Blogs > HNN > The Golden Mosque and the Preachers of Death

Feb 27, 2006 6:20 pm

The Golden Mosque and the Preachers of Death

In a piece I wrote for HNN in September 2004, I argued that Muslim attitudes toward terrorism were an example of what I called the psycho-politics of civil war.
It’s an underappreciated fact that the current terrorist episode is most fundamentally a civil war, a war of Muslim against Muslim over the soul of Islam, which for a variety of reasons has spilled out of the Muslim world and into the rest of it. Wars of this sort lead inevitably to euphemism, reticence, and rationalization intended to paper over the reality of the conflict: brothers find it hard to admit that they really are making war against each other.
The destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra provides a dramatic, if sickening, illustration of this fact. Much will be made about the relation between the destruction of the mosque and the sectarian violence that has (and will) follow it, about who exactly is to blame for its destruction, and the like. But important as these political issues may be, there is a moral and philosophical point worth making over and above them.

The destruction of this mosque is the last tenuous pretense of the Islamists' claim to be fighting imperialism in the name of Islamic jihad. This is, I realize, a statement easily susceptible of misinterpretation, so let me stipulate that in asserting it, I don't mean to be denying the connection between Islamism and Islamic jihad, much less to be praising either thing.

What I mean is that for about a decade now, Islamists have justified their atrocities against non-Muslims by citing the depredations of non-Muslims against Islam. Muslims killed in that struggle were considered collateral damages. But contemporary Islamism has by now reached a level of incoherence so pervasive, and a form of nihilism so intense, that it cannot even manage to abide by the murderous norms of an anti-Western jihad against"imperialism." It has become an explicit jihad of Muslim against Muslim unconstrained by norms of any kind. When Muslims begin to target mosques in the name of jihad, I think we've reached a reductio ad absurdum of Islamism beyond which it is simply impossible to go.

Having once been an orthodox, believing Muslim I find myself almost at the limits of my imaginative capacities in trying to grasp the mentality of a Muslim capable of such a thing. A Muslim capable of flying a 757 into the World Trade Center or Pentagon is perfectly imaginable to me. A Muslim capable of blowing up the Golden Mosque is not.

But maybe one needn't strain so much. We shouldn't forget that the principle behind the macabre absurdity of the destruction of the Golden Mosque is endorsed in the Qur'an itself."What is this life," asks Surah An'am,"but play and amusement? But best is the Home in the Hereafter, for those who are righteous. Will ye not then understand?" (6:32).

The thing to"understand" is that if this life is merely an instrumental means to the next, so is everything and everyone in it. The implication is that if someone or something stands in the way of what you take to be your salvation, your job is to sweep it out of the way and let God deal with it later. If the thing is a building, it may well have to be destroyed; if it's a person, it may well have to be killed. If it is a person in a building, both things may have to be annihilated in one fell swoop.

But what if the thing is a mosque and the people in question are Muslims? In that case, one simply has to deny those very facts: the Muslims must be turned into infidels, and the mosque must be regarded as a den of iniquity. Nor will the beauty of the mosque count for anything: beauty is merely temporal, and infidel beauty is merely seduction and temptation.

Once you get that far, you'll be capable of blowing up the Askariya Mosque without any qualms for what would have been utterly obvious to anyone in their right mind: that you've just blown up one of the most beautiful mosques on Earth in the name of Islam.

One might complain that there's too much pretending required here to make my Muslim mosque-bomber's thoughts intelligible. Who can ignore so much of reality and yet function as a human being? Answer: a person of faith. Never forget that pretending is the very heart of all religious faith--Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Faith is the suspension of reason, and every suspension of reason is, quite literally, a form of make-believe.

The form of make-believe that posits a perfect hereafter is in fact the perfect recipe for the abdication of scruples about this world, or regret or guilt about their violation:"for verily the hereafter will be better for thee than the present," or so we are told in Surah ad-Dhuha (93:4), which means, ironically enough,"glorious morning light." Anyone who has seen pictures of the Golden Mosque in the glorious light of this world may want to make some mental comparisons to the glorious if ghostly light of the promised hereafter.

I'm reminded of the repeated use of metaphors of light and color in Wallace Stevens's"Esthetique du Mal," but especially these lines:

The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one's desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise
Itself non-physical, may by chance observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel.

Chances are they won't. And chances are they will neither observe the golden dome of the Askariya mosque gleaming, nor experience the minor of what some of us felt when it stood.

People have sometimes wondered whether terrorism is inspired by poverty and despair. It is, but not quite in the sense to which its apologists and excuse-makers allude. The poverty in question is the one that arises from eminently physical people whose incapacity to distinguish desire from despair gives them the ardent wish to become non-physical people—to become disembodied spirits in a confabulated realm beyond the one we all actually inhabit. The problem is that they can't seem to keep their fantasy to themselves. They have an inveterate habit--derived from the very nature of the fantasy--to inflict it on everyone.

And here I'm reminded of some lines from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, to whom I give the last word on this subject:

There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom departure from life must be preached.

The earth is full of the superfluous, life has been corrupted by the many-too-many. Let them be lured by 'eternal life' out of this life.

Yellow men or black men: that is what the preachers of death are called. But I want to show them to you in other colors.

There are the dreadful creatures who carry a beast of prey around within them, and have no choice except lusts or self-mortification. And even their lusts are self-mortification.

They have not yet even become men, these dreadful creatures. Let them preach departure from life and depart themselves! …

They would like to be dead, and we should approve their wish! Let us guard against awakening these dead men and damaging these living coffins…

But they want to escape from life: what is it to them that, with their chains and gifts, they bind others still more firmly to it? …

Everywhere resound the voices of those who preach death: and the earth is full of those to whom death must be preached.

Or 'eternal life': it is all the same to me—provided they pass away quickly!

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

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More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Yes, character identity is the right way of thinking of it. And you're right about why not-pure-Muslims would be high on the target list.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Oh. What did you mean?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

My point wasn't that the jihadists are in a civil war with one another but that Muslims are. The jihadists are in a civil war with the non-jihadists.

I think it's too difficult to generalize across Muslims for purposes of answering your second question. There are just too many variations to take stock of.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I think they think of this life as an instrument, not as a necessary evil. If it were a necessary evil, God's creation would be evil, as would his purpose in creating it. (On the other hand, the Qur'an does incoherently attribute the creation of evil to God, e.g. verse 113:2. And God created Satan knowing that he'd be the cause of evil.)

It's not so much a matter of denigrating the other as less than human as denigrating the other as less than a true Muslim. The standard Muslim belief is that every human is born with a propensity to being a Muslim. People become non-Muslims through their own perversity or the corruption of others. So "being human" is not the source of moral status per se; it's your relation to God. If you bear the wrong relation to God or none at all, you are, as we used to say in 3rd grade, dead meat.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Thanks for pointing that out. Since Muslim clerics so often wear black, the line seems to fit.

N. Friedman - 3/4/2006


I had in mind, notwithstanding the words in issue, the dispute between Sunnis and Shi'a and, more generally, Jihadist and modernists, etc. I merely chose my words poorly.

N. Friedman - 3/2/2006


I see that I expressed myself poorly. I did not mean to suggest you were speaking of a war between Jihadists.

Jason Pappas - 3/2/2006

Interesting distinction and an important one!

I was thinking of the denial of rights which we ascertain because of species identity (i.e. being human) but it is apparent, for Muslims, that rights and privileges depends on religious identity (i.e. being a Muslim) which, of course, it must, given that the notion of universal human rights does come into play in Islam.

Thus, if I understand correctly, the “wrong relation to God” is a determining factor for rights and privileges for Islam. The “wrong relation to God” for pagans, atheists, and polytheists means that a Muslim can and must dispose of their lives. While “people of the book” can be exempt from slaughter and tolerated as second-class citizens. This supremacist notion may be contingent on the character identity (being a pagan, atheist, etc.) as opposed to species identity (being a human) but it still maintains a strong identity-focus (who the person is) for rights and privileges that in fact amounts to a rejection of broad-based human rights.

Even if collective membership isn’t based on race as in Nazi Germany or class as in communism such character-laden notion of superior beings (entitled to dispose of inferior beings) rejects the core essence of universal rights leaving a more arbitrary line that is harder to maintain. In the secular totalitarian cases this leads to internecine fighting and internal slaughter. Why should this not happen in religious-based identity politics? Is it really surprising that if a Muslim can dispose of non-Muslims, those not Muslim-enough are next in line?

Jason Pappas - 3/1/2006

The mere instrumentality of "this life"—or worse, viewing it as a necessary evil—does explain the ease at which true-believers dispose of their lives and the lives of others.

On the one hand, denigrating “the other” as less than human helps to ease one’s conscience as one disposes of others’ lives (like infidels, Jews, bourgeois, capitalist pigs, etc.), but denigrating one’s own life and the lives of one’s kind (however that is defined) is indeed the ultimate nihilism. That I believe is the gist of your point if I understand you correctly. However, I can but believe that the first leads to the second. An arbitrary line, to deem some people as less than human, is rarely maintained.

N. Friedman - 2/28/2006


You have written, as you always do, a very intelligent piece. And thank you for quoting Nietzsche. Back, many, many moons ago, in my school days, I wrote my thesis on Nietzsche. He, I think, understands religion better than any philosopher I have ever read.

That said, I note a few points. The reformation in Europe - about which I have at least some passing knowledge - evolved into substantial bloodletting within Christiandom. In the bloodletting sense, I would agree with you that the Jihadists are in a civil war of sorts. I think, however, that you push the line a bit too far if you are suggesting that such is the main fight.

I think the main theme of the Jihadist - at least the Sunnis among them - is the re-establishment of the Caliphate in order to advance traditional Muslim religio/political objectives. I think, historically, feuds between Sunnis and Shi'a have been known to occur and such has not stood in the way of Jihad against non-Muslims. Which is to say, we could have two or more themes, a Jihadal fight between Muslims and a fight against non-Muslims.

Now, regarding Nietzsche, the question is whether the Muslims have reached a stage where the below words are somehow descriptive:

The madman.— Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"— As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?— Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried. "I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I! All of us are his murderers! But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? And backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?—Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives,—who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed,—and whoever is born after us, for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto!"— Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners: they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering—it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves!"— It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?" —

Roderick T. Long - 2/27/2006

By the way, in case any reader should think that Nietzsche's "yellow men or black men" is some sort of racial reference -- he's referring to Christian priests (garbed in black) and Buddhist monks (garbed in yellow), proponents of what Nietzsche considered two anti-this-worldly religions. (Most translations say something like: "yellow or black the preachers of death wear ...." And there are other references to Buddhism nearby.)