The terrorist attack on the United States in September will have grave repercussions over the whole world for years to come. The purpose behind the attack was to separate America and its allies from everyone else, and the Muslim world in particular. For the past decade or so, Muslim extremists have been on the march, fighting neighbors of other religions wherever they find them: Hindus in Kashmir, Jews in Israel, Orthodox Russians in Chechnya, animists and Christians in Africa. In the perspective of the suicide bombers, Americans are Westerners but also Christians, therefore the principal legitimate objects of holy war. These Muslim extremists have been trying to open their version of an ideological and armed struggle with global implications: Muslims and as much of the Third World as possible versus democracy. This ambition is now out in the open.

Put in familiar European terms, this attack is the equivalent of the German occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. The failure of Britain and France to rise to that occasion led Hitler to the conclusion that no matter how aggressive he was the democracies would always prefer appeasement to war. A similar failure now to rise to the occasion will place every democratic country in jeopardy. All manner of changes in attitudes towards security, asylum, and human rights have to be envisaged as the open society takes measures to defend itself.

The democracies are not on their own in the coming struggle, but time and intelligence are needed in order to prepare for what lies ahead. The Muslim world does not present a unified bloc. On the contrary, it is split by sectarian and ethnic disputes as well as by internal power struggles. The extremists represent a small—though no doubt growing—minority. Destroying everything before them, they have already provoked civil war in Algeria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and they have destabilized Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Palestine Authority, and not least Pakistan. The response of these countries’ respective leaders is critical to American success.

The terrorist attack on America serves as a last-minute warning to moderate Muslim leaders to mend their ways and join the extremists. Backed into such a corner, the Pakistani President Musharraf has instead dropped the Taliban and sided outright with America. Egypt, far and away the most influential Arab country, is dancing on a tightrope because it too has long been under continuous threat from its extremists. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and General Omar Bashir in Sudan have similarly decided that they have more to fear from their extremists than from the United States. About a dozen terror groups have bases in or around Damascus, but the young president Bashar Assad may not necessarily protect them. In one of the customary internal power struggles of the Muslim world, Iran is suspicious of the Taliban, and for the first time in years at least some of its leaders are not preaching “Death to America” in the mosques. A wise America will hold a heavy stick behind its back and in its hand as enticing a bunch of carrots as possible, including remission of debt, trade advantages, and political support against extremists. This is, essentially, a hearts and minds operation.

A fantasy is loose in the world, the fantasy of an Islamic supremacy that is destined to triumph everywhere. Some of its advocates claim that eventually Christian countries will become Muslim, in what would amount to a reverse colonialism. Like Communism before it, this Islamic extremism aims to impose its vision on others and call it universal peace. Here, in an unexpected form, is another totalitarian movement. Like all such movements, it does not hesitate to use violence. True believers in each and every totalitarianism always take their stand on the specious and murderous grounds that the ends justify the means.

The huge majority of Muslims understand only too clearly that the extremists do not speak in their name but are likely to unleash Armageddon on all, and they view this with horror. The escape of so many millions of refugees from Afghanistan, for instance, is a public vote of no-confidence in the Taliban. For some, even unknown Nauru— the world’s smallest independant republic— is evidently preferable to home. Untold millions of Muslims long to emigrate to the West, whose freedom and prosperity are the stuff of their dreams.

Needless to say, this Islamic fantasy has nothing to do with Islam proper, a religion like all other great religions, with a genuine vision of justice and equality at its core. Indeed, the damage that the Islamic triumphalist fantasy does to Islam as well as Muslim countries and peoples is at least as severe and dangerous as the damage it does to democracy. The same was true about other totalitarianisms: Nazism utterly ruined Germany, Communism utterly ruined Russia.

To judge by their reported conduct, the recent suicide bombers were living in an atmosphere that had nothing to do with Islam. According to Islamic teaching, whoever commits suicide is condemned to hell. Their central purpose, then, was contrary to their religion. They had shaved off their beards, they spent time in bars, they became drunk, they frequented strip clubs. They carried rolls of hundred dollar bills and spent them ostentatiously. We may suppose that at some level, consciously or unconsciously, they were enjoying the America they were planning to destroy. For it is here, in a most complex relationship of attraction and repulsion, that we must begin to understand the motivations of the terrorists, and so frame our responses.

Each man kills the thing he loves, in the famous words of Oscar Wilde. Premeditated killing of unknown people in an act that simultaneously kills oneself requires a life-denying hate so exceptional that it is in a realm of fanaticism all its own. Such hate signifies a total human failure. This corresponds to the turmoil of the Muslim world today. Each and every Muslim country faces intractable problems of demography, lack of resources and skills, ethnic and religious strife, and selfish government; each and every Muslim suffers from this jumble of assorted ills.

As if that were not enough, Muslim extremists and even some moderates have come to believe that everything wrong with their world is the fault of the Jews. This is partly a relic from the tribal past, and partly another mistaken interpretation of the present. They think in a sort of syllogism. Jews are wicked by definition. America helps Jews. Therefore America is wicked. And yet another false syllogism: Saddam Hussein is an Arab, America wishes to remove Saddam Hussein, therefore America persecutes Arabs. Years will have to pass before the extremists grasp that the humane and democratic values that unite Israel and America serve no conspiratorial anti-Islamic purposes. But that is the context in which America must now operate.

The causes of today’s turmoil go deep into the roots of history. The major intellectual developments of the West—the Renaissance with its concept of humanism and the Age of Enlightenment during which scientific principles by and large replaced religious dogma—passed the Muslim world by. Muslims everywhere were in the grip of the absolute system of one-man despotism that they had inherited from their forebears and that they believed protected their religion and identity. Western energy and creativity of which they were unaware duly overwhelmed them, and they could do nothing about it. There were Muslim rulers who resisted, and their names have entered Muslim and Western lore alike: Emir Abdel Kader in Algeria, Shamyl in the Caucasus, the Mahdi with his Sudanese dervishes, the so-called Mad Mullah of Berbera.

A nineteenth-century Muslim philosopher, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, spoke for all such. He did not hesitate to stigmatize Muslims as backward. He swung between extreme self-pity about their common plight and ferocious insistence that the remedy lay in violence. Putting his finger on what he thought was the crux of the matter, he wrote, “It is amazing that it was precisely the Christians who invented Krupp’s cannons and the machine gun before the Muslims.” The analysis was false; stemming from science, improved weaponry carried no religious connotation. But al-Afghani succeeded in imprinting throughout the Muslim world a sense of inferiority to the West. The Muslim masses, otherwise proud people, came to see the West as an entity deliberately out to shame and humiliate them. Today’s Islamic fantasy springs from this mindset in which self-pity and revenge go hand in hand.

Two alternatives were open to Muslims in practice. One was to retreat into the fortress of Muslim identity and reject the West. Numberless groups and organizations have chosen that course, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hizballah today, as well as the Taliban and their proxy, Osama bin Laden. They see themselves engaged in a war on two fronts, against the West and against opponents who are fellow Muslims. They live out the triumphalist fantasy.

The other alternative was to seek to discover the source of European energy and mastery. In every colonized Muslim country leaders believed that nationalism was the great western secret, and accordingly they formed nationalist movements, and ultimately nationalist states. Islamic extremists and nationalists shared a common need to acquire European weapons. Either way, in order for Muslims to recover their pride, a test of strength with the Europeans was built into the future.

After the Second World War, the colonial powers no longer had interests in the Middle East that they deemed worth a real test of strength, and they retreated. The encounter so far between Muslims and the West had been a profound movement of history with pluses and minuses for both sides. But at least the end of colonialism seemed to absolve Muslims, and in particular Arabs, from the sense of shame tormenting them.

For fifty years and more, the Muslim world has been independent, free to organize as it wishes, and, moreover, several Muslim countries are beneficiaries of a petrodollar bonanza, which they can dispose of for any end they like. Throughout this period Muslim and Arab rulers have plumped for the outward signs of Western life, such as high-rise buildings, hospitals, and colleges. They have imported modernity as though it were a commodity like any other. But once again, in an incomplete and misleading analysis of the position, they did not recognize that the true source of Western strength lay in a democratic political system that liberated people’s energies and had nothing to do with nationalism.

Instead, the leaders of nationalist movements lost no time in promoting themselves absolute one-man rulers of their own countries. Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt was the model for them all. The result has been a present-day mimicry of the historic despotisms of the past. Nothing like democracy exists in the Muslim world, where Turkey alone has ever experienced a change of government through a free and unrigged election, and there only once. Parliaments exist to rubberstamp the ruler’s decrees. There is no freedom of speech or of assembly, no civil rights, but only the dreaded secret police, prisons, torture, and execution. The injustice is flagrant. Corruption is everywhere. Excluded from any say, the masses still have no control over their destiny, but they are able to protest only through a riot. Power changes hands by assassination or coup. In the absence of mechanisms for power-sharing and mediation, every national and international conflict of interest degenerates into a test of strength.

Muslims and Arabs have nobody to blame but themselves for so disastrous a social and political failure. There are intellectuals who point this out, but they are few. It is far more comforting to displace the blame on to others. At the very end of 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini carefully staged a coup in Iran and seized power from the shah. In a large and potentially rich country, he was able to bring up-to-date al-Afghani’s expressions of self-pity and revenge.

Muslims, the ayatollah held, were weak because the West had deliberately made them so. It was another self-serving falsehood. In reality the West displays a yawning indifference to all manifestations of religion, but the ayatollah crystallized the contemporary Islamic fantasy that the West is actually out to destroy Islam. In response, Muslims had the duty to unite against the West and all its works, especially in its most salient incarnation, America, dubbed the Great Satan. He advised Mikhail Gorbachev to show the way by converting to Islam. Nationalist rulers, Saddam Hussein for instance, had to be obliged to subscribe to his fantasy, if need be by war to the death.

Muslims everywhere, rich and poor, educated men like Osama bin Laden and illiterate youths, have eagerly absorbed Khomeini’s prescriptions and formed an archipelago of conspiratorial groups in half the countries of the world, often clandestinely linked in a manner reminiscent of former Communist cells, volunteering to right the wrongs they believe to have been done to them, and to establish an Islamic utopia. Many of them take advantage of Western medicine, technology, and education, depending on these benefits that they are unable to provide for themselves. The contradiction powers the grievance, impotence, and hate of their fantasy.

The suicide bombers have at last engaged the United States in a test of strength according to their standards. Muslim—and especially Arab—one-man rulers will be watching for signs that the United States understands the stakes and has the resolve to act as it should. If they detect weakness in Washington, they will have no choice but to pay lip-service to the Islamic fantasy and at least pretend to join the ideological war against the West. Anything less leaves them at the mercy of assassination or a coup undertaken by extremists. American strength and determination to see this through, however, will encourage them to join the coalition of Western allies. As was exactly the case in forming the earlier coalition to fight the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, they and others in their position must be sure to end on the winning side.

For the present, we do not know whether the suicide bombers had ultimate sponsorship from a Muslim or Arab state. Any such state must also be brought to account, if necessary by an outright invasion that leads to a change of regime. This is a just war if ever there was one, in defence of life and liberty against an ideological enemy. If the United States and its allies were to retreat from the test of strength imposed on them, or botch it somehow through inadequate preparation or loss of will, then the extremists will conclude that they have the West on the run. They will strive on for victory. Who can guess how far hate and killing will then spread, or how destructive it will prove for mankind.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 3, on page 21
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