The Middle East today presents a bizarre spectacle of intramural Muslim warfare. It is the last region in the world where religious ideology determines the imperatives and the justifications for brutal political power struggles:
Palestinian Arabs massacre Palestinian Arabs. Syria incites and controls that fratricide. Ruled by a military clique from a small Muslim sect, it also slaughters tens of thousands of its own citizens - as now confirmed by an Amnesty International study - who belong to the country's Muslim majority sect.
Muslim Iraq and Muslim Iran (the one Arab, the other Persian) massively kill each other in a war now in its fourth year. And the Iranian theocracy anathemizes and proclaims jihad, holy war, against all Satanic infidels at home and abroad.
If we are to search for the deeper historical/psycho-logical significance of this murderous behavior, it is in militant Islam that its roots can be discerned. Even the fact that the Palestinian warfare hinges on how best to combat and destroy Israel is intimately bound to the red thread of Islam that is inextricably interwoven with this strange pattern.
For believers, Islam is the ultimate dispensation, entitled to universal dominion. Islam rejects pretensions to equality by all other religious and political claimants. Toleration is possible only if Islam's supremacy is accepted and subordination to it acquiesced in. Inescapably, it breeds fanatical sectarianism that leads to extremist, violent confrontations, not least among differing versions of the true faith.
Jihad and Islam are closely related spiritual concepts. The essential meaning of Islam is the attainment of a state of wholeness and peace with God, with man, and within one's own soul.
Jihad is the enterprise of attaining unity, oneness of mankind under God through the supreme worldy rule of Islam. It is called holy war because it is conducted under the banner of the one true faith in order to eradicate the infidel, by sword or through conversion.
Paradise is the highest state to which a faithful Muslim can aspire and martyrdom in holy war guarantees Paradise. So that to kill or be killed in a jihad for Islam, or for any version of it taken to be the only true faith, is the greatest glory.
No wonder, then, that the bile spews forth murderously against the treacherous infidel: the Turkish Muslim massacre of Armenian Christians half a century ago; the mutual declaration of jihad by Iran and Iraq, each assuming the role of sole protector of the true faith against the other's infidel; Iran's war of terror against its 300,000 Bahai citizens. Powerful echoes of this cry can be heard today in the intramural PLO battle.
The modern Arab nationalist approach to politics has been deeply molded by the psychological consequences and implications of this tradition, for in Islam religion and politics are inseparably intertwined. It is no paradox that even the most secularized, radicalized, Marxist Arab will describe himself as Muslim.
There is in Islam no concept of ''nationhood'' or ''nationalism.'' The basic allegiance is to the family, the clan, the tribe - above all, to Islam.
In the absence of any sense of national identity within the new Arab states, by and large recent creations that arose after the two world wars, the idea of ''the Arab Nation'' emerged, transcending any given Arab state identity.
This new Arab nationalism, deeply shaped by Islam, conceived of the entire Middle East as a unitary Arab state. Pan-Arab notions proliferated: the ''Fertile Crescent,'' to unite Syria and Iraq; a ''Greater Syria,'' to comprise Syria and Lebanon and Palestine (land now divided between Israel and Jordan).
Syria has now emerged as the nexus of Arabism - the modern secular version of Islam. In the ideology of the Ba'ath (Arab Renaissance) party that took power there in the 1963 military coup, Western ideas of nationalism and socialism and pan-Arabist notions were amalgamated, suffused, and modified by Islamic traditionalism.
Now a distinct Syrian national identity and national interest are taking shape. They blur the distinction between Syria proper and ''the Arab Nation,'' and they identify the Ba'ath version of ''the Arab Nation'' with ''Greater Syria'': hegemony over Lebanon and Jordan, supremacy over Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the arbiter of the entire region stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
For this regime, hatred of the ''Zionist enemy,'' inculcated by the Ba'athist-Islamic world perspective, requires the eventual eradication of Israel , the ultimate infidel with pretensions to equality.
It is toward that end that Syria seeks, with evident success, to transform the PLO into a wholly subservient instrument of its policy objectives.
The irrational fury of fanatical intolerance has been harnessed by Damascus, mightily armed by Moscow, and honed into a sharp, powerful instrument of aggression and mass murder.