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How to dissuade a terrorist

The words of life in Yasmina Khadra's book

The cover of Yasmina Khadra's book

The cover of Yasmina Khadra's book

Which arguments could we use in a cultural battle against Islamist terrorists? How to deprive them of their influence on the gray area of the Muslim world, the one that, though condemning them, then justifies them, saying they might nurture an aspiration toward justice as well?
How to tackle such a serious problem as the one of the “martyrs”, who because they decide to give up their lives then enjoy a “moral” respect, as if they acted in the name of a great spirit of sacrifice?

I have asked myself many times what kind of a discussion could ever take place between a terrorist ready to carry out a massacre and a friend trying to dissuade him.
I really wish I could spy such a meeting to understand whether there is any mainspring that can make an Islamist fanatic step back from his plan.

Last Summer I happened to read The Attack by Yasmina Khadra, an astounding book of 2004, published in Italian by Sellerio publishing house, with a great translation by Marina Di Leo. Chance wanted me to read it right on my return from Tunis, where I had just inaugurated the first Garden of the Righteous in an Arab country, dedicated in particular to those Muslim Righteous who had the courage to resist – some of them even at the cost of their lives – the murderous madness of Isis. In the courtyard of the Italian embassy we had in facts just planted some trees in honour of Hamadi ben Abdesslem, the Tunisian guide who had saved the Italian tourists, Khaled al-Asaad, the archaeologist who tried in vain to defend Palmyra, and Faraaz Hussein, the young boy who in the restaurant of Dhaka deemed better to die than to accept the selection imposed by the terrorists.

I then thought I had held a good speech, in which I had tried to explain the moral principles that should inspire us in the fight against terror. I had tried to put myself into the shoes of the people who had performed such heroic deeds. In a way, in the rethoric of my speech, I had presented the choice between Good and Evil as a simple operation, within anybody's reach.

When finished reading this book, though, I saw all those tales from a different angle. Yasmina Khadra plunged me into the complexity of the cultural clash that is tearing apart the Arab world. Until the last page we were not able to understand whether the terrorist's reasons are stronger than those of the people who refuse his methods. To win this struggle it is therefore necessary to accept solitude and work out a lofty thought, as the gray area of society that the Algerian writer tells about leans on the side of the terrorists.

Yasmina Khadra is a brave intellectual, because he tackles the topic of the criticism of terrorism in a country where for an Arab any action against the occupiers cannot be criticized. Everything is allowed. From Gaza to the Cairo, Riyadh, Tunis, every action of a Palestinian terrorist is celebrated as a heroic deed. The higher the death toll, greater is the fame of the terrorists, also for those who in their countries would refuse to go down this road. Israel is the devil. There can be distinctions in tactics, but the “martyrs” of terrorism are considered as the loftiest moral examples in quite a big portion of the Arab public opinion.

The tale is written with the rhythm of a criminal story. Arab Israeli Amin Jaafari is a very successful surgeon from Tel Aviv, perfectly integrated. His mission is to rescue all possible lives, because he does not discriminate among human beings. And yet the unforeseen happens. An attack near his hospital kills dozens boys and girls, and among the torn corpses there is also his beautiful wife, with whom he has lived wonderfully. His wife Sihem though is not a victim like the others, because she was the assailant. So begins the most harrowing nightmare. Amin cannot figure out any explanation for his wife's deed, and finds himself isolated from the medical environment he had lived in. He is suspected of being a possible accomplice of his wife. When he eventually manages to prove his innocence to the police, after seeing his home vandalized by his neighbours, Jaafari begins his own inquiry in the Arab territories to discover who convinced his wife to perform that mad deed. Why did Sihem never tell him about her intentions, in what was he wrong, how did he never realize he lived for so many years with a terrorist who had decided to destroy their family's happiness? These are the questions that torment him and first urge him to meet his wife's relatives and then the political leaders of the Palestinian insurgent groups. To them she is the heroine, while he is a traitor who preferred a comfortable life in Tel Aviv with the Zionist enemies. They humiliate him, beat him up, torture him, so that he learns on his own skin the burden of the Palestinian suffering. “Only if you too suffer, you will be able to understand the pain we endure because of Zionists.”.
One of their leaders explains to him his wife did not belong to him, because she had chosen the cause and the cause was more important than her life and marriage. In the face of the Palestinian's suffering, Sihem, dying like a martyr in the attack, had performed a magnificent gesture, because she was able to defend her dignity and the one of an entire people. She had presented all Palestinians with such a great gift, by killing the young people and sacrificing herself, because such a happening was the only joy they could ever have in their seized land. “Either decency or death, either freedom or the grave, either freedom or the cemetery” tells him the terrorist leader. What matters is the honour that is preserved by one's own death.

But Jaafari, who has lost his job and refuses his old environment that has abandoned him, resists. Not because he manages to persuade his interlocutors, but thanks to an inner strength.
To the ex surgeon from Tel Aviv there is only one way to live on: to respect everybody's life, considering all we have was lent to us and we must give it back one day. We have no right to steal the other people's lives. To the sacrifice of the “martyr”, who kills as many enemies as he can, he juxtaposes much more demanding a sacrifice, the one for the care about all human beings. There is no heaven up above, but only the fragile lives of us all, which everybody of us has the task to preserve. This is the only possible paradise that we need to cultivate everyday, as if it were our home's garden. Even if he failed to affirm this, the only main spring that could one day change the terrorists' mind is the love of life and the other people.

Yasmina Khadra thus made me discover the most important argument to defeat the ideology of death. Now I can figure out what a friend could tell a terrorist to make him change route. “You have chosen to kill, I chose to save. The one who is an enemy to you, for me is a patient to care about.”

Everyone of us could utter these words if necessary.

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo chairman

12 September 2016

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