The New York Times told a story recently that I can’t get out of my mind. A 23-year-old Egyptian man named Hemeida was described by neighbors as devoted to his parents, looking forward to a normal family life for himself, enjoying pleasures like soccer and the beach, but consumed by what he saw on television of the suffering of the Palestinian Arabs. He carried a Koran in his pocket and was said to be devout, but not a zealot. One day, he heard the silent call of jihad and answered it by pushing past Egyptian guards into the no-man’s land separating Israel from Egypt. He ignored warnings until an Israeli soldier shot him dead, as Hemeida, who carried no weapons or explosives, had evidently intended.
Hemeida learned the basic skills in a primary school funded by American aid, which was intended to build good will between Americans and Egyptians and seemed for a time to be succeeding. His father spent all he had on Hemeida’s further education. The young man was said to be ambitious, but found no suitable opportunity for his talents, and in the end could do nothing more constructive than bring about his own death in a way that might take him to the Muslim paradise, although it is not certain that he even believed that.
Neighbors and relatives did not blame Hemeida for betraying his parents and doing nothing to help the Palestinians he supposedly loved. Instead, they turned in fury against American reporters, saying, “Those Israeli bullets are paid for by the United States!” I suppose the reporters were too sensitive or fearful to ask whether, if Israel were out of the picture, the young man would have found some other reason to kill himself. Local teachers voted to name a school after Hemeida, who is now celebrated in Egypt as the first in an anticipated new line of Arab martyrs to the Palestinian cause.
My first reaction was to think how different Hemeida’s life might have been if he had carried a pocket New Testament instead of the Koran. So it might have been, but the tragedy cannot be explained merely by citing the notorious corruption of Egyptian society and the tendency of Islam to inspire murder and suicide. In American university cities such as Berkeley and Seattle, we have thousands of alienated young people who have been educated at their parents’ expense, and our economy is booming with opportunities. These youths often seem to be loving, but many of them pursue not love, but hedonistic sex and drugs that ruin their health. They speak loudly of political ideals, but all they actually do is taunt police and smash windows to protest globalization for some reason they cannot articulate. They act only to destroy, and to some extent, they are encouraged in their senseless anger by teachers and cultural authorities who write for newspapers such as the New York Times, and who lionize anarchistic gangsters from a previous generation as if they were heroes. I recall Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic words at the 1978 Harvard commencement: “When the government earnestly seeks to root out terrorism, public opinion accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights.” It is as if he foresaw the loony pundits who pick away at every detail of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, seeming to treat mass murder as a matter of comparatively little account.
There is a vast outbreak of irrationality, not just in Egypt, but also in Europe and America, and those to whom we would look for wisdom seem to have no idea what to do about it. Young people need not just education or the prospect of material success, but a spiritual, imaginative vision that motivates them to make sacrifices to build good things, not to delude themselves that the remedy for injustice is destruction.
We are obviously in need of a spiritual renewal, in societies that are Muslim, nominally Christian, and purely secular. Nobody knows how to engineer this. The spirit blows where it will, and we do not know where it is going. We can try our best to teach sanity, but we must also pray that the Spirit will blow a pleasant surprise in our direction.
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