Whom are we fighting? Two main culprits have emerged since Sept. 11: terrorism and Islam. The truth, more subtle, lies between the two--a terroristic version of Islam.
Terrorism. The establishment - politicians, academics, religious leaders, journalists, along with many Muslims - says terrorism is the enemy. It is carried out by "evildoers" who have nothing to do with Islam but adhere to some murky cult of terrorism.
Secretary of State Colin Powell summarized this view by declaring that the acts of Sept. 11 "should not be seen as something done by Arabs or Islamics; it is something that was done by terrorists." Pretending that the enemy is "terrorism" unconnected to Islam is appealing because it finesses some delicate questions about Islam, thereby making it easier to build an international coalition or minimize domestic repercussions.
But it makes no sense at all. The Taliban government, Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, John Walker Lindh, Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui - all are fervent Muslims acting on behalf of their religion. More, they have found wide support across the Muslim world (remember those huge demonstrations waving pictures of Bin Laden in September?). Terrorists they are, to be sure, but terrorists with a specific set of beliefs.
Blaming "terrorism" means ignoring those beliefs--at great cost. If the enemy consists of terrorists "motivated by hate," as President Bush put it, what can one do other than kill them? Hate lacks an ideology or intellectual framework that one can refute. The West is left with nothing but guns to protect itself from the next assault. There can be no strategy for victory, only tactics to stave off harm.
Islam. The Western "street" prefers to see the problem lying with the Islamic religion. In this view, Arabs and Muslims have been the leading enemy of Christians for more than a millennium, remain so now and will long continue to fill this role.
This enmity stems from the Koran itself and so is immutable, say spokesmen for this argument, who tend to be political conservatives or evangelicals. This too does not hold. If Muslims by nature are hostile, how does one explain Turkey, with its militantly secular culture and abiding good relations with the West? If all Muslims accept Koranic precepts, how does this account for the tens of thousands of Algerians who lost their lives resisting Islamic rule?
And if Islam is the problem, then there is no possible strategy for winning. It implies that the billion or so Muslims--including millions living in the West--are immutable enemies. They can only be converted from Islam or quarantined, two thoroughly unrealistic programs.
- Insisting on Islam as the enemy means a permanent clash of civilizations that cannot be won.
- Fingering terrorism or Islam, in short, neither explains the current problem nor offers a solution.
There is third way of approaching the question, which satisfies both these requirements.
Islam itself - the centuries-old faith - is not the issue but one extremist variant of it is. Militant Islam derives from Islam but is a misanthropic, misogynist, triumphalist, millennarian, anti-modern, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, terroristic, jihadistic and suicidal version of it. Fortunately, it appeals to only about 10% to 15% of Muslims, meaning that a substantial majority would prefer a more moderate version.
This implies a simple and effective strategy: weaken militant Islam around the world and strengthen the moderate alternatives to it. Fight it militarily, diplomatically, legally, intellectually and religiously. Fight it in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, in the United States--in fact, everywhere.
Moderate Muslims will be key allies in this fight. Yes, they are weak and intimidated these days, but they are crucial if the Muslim world is to leave its current bout of radicalism. Once the U.S. government helps them, they can emerge as a formidable force. (By analogy, remember how the Northern Alliance seemed hapless just a few months ago? Now it is running Afghanistan.)
Only by focusing on militant Islam can Americans both protect themselves from their most determined enemy and eventually defeat it.