Islamic Jihad, the radical Palestinian group, announced March 30th that it had dispatched an unspecified number of suicide bombers to Iraq to combat British and American forces in the region and thus “fulfill the holy duty of defending Arab and Muslim land.”
The thought that a dozen or so yahoos in me-go-boom vests could have an effect on coalition forces is rife with pathos, a squadron of gnats buzzing across the desert to stop a herd of charging elephants, but beneath the pathos lies a critical delusion — a delusion that, one way or another, must be dispelled if a lasting peace in the Middle East is ever to be achieved, and the war on terrorism concluded.
The delusion, of course, is that there’s such a thing as “Arab and Muslim land.” There are countries in which Arab people are the majority. And there are countries in which Islamic law reigns. But these are contingent, rather than necessary, facts. Nothing in the geography of the region is mystically tied either to Arabs or to Islam; the Middle East per se does not belong to Arab Muslims any more than America belonged to Indians. To be blunt, the reality that Arab Muslims were spared the decimating upheavals visited on American Indians owes more to quirks of history, topography and climate than it does to Arab Muslims’ innate capacity to defend the land.
Nevertheless, the delusion persists. Even though they have as much chance of resurrecting the extinct glories of Medieval Islam as they do of summoning up the lost continent of Atlantis, Saddam Hussein calls for a holy war against trespassing infidels on Pan-Arabist grounds, and Osama bin Laden calls for a holy war against trespassing infidels on Islamist grounds… as though such calls will deter the Anglo-European civilization which, literally, left Islam in the dust half a millennium ago. But the calls go out, and the Palestinians, always the hapless, deluded Palestinians, answer: Allahu akbar!
Regime change in Baghdad will not end the war on terrorism because what we are fighting is not a particular government or revolutionary movement but rather a mindset. To be sure, Saddam is/was a world class scumbag, and taking him out is ultimately a humane gesture — especially since he provided us with a viable pretext by never living up to the terms of the cease-fire he signed 12 years ago. But the larger war on terrorism will end only when both Pan-Arabists and Islamists abandon their desperate desire to turn back the calendar to the year 1000, when they accept that neither ethnic purity not scriptural fidelity can serve as the raison d’être of a modern state.
The war on terrorism, in other words, cannot end with a surrender treaty; it can only end by compelling vast numbers of people to change their minds, to recognize their most heartfelt aspirations as impossible fantasies and to cut them loose. The war on terrorism can only end with an outbreak of mass sanity in the Islamic world. That’s what we’re after. Pulverizing Saddam is most readily justified not in geopolitical terms but as a kind of collective slap upside the head of Muslims everywhere: You can wage jihad to your heart’s content, but your heart is where jihad must end; take it to the streets, and you’ll get smacked down every single time.
The past is never coming back.
DELUSIONS ARE A TWO-WAY STREET, however, and the West is not immune. The West’s principal delusion is that we can promote mass sanity among Muslims through diplomacy. It’s an absurd pipe dream. You don’t talk people out of the thing that gives their lives meaning; the best you can hope for is convincing them of its futility with minimal bloodshed. The great exemplar here is the intellectual Left’s perennial call for a “diplomatic solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it’s up to the United States, their argument goes, as the world’s only superpower, to bring the two sides together, to find a suitable middle ground. In the abstract, this sounds fine. But when the Palestinians’ persistent, heartfelt, non-negotiable demand is for the rest of the world to recognize their divine right as Arabs to possess the Islamic holy land — in effect, to drive the Jews into the sea — what would a middle ground look like? Jews agreeing to be driven into the sea up to their waists?
The antidote to such delusions is unwavering moral clarity. It serves no purpose to pay lip service to the grievances of those who mean us harm, to indulge in reflexive two-sides-to-every-story rhetoric. The Pan-Arabists and Islamists have no case. Their ends range from merely oppressive to genocidal; their means range from consistently underhanded to sub-human. Nothing is more futile than to hoist up false cognates in order to domesticate, and thereby diminish, their depravity. The intellectual Left, for example, loves to compare conservative Christians with radical Muslims; thus, Barbara Ehrenreich of the Progressive wrote last year: “In a world that contains Christian Wahhabists like [John] Ashcroft and Islamic Calvinists like bin Laden, what sense does it make to talk about culturally monolithic ‘civilizations’ like ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’?” Likewise, former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis bowed out in December 2001 with this howler: “Certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.” There’s even a smirky quiz floating around the Web in which isolated statements by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and bin Laden are shuffled together, and the reader is challenged to figure out who said what.
The parallel is utterly, and dangerously, false. If Robertson, Falwell and (for the sake of argument) Ashcroft have a cognate in the Islamic world, it’s the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims — decent folks who happen to believe that a moral society must be tempered by religious principles, that church and state cannot be walled off from one another. This is an arguable point. But it’s a far cry from the will to govern strictly by celestial fiat, in accordance with divine revelation. That is the motivation of bin Laden and his cronies — who do, in fact, have a proper Christian cognate, albeit a minuscule one … namely, the killers who gun down doctors outside abortion clinics. It’s an instructive comparison. For even as the leaders of the Christian Right in America are always quick to condemn such killings, they are no doubt sympathetic to the killers’ objective of stopping abortions. Likewise, in the Islamic world, moderate Muslim leaders are always quick to condemn attacks on Western civilians, but they are no doubt also sympathetic to the terrorists’ Pan-Arabist or Islamist objectives.
The key differences are (1) whereas there might be a dozen or so potential right-to-life killers lurking in backwoods huts in the United States, there are a million or so potential Muslim terrorists scattered throughout Islamic countries; and (2) whereas in the United States, the civil authorities have no sympathy whatsoever for the killers, and thus have no qualms whatsoever about cracking down on them, in Islamic countries, the terrorists are being policed, when they are being policed at all, with evident qualms, by sympathetic co-religionists.
For perspective, consider: To this day, the intellectual Left does not trust Attorney General Ashcroft, hemmed in by 200 years of Constitutional Law and a ferociously free press, to set aside his religious sympathies and run the Justice Department; yet they propose relying on entire nations of Ashcrofts, hemmed in by pretty much nothing, to set aside their religious sympathies and help eradicate Muslim terrorism.
So how do you convince a million or so murderous fanatics to forsake their delusions? The short answer is you don’t. You deal with them as you would deal with a cancer; you cut them out of the body politic and hope to minimize collateral damage to the surrounding tissue. But this becomes problematic when the body politic refuses treatment, when indeed it curls up with the cancer in its midst.
Thus, our agenda after Iraq: Keep slapping around the moderates until they come to their senses, until they recognize the cancer that besets them for what it is and work with us to get rid of it. The future of Islam depends on their cooperation, their sanity. If it does not come, Islam itself is doomed.