for those who want to appreciate the international security situation.

Suicide terrorism is not exclusively a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Just this week the Tamil Tigers carried out a massive suicide truck bombing in Sri Lanka. Yet aside from the strange exception of the Tamils, suicide bombers today almost always emerge from the Middle East and claim to act in the name of Islam. Thus Mr. Baer begins his journey in Iran, where he believes it all began.

It was 1980, and Iran was at war with Iraq. That November, an Iranian fighter strapped grenades to himself and blew up an enemy tank. The mullahs in Tehran recognized that this act of self-immolation, properly marketed, could mobilize the masses back home.

The soldier’s name was Hossein Fahmideh, and he was 13. Iran made him into a national hero. His grave today is a shrine. In the documentary, Mr. Baer travels to Hossein’s hometown and interviews the dead boy’s family on camera. All these years later, the Fahmidehs are aglow with pride. They have been rewarded nicely, too, with a home paid for by the Iranian government.

As The Cult of the Suicide Bomber takes us across the Middle East, Mr. Baer stops here and there to interview family and friends of suicide bombers. Time and again, the survivors celebrate the martyrdom of their loved one. To a western sensibility, this death fetish is odd. It seems unnatural for parents to celebrate the violent deaths of their children.

David Denby, the New Yorker’s film critic, all but fell into depression after viewing the documentary. “Did at least one of the bombers’ brothers or sisters harbour such angry thoughts as, ‘My brother was seduced into giving up his life by a cynical and vulgar fantasy of virgins in Paradise?'” Mr. Denby wrote in his review. Unfortunately, no — family members harbour no anger or regret. That’s why the film has the word “cult” in the title.

There is something robotic about the fundamentalists Mr. Baer meets. He videotapes a “Death to America” rally in Iran. The metronymic chanting of hate-filled slogans turns the demonstrators into automatons, echoing old black-and-white footage of Nazi rallies.

The structural similarities between militant Islam and Nazism are striking. Both are totalitarian ideologies with expansionist, messianic aims: a perfect Islamic order, a Thousand-Year Reich. Individual members are disposable for the sake of the greater good. The automaton-like behaviour testifies to the dissolution of individual personalities. Then there’s the strange coincidence that both Nazism and Islamism deem the Jews an obstacle on the road to this utopian order.

Another similarity concerns the participation of children. I remember once seeing a documentary about white supremacists, who are really descendants of Nazism, where parents dressed their beautiful fair-haired toddlers in white sheets and brought them to cross-burnings. In The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, Mr. Baer takes us to a rally in the Palestinian territories where little boys dress up in the style of Hamas, with headbands and weapons.

In 2002, there was international revulsion when a photograph appeared in newspapers around the world of a man holding up his daughter, around whose body he had affixed mock explosives. The photo, taken at an anti-Israel demonstration in Berlin, sparked an investigation into child abuse by German police.

What seemed freakish in Berlin is normal across the Middle East. As in the white supremacist or neo-Nazi movement, children in some parts of the Islamic world are valued mainly as incubators for the ideology. It is the survival and perpetuation of the ideology that matters; the child himself becomes expendable, which is why Hossein Fahmideh’s mother doesn’t grieve his death.

As the narrator of the documentary, Mr. Baer comes across as an astute if weary bystander. He was an intelligence officer, not a politician, and he gives no real foreign policy solutions to the phenomenon he so vividly identifies. He did, though, in an interview two years ago, admit that his experience in counterterrorism has made him into an isolationist.

“I think it would be a walk in the park bringing down all the regimes in the Middle East,” he said. “But what do you have then? Probably a lot of mini-Taliban states. Our best defence is protecting our borders, in particular making sure who is living and visiting our country.”

Leonard Stern is the Citizen’s editorial pages editor.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 21, 2006.
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