One observer of the carnage could not believe his eyes.
Try to imagine an American parent willing to volunteer his child for a military operation that would end in certain death for the child.
You can’t. That is because no American parent would do such a thing. But that is not the case in some parts of the world.
Do We All Want the Same Thing?
A recent conversation with a liberal American friend prompted me to write this post. We were discussing the Iranian-supported terrorist organization Hezbollah. My friend was unaware that Hezbollah is a vast terrorist enterprise, whose coffers are filled by Iran as well as by criminal operations. These involve drug smuggling, weapons running, and counterfeiting. Like Iran’s current rulers, the leaders of Hezbollah are radical Shiite Islamists with an apocalyptic vision of Islamic world conquest. Like Iran, they carry a big chip on their shoulders against the “crimes” of the non-believers. Like Iran, they use child combatants.
In the course of our conversation my middle-class American friend opined, “People all over the world want the same thing.” He believes that Hezbollah partisans think and feel the way he does.
I think he is wrong.
An Islamic Belief System
Millions of people who hold radical Islamic beliefs want a future for their children that is starkly different from what we want in the west. This is true among many (although not all) people in Iran as well as other conservative Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. It is true among many Arabs who live in and around Israel, a group I have discussed in several posts in this blog. It is true among some Muslims who live in places like Great Britain and France.
Consider what happened in Iran during the 1980 to 1988 war with Iraq. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been governed by a group of fanatical Shiite clerics. They believe they are in a war to the death with non-Muslims and also Sunni Muslims, whom they see as “apostates.” Iraq, although majority Shiite, was ruled by a Sunni leadership. Thus, in the eyes of Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics, the war against Iraq was a holy war. Its goal was to vanquish the Sunni apostates and restore “true Islam” to its rightful place.
We don’t all want the same thing. Parents who believe in a radical version of Islam view the world differently from people in the west.
To a radical Islamist, the current life is of little importance. What counts is the afterlife. And one can only gain the afterlife by being a “good Muslim.” This means accepting that the word of Allah, as revealed in the Koran, is inviolable and can never be changed. It also means that it is the duty of every Muslim to “command right and forbid wrong,” that is, to oppose anything that the clerics condemn. Rather than relying on authorities such as the police or the state, in this view, it is imperative for a good Muslim on his own account, to use whatever means are necessary, including violence, to defend Muslim values and hegemony. The most important means to achieve this is jihad, or the struggle to overthrow the non-believers and secure the Islamic caliphate.1
Child Soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War
The conduct of the Iran-Iraq war illustrates the difference between the western and Islamic worlds in our desires, especially in our desires for our children.
The Iran-Iraq war was a bloody affair. With a poorly equipped army, the clerics who ran the Iranian government relied on sheer manpower to pursue the war. Child soldiers played a special role in the war plans of the clerics.
Iranian government recruiters fanned out to high schools across the nation to recruit child soldiers, some as young as 9 years of age. The recruiters told these boys and their parents that joining the battle against the apostate Iraqis was a noble cause. If and when they died in this cause, they would secure themselves a special place in heaven for all eternity. They would bring honor to their families and communities.
Tens of thousands of these children were sent to the battle field.2 They were unarmed. They faced Iraqi artillery, tanks and machine gun fire that sprayed the killing fields with showers of deadly metal. The Iranian strategy was as simple as it was chilling: to send these boys in human waves against the enemy so as to clear the way for Iranian army forces that waited on the lines behind them. In this way, the boys served as human mine sweepers.
One observer of the carnage could not believe his eyes. As the boys advanced, the land mines detonated. Dozens of young bodies were hurled into the air and landed in bloodied pieces below. Despite the horrific noise and carnage, the line of boys continued forward again and again without stop3.
Most of the boys wore a blood red headband that read “Sar Allah” or “Warrior of God.” Around each boy’s neck dangled a small key, a totem that signified the wearer was a divinely inspired martyr. When death came, as it must, the key would allow the newly martyred boy immediate access to heaven, as declared by the nation’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To leave no doubt about the boys’ destination, across the back of their shirts were stenciled the words, “I have the special permission of the Imam to enter Heaven.”
The boys’ handlers left nothing to chance. They gave each boy a map that showed the location of a holy Shiite shrine just up ahead, and told the boys that from the shrine they would ascend to heaven. The boys did not know that the maps were phony: the shrine was actually many miles away. To prevent the faint of heart from fleeing, the handlers tied the boys together with rope, into groups of twenty. As the boys marched to their deaths, but before they reached the killing zone, they were accompanied by adult handlers on motorbikes, egging them on and repeating the message of martyrdom. According to Iranian Armed Forces statistics, 33,000 high school students were killed in this manner. Over 2,800 were injured. The unusually high ratio of dead-to-injured reflected the suicidal nature of the mission.4
To this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not abandoned its commitment to the use of child soldiers. In 2016 the Iranian Parliament rejected calls for Iran to join the United Nations Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, an accord that prohibits the use of children under the age of 18 in armed conflicts.
The West versus Islam
We in the West look with horror upon the use of child soldiers.
But to a radical Islamist, to order a child into battle against the forces of the non-believers is to bestow a gift upon that child. When he dies in battle, the child earns the coveted status of martyr. He earns a permanent place in heaven, along with the oft-quoted reward of 12 virgins. That is why mothers whose sons die as suicide bombers hold a festive celebration to honor their son’s martyrdom. That is why we so often hear the mother say she is proud of her martyred son. She tells us she would eagerly give up all her sons to martyrdom. And, for her sacrifice, she earns an honored place in her community. In places like the Palestinian Authority she also earns a handsome monetary reward.
She may experience the normal human grief that accompanies the loss of a child. But we will never know because we will never see that grief.
The great majority of Muslim parents would be horrified at the suggestion of martyrdom for their children. But it is also true that millions of other Muslim parents are all too willing to volunteer their children as fodder for Islamic jihad.
The aphorism that “people everywhere want the same thing” is untrue. In the conflict between the west and Islam, that is a dangerous idea because it leaves us unprepared to challenge an inhumane and radical Islamic ideology.
- Hirsi Ali, A. (2015). Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. New York: Harper.
- Ghajar, A. The Lost Youth of Iran’s Child Soldiers. Iran Wire. July 21, 2017. Retrieved January 29, 2017 from: https//iranwire.com/en/features/4724
- The following description of Iran’s child martyrs during the Iran-Iraq war was drawn from: Smith, T. Iran: Five Years of Fanaticism. New York Times, February 12, 1984, p. 21.
- Ghajar, A. (2017).