THE PROFESSION OF DEATH
By Barry Rubin
Much will be said about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination; little will be understood about what it truly means. I’m not speaking here about Pakistan, of course, as important as is that country. But rather the lesson—as if we need any more—for that broad Middle East with Pakistan at one end and the Atlantic Ocean coast on the other.
This is a true story. Back in 1946, an American diplomat asked an Iranian editor why his newspaper angrily attacked the United States but never the Soviet Union. The Iranian said that it was obvious. “The Russians,” he said, “they kill people!” Murder is a very effective way to influence people.
A dozen years earlier, in 1933, an Iraqi official, Sami Shawkat, gave a talk which became one of the major texts of Arab nationalism. “There is something more important than money and learning for preserving the honor of a nation and for keeping humiliation at bay,” he stated. “That is strength....Strength, as I use the word here, means to excel in the Profession of Death.”
What, you might ask, was Shawkat’s own profession? He was director-general of Iraq’s ministry of education. This was how young people were to be taught and directed; this is where Saddam Hussein came from. Seventy-five years later the subsequent history of Iraq and the rest of the Arab world show just how well Shawkat did his job.Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Center . His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
September 11 in the United States; the Bali bombing for Australia; the tube bombing for Britain; the commuter train bombing for Spain, these were all merely byproducts of this pathology. The pathology in question is not Western policy toward the Middle East but rather Middle Eastern policy toward the Middle East.
Ever since I read Shawkat’s words as a student, the phrase, “Profession of Death,” which gave his article its title, struck me as a pun. On one hand, the word “profession” means “career.”
To be a killer—note well that Shawkat was not talking specifically about soldiers, those who fight, but rather those who murder—was the highest calling of all. It was more important than being a teacher, who forms character; more important than a businessperson, who enriches his country; more important than a doctor who preserves the life of fellow citizens. Destruction was a higher calling than construction. And for sure in the Arabic-speaking world what has been reaped is what has been sowed.
But also the word “profession” here reminds me of the verb “to profess” as in the word “professor,” that is “to preach” and to teach. What is of greatest value is for an educator to preach and glorify death. What kind of ideology, what kind of society, what kind of values, does such a priority produce? Look and see.
Like children playing with dynamite, Western intellectuals, journalists, and diplomats fantasize that they are achieving results in the Middle East with their words, promises, apologies, money, and concessions. Yet how can such innocents cope despite—or perhaps because of--all their good intentions with polities and societies whose basic ruling ethos is that of the serial killer?
And what can be achieved when those most forward-looking and most creative, those who want to break with the ideas and methods creating a disastrous mess, the stagnant system which characterizes so much of the Middle East, are systematically murdered? Read the roll: King Abdallah of Jordan, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon, the bold author Farouq Fawda in Egypt, Iraqi Sunnis who dare seek compromise, Palestinian moderates, Algerian modernists, and thousands of women who seek a small degree of freedom.
The radicals are right: dying is a disincentive. And for every one they kill how many thousands give in; and for every one they threaten how many hundreds give in? Even in the West many individuals who pride themselves as knights of knowledge and paladins of free speech quickly crumble at the prospect of being culled for their cartoons.
Seventy-five years after Shawkat, Hamas television teaches Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip that their highest aspiration should be to become a suicide bomber, with success measured by how many Jews are killed. And, by the way, the Palestinian Authority’s television in the West Bank sends a similar message, albeit slightly less frequently.
Will billions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) change anything when the men with the guns grab what they want? Are PA chief Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, respectively a timid bureaucrat and a well-meaning economist, going to take a bullet for lifting one finger to get a compromise peace with Israel?
How are you going to get a government of national conciliation in Iraq when the insurgents have shown they can gun down any Sunni politician or cleric who steps out of line?
The current supporters of the Lebanese government are the bravest politicians in the Arabic-speaking world, men willing to defy death rather than surrender to the radical Islamists of Hizballah or the imperialism of Syria. But how can they stand firm when democratic governments rush to engage with the Syrian government that murder them, while Western media proclaim the moderation of a Damascus ruler who systematically kills those who oppose him?
Can anyone really expect a stable society capable of progress in Pakistan when a large majority of the population expresses admiration for Usama bin Ladin? And what about the Saudi system where, as one local writer put it, the big Usama put into practice what the little Usama learned in a Saudi school?
Don’t you get it? The radical forces in the region are not expecting to retain or gain power by negotiating, compromising, or being better understood. They believe they are going to shoot their way into power or, just as good, accept the surrender of those they have intimidated.
That is why so much of the Western analysis and strategies for dealing with the region are a bad joke. Usama bin Ladin understands that, as he once said, people are going to back the strongest horse in the race. According to all too many people in the Western elites, the way to win is to be the nicest horse.
But doesn’t this assessment sound terribly depressing and hopeless? Well, yes and no.
Radical Islamists like to proclaim that they will triumph because they love death while their enemies—that is, soon-to-be-victims—love life.
Be careful what you wish for, though, because you probably will get it. For those who love death the reward is…death.
For those who love life, the outcomes include decent educational systems, living standards, individual rights, and strong economic systems. I can't help but thinking that Western Civilization has been built on a different model, even when people completely forget about it and take it for granted, based on ideas like this:
"I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life...." (Deuteronomy 31:19)
All these things, and others that go along with them, are what really produce strength. And isn’t it interesting that, contrary to Shawkat, the nations that put the priority on these values, ideas, and constructive efforts enjoy far more honor and suffer far less humiliation than happens with his model. This is not that they have no faults but they also contain the mechanisms that are usually sufficient to correct these faults.
In contrast, the profession of death has wrecked most Middle Eastern societies. But it has never succeeded in defeating a free society. It is not an effective tactic for destroying others but only for devastating one’s own people.
Who killed Benazir Bhutto? The Sami Shawkat philosophy: alike in its Arab nationalist, Islamist, and Pakistani authoritarian versions which dominate Middle East politics.