In the Middle East, those who are about to die believe profoundly in the afterlife

In a part of the world where a person's religion is part of their life, the end of life does not appear so terrible or so final

Robert Fisk

The Independent

12 March 2005

Rafik Hariri's table in the Etoile coffee shop in Beirut is on the right of the door, far back against the wall. Here it was that Mr Lebanon dropped by for his last coffee on 14 February, only three minutes before his convoy was bombed.

I sat in the Etoile this week and looked at Hariri's chair - the waiters routinely point it out to the pilgrims who now follow his last journey, walking from the parliament building across the square to the Etoile and then the last mournful trip to the site of the bombing. And perhaps because I knew Hariri - and had once asked him if he believed in life after death - I find myself much moved by his passing.

I remember the lunches and dinners he invited me to attend which I was too tired or bored to go to, the conversations I ended abruptly because I had deadlines to meet. In his death, he has become more real than in life, which is, I suppose, the only way in which we can be certain that the dead live on.

I suppose we Brits - or at least, the British press - have always been fascinated by life beyond the grave. Our fear of death, our hesitation to confront it while we are alive, our constant, unspoken hope that it remains many years away, seems - out here in the Middle East - a peculiarly Western phenomenon. For in a part of the world where a person's religion is part of their life - as opposed to the cultural bubble in which we have confined it - the end of life does not appear so terrible or so final.

This does not mean that life is cheap in the Middle East - though I suspect that death is - but that this is a continent of believers. In Europe, we close our churches or use them for concerts or turn up for marriages - yes, and death - but mosques in the Middle East grow larger, their congregations ever bigger. Men and women can face death in the Middle East with the same sangfroid as those European divines we condemned to burn at the stake.

I once asked a young Hizbollah fighter how he knew there was a life after death. "I can prove it to you," he replied. "Do you believe that justice exists? Yes? Well, since there is no justice in this life, it must mean there is justice in the next life - so there is life after death!"

I was still pondering the logic of this when I visited the Iranian battlefront in the Iran-Iraq war. Under shellfire, I found myself in trenches during the battle of the Dusallok Heights, a system of earthworks that looked uncannily like the battlefields in which my father once fought in France in 1918. The dugout in which I sought shelter was small and a thick dust hung in the air. The light from the sandbagged doorway forced its way into the little bunker, defining the features of the boys inside in two dimensional perspective, an Orpen sketch of impending death at the front.

There, however, the parallels ended. For the youngest soldier - who welcomed us, like an excited schoolboy, at the entrance - was only 14, his voice unbroken by either fear or manhood. The oldest among them was 21. I still have my mud-stained notes of our conversation which I realise, now, carried more meaning than I realised at the time.

Yes, said the 14-year-old, two of his friends from Kerman had died in the battle for Dezful - one his own age and one only a year older. He had cried, he said, when the authorities delayed his own journey to the battlefront. Cried, I asked? A child cries because he cannot die yet?

His comments were incredible and genuine and terrifying at one and the same time. But it was an older boy to whom the child soldiers deferred, a young man sitting on a rug by the door, bearded and - how I hate this cliché - intense. His name was Hassan Qasqari and I do not know if he survived - I suspect not - but he wanted to tell me how I lacked faith.

"It is impossible for you in the West to understand," he said. "Martyrdom brings us closer to God. We do not seek death - but we regard death as a journey from one form of life to another. There are two phases in martyrdom: we approach God and we also remove the obstacles that exist between God and the people. Those who create obstacles for God in this world are the enemies of God."

I could not imagine this speech on a Western warfront. Perhaps a British or American military padre might talk of religion with this odd imagination. And then I realised that these Iranian boy soldiers were all "padres"; they were all priests, all preachers, all believers. "Our first duty," Qasqari said, "is to kill the enemy forces so that God's order will be everywhere. Becoming a martyr is not a passive thing..."

If I did not understand this, he said, it was because the European Renaissance had done away with religion, no longer paying attention to morality or ethics, concentrating only upon materialism. I tried - in vain - to staunch this monologue, to transfuse this fixed belief with arguments about humanity or love. But no.

"Europe and the West have confined these issues to the cover of churches," he said. "Western people are like fish in the water: they can only understand their immediate surroundings. They don't care about spirituality." I looked at all these doomed youths. "Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes," wrote Owen, "Shall shine the holy glimmer of goodbyes."

Of course, I tried my own arguments: that the Renaissance was not about the death of faith but about the triumph of humanity; that it remained a tragedy that the Islamic world - with its enemies at the gates - failed to pass through a renaissance of similar proportions; that perhaps Muslims would be less dogmatic in following every line of the Koran so literally if Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Shakespeare - and, yes, Machiavelli - had lived in Baghdad or Cairo. It was to no purpose. Faith ruled.

And then this week, I looked up my notes of a radio programme on Islam that I produced for the BBC in 1996 and, sure enough, every Muslim man and woman stated with total conviction that their souls would live on - not in rivers of honey or surrounded by virgins - but that there really did exist a continuing life. The only Christian I interviewed for the programme was Professor Kamal Salibi, who used to run Jordanian Prince Hassan's Centre for Interfaith Studies. What happened after death, I asked him? "Nothing," he said. "We are dust. It is the end."

And I became a little frightened by this and much preferred a Muslim Egyptian woman who told me that not only would there be another life but also that she had some hard questions to ask God when she got there.

I have no wish to change my religion - if, indeed, I have one, for I notice that that we always make a distinction these days between the "Muslim world" and the "Western world" rather than the "Christian world" - but sometimes, after all the deaths I have witnessed, all the piles of corpses, all the innocents taken from this world, I have asked myself why we cannot believe in an afterlife.

Alas, it may be that the Renaissance which gave us our freedom also provided us with our eternal fear of death. And yes, Hariri told me he did believe in the afterlife. I am not so sure. But when I left the Etoile coffee shop, I did glance across at his table, just in case I saw him sitting there.