Love death. This is the improbable instruction that the founder of an Egyptian sect called the Muslim Brotherhood imparted to his followers in the 1920s. A disciple named Mohammed Atta copied this instruction into his journal just before leading the attack on the World Trade Center three days before my biopsy. Was it a coincidence that this dark creed took root in a country of monuments to the human quest for life beyond the grave? The sentence Mohammed Atta actually jotted down was this: “Prepare for holy war and be lovers of death.”
How can one love death? This is a question that is incomprehensible to us unless we are overwhelmed by personal defeats. But it is the enigma at the heart of human history, which is a narrative moved by war between men. For how can men go to war unless they love death, or a cause that is worth more than life itself?
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The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, but the summons to holy war was planted in Arab hearts more than a thousand years before. The prophet Mohammed created the Muslim faith and claimed he was fulfilling the gospel of Christ. But Mohammed was a warrior and Jesus a man of peace who instructed his followers to shun the path of history and separate the sacred from the profane. His kingdom was not of this world: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s. Mohammed summoned his followers to make the world a place for God, which meant conquering Caesar himself.
Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who was executed for treason in 1966, is recognized as the intellectual father of the Islamic jihad. His brother Mohammed was a teacher of its leader Osama Bin Laden and his texts are read by would-be martyrs in madrassas across the Muslim world. The hope that consumed Sayyid Qutb’s life was to establish the rule of Islam throughout the heathen nations and the Islamic umma, to make the world a holy place.
Sayyid Qutb regarded Christianity as a threat to this Islamic redemption. He condemned Christians for their separation of the sacred from the profane, God’s world from Ceasar’s. He called this division a “hideous schizophrenia,” which reflected the very corruption he set out to correct. Christians had created liberal societies, Qutb said, in which “God’s existence is not denied, but His domain is restricted to the heavens and His rule on earth is suspended.” Islam’s task was “to unite the world and the faith.” It was what Jewish mystics called “tikkun olam,” a mission to repair the world by bringing about the rule of God’s law on earth.
Qutb wrote this prescription in one of his most famous texts, which he called Social Justice In Islam. The mission of Islam, he explained, was “to unite heaven and earth in a single system.” To make the world one.
This is the totalitarian idea. When the wave of redemption is complete, nothing will remain untransformed, nothing unholy or unjust. Total transformation is the goal of all radical jihads, including the flight that burned the towers of evil in Manhattan. It is the cause that Mohammed Atta served. Like all revolutionary passions, the totalitarian hope of radical Islam is to redeem the world. It is the desire to put order into our lives and to heal the wound in creation.
But there is no earthly doctor who can cure us. The practical consequence of all radical dreams, therefore, is a permanent holy war.
Inevitably and invariably, the effort to make the world whole begins with its division into two opposing camps. In order to conduct the work of salvation, redeemers must separate the light from the darkness, the just from the unjust, the believers from the damned. For radical Muslims this division is the line separating the House of Islam from the House of War, the realm of the faithful from the world of heretics and infidels, who are impure of heart and who must be converted or destroyed.
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A thousand years before Mohammed Atta left on his fatal mission, a Shi’ite named Hassan al-Sabbah began a holy war to overthrow the Muslim state. In Hassan’s eyes, the Sunni caliphate that the Prophet Mohammed had established to govern Islam had already fallen into a state of corruption. It was no longer holy; it was no longer God’s. To cleanse Islam and restore the faith, Hassan created a martyr vanguard, whom others referred to as the “Assassins,” and whose deeds have bequeathed to us the word itself. The mission of the Assassins was to kill the apostate rulers of the false Islamic state, and purify the realm.
Because their mission was a service to God, it was considered a dishonor to return alive, and none did. The Koran assured the Assassins that the reward for the life they gave was paradise itself. “So let them fight in the way of God who sell the present life for the world to come. Whosoever fights in the way of God and is slain, conquers. We shall bring him a mighty wage.” When the Assassins’ first victim, the vizier in Quhistan was slain, Hassan al-Sabbah said, “The killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss.” Revolutionaries love death because it is the gate of heaven and the beginning of bliss.
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Four years before 9/11, Mohammed Atta traveled to Afghanistan to join the International Islamic Front for the Holy War against Jews and Crusaders, whose leader was Osama bin Laden. Atta was a small, wiry man, the humorless son of a demanding father. After his team of modern Assassins turned the towers in Manhattan into a smoking ruin, his father told reporters, “My son is a very sensitive man. He is soft and was extremely attached to his mother.”
Before the hour of his jihad, on the very page where he had copied the summons to love death, Mohammed Atta acknowledged that it was a call to perform acts unnatural to men. “Everybody hates death, fears death,” he wrote, but then explained why men should love it nonetheless. “Only the believers who know the life after death and the reward after death, will be the ones seeking death.” Mohammed Atta had found a cause that was greater than life itself.
But was Mohammed Atta right? Did his martyrs sign up for death to gain a greater return? This presumes that the only reason people would seek to end their lives in this world is the hope of reward in another. Do they not also run towards what they fear? When we have guilty secrets to hide do we not find ways to end the awful wait before judgment by leaving the clues that betray us? Especially if we are withholding secrets from those we fear and love. Are we not all guilty in the eyes of God, and did not Mohammed Atta fear and love Him?
What if martyrs hate life more than they love death? If we look at the scanty record of Mohammed Atta’s time on this earth, it suggests that escape was always on his mind. “Purify your heart and clean it of all earthly matters,” he wrote in his instructions to his martyr team. “The time of fun and waste has gone. The time of judgment has arrived.”
In his short life, Mohammed Atta does not seem to have had much room for pleasure. His father was a successful lawyer, who was ambitious and austere. The family had two residences but lived frugally and apart from others. “They didn’t visit and weren’t visited,” said a neighbor later. The father agreed, “We are people who keep to ourselves.” An adolescent friend of Mohammed’s described the Atta household: “It was a house of study. No playing, no entertainment. Just study.” Even as an adolescent, to avoid the contamination of the flesh Mohammed would leave the room when Egyptian television featured belly-dancing programs, as it frequently did.
According to those who knew him as a young adult, Mohammed Atta was insular, religiously strict and psychologically intense. The death of an insect made him emotional; the modern world repelled him. A fellow urban planning student remembered how the usually reserved Mohammed became enraged by a hotel construction near the ancient market of Aleppo, which he viewed as the desecration of Islam’s heritage. “Disney World,” he sneered, the Crusaders’ revenge. Mohammed continued to avoid sensual images whether from television screens or wall posters. He hated and feared the female gender, averting his eyes from women who so much as neglected to cover their arms.
Others testified that he could not take pleasure in so basic and social a human act as eating. A roommate recalled that he sustained himself by spooning lumps from a heap of cold potatoes he would mash and leave on a plate in the communal refrigerator for a week at a time. A German convert who hung out with members of the terrorist cell that Mohammed headed, thought it was his morbid seriousness that allowed him to lead others but dismissed him derisively as a “harmless, intelligent, nut.” The people he lived with longed for him to leave. A girlfriend of one of them said, “A good day was when Mohammed was not home.”
Five years before his appointment with death, Mohammed Atta drew up a will in which he admonished his mourners to die as good Muslims. “I don’t want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean to come and say good-bye to me because I don’t approve it,” he stressed. “The people who will clean my body should be good Muslims… The person who will wash my body near my genitals must wear gloves on his hands so he won’t touch my genitals…. I don’t want any women to go to my grave at all during my funeral or on any occasion thereafter.”
In life, Mohammed Atta despised women, but on his way to death, he promised his martyrs many, citing the Koranic verse: “Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’ They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing.”
Mohammed also wrote down these instructions for the mission ahead: “When the confrontation begins, strike like champions who do not want to go back to this world. Shout, ‘Allahu Akbar [God is great],’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.” Whoever neglected his will or did not follow Islam, Mohammed warned, “that person will be held responsible in the end.”
Like Mohammed Atta we long for the judgment that will make right what is not. We want to see virtue rewarded and the wicked rebuked. We yearn for release from the frustrations and disappointments of an imperfect life. Consequently every God of love is also a God of justice, and therefore a God of punishment and death. If this were not so, if God did not care to sort out good from evil, what would His love be worth?
The emotions of fear and hope spring from the love of self, and therefore make our motives suspect. Are those who claim to be God’s warriors pure of heart and above doubt? Can men serve God if they are really serving themselves? Do martyrdoms like Mohammed Atta’s represent noble aspirations, or are they merely desperate remedies for personal defeats?
Mohammed Atta was a withdrawn and ineffectual man who died without achieving his worldly ambitions. He never realized his goal of becoming an architect or urban planner, never married or had a family. Apart from his jihad, Mohammed Atta never made a mark in life. But in death he was a god, bringing judgment to 3,000 innocent souls.
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If Allah is the maker of life, as Mohammed Atta believed, could He desire the destruction of what he had created? What is suicide but rage at the living, and contempt for the life left behind? Mohammed Atta offered his deed of destruction as a gift to God. In his eyes, his martyrdom was unselfish and the strangers he killed were not innocent. His mission was to purge the world of wasteful pleasures, to vanquish the guilty and to implement God’s grace.
But if God wanted to cleanse His creation, why would He need Mohammed Atta to accomplish His will?
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These are the questions of an agnostic, who has no business saying what God desires or does not. Nonetheless, an agnostic can appreciate believers like Pascal, whose humility is transparent and who is attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible through faith. Why are we born? Why are we here? Why do we die? An agnostic can respect the faith of a skeptic who confronts our misery and refuses to concede defeat. He can admire a faith that provides consolation for the inconsolable, and in a heartless world finds reason to live a moral life.
But murder is not moral and the desire to redeem the world requires it. Because redemption requires the damnation of those who do not want to be saved.
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My father was an atheist, and a progressive who embraced the secular belief of the social redeemers. Along with all who think they have practical answers to the absurd cruelties of our human lot, my father felt superior to those who do not, especially those who take solace in a religious faith. In this prejudice, my father had impressive company. The psychologist Sigmund Freud regarded religion as an illusion without a future. But, like all revolutionaries Freud could not live without his own reservoir of belief, which was science. Progress was his human faith.
Whether they are secularists like my father and Freud, or religious zealots like Mohammed Atta, those who believe we can become masters of our fates think they know more than Pascal. But in their search for truth where do they imagine they have gone that he did not go before them? What do they think they know that Pascal did not? Their bravado is only a mask for the inevitable defeat that is our common lot, an inverse mirror of their human need.
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Like Mohammed Atta, my father was an ineffectual man thwarted in his earthly desires. When he was still young, he gave up his ambitions, and resigned himself to a life without them. But in his imagination he knew no such limits. The hope he no longer had for himself he invested in others. Even though my father prided himself on being a practical man without illusions, he shared with Mohammed Atta and his believers an impossible dream. Their dream was to change the world. What Mohammed Atta and my father wanted was an escape from this life.
If his views had been described to him this way, my father would have rejected the link to theological illusions. He felt as superior to the religious revolutionaries who shared his dreams as they did to secular radicals like him. But while he disdained their God and their paradise in heaven, he never gave up their belief in miracles of faith.
My father’s prophet was Karl Marx, who was himself descended from a long line of rabbis. Like my father, Marx disdained the religion of his ancestors, regarding them as the comforting myths of weak-minded men. But the icon he chose for his secular faith was a mythical figure all the same. His hero was Prometheus, the pagan who stole fire from the gods and brought a piece of heaven to earth.
Like Freud, Marx regarded the belief in heaven as a cry of impotence, a memory from the childhood of the race when men were tormented by forces of nature they could not understand. To cope with their predicament they conjured powers that were divine, who would look after them, and keep them safe. Marx knew the divinities they worshipped were only reflections of themselves on whom they projected powers that might one day be theirs. Marx’s revolutionary message to humanity was this: You shall be as gods.
For Marx, religious belief was not a consolation for human unhappiness but its cause. The God men worshipped, appeared to them as the embodiment of their hopes. But Marx knew that their deity was only a tribal totem whose worship made them passive and denied them their due. There were no unanswerable questions or unattainable powers that determined human fate. Marx was so confident of this truth that he summed up his conclusion in a single sentence: “All mysteries, which lead to mysticism, find their rational solution in human practice.” Marx’s revelation was this: The fire is not in heaven; it is in you. Human beings could achieve their liberation by worshiping themselves instead of gods. This was a flattery so great that it changed the world.
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In Marx’s telling, religious faith was not a passage to heaven but a passion of the condemned. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world,” he wrote; “it is the opium of the oppressed.” Thus Marx inverted the martyr’s hope. In Marx’s gospel, the dream of a heavenly paradise is no longer the aspiration to transcend human fate. It is the snare that seduces us into accepting our unhappy condition. The dream of heaven is a pitiful perversion of humanity’s desire to liberate itself and make the world one. Marx’s call to revolution is this: Give up the dream of a paradise in heaven in order to create a heaven on earth. In the book he mockingly called The Holy Family, he declared, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”
These words stand Marx’s proclamation on its proverbial head and show how pathetically human his prophecy was. Having dismissed religion and fantastic dreams, he succumbed to them himself. Having claimed that the world could not be saved by religion, he insisted it would be saved by abolishing religion. In place of the old redemption through the grace of God, the revolutionary offers a secular salvation. In place of the Final Judgment and a world made holy through divine intervention, the revolutionary promises Social Justice, a world redeemed through the actions of ordinary men.
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Like Islamic radicals pursuing their goal of God’s law on earth, Marx drew a line between the House of Faith and the House of War, between those who were chosen for the progressive mission and the reactionaries whose removal was necessary to transform the world.
My father was a decent man who was not prepared to harm others, even in the service of his radical faith, let alone murder innocents as Mohammed Atta did. But along with millions of decent progressive souls, my father abetted those who did just that. Progressives looked the other way and then endorsed the murder of untold innocents for the same reason that Mohammed Atta and the Islamic martyrs did: to make the new world possible. Their desire for Judgment in this life was so strong that it inspired them to believe that if enough of the guilty were punished, they could actually produce a world redeemed.
I understand Pascal’s religion. I understand his anxious bewilderment at a life of no consequence. I understand his hope for a personal redemption, and his search for an answer. But I no longer understand my father’s faith, his belief that men alone, without divine intervention, can transform the world in which they find themselves and create a paradise on earth.
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Some may regard these speculations as unreasonable. How can a man invoke his father in the same sentence as Mohammed Atta? My answer is, How not? Was Mohammed Atta not flesh and blood; if you pricked him did he not bleed? What did Mohammed Atta hope for but a better world; and what progressive soul does not wish for that?
Like my father, I once thought I knew the answers to unanswerable questions, and allowed myself to dream impossible dreams. But one day these dreams brought tragedy to my door, and I put away the illusion for good. Whoever asks how Mohammed Atta’s awful deed can be linked to decent people has not understood the deed, or who they themselves are. Ask yourself this: Up to the last act of Mohammed Atta’s life, would he have been judged an evil person? No one who actually knew him thinks so.
The act that ended Mohammed’s life and thousands of innocent others was surely evil. But except for the terrible deed itself, there is not an inconsiderate gesture attached to his memory. He appears to have been an ordinary man who was seduced into committing a great crime in the name of a greater good. Is this not the most common theme of the human tragedies of our time?
This essay is excerpted from The End of Time, Encounter Books.