I. The Philosophy of Radical Islam
The political scientist Michael Thompson has observed that the cognitive blind spot of the Left is its belief that pathological behavior is always the result of privation. If only people were rescued from poverty, ignorance and hopelessness, they would cease doing bad things. But in the case of Islamic terrorism, which is a pathological behavior, such an analysis falls short--at least according to Thompson, who edited the academic anthology Islam and the West: Critical Perspectives on Modernity. On the contrary, Thompson argues, the psychic justifications for Islamic terrorism can be found in an intellectually accessible and, in its own way, profoundly moving philosophy that stands in direct opposition to the liberal democratic institutions of the West.
The key figure, in Thompson’s judgment, is the Egyptian fundamentalist thinker Sayyid Qutb--whose systematic thought forms the basis for radical Islam’s struggle against Western ascendancy. Qutb’s signature contribution to Islamic thought was to update the concept of jahiliyya. For centuries, jahiliyya had signified the degenerate state of the world prior to the advent of Islam; according to Qutb, however, jahiliyya should be understood as the underlying spirit of decadence and corruption which exists in all times and all places--and which true Muslims must fight against. There can be no compromise with jahiliyya. "The mixing and co-existence of truth and falsehood is impossible," Qutb wrote. "Command belongs to Allah or else to Jahiliyya." What was required, for Muslims, was to live under the strict Islamic code of laws called the sharia. That was the only way they would be under Allah’s command.
Despite the Sharia’s rigidity, Qutb argued that it was the only source of genuine liberation since the Sharia came from God. Either human beings were ruled by God, or else they were ruled by other human beings; there was no distinction, on this level, between an absolute dictatorship or a representative democracy. Both amounted to the rule of men over men--which was always a form of oppression. (It’s worth noting that Qutb reserved many of his most virulent criticisms for secular-minded Muslims.) Only the rule of God provided people with freedom. Thus, Qutb rejected the entire thrust of the Enlightenment which sought to separate church from state.
Whatever else might be said about Qutb’s worldview, it’s a straightforward, coherent, easily understood system of beliefs--and it’s enormously influential among Islamic radicals, including Osama bin Laden. Jihad is legitimized, in their eyes, as the struggle against jahiliyya. The only question is how far jihad is aimed. The short term project would consist of casting out the infidel Jews and Christians from Islamic holy lands and recapturing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from the jahiliyya-tainted Saudi regime; the long term project would consist of subjugating the non-Islamic West, which means defeating the United States, in order, first, to keep its corrupting influences out of Islam, and, ultimately, to liberate the West itself from the darkness of secularism.
II. The Confrontation with the West
It seems fantastic, even absurd, to talk about the defeat of the United States--from our perspective. But this overlooks the long view of history taken by Osama and his ilk, a view in which even the most devastating setback is merely temporary and in which compromise is, literally, worse than death. Their hearts and minds are fixed against us, their struggle for our destruction is what gives their lives meaning, and they’re not going to be "won over" to our view--any more than you could be won over, say, to abandoning the welfare of your children.
The radicals ask nothing of us except our extinction. They despise America less for our policies than for our traditions, less for what we do than for who we are, since we are, in effect, the cultural, intellectual and military vanguard of jahiliyya. It’s what makes us satanic--for Satan, as Dinesh D’Souza has noted, does not conquer; he seduces. America, in the minds of the radicals, is the Great Seducer, in a worse way than the giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, the Miss World Pageant in Nigeria or the nightclub in Bali: on television, radio and the internet, in glossy magazines, news journals and paperback books, on movie screens, home videos and CDs, we are absolutely everywhere, defying the sharia, acting out in every conceivable manner to seduce the next generation of Muslims away from the path of righteousness. We are bombarding them with our "decadent" pop media, from Eminem to Britney Spears, from The Rock’s arched eyebrow to Brandi Chastain’s sports bra, from the brawling on Jerry Springer Show to the mincing on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Such ephemera are tolerated by us, the lowbrow excretions of our dedication to highbrow ideals like individual liberty, artistic expression and free enterprise; for radical Muslims, they are the toxic images of a steady spiritual genocide being wrought upon them.
The radicals have been striking back at us, in concerted albeit mosquito-like ways, since the era of disco music and leg warmers; September 11th 2001, they finally got our attention.
From that morning on, our task in the War on Terror became axiomatic: Kill or imprison-for-life every radical Muslim fanatic in the world. It’s a different kind of war since it cannot end with the surrender of a collective entity; no white flag will ever be respected by the radicals. Prosecuting the war on terror is more like prosecuting a hundred thousand miniature wars in which our enemies are individual persons, determined to fight to the death. This is crucial. Even if every Islamic regime in Asia and Africa were to embrace liberal democratic values, the United States would remain at war with Ahmed, Samir, Abdul, et al.
The radicals must be eliminated, one by one.
The difficult question is how to eliminate them without creating more radicals to take their place.
III. Why Saddam?
From the radicals’ standpoint, the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling to ashes on September 11th 2001 must surely have seemed like an act of God--an unforgettable, historic blow against jahiliyya. Beyond what the moment meant to the radicals, however, a perilous message went out to the rest of the world. Since the end of World War II, America’s national security had rested, to a substantial degree, on the belief that an outright attack on the United States would be answered by massive retaliation. That belief, it turned out, was false. Osama called our bluff. He hit us in a horrific way, and we didn’t lash out in vengeance. We investigated, determined who was behind the attack . . . and even once we knew it was Osama, and that he was operating out of Afganistan, we did not incinerate Kabul. Rather, we only demanded that the Taliban government hand over Osama "dead or alive." In doing so, we inadvertently provided our international enemies with an easy-to-follow formula for making war against America: Just work your mayhem through non-state surrogates and, after the next 9/11, if America again connects the dots, hand over a few corpses to satisfy Washington’s demand for justice.
Strategically, therefore, the war in Iraq was necessitated by our measured response to 9/11. Saddam Hussein in Iraq was, clearly, the most likely candidate to capitalize on that formula--notwithstanding the fact that his pan-Arabism was hard to square with the radical Islam of Osama’s crowd. Still, Saddam and Osama were both consumed by totalizing visions of the future of Islamic peoples, and both saw the United States as the chief impediment to the realization of their visions. More ominously, if a freelance thug like Osama managed to kill 3,000 Americans, what might a resolute sociopath like Saddam, with the resources of an oil-drenched country, accomplish? Since we could no longer depend on the threat of a cataclysmic response to deter him, Saddam had finally to be dealt with. Ousting Saddam, moreover, would present hostile regimes elsewhere with a show of American force, a signal that they might be next if they provoked us--as deterrents go, not exactly on par with the prospect of sudden annihilation, but really the best we could do. The fact that Saddam was in violation of the surrender terms which kept him in power in 1991 provided a useful fig leaf, acquitting us of the charge of disregarding international law.
But there was another compelling reason to go after Iraq, a reason now being emphasized, somewhat belatedly, by President Bush. Overthrowing Saddam’s regime also meant the opportunity to set up a democratic government in the heart of the Islamic world. It’s a transformation which, in long run, might even point towards an endgame for the war on terror.
IV. The Endgame: Two Scenarios
In his book Civilization and Its Enemies, the philosopher Lee Harris writes:
"There is a sense of Greek tragedy, with its dialectic of hubris and nemesis, to what has been unfolding in the Islamic world. If Muslim extremists continue to use terror against the West, their very success will destroy them. If they succeed in terrorizing the West, they will discover that they have in fact only ended by brutalizing it. And if subjected to enough stress, the liberal system will be set aside and the Hobbesian world will return, and with its return, the Islamic world will be crushed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."
Properly understood, the war on terror is less like a war than like a race. On the one hand, it’s certain, even as you read these words, that Islamic radicals are conspiring to stage another assault on the United States to equal, or perhaps surpass, the carnage of September 11th. On the other hand, it’s certain, even as you read these words, that American military services are working to kill and capture as many Islamic radicals as they can get their hands on. The race boils down to this: Can America effectively dismantle al Qaeda and its allied organizations before the terrorists manage to strike again, in a major way, on American soil?
The answer, in all likelihood, is no. The difficulty is that it’s not a fair race. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pointed out, al-Qaeda is actively recruiting Muslims to their cause at least as rapidly as the American military is thinning their leadership ranks. Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of our Homeland Security officials to thwart another attack, it’s virtually certain--as our elected leaders keep reminding us--that the terrorists will eventually succeed.
We will take another hit.
Harris’s insight is that each al-Qaeda success hastens the demise of Islamic terrorism. Not because the United States will eradicate it; that will never happen. Islamic terrorism will end only when the overwhelming majority of Muslims--who currently serve as its enablers, fellow travelers and tacit sympathizers--turn against it. But in several prominent Islamic countries, this will entail their turning against their own governments, which continue to sponsor terrorism. And people do not engage in civil wars just because foreigners, especially despised foreigners, think they should.
There are, in fact, only two conceivable scenarios by which the requisite pan-Islamic upheaval will happen. The more humane scenario is the one being pursued by the Bush Administration--that is, establish a democratic Iraq in the heart of Islam and hope that it inspires moderate Muslims to reject the radical elements among them. The cost, in this case, will surely be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Muslim lives.
But what if democracy in Iraq fails outright? Or what if it survives but fails to inspire the overwhelming majority of Muslims to reject the radicals? In that case, Islamic terrorism continues unabated. What follows then is the "Hobbesian" scenario Harris sketches: Sooner or later, the United States will take one hit too many, or one hit too catastrophic, and the American people will set aside their natural aversion to mass bloodshed and demand a disproportionate response. They’ll elect a government which promises to end the threat, permanently, whatever the cost--and the cost will likely be millions of Muslim lives. Like the German and Japanese civilians in 1945, Muslim civilians from North Africa through the Persian Gulf and down into Southeast Asia will at last feel their absolute defeat. They’ll accept that the fundamentalist struggle against the West has been lost. They’ll dig out from the ruins of their cities and recognize that they cannot allow the radicals to make martyrs of them all. Then, with our assistance, both military and financial, they’ll set out to purge themselves of the terrorist cancer.
Tragically, the Hobbesian scenario is the more probable of the two. Muslims, collectively, have spent the last five centuries making one disastrous decision after another. That’s the unvarnished truth. The idea that democracy in Iraq, if indeed it takes hold, will inspire Muslims throughout the region to do what needs to be done ranks as a long shot. Still, as the Bush administration seems to understand, it’s worth a try.
It’s essential not to misunderstand how we wound up here. The war on terror is not the result of George Bush’s response to September 11th, 2001. It’s not the result of Bill Clinton’s decision not to assassinate Osama bin Laden, or his decision to pull out of Somalia after the Mogadishu massacre. It’s not the result of George Bush Sr.’s leaving Saddam in power following the first Gulf War. Or Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal of marines from Lebanon when their barracks were bombed. Or Jimmy Carter’s dithering during the Iranian hostage crisis. It’s not even the result of America’s steadfast support for a Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic East.
The war on terror, on the contrary, represents the culmination of events set in motion centuries ago, back when the social evolution of humanity hit a fork in the road. Down one path lay the Enlightenment . . . and beyond it the goods and, yes, even the excesses of modernity. That path was taken by predominantly Judeo-Christian peoples. Down the other path lay a return to the Middle Ages, to stagnant theocracies and cultural wastelands in which the only relevant question became Who did this to us? That path was taken by predominantly Islamic peoples. They are history’s abject losers. And they’re not happy about it.
But abject losers are the deadliest enemies to engage since they have so little left to lose. They can face down a much greater power with the most terrifying of all demands: Either submit to us, or kill us. The war on terror, as it’s currently being waged, amounts to an effort by America and its allies to stave off radical Islam’s death wish long enough for moderate Muslims to disassociate themselves from it . . . and then to kill it off themselves.
Let’s pray they come to their senses.