A courageous speech by George W. Bush last week began a new era in what he calls the "war on terror."
To comprehend its full significance requires some background. Islamists (supporters of radical Islam) began their war on the United States in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran and later that year his supporters seized the American embassy in Tehran.
For the next 22 years, however, Americans thought they faced merely a criminal problem and failed to see that war had been declared on them. For example, in 1998, when Islamists attacked two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Washington responded by unleashing detectives, arresting the perpetrators, taking them to New York, assigning them defense lawyers, then convicting and jailing them.
The second era began on September 11, 2001. That evening, Mr. Bush declared a "war against terrorism" and the U.S. government promptly went into war mode, for example, by passing the USA Patriot Act. Though welcoming this shift, I during four years criticized the notion of making war on a military tactic, finding this euphemistic, inaccurate, and obstructive. Instead, I repeatedly called on the president to start a third era by acknowledging that the war is against radical Islam.
Bush did occasionally mention radical Islam – in fact, as early as nine days after 9/11 – but not with enough frequency or detail to change perceptions. The British prime minister, Tony Blair also advanced the discussion in July, when, after the London transport bombings, he focused on "a religious ideology, a strain within the world-wide religion of Islam."
But the third era truly began on October 6 with Mr. Bush's speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. He not only gave several names to the force behind terrorism ("Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism"), but he provided ample details. In particular, he:
- Presented this "murderous ideology" of Islamic radicals "the great challenge of our new century."
- Distinguished it from the religion of Islam.
- Drew parallels between radical Islam and communism (both are elitist, cold-blooded, totalitarian, disdainful of free peoples, and fatefully contradictory), then noted in how many ways the U.S. war on radical Islam "resembles the struggle against communism in the last century."
- Pointed out the three-step Islamist drive to power: ending Western influence in the Muslim world, gaining control of Muslim governments, and establishing "a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."
- Explained the "violent, political vision" of radical Islam as comprising an agenda "to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation."
- Defined its ultimate goal: "to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world."
- Observed that Muslims themselves have the burden of doing the "most vital work" to fight Islamism.
- Called on "all responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncing" this ideology and taking steps against it.
The detailed texture of Mr. Bush's speech transforms the official American understanding of who the enemy is, moving it from the superficial and inadequate notion of "terrorism" to the far deeper concept of "Islamic radicalism." This change has potentially enduring importance if finally, 26 years later, it convinces polite society to name the enemy.
Doing so means, for example, that immigration authorities and law enforcement can take Islam into account when deciding whom to let into the country or whom to investigate for terrorism offenses Focusing on Muslims as the exclusive source of Islamists permits them finally to do their job adequately.
Despite these many advances, Mr. Bush's speech was far from perfect. His quoting the Koran harks back to 2001, when he instructed Muslims about the true nature of their faith; his comment about extremists distorting "the idea of jihad" unfortunately implies that jihad is a good thing.
Most serious, though, is his limiting the "radical Islamic empire" (or caliphate) to just the Spain-to-Indonesia region, for Islamists have a global vision that requires control over non-Muslim countries too – and specifically the United States. Their universal ambitions certainly can be stopped, but first they must be understood and resisted. Only when Americans realize that the Islamists intend to replace the U.S. Constitution with Shariah will they enter the fourth and final era of this war.