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The Gates of Hell

“The gates of hell are open in Iraq.”
Arab League Chief Amr Mussa

“When Ramadan starts the Gates of Paradise are opened and the Gates of Hell are closed and the Satans are bound.”
Muslim belief, words of the Prophet

Arab League Chief Amr Mussa warned before the US invasion that a US war on Iraq “would open the gates of hell.” On September 12, 2004, a year and a half after the war’s inception, he affirmed that the gates of hell are open in Iraq. It doesn’t seem a hyperbolic figure as burning, death, violence, destruction, and mayhem ravage Iraq. War is hell and the US war doesn’t escape the label despite its ‘Iraqi freedom’ christening.

When Sheik Yassin was assassinated by Israeli helicopter gunship, Hamas’s Dr. Rantissi reiterated a cry that Sharon had opened the gates of hell, and he continued “they know it’s opened, there will be no revenge, it’s an open war.” Rantissi himself was assassinated a month later and Hamas vowed to behead Sharon in revenge. Dr. Rantissi’s claim that open war exceeds revenge signals the idea that opening the gates of hell licenses violence without restraint.

Opening the gates of hell is like what President Bush means by ‘war on terror,’ a blander phrase. The notion of a war without qualification, without curb, without restraint, ‘by any means necessary,’ with total power accruing to the leader is what gave us Abu Graib. It is what our leaders-themselves in comfort -send others into. Lawlessness, terror, torture, rape, murder, mutilation, and ruin rule. Our leaders see the gates of hell as the very route to the gates of paradise-liberty, mercy, peace. But the gates are not the same.

At the beginning of Muslim observance of Ramadan it is said that the Gates of Paradise (or mercy) are opened and the Gates of Hell are closed and the Satans (or devils) are bound. The month-long religious observance of fasting-refraining from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations from dawn to sundown-is begun in the belief that self-discipline, prayer and compassion are necessary and powerful. As the faithful moderate their appetites, the Gates of Paradise or mercy open and the Gates of Hell close and devils are bound. All, even the warrior of Jihad, must answer the call to the month of discipline.

Syndaresis is a term in moral philosophy that signifies an innate perception of right action-distinguishing good from evil. Do good and avoid evil is the root principle of ethics. The gates of hell and the gates of paradise are religious figures of that distinction. No sophistry, belligerent belief, or god-invoking compunction melds them: hell is not paradise, war is not peace; torture is not liberation; ruin is not building. Only appetites out of control fail to see the difference. The gates of hell are open in Iraq and they are not the gates of paradise.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu