Quoting Saudi academics and intellectuals, Friedman pointed out two main reasons Saudi children learn hatred of non-Muslims: no exposure to other civilizations and cultures, and--most disturbing--a "culture of death" in Saudi schools. Friedman wrote, "This effort to use death to get young people to abstain from the attractions of life, [says Arabic professor Hamza Qablan al-Mozainy], only ends up making some Saudi youth easy targets for extremists trying to recruit young people for 'jihad' operations." Although Friedman was specifically speaking of Saudi Arabia, I fear that the larger implication of his piece is that many more Muslims also wallow in a similar "culture of death."
This is not the first time such an implication has been made. It is true that Islam strongly emphasizes the afterlife. This is not, however, so the believer can blow himself up in order to enjoy "72 virgins" in paradise. Of all the Abrahamic faiths, Islam is the most recent to arrive on the scene. Islam sees itself as the culmination of the message of God sent to humanity through the prophets of old, starting with Adam and finishing with Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Thus, by definition, the advent of Islam is closest to the Day of Judgment, and as such, Islam continually directs the faithful to be mindful of the afterlife.
Islam teaches that this earthly life is a transient sojourn, a testing ground for the next life. The believer must always be aware that death can come at any time, and the real life is that after death: "What is the life of this world but amusement and play? But verily the Home in the Hereafter, that is life indeed, if they but knew" (Qur'an 29:64). Yet, this does not mean that Muslims must live in caves as hermits. Although the believer should treat this earthly life "as a traveler" on a journey--as the Prophet Muhammad once said--Islam sees nothing wrong with one traveling in first class and staying at five-star hotels. The Qur'an does say, "Do not forget thy portion in this life" (28:77). The heavy focus on death and afterlife in Islam is so that the believer can live the best possible life on this earth here and now.
For example, when someone is acutely aware of the hereafter, he would go to great lengths to treat others kindly and justly on earth. He would not harm his fellow human beings, for he knows that he will be accountable to God for how he treated his fellow man. He would not strap a bomb on his body, walk into a pizza parlor during the lunch time rush, and blow himself up. He would not commandeer a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocent people. He would not rape, kill, or pillage others simply because they follow a different faith. He would not even curse other people, for, if every person he has hurt or cursed did not forgive him on earth, the score will be settled by God on Judgment Day.
When a leader is mindful of the hereafter, he or she would make every stride to be just and fair-dealing. He would not rest until every citizen for which he is responsible is untouched by injustice. He would ensure an equitable distribution of wealth, and he would work to promote human rights for all around the world. He would do all that he can to protect the environment from blatant and wanton pollution. He would not invade other sovereign nations under false pretenses, putting the lives of his own citizens at risk in the process. He would fit this description because he would know that God will take him to task for failing in his immense responsibilities as a leader. The leader who cares about the Afterlife would "move heaven and earth" to fulfill those responsibilities.
No doubt, there are Muslims who have corrupted the focus on the hereafter and transformed Islam into a cult of death. These are foreign to both the spirit and law of the faith. Nevertheless, Islam's incessant focus on death and the afterlife is so that Muslims can live pious lives on earth. Indeed, if more people in our world today, of all faiths, cared a little more about the hereafter, injustice would not be as prevalent as it is today. Poverty would not be as widespread as it is today. Terrorism would not be as ready a tool of political discourse. If more people cared about the afterlife, the world would be a much better place in which to live.