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Netanyahu and the “Martyr-State” Myth

Scott McConnell comments on hard-liners’ “martyr-state” hysteria regarding Iran:

Those trying to generate hysteria in the United States about Iran’s nuclear program regularly play the crazy Muslim card. Iran, they imply, will become the Tsarnaev brothers with nuclear weapons.

Indeed, hard-liners are happy to go beyond this and to insist that Iran’s leadership is even more suicidal than that, which is what supposedly makes them impossible to deter. As Scott points out, there is no truth in this claim.

American hard-liners misunderstand and misrepresent Shia millennarian beliefs, just as they usually misunderstand and misrepresenttaqiyya and veneration of Shia martyrs to make Iranians seem inherently untrustworthy and obsessed with death. As I said last year in response to one of Helprin’s more deranged op-eds:

Practicing dissimulation doesn’t make a person suicidal or prone to attacking others. Quite the contrary. The original purpose for it in Shi’ism was to avoid persecution and death. For Helprin to use that in the same sentence with references to martyrdom suggests that he doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about. How a regime uses its soldiers in a conventional war of self-defense doesn’t tell us anything about their willingness to use a nuclear weapon. As I have said before, the veneration of martyrdom in Iranian culture is as strong as it is because of their Shi’ism and their comemoration of the death of Husayn (Hossein), whom they revere as their second imam. When Helprin babbles on about Iranians being “martyrdom-obsessed,” he wants to give the misleading impression that this a country and a regime intent on dying. The regime, like any other regime, is intent on self-preservation.

The idea that Iran’s government is willing to invite its own annihilation in nuclear war requires putting enormous confidence in “a few neoconservative op-eds and a report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, whose claims have been bounced endlessly around the internet,” which is the origin of the “martyr-state” myth. Netanyahu probably felt confident repeating such bogus claims before the U.N. because he knew that his main audience in the United States wouldn’t know that he was repeating pure propaganda.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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