Iran, the bomb, and religious devotion

A security guard hides his face from a photographer outside the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, last February. (Sajad Safari/Bloomberg News)

In his book "Dying for Heaven: Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers -- Why the Best Qualities of Religion Are Also Its Most Dangerous" author Ariel Glucklich argues against the misconception that religious terrorists fight their enemies out of hatred. Rather, it is the positive aspects of religion that inspire the most heinous actions, he says. We asked Glucklich, a professor at Georgetown University and member of the steering committee of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, to apply his theory to Iran.

GUEST BLOGGER: Ariel Glucklich

It is clear that Iran is headed in the direction of arming itself with nuclear weapons. It will soon join Pakistan as the second Muslim country in the exclusive nuclear-arms club. The Israeli and American governments (Saudis, too) have taken this threat very seriously long before Ahmedinejad began his anti-Semitic rants in 2005.

Is Iran more dangerous than Pakistan (where the military controls the nuclear arsenal) or the Soviets during the cold war? After Nagasaki, no one has launched a nuclear attack, why should the Iranians?

Once Iran is fully armed, Will religion become an unpredictable factor? Is there any reason to believe that Iran will no longer act as a rational player, properly weighing costs and benefits to know when to back down from escalating a local flare-up into a major nuclear standoff -- or worse?

Well, has religion ever driven anyone to irrational, counter-productive and self-destructive behavior?

If that last question sends a chill through your spine, then you recognize that we need to understand precisely and reliably how religion in general and Shi'ite Islam specifically can lead to counter-productive miscalculations by a nuclear-armed nation. This is uncharted terrain; the standard answers do not apply.

First, we need to do away with the misconceptions that Islam favors jihadist aggression, that Muslims hate Jews so intensely they are willing to die killing them, that the virgins of paradise make suicide an attractive option and that life until the messianic Imam arrives is not worth living.

Also useless are the theories of recent writers such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens who argue that religion is intrinsically irrational and destructive; if that were true, religion would not have survived or promoted cultural evolution over the last 20,000 years, nor would it continue to prosper today.

I claim that Iran is dangerous not because Shi'ite Islam, or for that matter religion in general, is hate-filled or irrational (that is, that it favors self-destruction). On the contrary, a nuclear Iran can be more frightening because religion is based on love, honor, altruism and, not least, self-sacrifice.

The most powerful religious rituals and symbols in Iran revolve around the themes of Husayn's martyrdom in Karbala in 680 CE, and that tragic event plays out to feelings of sadness, contrition and penance. The Ashoura is not a festival of rage and revenge but love, devotion and regret.

The Shi'ites, as a community, bond together through the power of martyrological symbols, not unlike the Christians who place the crucifixion and resurrection at the heart of the Christian community.

For the Shi'ites, martyrdom is not an abstract and ancient institution. It is a living force that defines what it means to be a community, to have legitimate authority and to submit your personal interests to something greater than yourself.

This symbol holds for the nation as a whole but it also trickles down to local bureaucracies, educational institutions, police and military units. It looks a bit like this: Martyrdom is devotion (that is, love) and obedience to authority is how the individual can play his or her role in a nation ruled by the flag of martyrdom.

To put this in stark terms, the lesson of Karbala, where Husayn died, is that defense of the righteous community, of those who follow the true path of Islam, may require acts that emulate Husayn's decision to die when he was cornered. This is not only just; it is also beautiful and satisfying religious theater.

Personally I do not think the Iranian government will threaten to use its atomic weapons, and I believe that it is as susceptible to deterrence as the Soviets were during the cold war. That's because the community perceives its group interest and seeks pleasure and happiness as social values. Knowing that your enemy wants to promote his interests and wants to be happy is highly reassuring in a nuclear world.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 4, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Iran's nuclear program started under the Shah at the behest of the US because it makes economic sense. After six years of intensive scrutiny there is still zero evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, and they've even offered to open the program to joint US participation. Anyway considering the Maccabees, what does that tell us about Israels nuclear weapons and willingness to commit mass suicide?

Posted by: hassani1387 | November 4, 2009 7:59 AM

While Shiites have a unique take on Islam, with their own martyrs, all Muslims have the same problem that they never forgive or forget, and all Muslims who go back to Muhammad and the Koran will soon read the unlimited orders to spread the territory ruled by Sharia by force. Ironically, only the fact that Iran is a Shiite nation surrounded by a sea of Sunnis has kept it from driving Israel into the sea, but don't count on it not using missiles to deliver nukes to Israeli pop. centers other than the holy city of Jerusalem (off limits I hope). Worse, if Iran can help the Shiites take over Iraq, and merge the two countries into a superstate, their army might march into Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, then Israel, and be all-but unstoppable even if the U.S. calls out a giant draft of 10+ million. But once nukes are used in Israel, the Israelis will likely use them in Iran and other Muslim countries, and somewhere Russia and China will get drawn in, hence we're in WWIII. It's time Westerners learned the key facts of the rise, spread and doctrines of Islam to arm themselves and help their govts. with foreign policy, and not leave it to Muslim disinfo. artists. Try the Historyscoper's free site at

Posted by: tlwinslow | November 4, 2009 3:23 PM

this crappy religion deserves no recognition in the civilized world period

Posted by: pofinpa | November 4, 2009 4:48 PM

Your informations are somewhat outdated. 30 years of religious and political indoctrination have had the opposite effect on the first generation grown up in the IRI. This young generation (ca. 60% of the whole population) wants personal and economic freedom like all young people around the world. Like the elder generation it is fed up with common lies about martyrdom, devotion etc., while the clergy and the paramilitary mafia are looting national wealth. Strangely enough the mullahs achieved what the shah never would have been able to accomplish: forging Iran into a secular state.
Western commentators are always misled by the IRI's pompous propaganda.

Posted by: Arshama | November 4, 2009 4:50 PM

What a shameless drumbeat of war, what is next a tarot card reader, maybe after that you can find someone to contact the ghost of Nostredamus. What is this conviction of a whole religion doing being printed here? And cheerleaders commenting on it? Are we talking about the same shi'ites who we brought to power in Iraq? I guess whatever reason is good for washington post to start a new war and whoever comes with the most unusual reasoning will get the top billing, as long as they can make "them" look as evil as possible so Israel can drag us to another endless war, just like what Leon Trotsky preached 100 years ago. There is no evidence Iran is building nukes, none zero so there will be no nuke by Iranians to go anywhere so stop beating the drums of war and lets focus on getting some of the 36 million people who are on food stamp in the US a decent job!!!

Posted by: mbintampa | November 4, 2009 7:26 PM

If the manner in which the Iranian government treats its own people is any indication of its moral virtues there is a argument for their first use of nuclear weapons against Israel. They have openly announced their intentions to destroy Israel and the nations of the world already caught up in great economic turmoil are side stepping the issue realizing that the necessary remedy will possibly bring on a third world war.

Posted by: joe100821 | November 4, 2009 8:57 PM

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