conflict that has now erupted has been gathering for a long time.
Its roots lie deep in history. To be brief and blunt, the Muslim world
has never known exactly how to respond to the West, whether to adopt
its values or to reject them. A logic arises: The West is powerful;
power is arrogant; we are proud people; therefore we must overpower
and humble the West. False as the logic is, it locks in high emotion.
It also raises for Muslims an existential question of identity: What
sort of people do we think we are?
For the past
half century and more, the Muslim world has been free and independent,
with every opportunity to organize as it wishes. And this is the
heart of the issue: The Muslim world is a political and social disaster
for all to see. With the arguable exception of Turkey, it consists
of a series of despotisms, each with an absolute ruler whose ultimate
justification is his strength and will. A family or a clique gathers
around the ruler under the protection of the state apparatus of
secret police and military repression. To the powerful, the spoils;
to the weak, submission. No rights, no freedom of expression, no
loyal opposition, no rule of law, no redress except through violence,
conspiracy, a coup, and ultimate civil war.
is this? The huge majority of Muslims understand that they are responsible
for themselves. They know what they have to put up with. Describing
the daily corruption and injustices of despotism, they ask the aching
question, "What can we do?" Muhammad Haikal was once the
spokesman of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the ruler who set Egypt back for
decades. Haikal was no friend of the West either, but he could write:
"The Arab and Muslim world is completely naked. [None of us]
can claim any more that he is independent. We have proved we are
not modern. We have proved that we are not religious in the real
sense of the word. We have proved that we cannot afford democracy."
Today Ahmad Bishara, a prominent Kuwaiti, says that Arabs and Muslims
"should engage in deep soul-searching" about their institutions
To write like
that requires protection at the highest level, as well as personal
courage. There are such men, and women too. It is a moving experience
to sit in rooms and cafés in Cairo or Beirut, and even Gaza
and Ramallah, and listen to their clear and rational analyses of
the faults of their society. They are the equivalent of Soviet dissidents
in the old days, and if there is hope for the Muslim and Arab world,
it lies in their example. Like Soviet dissidents, they are only
saying what almost everyone knows to be the truth. For most Muslims
have answered the existential question for themselves the way the
populations under Soviet rule did: They want what those in the Free
the millions already live in the West, wherever they can find refuge
and opportunity. This in itself defies the doctrine of Islam, whereby
Muslims are prohibited from living among unbelievers. Muslim publications
abroad make it clear that integration is under way, bringing with
it problems all soluble concerning dating of non-Muslims,
rejection of arranged marriages, correct manners in a multicultural
society. The news reaching home countries confirms that life in
the West is good. With the news comes money for medicine and education.
Jamia'at Ulema-e-Islam is one of the most extreme Islamic movements
in Pakistan, and its leader a ferocious old man with a white
beard is currently summoning the faithful onto the streets
to overthrow the government of President Musharraf and launch a
holy war. But two of his sons are studying in the United States.
He says that they will be better able to understand their enemy.
This humbug reveals the inner ambiguity common to his kind. He knows,
and we know, that he is supplying them with a brighter future, as
any father would.
In the first
months of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran. He was
a Muslim equivalent of Lenin. He gave a quite different answer to
the existential question of Muslim identity. Muslim society was
a failure, he concurred with secular critics like Haikal, and one
cause of this was the people's abandonment of their faith. Islam
had made its believers great and powerful in centuries past, and
it would do so again. But there was another overriding cause of
the general backsliding. Over the long term, Khomeini held, the
West had had the cunning and deliberate intention of destroying
Islam. Why the West would have such a wanton and malign ambition
he did not explain. But he crystallized a mindset with revolutionary
implications: Muslims were not responsible for their plight, it
was all the fault of the West, to be rectified by war.
in Iran, and then elsewhere, began to resound with cries that America
was the Great Satan, and crowds burned the Stars and Stripes. The
emotional logic hardened into a series of syllogisms: Islam is righteous;
America is imperialist; therefore unrighteous America is uprooting
Islam. Or again: Good Muslims must kill Jews; America helps Jews;
therefore America is killing good Muslims. Yet again: America is
arrogant; Muslims are proud; therefore suicide bombers are giving
America what she deserves.
A fantasy is
loose in the world, the fantasy of an Islamic supremacy destined
deservedly to triumph everywhere. Like Communism before it, this
Islamic fantasy aims to impose its vision on others and call
it peace. In an unexpected form, here is another totalitarian movement
with the usual murderous belief that the ends justify the means.
Latching on to local or regional issues everywhere, Islamic supremacy
has been developing its cause: condemning Salman Rushdie to death
for supposed apostasy; holding Americans hostage in Teheran; killing
Marines in Beirut; sponsoring suicide bombers; threatening pro-Western
rulers in Muslim countries with assassination and civil war; preparing
for the genocide of Jews in Israel. The false syllogisms of the
Islamist mindset have hardened into axioms supporting one outrage
after another. As in the old Soviet Union, everything political
becomes a metaphor for war and apocalypse. If there is no room for
Muslims, the extremists declare with passion, then there is no room
for anybody else either. This failure of intellect could hardly
be more complete.
one thing: The Left throughout the West picks it up and fans it.
Demonstrations against President Bush and his response to the suicide
attacks have occurred in most major cities of Europe. In the media,
even in the United States, people have jumped forward to blame the
suicide attacks on America and its policies, rather than on the
actual terrorist perpetrators. Here comes Susan Sontag, for example,
to sneer that this attack on "the world's self-proclaimed superpower"
was as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions."
Barbara Foley of Rutgers University believes that America's "fascist
foreign policy" over many decades is to blame for the attack.
Harold Pinter, playwright of the absurd, writes to the press to
say that it is President Bush who is fanning the flames of intolerance.
exemplify the Islamist fantasy. They are tribalists of a medieval
brutality. They forbid women to have an education or a job, and
bury a woman suspected of adultery up to her shoulders before stoning
her to death. They kill suspected homosexuals by collapsing walls
onto them. They have driven millions of desperate fellow Afghans
into exile, and leave the remainder to face destitution and starvation.
Their honored accomplice is Osama bin Laden, who for the last ten
years or so has been telling everyone who can listen that the United
States is the source of all wickedness and he intends to destroy
The Left blamed
the United States for the Cold War and the division of Europe, and
for unrest in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Whatever happened,
the Soviet Union was innocent and peace-loving. This same Left
in the Sontags and Pinters, these same people follows an
unbroken line in its attitude towards extremists in the Arab and
Muslim world. Happy to leave millions at the mercy of Communism,
they are happy to leave millions at the mercy of Islamist terror,
so lining themselves up as ever on the side of oppression and lies.
Their intellectual failure probably does not matter much here, where
long exposure has shown that their opinions have foundations in
psychopathology rather than reality. But it plays well in extremist
circles, where assorted fanatics can now say, Look, the West is
wicked, their intellectuals tell us so.
In the event
of liberation from the general Islamist fantasy and the suicide
bombers in particular, most of the Muslim world will feel a grateful
relief that can only surprise and shock the Left as much as the
joy of those liberated from Communism did. Should America fail to
rescue them for whatever reason, though, Muslims will know that
the Islamist fantasy is coming true, and they will have to endure
it for a very long time to come.