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If the Problem is Muslim Terror By: Victor Davis Hanson
City-Journal.org | Friday, November 04, 2005


In September, federal prosecutors charged illegal alien Mahmoud Maawad, 29, with wire fraud and fraudulent use of a Social Security number. But their real worry was that the Egyptian student had just ordered $3,000 in aviation materials, including DVDs entitled “Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings,” “Mental Math for Pilots,” and “Mastering GPS Flying.” Shortly after this July’s London bombings, U.S. antiterrorism authorities arrested five Egyptian men—four of them illegal immigrants—in a Newark, New Jersey, apartment, which contained maps of the New York City subway system, train schedules, videos of city landmarks, and $8,000 in twenties and fifties.

A few weeks earlier, in the sleepy town of Lodi, California, about two hours north of where I live, the FBI arrested Umer and Hamid Hayat (father and son) on immigration charges and for lying to federal agents about ties with Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan. Officials allege that Hamid visited an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan during 2003 and 2004 for training in weapons, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat. Last autumn, authorities broke up a terrorist cell in Portland, Oregon, charging four with plotting to set up a terrorist training organization and with traveling to Afghanistan to aid al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Since September 11, the list of those arrested, and in a growing number of cases convicted, for Islamist terrorist activities in the U.S. has gotten longer and longer. Some arrestees have been U.S. citizens; more have been aliens, legal and illegal, living in out-of-the-way places on work or study visas. The list includes such abettors of evil as Mukhtar al-Bakri of Lackawanna, New York (ten years for providing support to al-Qaida), Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed of Brooklyn (45 years for providing support to al-Qaida and Hamas), and Ibrahim Admed Al-Hamdi of northern Virginia (15 years for firearm violations in connection with terrorist activities). The continued presence within our borders of so many who seek to destroy us suggests that we still haven’t squarely faced the problem that Islamic radicalism poses to our domestic security.

In fact, sometimes we have seemed to encourage actively the spread of such radicalism on our shores. On Halloween night 2001—just weeks after September 11 and with U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan—firebrand imams Abdul Alim Musa, Muhammad Asi, Abdel Razzag Al Raggad, and other Islamic radicals broadcast live from the National Press Club on C-SPAN2 a bold proclamation of empathy for the Taliban, hatred for Jews, and understanding for the murderers of 3,000 Americans. Asi, for example, spoke of the “grand strike against New York and Washington” and the “twin evils in this world . . . the decision makers in Washington and the decision makers in Tel Aviv.” Not only did we allow such a broadcast to tens of thousands—our government subsidized it.

Or consider the ease with which the now-deported Muhammed Adil Khan, a radical Islamic cleric associated with the two Lodi suspects, first arrived in America in the eighties, welcomed on a “religious worker” visa. Another Lodi extremist, Shabbir Ahmed, entered more recently on such a visa—despite having led demonstrations in Pakistan shortly after September 11 that called for jihad against America. At his immigration hearing, Ahmed successfully pleaded that his past anti-American agitation “was a requirement of all imams. If you don’t [agitate], people turn against you. They sort of force you to say something.”

That America has given Islamists such freedom has doubtless made it easier for them to seduce U.S. citizens to join jihadist groups and seek to kill their countrymen. We remember most vividly John Walker Lindh, who ventured from Marin County to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. But even more sinister was former Chicago gangbanger José Padilla, who in 1991 converted to Islam, changed his name to Abdullah al-Muhajir, and went off to Egypt. By 2002, he had made his way to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight at al-Qaida’s side. In early May 2002, just after his return from Pakistan, officials arrested him in Chicago for allegedly plotting to explode a dirty bomb in Washington, D.C. In these cases, we have yet to discover who the spiritual mentors of these homegrown jihadists were, or where in the U.S. they were indoctrinated.

The Islamist seduction also includes disturbed souls here in the U.S. who belong to no formal terrorist group but who emulate jihadists after exposure to their ideas. Such was the suicidal 15-year-old who in January 2002 crashed a light plane into a Florida bank, leaving behind a note praising bin Ladin: “First of all, Osama bin Laden is absolutely justified in the terror he has caused on 9/11. He has brought a mighty nation to its knees. God bless him and the others who helped make September 11th happen.” Another example may be green-card-holding Eshem Mohamed Hadayet, the Egyptian gunman who three years ago shot up the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two innocents and wounding three. Jihadist literature certainly influenced beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad.

Some say, reassuringly, that Islamic extremism has little appeal to America’s growing Muslim population. America prides itself on being unlike Europe in its powers of assimilation. Thanks to the melting pot and a vigorous economy, this argument goes, we have no Marseilles-like Muslim ghettos or Rotterdam-style “dish cities,” blighted Islamic suburbs where assimilation remains rare and terrorist sympathies widespread even after generations of living in the West. We certainly don’t have the difficulties in assimilating Muslims that England experiences. A chilling Daily Telegraph poll, for example, found that one in four British Muslims sympathized with the motives of July’s subway killers, about one in five voiced little loyalty toward Britain, and a third felt that Western culture was “decadent” and that they should help “to bring it to an end.”

Yet U.S. self-congratulation is premature. Before we condemn Britain as hopelessly retrograde, we need to recognize that we have no idea how much some American Muslims support jihadist causes—comprehensive polls don’t exist. Of the few surveys taken, the results aren’t encouraging. The Hamilton College Muslim America poll of April 2003 revealed that 44 percent of U.S. Muslims had no opinion on whether Usama bin Ladin was involved with the September 11 attacks. Only one out of three blamed al-Qaida.

Top U.S. Muslim organizations and spokesmen are no more reassuring when it comes to condemning Islamic terror. True, the Council on American Islamic Relations finally took out a national advertisement this summer repudiating terrorism in the name of Islam—four years after September 11. But examine the immediate reaction to the ad from San Antonio Express-News columnist Mansour El-Kikhia. “It is a rejection of U.S. and British policies in the Middle East, not Islam, that has promoted terrorism against America,” El-Kikhia writes. “More important, it was the British and the United States that drew first blood. The Middle East didn’t come to America or go to America or go to Britain; rather, America and Britain went to the Middle East.” El-Kikhia ends his rant by implying that the United States has a history of warring on imaginary threats, so American Muslims should feel no imperative to distinguish themselves from those terrorizing in Islam’s name.

More coherent—but, in its way, even more frightening—was “Time to Talk to al Qaeda,” a Boston Globe op-ed by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou of Harvard’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. Mohamedou assures us that bin Ladin is a reasonable adversary with whom we can reach accommodation. “Al Qaeda is an industrious, committed, and power-wielding organization waging a political, limited, and evasive war of attrition—not a religious, open-ended, apocalyptic one,” he explains. “Over the past year, it has struck private and public alliances, offered truces, affected elections, and gained an international stature beyond a mere security threat.” Few Americans would want us to agree to terms with terrorists who murdered 3,000 people in New York and who behead and blow up democratic reformers in Iraq and across the Middle East. Yet that’s exactly what Mohamedou recommends. “Al Qaeda has been true to its word in announcing and implementing its strategy for over a decade,” he observes. “It is likely to be true to its word in the future and cease hostilities against the United States, and indeed bring an end to the war it declared in 1996 and in 1998, in return for some degree of satisfaction regarding its grievances”—the U.S. out of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, Israel out of the West Bank, and no more support for Arab dictators.

If we really are in a war against Muslim terror, our enemies and those who support or appease them pose a quandary on the home front unlike anything we have faced in past struggles.

First, unlike in previous wars, securing the homeland is absolutely central to the outcome of this conflict. In the war’s overseas fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, no enemy possesses the conventional or other means to defeat the U.S. militarily. The only way America could lose abroad would be if it loses the will to fight—and that could only happen through a succession of terrorist attacks at home that petrified the citizenry, warped our political institutions, or disrupted the economy to such an extent that, Madrid-style, we granted concessions to radical Islamists. Terrorism is not the last desperate resort of this enemy; it is its first, deliberate attack. Domestic security becomes an even more essential concern because of the difficulties of deterring states that may have provided either money or sanctuary to Islamic terrorists in the past—an Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Syria—but that deny culpability and deplore terrorism publicly, making it almost impossible for us to justify a conventional military response against them.

Second, technology has made it easier for small numbers of individuals—even a single person—to inflict substantial damage on America’s social and economic fabric. While the amount of explosives that terrorists needed in the past to do substantial harm was completely unwieldy, these days a single dirty bomb strapped to a terrorist’s body could shut down the New York Stock Exchange for months, because of radioactive contamination. A few bags of anthrax emptied into the Washington subway could wreak enormous social and economic havoc.

Third, in an age of instantaneous communications and global travel, two oceans provide America with precious little security against such weapons. Back in June 1942, submarines had to drop eight German saboteurs, outfitted with clumsy radio communications equipment, off the Florida and Long Island coasts. Today, hundreds of jihadists from a Pakistan or a Yemen could fly to Lodi or Portland in less than 24 hours and communicate in real time with whomever they wish worldwide. Past experience proves that they might be involved with radical agitation back home, enter the U.S. under religious exemptions, and overstay their visas with little scrutiny.

Heightening our vulnerability further, contemporary Americans do not appear as a distinct class, ethnic group, or race. A Middle Easterner casing a subway might stand out in racially homogeneous Sweden or Nigeria; he wouldn’t be so easy to pick out in the multiracial U.S. And given the casualness of American fashion, a Wall Street banker running in Central Park in a jogging suit and sneakers might look identical to a suicide-vest-wearing Pakistani terrorist rushing to a subway station.

Without prior intelligence and infiltration of Islamist mosques and madrassas, it thus becomes very difficult to ensure our safety at the last line of defense: security checks at the crowded intersection, the mall, or the train station. Add politically correct bans on even rudimentary profiling (sex and age) and we wind up only burdening commuters and shoppers with such checks without any real gain in overall safety. The key, then, must be to keep suspects out rather than relying on tracking them down or preventing them from striking once they have blended into the general population.

From a national security standpoint, the prevention of another September 11 thus seems straightforward—in theory. Suspend most legal immigration from Middle Eastern countries known to subsidize or tolerate terrorism. Review all current visas and search out and deport violators. Continue to audit carefully the arrivals of Middle Eastern nationals. Tighten the Canadian and Mexican borders. Extend existing statutes on inflammatory speech and hate crimes to include radical Islamic doctrines that routinely denigrate Americans, Jews, homosexuals, and women. Hand down long sentences to those convicted of promulgating Islamic hatred and plotting terrorism, with special attention given to Saudi-sponsored charities, madrassas, and mosques. Renew the Patriot Act, and create a public culture that associates radical Islamicism with fascism.

European and American experiences both suggest that we can toughen our domestic security without violating constitutional custom. In Europe’s case, the examples are quite recent. The Netherlands is now handing down life sentences for Islamic killers, criminalizing the hate speech of the madrassas, curbing immigration from the Middle East, and deporting suspected Islamists—in some cases, Islamists with Dutch passports. France has gone even further. A radical new antiterrorism package unveiled by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has given the government the right to deport residents summarily and to strip radicals of their naturalized French citizenship. British prime minister Tony Blair in turn has introduced legislation that would criminalize association with radical Islamists and enable the government to deport suspected terrorist sympathizers swiftly. “Let no one be in any doubt that the rules of the game are changing,” Blair warned.

Here in the U.S., there’s no need to go back for guidance on securing the homeland to Abraham Lincoln’s regrettable suspension of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s questionable Sedition and Espionage acts that jailed hundreds during World War I for saying and writing things (even loosely) that officials felt helped the Central Powers, or Franklin Roosevelt’s military tribunals that tried, convicted, and executed German terrorist agents before they committed any damage. Instead, we should reexamine the cold war, when the threat of mutually assured destruction made conventional war between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies unlikely. The struggle against the Soviets and their minions thus became one of dirty operations, espionage, and terrorism.

In response to the communist threat, we blocked easy immigration from Soviet bloc countries. We did not demonize the citizens of Albania and Bulgaria, but we did not let them in, either. The United States generally tolerated membership in the Communist Party and expression of anti-American sentiments here at home, but we infiltrated hard-core Soviet-funded communist groups and jailed or deported their most dangerous operatives.

By analogy, just as no Czech citizens could easily fly to the U.S. from Prague in 1955, so should we be wary of travelers from Cairo or Riyadh. Critics will counter that Warsaw Pact governments were officially hostile to the U.S., while “allied” Egyptian, Pakistani, and Saudi authorities clamp down on terrorists. But this claim is dubious. Radical Islamists have thrived by following long-understood protocols of engagement: they do not attack the autocracies of the Middle East directly, and in return they receive from those autocracies virtual amnesty for targeting Westerners. When the Islamists break the rules and hit enclaves of foreigners inside Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the autocracies hound them for a bit. When they return to killing people on foreign soil, these dictatorships and monarchies again leave them in peace.

Four years after September 11, with the nature of our dilemma clearly before us, why do we still have terrorists operating freely in our midst? Why do we seem paralyzed over the proper course of action to prevent attacks from within?

Part of the problem is the legacy of our domestic history during wartime. Because most Americans view the U.S. internment of the Japanese during World War II as gratuitously punitive, unnecessary, and illegal, any proposal to monitor particular American subgroups today calls down swift denunciation as the moral equivalent of that internment. Moreover, though the McCarthy period was not, properly speaking, a witch hunt—no witches haunted Salem, but plenty of communists sympathetic to the Soviet Union moved in and out of the U.S. government during the fifties—it matters little. The abuses by anti-communist watchdogs have become enshrined in our collective memory as something we must never repeat. It is now a staple of our history books that the House Un-American Activities Committee was almost more pernicious than 7,000 Soviet nuclear missiles pointed at the U.S. Consequently, we have since believed it better to err on the side of civil liberties than on the side of national security, should the two conflict—at least until September 11.

Our elite commitment to multiculturalism also hamstrings us from taking the needed security steps. For 30 years, our schools have pounded home the creed that all cultures are of equal merit—or, more accurately perhaps, that no culture is worse than the West’s. Millions of Americans consequently aren’t sure whether radical Islam is just another legitimate alternative to the dominant Western narrative. Typical of this mind-set, UCLA English professor Saree Makdisi, excusing the London subway terrorism, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that deliberately butchering commuters is no worse than accidentally killing civilians while targeting terrorists in a war zone. “American and British media have devoted hours to wondering what would drive a seemingly normal young Muslim to destroy himself and others,” Makdisi said. “No one has paused to ask what would cause a seemingly normal young Christian or Jew to strap himself into a warplane and drop bombs on a village, knowing full well his bombs will inevitably kill civilians (and, of course, soldiers).”

It is a tremendous historical irony that America’s liberal Left, embracing moral equivalence in this fashion, has all but refused to denounce the illiberal ideology of our enemies—an ideology that supports polygamy, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, hatred of homosexuals, and patriarchy. Sometimes, the terrorists even win outright praise: perhaps the most popular filmmaker of election year 2004 was Michael Moore, who celebrated the suicide bombers and terrorists of Iraq as “minutemen” akin to our own Founding Fathers.

If we are not sure as a nation that Islamists really are foes of Western values but instead see them as another persecuted group with legitimate gripes against us (occupied Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, colonialism, the Crusades), then it becomes increasingly hard to identify, let alone fight, the practitioners of Islamic fanaticism at home. Even the military bureaucracy seems to be having trouble naming the enemy: witness the rebranding by some Pentagon officials of “the war on terrorism” into the “global war against violent extremism.” While the original nomenclature was unsatisfactory—wars aren’t fought against a tactic but rather against those using it—the new name is even less helpful. Our fight against jihadists is different from our struggle with recalcitrant Serbian nationalists or Kim Jong-il’s crackpot extremism. We are at war with radical Islam, Islamic fascism, Islamism—the “radical Islamic polemic,” in the words of Sarkozy. We should never lose sight of this fact. President Bush’s October speech describing our struggle against Islamic terror—a first for the administration—is an encouraging, if belated, sign.

Practical considerations also get in the way of securing the homeland. Any radical change in our immigration laws—affecting entry into the U.S., systematic deportation of illegal aliens, or scrutiny of visa holders—requires comprehensive reform. And such transformation immediately raises the question of what to do with the 10 to 15 million illegal Mexican aliens residing here and with our vast, unsecured southern border. So far, sensitivity to Hispanic concerns, both here and in Mexico, coupled with employer lobbying, has precluded securing the border and insisting on legality for all new immigrants. Deporting illegal aliens from the Middle East will immediately lead to questions as to why we are not deporting millions of unlawful Mexican residents—a political hot potato.

Yet immigration control—as the Dutch and French have learned—may be the most powerful tool in the war against the jihadists. Not only does it help keep terrorists out, it also carries symbolic weight. In the Middle East, America is worshipped even as it is hated—constantly slurred even as it proves the Number One destination for thousands upon thousands of would-be immigrants from the Islamic world. Once we have deported the Islamists, and Middle Easterners and other Muslims find it much harder to enter the U.S. because of their governments’ tolerance for radical anti-Americanism, the message will resound all the more loudly in the Muslim world itself that terrorism is intolerable.

Such toughness opposes the current orthodoxy, which holds that curtailing immigration from the Arab and Muslim world will cost us a key opportunity to inculcate moderates and eventually send back emissaries of goodwill. Maybe; but so far, the profile of the Islamic terrorist is someone who has paid back our magnanimity with deadly contempt. Just as bin Ladin, Dr. Zawahiri, and the Pakistanis suspected of bombing the London subways were not poor, uneducated, or unfamiliar with the West, so too we find that those arrested for terrorist activities on our shores seem to hate us all the more because of our liberality.

Perhaps if the message does begin to be heard that America is as unpredictable as it is merciless toward the advocates and supporters of radical Islam, then the much praised but rarely heard moderates of the Muslim world will at last step forward and keep the few from ruining things for the many. Meantime, we should stop allowing illiberals into the United States—illiberals who either wish to undermine Western tolerance or won’t worry too much when others in their midst try.

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Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A War Like No Other" (Random House).


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