DID you happen to see the prerecorded videotapes of the two young Arab students who blew up themselves and a dozen victims in southern Lebanon on July 9? If you did see them, then you are beginning to get a new sense of who the people are in the Middle East who immolate themselves in attacks on their designated enemies along with other deeds such as hijacking airplanes.
Something is going on in the Middle East which goes deeper and may last far longer than anything we have yet realized.
The taped sequences on television were of two young students. Their faces were intelligent. Their voices and manners expressed confident devotion to a cause. They go happily to martyrdom.
How many are there like this? What moves them? What are they achieving? What may they achieve in the future?
During the excitement in Washington over the hostages from TWA Flight 847, the tendency was to assume that those who hijacked the plane, like those who ride car bombs to martyrdom, are acting as agents of some government. That assumption leads to the idea that there could at least be revenge, or retaliation, by dropping bombs on the center of some such government.
That point of view misses the essence of what is going on. There is no central command post from which orders go out to send a car bomb or hijack an airplane. These Muslim activists are not the servants of the Ayatollah Khomeini or of any other person in high government places. They are part of a movement which has already captured one government, Iran, and is on the march in a fervently religious crusade to capture others.
Those who hijacked TWA 847 demanded not only the release of the Shiite hostages held in Israel but also the 17 Muslims being held in prison in Kuwait for the car bombings there on Dec. 12, 1983. Six of the 17 have been sentenced to death. None has yet been executed. The government of Kuwait has not yet dared risk the reaction.
That attack on Kuwait in December 1983 becomes more significant in retrospect. There were six car bombings that day. One hit the United States Embassy, another the French Embassy. A third hit the airport and another was aimed at the electric power station. The attackers were out to cripple Kuwait and bring down the government. Repeated attempts have been made on the life of the head of state.
Kuwait is a small country, the size of Massachusetts, with a million and a half people. It has enormous oil wealth, which makes it supposedly the wealthiest country on a per capita basis in the world.
The managers of that wealth and the principal beneficiaries are the ruling Sunni community. Most of the workers in the oil fields are poor Shiites. The Shiites outnumber the Sunnis. The Sunni government is friendly with the outside Western world, sells its oil to the West, and is a military and foreign policy client of the US. Kuwait is, in short, everything the Shiite Muslims hate, and against which they are crusading.
The Shiites have been the underprivileged of the Muslim world for a thousand years. They feel that their time has arrived. They captured Iran from its Westernizing Shah and are converting it into what they call an Islamic republic. They are trying to pull down the Sunni government in Kuwait, and they may succeed. Saudi Arabia is probably next on their list. They have become dominant in Lebanon. They are on the march everywhere.
But there is no command center. The Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran is the product, not the cause, of this religious movement. Religious movements cannot be bombed out of existence. They thrive on persecution and retaliation. Imperial Rome tried to stamp out Christianity. There was no command center to destroy. The effort only made more converts to Christianity.
The Shiite crusade in the Middle East is a new force in history. We are seeing and feeling its beginnings. Its end is not in sight.