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Eleven years ago today America was violently awakened to the fact that it was at war. The attacks of 9/11 were the latest gruesome assault in the long conflict between the West and Islam, a war most Americans didn’t know was being waged, a war that had been going on for 14 centuries. Yet for the following eleven years, America’s response to this war has been compromised by the serial violation of Sun Tzu’s dictum, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Eleven years on, we still haven’t taken an accurate measure of the enemy who wants to destroy us.
The ruins in New York were still smoking as the preposterous explanations for the murders started pouring forth, most of them marked by what Andrew McCarthy calls “willful blindness” not just to the doctrines of Islam that motivated al Qaeda, but to our own unexamined assumptions and received wisdom. Of course, the left blamed America for the attacks, professors blaming the “terrorism” of the first Gulf War, or the “millions of victims of American imperialism,” or the “fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades.” Support for Israel was another spurious cause of jihadist violence, even though bin Laden himself cited the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, not the creation of Israel, as the most important “disaster” that led to the 9/11 payback.
More common in the mainstream media were the various psychological explanations that reflected the modern secularist view of religion as a Marxian “opiate” or a Freudian “illusion,” compensation for a lack of jobs or political freedom. The New York Times editorialized that “the disappointed youth of Egypt and Saudi Arabia turn to religion for comfort” for their lack of economic opportunity or political participation. Bill Clinton, on whose watch al Qaeda and bin Laden were allowed to proliferate and attack America with impunity, trotted out the antique progressive fingering of “poverty” as the motive for jihadist violence: “The forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, poverty, and despair.” Such reductive psychologizing was a favorite of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the Delphic oracle of received wisdom, who claimed that economic inferiority and lack of development in Middle Eastern states caused “dissonance and humiliation” that “produces lashing out,” as though the jihadists were teenaged juvenile delinquents with low esteem. Ignored in all these analyses were the numerous jihadist tracts that legitimized their attacks with appeals to 14 centuries of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.
Yet the Bush administration was equally dismissive of Islamic theology as the engine of jihadist violence. Lack of liberal democracy and political freedom, not Islamic belief, was the breeding ground of terrorism. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the time necessary in order to eliminate state sponsors and facilitators of Islamic terrorism, soon came to be conducted from the perspective of the larger “Bush Doctrine” of democracy promotion. In the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, the idea of supporting and fostering global democracy formed one key part of that strategy. The NSS asserted that there is “one sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” Thus the foreign policy of the U.S. will be “to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” Bush returned to these themes in January 2005 in his inaugural speech, in which he linked U.S. security and global peace to the “force of human freedom” and the expansion of democracy: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
But these assumptions ignored the central place religion holds for pious Muslims, for whom obedience to Allah is more important than political freedom or democracy, and Islam and shari’a law provide a perfect, divinely sanctioned system for organizing political, social, economic, and private life. This rejection of Western political systems as un-Islamic has for decades characterized theorists of jihadism like Hassan al Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, all of whom related the moral decadence and irreligion of the West to its seductive but false “benefits of freedom.” This failure to acknowledge and take seriously the different “philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs, and overall outlooks on life,” as Samuel Huntington wrote in 1996 in his prophetic The Clash of Civilizations, that create civilizational differences was particularly significant for Islamic states. Islam’s historical record of violent expansion on its “bloody borders,” its own universalist pretensions, its anger at its faith being surpassed by a West it once dominated, and its theologically sanctioned confidence in its superiority and divine right to global dominance, all make Islamic civilization particularly unlikely to acquiesce in a “new world order” that reflects Western values and its secularized culture.
Despite the continuing dubious outlook for the success of the democratic project in Afghanistan and Iraq, difficulties reflecting in part the civilizational differences Huntington wrote about, there was little prudence in our foreign policy establishment’s response to the wave of revolutions, violent protest, and regime changes in the Middle East that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and was quickly dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Indeed, reactions to these events reprised the unexamined assumptions about democracy as the default global political order that had animated the Bush Doctrine. Senator John McCain asserted that the Libyans battling Muammar Gaddafi were aiming for “lasting peace, dignity, and justice.” Senator Joseph Lieberman’s article in Foreign Affairs summarized the Arab Spring as a struggle for “democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world.” And President Obama claimed that Egyptians revolted against Hosni Mubarak because they wanted “a government that is fair and just and responsive.” All ignored the numerous polls and evidence that critical masses of rebels wanted to create Islamic regimes founded on shari’a law.
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